West Coast Trail (Gordon River to Carmanah Creek)

Getting There

Vancouver Island forms a bulwark of the North American continent against the might of the Pacific Ocean, its west coast a pristine wilderness where dense forests plunge into the surging ocean, separated by rocky cliffs and shelves that have been etched and carved by the Pacific waves. It is a wild place that European settlers came to know as "The Graveyard of Ships" for the numerous sailing vessels that were blown on to its unforgiving shoreline. For centuries, it has been home to three sea-faring First Nations, the Pacheedaht near Port Renfrew, the Ditidaht from the Nitinat Lakes region and the Huu-ay-aht from the Pacheena region. Here they traditionally lived off the harvest of ocean and forest and the canoe was the principal means of transport - tracks were not necessary.

The first track was cut by Europeans in 1889 for a telegraph line from Victoria to Bamfield. Later it became the "Shipwrecked Mariners Trail", a route to safety for survivors of the vessels that foundered on the rocky coast. Only in more recent times have people walked this route for "pleasure" and the three First Nations have formed a partnership, known as Quu'as, with the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve to maintain and provide interpretation for the trail. With the management and infrastructure that more organised activities bring, the trail is perhaps not the wild and remote experience that it once was. Nonetheless, the besthike.com website considers it "a near perfect hiking experience in pristine Canadian wilderness" and states categorically that "The West Coast Trail is the very BEST hike in the world. That's right. The BEST." That is a bold claim and one that warrants testing, and I finally had the chance to do that.

From the time that I stepped out of my front door to the time that I arrived at my motel room in Vancouver, 38 hours had passed. After the fitful sleep of the jet-lagged, I was picked up, along with several other West Coast Trail hikers, by our guides, Beth, Matthias and Evan (a trainee guide) to head off for Vancouver Island.

Crossing the strait to Vancouver Island

It was a pleasant and sunny morning as we crossed the strait with BC Ferries, weaving our way between some of the many conifer-covered islands that dot these waters to reach Swartz Bay where we disembarked. A drive down the highway through Victoria brought us to the small town of Sooke. Somewhere along the way (probably while I was dozing) the sun had disappeared and, by the time we reached our destination at the Pachedaht Campground near Port Renfrew, the first drops of rain had fallen.

Nonetheless, we pitched our tents on the fine grey sand driftwood-scattered beach (or should I say drift-trees) in time, and then wandered down to the National Parks Office for the compulsory trail briefing. Here we where told about conditions on the trail, tide times (crucial for some sections) and what to do if we came face-to-face with a bear, wolf or cougar, or saw a tsunami heading to shore. We also learnt that 70-90 hikers (out of 7000) were evacuated each year and were encouraged not to inflate these figures. The metal screws in my ankle twinged at this thought.

Then, registered and informed, we headed of to Port Renfrew itself for start-of-trip dinner – bison burger or wild salmon, it was difficult to choose, and I'd also forgotten how big the serves are in North America. I felt as though I had eaten the entire bison. It was a good chance to ge to know my fellow hikers, Ron from the States and five Canadians from diverse parts, Lindsay, April, Simon, Logan and his dad, Mike.

Camped on the beach at Port Renfrew

By the time we got back to camp, a sea mist had rolled in and moisture was condensing on any surface. A warmish wind blew in from the west, bringing light rain – welcome to the west coast of Canada! Still, it was pleasant listening to the soft patter of raindrops on the tent fly and, when they had finished, to the rhythmic rise and fall of the sea on the beach. It was just what a jet-lagged hiker needed to reset his biological clock.

Day 1 - Gordon River to Thrasher Cove (6km - 240m ascent – 240m descent)

Morning mists over the Gordon River

First steps on the WCT

Our first ladder on the track

It was a 6am start to the day, clear on the beach but with mists hanging about the conifer-covered coastal ridges. After a hearty breakfast with loads of fresh fruit,  we packed up and headed down to the wharf at Gordon River, where Butch the Pachedaht ferryman was waiting to take us on the short journey down the river to the official trailhead on its western shore.

A last briefing by Matthias and Beth and we were off on the West Coast Trail – straight up into the dense forest, climbing on a track gnarly with tree roots and sharp with rocky outcrops. It was a slow start as our guides got to know the pace and style of their hikers and we covered the first kilometre in an hour (which says a lot about the terrain of the track). It required mental focus as gnarly roots gave way to greasy mud and then to sharp-edged rock. For someone who only knows conifers as monotypic plantation trees, it was wonderful to walk in a diverse natural  mixed conifer forest. Well, mainly natural regrowth in this section, which was extensively logged some 80 years ago.

