Vancouver Island’s West Coast Trail: Logistics and Itinerary

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Nicole and I reading up for our next day on the West Coast Trail

Planning a backpacking trip on Vancouver Island’s famous West Coast Trail (WCT) can be daunting. Should you hike south to north, or north to south? How many days of hiking should you plan for the 75 km route? At which of the campsites should you stay? While there are many opinions on these questions, I can tell you that we were pleased with our 7-day/6-night, south to north trip. What follows is a Q & A on logistics and itinerary based on my WCT experience. For those with no intentions of doing the trail, I hope you enjoy the photos. Also, check out my previous post, which has lots more photos and provides a broad overview of what it’s like to hike the WCT.

Do you need a permit for the West Coast Trail?

Yes. This is a very popular trail and access to the trail (open from May 1- September 30) is by permit only. Reservations can be made at the Parks Canada site. If you are flexible, you can put your name on a standby list (in person) at one of the access points mentioned below. When reserving, you need to provide your intended entry point, hence you’ll need to think about the following questions.

Where do you access the West Coast Trail?

There are two access points if you plan to hike the entire 75 km route: in the south at Port Renfrew (Gordon River access) and in the north at Bamfield (Pachena access). There is a third, approximately midpoint access, at Nitinat, for those who want to do half the trail. More on how to get to these places below.

Which direction: south to north or north to south?

Subject to much debate, this really comes down to personal preference. The south end of the trail  is considered the most difficult. Going south to north is seen as getting the tough part “over with” (relatively speaking) and gives hikers some peace of mind that it will get easier beyond day 2 or 3. Going north to south provides a slightly more gradual introduction to the rigours of the trail, packs will be a tad lighter once the “tough parts” are reached, and bodies will be a bit stronger (or so the theory goes).

I have only done the WCT south to north and I’m glad we did it that way. Even the relatively “easier” parts at the north end aren’t that easy, and I’m sure I would have been stressing about the hike becoming progressively more difficult had we done it the other way around. But, some people swear by north to south…!?

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A sick joke? The trailhead at Gordon River —C.Helbig

How do you get to the access points/and back after the hike?

This requires some planning and patience. Even coming from Vancouver, you will have to budget at least a full day of travel before and/or after the hike. Most hikers avail themselves to the West Coast Trail Express, a shuttle that offers transportation between the trailheads and from Victoria and Nanaimo.

This is how we did it: We took the 6:30 a.m. ferry from Horseshoe Bay, West Vancouver to Nanaimo (1 hour 35 minutes) and then drove 4 hours to Bamfield (77 km is on a gravel logging road). We parked our car at the free Pachena Bay trailhead parking, which is 5 km before the town of Bamfield. Note: We decided to leave our car at the “end” of the trail, going the south-north direction. We then caught the 1:45 p.m. West Coast Trail Express shuttle from Pachena Bay to Port Renfrew, which got us there at at 5:45 p.m. We overnighted at the Trailhead Resort Hiker Huts. The next morning, the resort arranged the short drive to the Gordon River access where we did the 10 a.m. orientation session. We finally set foot on the trail at noonish (around 30 hours after leaving Vancouver!).  Yup, quite the journey. However, we were really thankful when we arrived at Pachena Bay 7 days later and had our car waiting for us— no 4 hour bumpy shuttle ride at the end of a gruelling hike. It was a good decision.

How many days does it take to hike the West Coast Trail?

According to Parks Canada information, 6-7 days is the average duration on the trail. We did the trail over 7 days, and this was just right for us. You may be thinking that 7 days is a bit much for only 75 km. Well, consider the following: Your average hiking pace through the mud and up and down ladders will be less than 1 km/hour; the scenery is so stunningly beautiful and the trail so unbelievably obstacle-ridden, you’ll want to continuously stop for photos; and, you don’t want to be one of over 100 hikers who must be evacuated from the trail each season due to serious injury.

