20 Takeaways from Hiking Vancouver Island’s West Coast Trail

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Cribbs Creek campsite on West Coast Trail—C.Helbig

The West Coast Trail, a rugged 75 km (46.6 mile) backpacking route on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island, has been on my bucket list for years. In early June, I finally did the iconic trek. It was a great, brutal, muddy affair—an experience I will never forget. This post is a lighthearted account of what I learned about the trail on a 7-day trip with my three hiking companions. In future posts, I’ll provide more of the informational “stuff” like logistics, itinerary and packing lists. So, in no particular order, here are my takeaways from our West Coast Trail (WCT) journey from Port Renfrew to Bamfield:

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One of the many series of ladders on the West Coast Trail—C.Helbig

It is tough

The WCT has relentless knee-deep mud, slippery logs, dangerous surge channels, decaying boardwalks and a huge number of ladders. Throw in torrential rain, a heavy backpack and the potential of encountering bears and cougars, and you’ve got a very tough physical and mental challenge.

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Stunning Tsusiat Falls on the West Coast Trail—C.Helbig

It is insanely beautiful

As I look through my photos now that I’m well-rested and pain-free, I’m only fully appreciating the incredible beauty of the WCT. Its rugged coastline is punctuated by stretches of gorgeous sand, sea caves, channels, creeks and waterfalls. The rainforest is green beyond belief and almost primordial-looking with its enormous trees, giant ferns and swampy ground.

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There’s lots of going under and over on the WCT—C.Helbig

The pace is very sloooow

Seven days for 75 km? You’re probably thinking we are very slow hikers. While some people do the WCT in five days (I don’t know why), seven is more reasonable. With plenty of obstacles like the ones above and below, over 100 ladders, five cable cars, mud, roots… the average pace is sometimes less than one km/hour.

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The brain yells “Don’t do it.”—C.Helbig

It offers lots of of mind over matter moments

Crossing that log doesn’t look too bad, does it? Well, with that pack playing a number on your balance, the rainforest elements adding a slick surface, and your brain screaming “If you fall and land on the rocks below you could seriously hurt yourself and it could take days before you are evacuated and you may never walk again…” crossing logs like this was not as easy as it looks.

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Stuck in the mud again—C.Helbig

It’s one giant mud bath

There’s not much more I can say. If you don’t think you can handle mud, mud, and more mud, the WCT may not be for you.

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Beautiful beach stretch near Bonilla Point—C.Helbig

Beach hiking is beautiful, but not as easy as it looks

When the tide works in your favour, there are plenty of stretches to hike along the beach versus the forest trail. It’s a nice change, but presents another set of challenges. You’re usually walking on a slope, so one hip takes more of the brunt. And, you sink into the pebbly sand. Best to let others lead and follow in their steps!

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All decked out in Gore-Tex—R. Le Nobel

It is wet

You’re wondering why there’s so much mud on the trail? Well, it rains a lot here.  I had psyched myself up for it before the trip, and was fastidious with rain-proofing myself and my gear. We were actually very lucky with only a day and a half of rain. It’s a good thing for our bright apparel, otherwise this would be a dreary sight.

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A very representative section of the trail—C.Helbig

We looked at our feet a lot

We may well have walked by a bunch of bears and not noticed them. The tricky terrain requires constant attention, and too much looking around, unless completely stationary, can cause an unwanted mud bath or worse.

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A magical moment at Tsusiat Falls camp—C.Helbig

Camping on the beach is awesome

Is that not a gorgeous scene? The tough slogging during the day is so worth it when you get to camp on a beach like this. The rainbow was a bonus, and we got our tarp rigged up just in time for another set of showers. All was good.

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A much needed nap—R.Le Nobel

It’s painful and exhausting

Anyone who tells you that they didn’t have blisters or experience pain in their legs, feet, back, shoulders or combination thereof is lying. More about the beer and empty plate a few entries down.

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Long stretches of deserted beaches—C.Helbig

It’s meditative and serene

Perhaps the thing I enjoyed most about the WCT was always being completely unplugged and totally in the moment. My phone was wonderfully useless except for the photo function. My focus was on every step (i.e., self-preservation) and the majesty of the place. I rarely thought of family, work, or anything beyond the hike.

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Are we having fun yet? —N. Beissner

We all had our moments…

Yup, we’d had it with the endless mud and crappy weather. It was inevitable on a hike like the WCT that there were times of personal frustration and group tension.

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Tension on boulder beach—R. le Nobel

Well, maybe more than a few moments….

