From old-growth forests to sea stacks to island hiking, U.S. and Canada's West Coast offers a wide array of challenging, but beautiful, scenery. Naturally, there are tons of trails along the Pacific coastline in both countries to explore. From backpacking excursions that will challenge even the most seasoned hiker to easier, beginner-friendly jaunts, our list has something for backpackers of all skill levels!
Featured Photo: Crescent Beach and Cannon Beach, OR (photo by Mac H)
West Coast Trail
The two arguably most rugged and difficult hikes on our list come to you from Vancouver Island off the coast of British Columbia, Canada. The 47-mile West Coast Trail is popular amongst avid backpackers, but it is not for the inexperienced. The path was originally used to rescue shipwreck survivors from this wild shore. Being able to understand and implement tide tables is a must for this trail as well as exceptional navigational skills as the unpredictable elements can make the trail hard to find (to say the least) in areas. If you don't balk at climbing more than 100 ladders, battling the often windy, rainy elements, and trudging through mud and hip-deep, fast-flowing river crossings, then the West Coast Trail can be very rewarding too.
Campsites are numerous along the route. (Though you will need to acquire an overnight use permit on the Pacific Rim National Park Preserve website.) If coming across wildlife is one of your favorite aspects of hiking, you're in luck. The temperate rain forests that line the western shore of Vancouver Island house a variety of large mammals, including both grizzly and black bears, coyotes and wolves, and even the world's highest concentration of cougars! Finally, when it's not raining, you can enjoy some of the best sunsets you've ever seen from the trail. Check out our full write-up for more details on this epic trail.
Juan de Fuca Trail
Just south of the West Coast Trail you'll find the similarly challenging, 46.5-mile Juan de Fuca Trail. This point-to-point path will take you over 5,200ft of elevation gain altogether as you once again battle the unpredictable weather. Waterproof shoes and trekking poles are highly recommended. Gaiters are not a bad idea either.
Don't let that put you off, though. Other than the challenge of it, experienced hikers can enjoy views of the beautiful, untamed coast, waterfalls, and quiet, ethereal, forests along the course of this once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Keep your eyes open for the abundance of wildlife you may find too, both on land and in the surf, including sea lions, bald eagles, bears, and even grey whales in the spring or fall as they continue on their migration.
While still well-known, the Juan de Fuca Trail is a bit less busy than the West Coast Trail. The popular beach sites are first-come, first-serve (though they still require a fee ahead of time). For more info on this unique trail, head over to our full article.
Lost Coast Trail
With the increasing popularity of hiking and backpacking, it can be difficult to find solitude, even out on the trail. As far as West Coast hikes go, though, the Lost Coast Trail in the King Range of Northern California is a good place to start to find just that. Both rugged and remote, this 25-mile point-to-point trail alternates you between both sandy and slippery, rock-covered sections of beach, seaside cliffs, and dense coastal forest. This 3 to 4-day backpacking trip is rated as moderate to difficult as hiking along sandy beaches can be very tiresome, though the views can't be beat. Knowledge of tide tables is also important for this hike, but won't be needed nearly as much as the hikes listed above.
Other than your scenic surroundings, you'll also have the chance to view sea otters, whales, and a plethora of coastline-loving birds. You'll also have the opportunity to stop by the Punta Gorda Lighthouse on your trip. Permits are required for the Lost Coast Trail, but dispersed camping is allowed. See our complete write-up for more information.
How does a 4-day trip traversing an island off the southern shores of L.A. sound? Head to Catalina Island and you can do just that! The Trans-Catalina Trail spans 38.5 miles along the entire island, meandering between the inner mountains and back again to the picturesque coastline, including some beachside campsites along the way. With 7,920ft of elevation gain, some days will be harder than others with the roller-coaster ups and downs of the interior hills. However, you'll be rewarded with the most stunning views of the coastline and ocean in all directions. Whether you're up high or down low, the sunsets are spectacular too.
