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Hike of the Week: West Coast Trail

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This is a weekly series that highlights an outstanding day hike or backpacking trip. The goal is to inspire you to want to get out and see these places for yourself. I know for us, just seeing amazing photos and reading about a great hike is enough to get us motivated.

This week's hike is the West Coast Trail on Canada's Vancouver Island.

Why this hike?

The West Coast Trail (WCT) is a week long adventure sure to challenge you physically while delivering some of the most breathtaking views you can find. The hike stretches across the west coast of Vancouver Island and is a rugged hike that leads you across rivers, rainforest, and coastal beaches with crashing waves. Not for the faint of heart, this trail was originally used to rescue survivors of shipwrecks.

  • Total distance of 75 km (47 miles)
  • Scenic drive to the trailheads
  • High difficulty - will challenge even an experienced hiker
  • Rugged terrain with potentially extreme weather conditions
  • 6 to 8 day hike
  • Excellent scenery of the Pacific coastline

However, keep the following in mind:

  • Southern part is more difficult than the northern
  • Permits are required for everyone on the trail and are difficult to obtain
  • Trail is only open May 1st - September 15th

How do I get there?

The south trailhead is located in Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island in the southwestern corner of Canada. The full stretch of the WCT winds through the Pacific Rim National Park.

The two most accessible airports are Vancouver, Canada (YVR) and Seattle, Washigton (SEA). From Vancouver you will depart the mainland on the Horseshoe Bay or Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal. In total, this drive is 217 km (135 miles). Once you land on the Island, locate and follow BC Highway 1 for 50 km (31 miles). You will then turn onto Cowichan Valley Highway 18W for another 90 km (55 miles).

Getting to the trail from Seattle will be a little more tricky. This trip is 173 miles (278 km) and includes two ferry rides. First you take the ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge island and then the Port Angeles to Victoria ferry. Keep in mind that this ferry does cross the border so you will need your passport ready. Once you have landed on the Island drive along Highway 1A west for 24 km (15 miles) until you see the Juan De Fuca Highway BC 14 W which you will stay on for 71 km (44 miles).

The other option is to take the West Coast Trail Express shuttle, which serves both trailheads from Victoria or Nanaimo. The service also runs between the two trailheads, so you can use it to get back to your car.

Map

The following map shows the West Coast Trail route in detail, including most campsites and places of interest.

You will also receive an excellent map of the trail along with your permit, complete with campsites, places of interest, and distances.

We recommend doing the hike from south to north, beginning at Gordon River and ending at Pachena Bay. It is important to note that the southern Gordon River entrance requires a ferry ride which will dictate your starting time on the first day. However, these ferries are scheduled to run regularly.

Before you go, ensure you are familiar with the tidal maps as well. We recommend taking the coastal route between Thrasher Cove and Camper Bay through Owen's Point, but that will require low tide. Otherwise, you'll need to take the high route through the interior.

Definitely bring some extra cash to treat yourself at Chez Monique and the Crab Shack. This will lift your spirits while limiting the amount of food in your pack. You can thank us later!

The following are our recommended campsites:

  • Day 1 - Thrasher Cove (6 km)
  • Day 2 - Camper Bay (14 km)
  • Day 3 - Walbran Creek (23 km)
  • Day 4 - Cribs Creek (34 km)
  • Day 5 - Tsusiat Falls (51 km)
  • Day 6 - Michigan Creek (64 km)

Trail Description

The West Coast Trail is a 75 km (47 mile) hiking trail in British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. Located within the Pacific Rim National Park, this trail is recommended for intermediate to advanced hikers only and should be avoided by all novice hikers. You should allow between six to eight days to complete the full trail.

This is a strenuous hike that requires a thorough comfort with navigation through deep gulleys, changing tides, and fallen trees. It is crucial that all hikers have a good understanding of disaster training procedures as rescue from the trail may take up to 24 hours.

The trail is only open from May 1st through September 30th due to the large amount of rainfall and other strenuous conditions. Since the trail is parallel to the ocean, you can expect many foggy mornings and heavy prolonged rainfall, even through summer months. Ensure that proper precautions are taken to prepare for unexpected weather conditions. However, should you get lucky with good weather, you can expect amazing ocean sunsets every night!

Vancouver Island is home to lots of wildlife including both black bears and grizzly bears, wolves, and coyotes. It also has the densest population of cougars in the world. It is important that you are aware of the potential risk of dealing with wildlife. You should tie food up in trees, carry out any litter, bring carry bear spray, and stay alert.

This trail has steep and uneven terrain throughout. It is recommended that proper hiking boots are worn as you will be needing to use navigate steep slopes. The odds that you will encounter lots of mud are also high, so gaiters are strongly recommended. There is never a dull moment on this hike with rivers to cross, ladders to climb and cable cars to soar across.

What will I need?

Before your trip, it is important to ensure that you have a thorough understanding of the trail map, your exit points and a tide table. Ensuring you are packed for the chance of heavy rain, including a lightweight tarp (such as our Sanctuary Siltarp), pack cover or dry bags, have waterproof hiking boots with gaiters, and bear spray on hand will ensure this is an unforgettable trip. Also, it is critical that you understand how to make a fire in wet, rainy conditions - the chances of it raining for part, or all, of your trip are high. Don’t go expecting dry wood. Oh, and don't forget your camera for those amazing sights and ocean sunsets!

Since this is a multi-day trip, you'll need a complete backpacking setup. Luckily, we have prepared our Ultimate Backpacker’s Packing List which is full of recommendations and comes in an easy, printable checklist.

Do I need a permit?

Whether you go on a simple day hike, or opt for the full hike, you will require a park permit to be on the trail. It is highly advised to obtain a trail use permit prior to your departure and reserving your spot, especially in July and August which is considered peak season. There is limited access to the trail between June 15th and September 15th. Only 75 hikers are able to start the WCT at the Gordon River and Pacheena Bay entries. Additionally, eight hikers are able to start at the Nitinat Narrows mid-way point.

Reservations are non-refundable and cost $24.50 CAD per person. Beginning April 1st you are able to pre-book your permit by phoning HelloBC at 1-800-495-5688 (Canada and USA) or 250-387-1642 (outside of North America) or visit the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve reservation website.

There is a mandatory and non-refundable permit fee of $127.50 CAD per person for use of this trail. This covers trail maintenance, repair, information and facilities. In addition, for all hikers planning to travel between the Gordon River Trailhead and across the Nitinat Narrows, there is a ferry fee of $16 CAD.

Alternatively, and more for day hikes, it is possible to purchase your permits when you get to the Pacific Rim National Park on a first-come-first-serve basis at any of the three WCT registration offices in the park. Please note that you must do this in person. This fills the unused quota space but does not guarantee that you get a permit on same day. In July and August, expect to wait up to 2-3 days for space on the trail.

Finally, it is important that all hikers register-off this hike. You can do this by returning one copy of your trail use permit to the WCT registration offices, or dropping it into the available drop boxes.

Resources

Tidal Map
Parks Canada Permit Info
West Coast Trail Express
WCT Official Guidebook at Amazon

Have you done the West Coast Trail or other coastal hikes? Do you have other outstanding hikes that you'd like us to write about? Please share your feedback in the comments.

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