I kind of lost it here. This is one of the beach sections (haha). It’s a giant boulder field (some the size of cars) that lasts for a couple of hours but seems like an eternity in hell. Perhaps that’s a bit harsh, and we got to see some cool sea caves, but next time (if there is a next time) I’ll be taking the forest route.

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My wonderful, happy hiking group—C.Helbig

But all was forgotten at the end of the day on a sunny beach

There we are, all smiles again. The personalities and dynamics of the hiking group can have a great impact on a challenging trip like the WCT. I was a bit nervous about going with two people I’d only met briefly before the hike. Renée and René (yes it was confusing) turned out to be awesome, as was the gal who invited me along. Thanks Nicole!

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A hazardous beauty near Owen Point—C.Helbig

There are natural wonders galore (many are hazardous)

One of the most stunning features along the trail are the surge channels. Water flows rapidly in and out of these narrow fingers with the changing tides. If you look closely, you can see a log spanning the channel. Some people take these “shortcuts”; they are crazy.

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Burgers at Chez Monique’s—C.Helbig

We happily handed over $35 for a burger and a beer

So it’s not a 100% wilderness experience, and that was OK with us! On day 4 of our hike we arrived at the infamous Chez Monique’s, a beach hut serving burgers and a surprising selection of beverages. I snarfed down that whole burger in record time. The immediate satisfaction was high, but the thing weighed me down as we hiked the remaining distance to our camp.

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Carl, Renée, and Carl pose by the menu—C.Helbig

We happily handed over the rest of our money for salmon and a baked potato

OK, you’re beginning to think the WCT is quite the foodie hike. Thank God for this second opportunity, on day 5 at Nitinat Narrows, for real food and a “dry-out”. It was horribly wet and our longest distance day. We so appreciated the wood stove, delicious salmon, and friendly hospitality from Carl and his family. It was really tough to continue in the mud and rain after this stop.

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Nicole captures a perfect moment at Darling Beach—N.Beissner

The photo ops are endless

It’s a battle to keep the weight as light as possible on the WCT, but by all means bring a camera or at least a phone. Part of me wishes I’d taken the good camera (I saw lots of people with fancy cameras) but with the rain, sand, mud, and constant threat of falling flat on my face, the iPhone turned out to be the right decision for me.

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A tranquil scene, but beware of the mice—C.Helbig

Forget the bears, wolves, cougars. Mice are the real menace.

I don’t want to downplay the potential danger of large mammals on the WCT. We received a thorough briefing on the do’s and don’ts in bear/cougar/wolf territory at the mandatory orientation session. However, the reality is, you are far more likely to hurt yourself falling, suffering hypothermia, or even drowning than having a dangerous run-in with an animal. Mice will be your biggest animal menace. They are crafty little buggers who will find the smallest crumb buried in the deepest pocket of your pack. They even pooped in my tea mug!

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I made it! Pachena Beach in Bamfield—N.Beissner

It’s an accomplishment

I was glad to get to the end and felt a great sense of accomplishment. But, I vowed I would never do it again. A few weeks later, sitting in the comfort of my warm dry house, I miss the freedom, simplicity and challenge. Maybe I’ll do it again?!

For details about logistics and itinerary, please check out my next post. If you’re thinking of doing this hike, the following resources are a good start:

www.westcoasttrailbc.com

www.hikeandbike.com  (download the free full brochure for lots of good information.

Categories: Activities, British Columbia, Canada, Hiking, Places | Tags: , , , | 38 Comments

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38 thoughts on “20 Takeaways from Hiking Vancouver Island’s West Coast Trail

  1. What a cool experience! That first ladder photo looks intense. It looks difficult enough under normal circumstances, but with a heavy pack that looks very sketchy.

    I have never done a trek of this length, but it seems like a nice starter trek for something like the Appalachian Trail or the PCT. Do you have any desire now to do a super long trek for multiple months? I had a group of friends hike for 4 months across New Zealand and it sounded like equal parts heaven and hell!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmmm, good question??? There is something very appealing to me about doing a longer trek…the challenge, being in nature, being in the moment and learning to be resourceful/adaptable. Honestly though, the pack was damn heavy and my body took a long time to recuperate. The mud and dampness didn’t help, and I didn’t sleep well. Perhaps a drier location with a sherpa carrying a cushy mattress! That said, it was indeed a cool experience and I highly recommend it (I got used to the ladders but not the mud). Cheers, Caroline

      Like

  2. Oh that mud… that endless mud! Type 2 or 2.5 fun for sure. Yikes! But I think I’d have shelled out that price for a burger at the end of it all too! Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Paddling the Broken Group Islands in Comfort at the Sechart Lodge | Writes of Passage

  4. Truly an amazing trail! And those stairs… they look quite challenging! I loved your pictures, Caroline. How long did you prepare for this trail?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your kind comments. It is an amazing hike. I have a regular fitness routine (running, hiking, gym) but added more strength training in the 2-3 months leading up to the hike. For me, the big challenge was not so much the terrain, ladders, or cardio components, but carrying a heavy pack. I think it’s really important to do some training hikes with a loaded pack before heading out on the WCT. Cheers!