Crossing the Gordon to the WCT trailhead

Where the tall trees grow

The rusting remains of an old donkey engine

Mossy rock outcrops and regrowth forest

Deep in the forest

The route took a long traverse across the steep seaward slope of this coastal ridge, though in the dense forest the occasional sound of a passing fishing boat was the only evidence of the ocean. It may have been a traverse, but it certainly wasn't flat, as the track undulated up and down gullies and edged around rocky outcrops.

About here, we had our first wildlife encounter – not a bear, wolf or cougar, but a giant banana slug. Still, I'm told that they can give you a vicious sliming, so I followed the National Park's advice and gave it a wide berth.

Eventually we reached a deep ravine and our first (short) set of ladders, climbing down, across a wooden bridge then up again to continue the slow ascent. The odd length of rusting telegraph wire or insulator peg nailed to a tree testified to the original purpose of the trail. A little later, heavy cable and the rusting remains of a steam-driven donkey engine used by foresters to haul giant logs down the steep slopes told of other past uses in this region.

A couple of enormous red cedar stumps among the slender trunks of the regrowth forest bore silent witness to the magnificence of the original forest that once covered these slopes and to the efficiency and industry of humankind in exploiting it.

Lunch break in a forest clearing

After a gourmet lunch in one of the few clearings on the track, the path became easier as we climbed gradually to reach the high point of the trail at 210 m.

Walking along, listening to the silence of the forest as the sun dappled the fern and needle covered floor, was superb. Soon we were scrambling steeply down a dry slope to cross one last ravine. From there, an easy path took us to Log Jam Creek and the turn-off for Thrasher Cove. We headed towards the sea, climbing a couple of small ridges before descending steeply towards the ocean, now shining blue between the tree trunks.

Steep descent

Sun-dappled forest clearing

Red cedar stump amongst the regrowth trees

A surviving forest giant
A final series of ladders brought us to the smooth grey sand of the cove – beautifully set between the sparkling sea of Port San Juan and the tall spruce and hemlock lining the shore. Quite a few campers were already there, having arrived from both directions, but we found a cosy corner amongst the driftwood to set up our tents and have a nice fire to sit around later in the evening.
Sitting around the camp fire

Descent to Thrasher Cove


High tide at Thrasher Cove

We also had time to enjoy the ambience on this sunny west coast afternoon, the steep tree-lined slopes directing the gaze to distant mountains at the back of Port San Juan and out to the south, the pale blue profile of the mountains on the Olympic Peninsula across the Juan de Fuca Strait in the USA.

It was a superb ending to our first day on the West Coast Trail.

Day 2 – Thrasher Cove to Camper Bay (8km - 80m ascent – 80m descent)

Sunrise over Port San Juan

Band of sea mist on Juan de Fuca Strait

Section of big boulders

Through the arch at Owen Point

Five am is an early rise on any hike, especially when the sun is not yet up. However, we needed to be up and away by seven, as today we were going to take the shoreline option to get around Owen Point and that was only feasible at low tide. It also gave us the opportunity to watch the sun light up a band of cloud flamingo pink over the waters of Port San Juan before bursting golden on this blue sky day. The weather was perfect and we set off on time and in high spirits.

Early morning light at Thrasher Cove

We quickly left the grey sand beach of Thrasher Cove to round the small point and reach the rock shelf. Here Beth and Matthias gave a quick run-down on rock shelf walking west coast style – barnacles good, tar spot algae very bad. These uber-slippery black patches of algae are guaranteed to send anyone stepping on them quickly head over turkey.

The coastal route to Owen Point

View back up Port San Juan

We then got underway, making slow but steady progress as we boulder-hopped the smaller obstacles and scrambled our way around or over the larger jumbles of sharp angular rocks that line this western shoreline of Port San Juan. Out to sea, the fishermen of Port Renfrew were heading out for the day, passing us in a steady parade, as did a couple of fur seals with nary a glance in our direction. Ahead the mountains of the Olympic Peninsula rose pale blue above a long sea mist. It took us two hours before we arrived at a stretch of grey sand that marked the end of the rocky shoreline.

View across to the Olympic Peninsula

The end of the rocky shoreline

A little later, we passed a small waterfall to reach the low tree-lined cliffs of Owen Point, passing beneath the arch of a spectacular sea-cave to drop our packs and explore this beautiful environment. As well as the cliffs and caves, the wide rock shelf here was covered with sea grass and kelp, mussels and barnacles, while offshore a large group of fur seals drifted to and fro in the kelp beds. It was a magical spot in the warm morning sun and, with some reluctance, we put our packs back on to round the point and finally head north-west along the wild western coast of Vancouver Island.