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Taking time to enjoy the journey (and drying out gear)—C.Helbig

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Admiring the scenery, even in the rain—C.Helbig

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Many sections will slow you down on the WCT—C.Helbig

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Down and then all the way up again on the other side, at Logan Creek—C.Helbig

What campsites do you stay at?

While you must get a permit for the trail, you do not (and can not) book campsites. There are about a dozen “official” beach campsites along the route. They have outhouses, food lockers, and nearby creeks for water supply. Tents can be set up on the sandy/pebbly beaches among the driftwood. While you won’t be alone at these sites, we never had any problems finding a place to pitch our tents.

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Typical beach campsite at Cribbs Creek—C.Helbig

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Camping at Tsusiat Falls was magical—C.Helbig

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Bliss at Darling River—C.Helbig

What does a 7-day itinerary look like?

Our itinerary below is a fairly standard one for a 7 day south-north trip. Distances are approximate due to variations in beach versus forest routes. Note that all hikers must do a mandatory Parks Canada orientation session at one of the three trailheads before starting the hike. These sessions are held at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. At the session, hikers receive a rain-proof map and tide tables. The same map can be found at the Parks Canada site.

Day 1: Gordon River trailhead to Thrasher Cove (6 km). This is a forested section with no ocean views until you get to Thrasher Cove. It’s gnarly, but not as muddy as other sections, and a good warm-up for things to come. The last km to the camp is an extremely steep downhill. Thrasher Cove is very pleasant.

Day 2: Thrasher Cove to Camper Bay (9 km). This was the toughest day for me. The “beach” route to Owen Point has massive boulders, which were difficult and scary to negotiate. The Owen Point sea caves and the coastal shelf beyond are very beautiful but slow going as you take detours to bypass multiple surge channels. The last few km to Camper Bay were painfully muddy and slow.

Day 3: Camper Bay to Walbran Creek (9 km).  This was also a tough, long, muddy day, but I enjoyed it, especially the amazing network of ladders, suspension bridge, and cable car at Cullite and Logan creeks. Walbran Creek was one of my favourite campsites.

Day 4: Walbran Creek to Cribbs Creek (11 km). This is a gorgeous stretch, particularly around Bonilla Point and Carmanah. Plus, there are hamburgers, beer, soda on this section, at Chez Monique’s, a beach shack near km 44.

Day 5: Cribbs Creek to Tsusiat Falls (17 km). This was our longest day, but there is an incredible food and rest stop at Nitinat Narrows that breaks up the journey. The ocean scenery heading to Tsusiat Falls is outstanding, as is the campsite (it almost makes you forget the mud). Note: There are no official camps between Cribbs and Tsusiat.

Day 6: Tsusiat Falls to Darling River (9 km). This is another pretty coastal section, with some spectacular hiking along a ridge looking down onto the rugged beach (yes, there is mud). Many hikers bypass Darling River camp and continue to Michigan Beach, 2 km beyond, but this site tends to be busier as it is the closest one to the Pachena Bay trailhead.

Day 7: Darling River to Pachena Bay (14 km). For me, this was the least inspiring day, but maybe that’s because I was ready for the hike to be over. It has its share of mud and obstacles, but overall was the least demanding. Pachena Lighthouse is worth a quick stop and Pachena Beach is a beautiful place to end.

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Reference Material:

If you’re thinking about doing the trail and want detailed information about logistics, gear, fees, wildlife, etc., download the West Coast Trail Hiker Preparation Guide from the Parks Canada website. For detailed information about the route, and other useful information, consider purchasing one or both of these books:

Blisters & Bliss: The Trekker’s Guide to the West Coast Trail, David Foster

Hiking the West Coast Trail: A Pocket Guide, Tim Leadem

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Next Posts: I may do a post on recommended gear/food for the West Coast Trail, or continue with South East Asia (Cambodia), or start on a biking trip in Grand Teton/Yellowstone Parks that we’ve just returned from. I’ll see what grabs me.