      Like

  5. coolxkid89

    Great read!!! Live the hiking tale 🙂 I gave ya a follow. I have a few hiking tales myself you might enjoy, would appreciate the follow back. But otherwise thanks for the tips and story 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I just checked out your blog and totally enjoyed your West Coast Trail and Sunshine Coast Trail adventures. Thanks for the follow and it will be a pleasure following you back.

      Like

  6. The surge channels are extroadinary looking. And so see thst up close…just beautiful🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Beautiful photos and snippets to go with them. I am tantalised by the prospect of this hike but always aware that it would require dedication 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Vancouver Island’s West Coast Trail: Logistics and Itinerary | Writes of Passage

  9. An intriguing discussion is worth comment. There’s no doubt
    that that you should publish more on this topic, it may not be a taboo matter but usually folks don’t discuss these topics.
    To the next! Kind regards!!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Mike Hohmann

    Thanks for sharing, Caroline. I’m thoroughly impressed! Looks like a bit of work! 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I read this article fully regarding the resemblance of latest and previous technologies, it’s awesome article.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. regularguyadventures

    Wow, what an incredible account of a tough hike. That’s where the contestants on the show “Alone” try and survive. Sounds like you had to endure all the same hardships they do. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much! I don’t know that show but will have to look it up. I hope they don’t have to forage for their own food and build their own shelter…that would be horribly difficult. It was a hard hike but at least living in Vancouver you become a bit toughened-up when it comes to wet weather. I have friends who had rain every single day when they did the WCT, so we count ourselves lucky. Cheers, Caroline

      Liked by 1 person

  13. David Neasmith

    Congratulations Caroline! The photos make the experience come alive and as usual, your writing is just great. Thank you for sharing. IMHO your post should be part of the mandatory briefing before anyone sets off on the WCT. David

    Liked by 1 person

    • David, you are very kind with your comments! Parks Canada does a pretty good job on the mandatory orientation session. I think a lot of people snicker when they are told they will be hiking less than a km an hour in some sections. I think I’ve recovered! Currently in Wyoming on a bike trip. Look forward to your visit! Cheers Caroline

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Wow that is awesome!! Congrats on that adventure, it looks like a challenge – but lots of rewards with the scenery…and burgers 😉

    And THAT MUD! looks rough…and over a 100 ladders?? What a tough trail.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. That hike looks incredibly daunting though your photos definitely convey some rewards. A real experience for sure. I’m looking forward to your future posts on the trek.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Thanks Peta. I did train before going, and I almost had to take out a second mortgage for the amount I spent on super light-weight gear and high-tec, rain-proof clothing . Although I’m glad I took my pack out for a few trial runs around my house, it felt much heavier on the WCT!
    Ya, those ladders took some getting used to, but they weren’t as bad as the mud for me.
    Cheers, Caroline

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Anonymous

    Gorgeous photos and great commentary. Psyching myself up for the hike…one day
    Sally

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Brian Foster

    My heavens you have guts and a wealth of other traits to take this on. Congrats. Will be a memory of a lifetime. Will it make it into the next “Top 10”?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Brian. The Top 10 may have to grow to the top 20 or 30! Hope you guys are having a good summer.

      Like

      • Brian Foster

        Good times with a busy summer schedule. We’re planning our next trips now. Ireland in Sept for a month and UAE, Jordan, Israel and Turkey again other than Istanbul which is all we saw last time. That one will be three months. Tell Mike I’ll give him a call soon. Take care.

        Liked by 1 person

  19. Caroline this looks exhilirating and exhausting…. all at once – challenging and rewarding! Such amazing natural beauty, although the mud …I can only imagine how slippery and tough tredging through that must have been! And walking on that log with a heavy backpack, wow, you are all such troopers!

    I love your photos, your iphone did a great job. Favorites are the one at Darling Beach, your campsite on the beach and wowzers, those steep tall ladder steps. Yikes. Not for the feint of heart! Did you train to prepare for this, or are you guys just super super fit and in shape?

    Great post!

    Peta

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Peta, some how I messed up again with my comment back to you (it appears a few entries up from here.) I’ve been away for a couple of weeks and just catching up. Cheers, Caroline

      Like

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