The West Coast Trail on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island is well known among long distance, who come from all over the world to spend a week hiking through lush temperate rainforest and across beaches on a stormy Pacific Ocean, hoping to catch glimpses of bears, cougars, and whales. But as with so many “must-do” adventures, the WCT’s popularity is a mixed blessing. You’re required to reserve your dates on the trail well in advance, and there are a limited number of people permitted to start the trail each day, so just getting on the trail requires a lot of planning. And even with these efforts at crowd-control, the WCT can sometimes feel grid-locked – it is definitely not a “wilderness” experience to have to share your campsite with a dozen other people. C one of these alternatives.
1. Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
The Juan de Fuca basically picks up where the WCT ends, just on the other side of the WCT’s terminus at the town of Port Renfrew. It’s shorter – 47 km compared to the WCT’s 75 km – and some say not quite as tough, but it has volatile weather, muddy trails, steep embankments, and wildlife. If you want to walk on the beach for as much time as possible, you have to check on the time of low-tide, otherwise, you’ll have to detour back through the woods. Walking the whole trail takes most people three or four days but, unlike the WCT, the Juan de Fuca has multiple trailheads, meaning you can adjust the length of your hike… Make sure to take some time to sun-bathe at Sombrio if the weather’s good, or check out the incredible tidal pools at Botanical Beach.
2. North Coast Trail
At 59.5km, the North Coast Trail is significantly shorter than the WCT. However, the terrain is considerably more challenging. While the trail’s website recommends a minimum of five days to complete the hike, most people take closer to a week to finish.
This trail traverses the northernmost coastline of Vancouver Island, so the trail is often soggy and drenching rain can roll in at any time of the year. Some of the most experienced hikers I’ve spoken to about the North Coast describe their time on the trail as some of the hardest days they’re ever put in. Steep sections requiring fixed-ropes, long stretches of mud and bog, and rogue waves on the beach means that this is no hike for beginners. But if you think you’re up to the challenge, you’ll be rewarded with seeing a part of the west coast few people ever experience. Just remember to pack lots of dry socks. If you just want a little taste of the north coast, consider the Cape Scott Trail: at 23.6 km, this route can be completed in three days and avoids most of the more challenging aspects of the NCT.
3. Nootka Trail
This one’s not actually on Vancouver Island, but it’s close. It’s not accessible by road, but arranging a water taxi or float plane to the trailhead on Nootka Island is straight-forward. For most of the route, the trail sticks to the beach; when it diverges into the woods, the walking can get a little hairy. There are no boardwalks, ladders, or bridges, which means navigating lots of mud and crossing streams on foot, while the steeper sections are done either by scrambling and/or with the aid of ropes. The hard work is worth it – there are picturesque coves, caves, and sea-stacks, and Calvin Falls is a prime place for a swim in good weather. Sea otter and whale sightings are common, and the trail passes several historical sites, including a toppled totem pole near Friendly Cove, and the spot where Captain James Cook first came ashore in BC. Expect to put in about six days on this 35 km trail.
4. Hesquiat Peninsula Trail
If you really want to test your hiking mettle, this is the trail for you. The least developed trail on the list, the HPT is accessible only by float plane and, unlike some of the other trails, there are no diversions into the woods that allow you to get around high tides, so take a tide chart and know how to read it. You’ll have to bush-whack your way through some sections, while others challenge you with kilometres of wet boulders and fallen trees. Though this hike takes you through a provincial park, there are no facilities, so you need to be completely self-supporting (or hire a guide). But if you want to get away from everyone else, this trail will get you there, and you’ll likely see bears, whales, and, if you’re lucky, wolves during your time on the trail. It’s also an opportunity to explore the former home-stead of Cougar Annie, a pioneer woman who outlived four husbands, earned her nickname by way of her reputation of taking out the wildcats who threatened her family or property, and cultivated an incredible five-acre garden in the middle of the rainforest. That will put perspective on your efforts.