Other than the calf-busting hills, there isn't much to not like about the Trans-Catalina Trail. (Perhaps the biggest downfall is the lack of shade, so be sure to take plenty of water, sunscreen, a hat, etc.) The trail is well-marked and the campgrounds are well-maintained. There is a surprising abundance of wildlife, including a large herd of bison. Take advantage of the two small towns on the island during your trip to stock up on supplies or just enjoy a well-deserved meal at the end of your journey.
To learn more, Socal Hiker has some great logistical information for this hike, including info on reserving campsites and ferries and a trail log.
Oregon Coast Trail
At 425-miles in length, the Oregon Coast Trail (OCT) is the perfect destination if you're looking to spend some extended time on the trail in the Pacific Northwest. From the mouth of the Columbia River in the north to the border of California, you'll travel past the always picturesque sea stacks just offshore, through old-growth coastal forests, and get great views of the Pacific Ocean from the precipitous headlands. Abundant wildlife can be spotted along the way, including elk, seals, whales, and, of course, a variety of sea birds. The route passes through numerous coastal towns too, making it relatively easy to stock up on supplies and splurge on a filling meal or indoor accommodations.
Like most long-distance hikes, the OCT can be broken down into easier-to-manage sections. The Oregon Coast Trail Foundation has some great information on each section (10) to make choosing your own shorter trip a little easier! Each has it's own perks, of course, and are between 35 and 45-mile stretches, making each a 3-5 day trip, in general, depending on the terrain. We will say that if you are looking for more seclusion, check into the southern sections of the trail as the quaint towns become fewer and farther between. This article from Backpacker also has some important information, especially regarding camping.
Olympic Coast Trail
There aren't really any bad places to see in Olympic National Park and its coastal trail is no exception. It's actually broken up into north (20 miles) and south (16 miles) routes, making it a pleasant weekend trip if combined or scenic overnighter for the hiker who may be new to tide charts, is short on time, or not quite ready to complete a multi-day trip. You'll gain about 5,000ft altogether as you hike past towering sea stacks on slippery beaches, utilize ropes and ladders to ascend back up the dramatic cliffs and headlands, and cross through frigid rivers.
It's worth noting that, being in a protected national park area, there are quite a few stipulations regarding where you can set up camp and campfire usage. Permits can be rather difficult to obtain too as only so many people are allowed on the trail at any given time. With that being said, it's one of the few truly wild areas left along the Pacific coast and the solitude and wildlife viewing opportunities can't be beat!
One of the most popular backpacking trails in the Bay Area, the 28-mile Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail is great for beginners or intermediate backpackers looking to do something longer than an overnight. Fairly easy as it's mostly downhill, you'll start in the Santa Cruz mountains and work your way down to the shores of the Pacific over the course of 3 days. Though rated as moderate, most hikers will tell you that other than some boulder scrambling and cable usage on the first day, it's a pretty easy hike.
Although the rewarding views of the ocean at the end of your hike are more than enough, we have to admit the highlight of this trail is meandering through the mystic redwood forests on the way there! Several waterfalls and open meadows along the way make the trail even more interesting. Check out our full write-up for more details.
Point Reyes National Seashore
For another popular backpacking site in the Bay Area, head out to Point Reyes National Seashore. PR has a nice mix of coastal camping near Drakes Bay to sleeping under a canopy of trees in the Phillip Burton Wilderness. With several different campgrounds to choose from and numerous trails to explore, you can spend as little as one night or up to three. Of course, the longer you stay, the more you'll really get an idea of the diversity this park offers. You can stroll along the beach one day, perhaps catching sight of an old ship washed ashore in Tomales Bay, and enjoy the tranquility of the fir forests the next. And don't forget the panoramic views from the headlands!
Parking permits, camping permits, and campsite reservations can be made online. Check out the links below to take out some of the guesswork for your trip.
Have you hiked any of these trails? Where are your favorite spots to backpack along the Pacific Ocean? We'd love to hear your own trail stories in the comments!