Sea caves beneath Owen Point

Sea-grass covered rock platform

Fur seals off the point

Some surge channels could be jumped .......

.... others had to be walked around

Our pathway was a broad and flattish rock shelf, etched with run-off channels and pot-holes, and occasionally cut by deep surge channels. Some we leapt across, others we rounded by heading briefly inland.

On passing an impressive sandstone headland, mists began to swirl low across the platform. A band of sea-mist was moving by and, on looking back, cloaked the headland in an eerie shroud. It was superb – as we crossed the bright green beds of algae and curious lines of congregating anemones, the sun was shining and the sea-mist drifting by at the same time.

A line of congregating anemones

Our pathway was a broad and flattish rock shelf, etched with run-off channels and pot-holes, and occasionally cut by deep surge channels. Some we leapt across, others we rounded by heading briefly inland. On passing an impressive sandstone headland, mists began to swirl low across the platform. A band of sea-mist was moving by and, on looking back, cloaked the headland in an eerie shroud. It was superb – as we crossed the bright green beds of algae and curious lines of congregating anemones, the sun was shining and the sea-mist drifting by at the same time.

Rock platform north-west of Owen Point

Walkers in the mist

A band of sea mist engulfs the headland

This shore route is eventually blocked by an impassable headland, so Matthias was keeping his eye for a collection of buoys hanging from a tree - these mark the access routes from the beach back to the main trail. Finding it, we stopped for lunch on an adjacent high dry rock platform, soaking up the sun, the passing mist and the superb atmosphere of this region. It also gave time for dew-soaked tent-flies to dry in the sun and cool wind that had sprung up.

The forest adjacent to the rock platform

After lunch, it was back into the forest – a short sharp climb brought us to the trail and we turned north-westwards again. This section was much flatter than yesterday and we followed a series of delapidated boardwalks, punctuated by wallows of sticky black mud (no more than ankle deep) and the jumble of tree roots that we had come to know well yesterday. The forest was more open with an understorey of berry bushes (huckleberries, raspberries, bunchberries and thimble berries – all good bear tucker).

View down the west coast

We made a brief stop for an impressive view of the coastline ahead and then headed inland into taller, darker forest. Soon, we were crossing a a jumble of fallen trees, apparently blown down in a freak storm and scattered like giant pick-up sticks. In places, the tree-trunks themselves became bridges across this chaotic landscape to bring us out near Trisle Creek. We had a quick break beside the creek waters babbling down their stony bed in the heart of this densely green forest.

Back amongst the big trees

Crossing a tree-trunk bridge

A cool green pool in the forest

Stoney bed of Trisle Creek

A little later we reached a point high above the stony bed of Camper Creek and a series of ladders quickly took us down the steep slope to it. Being dry weather, there wasn't much water flowing, so we could step easily across it on the rocks and reach the campsite on its gravel and stone beach.

We had arrived a little after 2pm and had a long lazy afternoon, once again enjoying the atmosphere of this pretty inlet surrounded by thick green conifers. Out to sea, the fishing boats had gathered – it is a favourite spot for salmon to feed and they had a big gauntlet to run.

It was hot when the wind didn't blow and Camper Bay had a nice waterhole beneath a sandstone cliff. It was time to test the water temperature for a quick soak to get rid of two days of hiking grime – chilly but very refreshing.

Camper Bay campsite as seen from the waterhole

The stone bed of Camper Creek

Camper Bay beachscape

As evening fell, the smoke from half a dozen fires drifted around the campsite, as the different groups of campers sat round the flames recounting the day's experiences. Our group listened to a story of West Coast pioneers read by Beth as the aromatic scent of burning cedar wafted by. It was a hard life here a century ago.

And so ended a second superb day on the West Coast Trail.

Day 3 – Camper Bay to Walbran Creek (10.5km - 250m ascent – 250m descent)

We were up at 6am this morning, as we were starting out on the rock platform and that was only passable at the lower end of the tidal range. Patchy cloud had formed overnight, though the sun still shone through at times. We crunched across the coarse gravel to gain access to the sandstone rock shelf and start our westward progression.

Leaving Camper Bay

Honeycomb etchings on the sandstone

The rock platform north of Camper Bay

The coastline ahead was superb – tall spruce, fir and hemlock silhouetted on the rim of the low sandstone cliffs, honeycombed in parts by the action of sea and rain, smoothly shaped in other parts to curve into a broad rock platform etched with channels and sink-holes, where chitons, shellfish and anemones found shelter in the clear pools left by the retreating tide.

The flotilla of salmon fishing boats

Very quickly the first obstacle appeared - a deep surge channel that led into a sea-cave beneath the cliff. A bit of group co-operation was needed to get everyone down, across and up the other side, before pressing on. Out to sea, a flotilla of small fishing boats cruised slowly by in search of the salmon that frequent the creek mouths along this coast. Gulls congregated on the rocks and the distant foghorn of a passing container ship moaned across the sea as it negotiated a bank of sea-mist.

We crossed wet beds of algae, left by the retreating tide, and negotiated a couple more surge channels before reaching a deep cut in the shelf that marked the entry to Sandstone Creek. Here we had to take our packs off, scrambling down the rock and then passing packs down after to gain the boulder-strewn beach at the creek mouth, hemmed in on either side by tree-lined cliffs.

Surge channel cutting the rock platform

A strangely still Pacific Ocean

The entry to Sandstone Creek

Sandstone Creek gorge

A section of old growth forest

Descent to Cullite Creek

Negotiating a jumble of bleached, storm-dumped tree trunks, we commenced a slow wander up the sandstone bed of this beautiful creek, passing small cascades, deep waterholes and shallow streams. Ropes had been strategically placed to help the hiker over several steeper rock faces to bring us to just below the West Coast Trail bridge that crossed the creek. One final rope pull and we were out of the creek and back on the track. It had been a great way to go – if not the usual path taken by trail hikers.

Heading up Sandstone Ceek

Almost immediately we reached our first set of ladders, which took us to the top of the rock walls lining Sandstone Creek and back into the forest. Not long after, we found ourselves walking along a section of boardwalk that took us through a sphagnum bog dominated by centuries old dwarf cypress above, while sundews and other low nutrient specialists appeared on the boggy floor.

The pastel shades of sphagnum

We left the bog to regain the forest and soon found ourselves at the edge of a steep cliff high above Cullite Creek. The way down was a series of long ladders – with 218 rungs in 9 sections, the longest on the trail (well, 217, as one rung was missing which necessitated a long step high above the ground). It was a slow process, as only one person at a time is allowed on any one section of ladder. Some sections were new, some worryingly had curved depression worn out of the rungs by the feet of the thousands of hikers who have passed this way.

Once all were assembled at the bottom, we wandered down the stony bed of Cullite Creek to have a lunch stop on the beach, again a chance to dry the tent-flies. However, as we ate the cloud thickened, the sun disappeared and a cold wind sprang up, obliging all to add an extra layer of clothing, before eventually hurrying us back to the shelter of the hinterland.

A bit of rope work to leave Sandstone Creek

Boardwalk through the cypress bog

Cullite Creek

Back up the creek bed we went, leaving it to climb the 174 rungs in six sections of ladders that brought us back to the forest plateau. The path meandered along for a couple of kilometres, passing through more sphagnum bog and dwarf cypress, beneath giant centuries-old cedars and through the thick understorey of berry-fruiting shrubs.

Long sections of boardwalk, some rickety and collapsing, others new and stable, were connected by muddy wallows or gnarly rooted path. Occasionally, tree-trunks, their tops planed flat, became a type of rapid transit through the thick vegetation. Sometimes we walked along the massive trunks of fallen trees, sometimes we ducked beneath them.

A day on the WCT - long ladders ....

.... muddy wallows ....

.... a bit of log balance work ....

.... and gnarly roots

Reaching the Logan Creek ravine, we found ourselves again descending then climbing several sections of long ladders (one ladder of 57 rungs on the descent and one of 54 on the way up). These were separated by a long and narrow suspension bridge high above the creek itself. Not only did it save a lot more ladder work, it gave a mild adrenalin thrill as well as it developed a rhythmic swing.

Descending the ladder to Logan Creek

Suspension bridge over Logan Creek

The water hole at Walbran Creek

By now the menace of the ever-darkening clouds began to show and the first drops of rain began to find their way through the canopy. It only took a bit of rain for roots and boards to become slippery and mud to become greasy – I could see why the West Coast Trail can become a difficult hike in very wet weather.

We hurried on, passing Adrenalin Creek and finally reaching our destination at Walbran Creek. A short set of ladders brought us to its beautiful setting – the campsite spread along the gravel strip between ocean and forest, where tents popped up between the giant driftwood tree-trunks that lined the beach.

Nearby lay a clear waterhole, backed by a sheer sandstone cliff, at the mouth of the creek. The rain had stopped and we were glad that we could pitch our tents in the dry, explore the area and enjoy a hot coffee around the fire. As for last night, the glow and smoke of campfires dotted the site and we sat around one to enjoy another of Beth and Matthias' gourmet camp meals.

Walbran campsite

Sitting around the campfire


Sunset over Walbran

The sun finally emerged from beneath the cloud cover to sink a fiery orb behind the distant rock platform – hopefully an omen for a return to fine weather. Then it was time to be lulled to sleep by the soft rumble-tumble of waves rolling the sea-smoothed pebbles up and down on the beach. The day had been very diverse, both in what we did and what we saw. We were also feeling pleased because Walbran Creek marked the end of the difficult part of the West Coast Trail – only one third of the distance covered, but timewise we had reach the half-way point.

Day 4 – Walbran Creek to Carmanah Creek (11.5km - 0m ascent – 0m descent)

What luxury – a sleep in until 7am! When I got up the campsite was already stirring with hikers preparing for another day. The grey skies were starting to break up and a touch of blue was appearing. All was well, and Matthias had some even better news – as it was to be a short and easy walk today, he decided that we would spend a couple of hours in the morning heading back eastward, but along the rock shelf, to investigate the infamous Adrenalin Surge. This channel cuts the shoreline route and, in the past, people have died trying to cross it.

Full sails out to sea

Impressive sandstone cliffs east of Walbran

A deep pool in the rock platform

Adrenalin Creek Waterfall


Better still, we would be able to walk without packs for a while. And so, light of spirit and light of load, we ambled down the sandstone shelf beneath the sculpted cliffs, enjoying the early morning air, checking out the marine life in the tidal pools of crystal clear water, and the crevices filled with goose-necked barnacles and mussels, limpets and shellfish clinging to the rocks, patches of tar-spot algae to avoid, beds of sea-grass, and surge channels filled with the swaying fronds of bull-whip kelp.

It was magical.

The dreaded tar spot algae

Eventually we reached the Adrenalin Channel, just as the sun broke through the clouds. Across the gap, the waters of Adrenalin Creek spilled down from the sandstone cliffs in a fine sparkling waterfall. It was a hard place to leave, but we had to head back to Walbran, pick up our packs and continue on. A bald eagle watched us leave from its lofty perch on a cliff-top fir, while a sea-lion, lolling about offshore, grunted a farewell as we left this beautiful spot.

Farewell to Walbran Creek

Rock platform west of Walbran

The shelf to the west somewhat paled to that we had just visited. Cliffless, the forest merged into the it, separated by a thin strip of grey sand. For a while we sloshed our way across the wet sea-weed past Vancouver Point and then commenced a long trudge in the soft gravelly sand that curved round towards Bonilla Point, the official border between Juan de Fuca Strait and the Pacific Ocean. A garter snake swam quickly away as we passed, a pair of herons patiently stalked some fish in the shallows, diving ducks bobbed off-shore and a small flock of sandpipers treated us to a display of precision formation flying. It was time to let the mind go into neutral and absorb the ambience of the wild coast as we walked along.

The grey sand beach between Vancouver and Bonilla Points

Flotsam at Bonilla Campsite

First glimpse of the lighthouse

One last section of sloshing rock platform brought us to the Bonilla campsite and back beneath the beachside spruce, taking in the view to the south of fluffy white clouds over the Olympic Mountains, across Juan de Fuca Strait. It was another superb spot to enjoy a gourmet lunch.

The sheltered beach at Bonilla Campsite

Lunch over, we only had a short walk left to our camping spot for the night, passing  set of tree-covered islets amid a boulder-speckled sea – nature's own zen garden. Ahead, the white buildings of the distant Carmanah Lighthouse were framed between cliff and islet. A bit more soft sand trudging brought us to Carmanah Creek, where the choice was to wade or ride the cable car. Having done the former many times and never the latter, the choice was easy – it was a brief thrill!

Carmanah Lighthouse

Bonilla Creek Falls

Cable car ride across Carmanah Creek

Flower pot islets

The beach east of Carmanah Creek

We set up camp on the edge of the beach near a flock of Pacific gulls – plenty of soft feathers floating around if you needed to restuff a sleeping bag and a slightly fishy aroma, but with exquisite views and only the sound of the surf and the mournful call of a wheeling flock of gulls. For the first time, we were the only group at the camping site.

The gulls of Carmanah

Mid-hike celebration at Chez Monique (photo by Beth Dempster)

We had time to relax before getting into our best hiking gear – tonight we wandered up the beach to dine at Chez Monique. Monique and her husband, Peter, a Ditidaht Indian, returned to this small enclave of Indian Reserve 30-odd years ago to build a house on their traditional lands. Gradually they started selling food and drink to passing hikers and have become somewhat of an institution. It is de rigeuer for West Coast Trail hikers to call in and eat at Chez Monique.

Go to Part 2