 

 

 

 

Categories: Activities, British Columbia, Canada, Hiking, Places | Tags: , , , , | 28 Comments

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28 thoughts on “Vancouver Island’s West Coast Trail: Logistics and Itinerary

  1. I travel vicariously at every opportunity and your posts give me a true feel of experiencing the wonder! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. NIce pics. Hope you guys found some big-ole trees on the trail. Actually, the tallest tree in Canada is tucked away just a couple km inland!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. coolxkid89

    It is absolutely the best hike huh!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. coolxkid89

    Great read! I have a write up on the wct too, please take a look 🙂 let me know your thoughts 🤗

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: 20 Takeaways from Hiking Vancouver Island’s West Coast Trail | Writes of Passage

  6. Amazing adventures!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I am impressed. This is a serious hike and takes a lot of planning. I am keying it into my brown journal right now. I will remember to consult your post because the key is in the details! xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hope you get to use the info at some point. The west coast of Vancouver Island is just spectacular and it’s nice that there are also many easier ways/hikes to get into the awesome scenery.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well I noticed that you mentioned starting at Horseshoe Bay and I remember sitting in the park at the bay two years ago and thinking what a beautiful place after my heart. I bet if that is just a taster of what is to come ahead, it would be spectacular.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow – that looks like the perfect hike – challenging but doable. This ladders brought back memories of the Paine Circuit in Patagonia where (similar to what you said to Peta), at first I was practically frozen at the sight of the ravines, surging waters, and never-ending ladders, but then I got used to them. I think the toughest part of your trek for me would be the dampness and the mud! Not just the slogging though it, but the messy boots and pants legs and how to not get all that yuck in the tent! Very fun post! (I also love that they make you do the orientation session – very wise.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Challenging but doable is a good way of describing the WCT. We did it early in the season (beginning of June) so it was particularly muddy. If you’re thinking of hiking it, may be best to go end of July/early August, though there is no way of avoiding mud completely.
      I would absolutely love to hike the Paine Circuit in Patagonia but this may be a bit too ambitious for us (my hubby is not as avid a backpacker as I am). I will have to look at your Argentina and Chile posts as we are hoping to go to Patagonia (an other places) next fall or spring. I’ve been reading up about day hikes from El Chalten in Argentina that sound interesting. I think I can convince him to do a challenging hike if there is a good meal, wine, and warm bed at the end of the day!

      Liked by 1 person

      • The Paine Circuit was about 8 days to go the whole way around, but you can do shorter routes. There are some lodges in some areas but not on the back part of the massif. (I can give you names later if you want.)

        The year before that, we did day hikes with our kids and slept in nice cozy inns and lodges in El Chalten and El Calafate! Super, super fun with lots of wine and good food and comfy beds at the end of each day. Best day hike was to Laguna de los Tres out of El Chalten. As you get closer, feel me to ask questions – I so loved both parts of Patagonia!

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  9. I’m so impressed Caroline. Looks like quite a challenge. Beautiful surroundings too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Myra! I’m glad I did it and the scenery is indeed beautiful, but I’m not sure I’ll put myself through all that mud again!

      Like

  10. Wow this looks amazing. It must have been a wonderful time. I love both hiking and camping, but my days of doing something like this are over so I get to enjoy it vicariously through you 🙂
    Alison

    Liked by 2 people

    • It is an amazing hike Alison, especially looking back at it! My body held up Ok during the hike but took a long time to recover afterwards. I’ll be looking for something where I don’t have to carry as much stuff (and is less muddy) for my next big hike. Caroline

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Great information! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. You guys are SO impressive!! Most of this camping trip looks like so much fun to me…the tents, the beaches, the views, forest, immersion in nature. But the photo of that steep ladder going straight up looks pretty scary to me, given that I hate sheer drops and I am not sure I could do that with a heavy backpack on my back! Yikes!

    But I definitely enjoyed this trip vicariously and think it is great you have mapped it out so carefully for others. Your photos are great! Ohhh it looks SO fun!! The first photo is one of my favorites, as is your cover photo!!

    Peta

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh thanks Peta! The ladders were scary, especially at the start of the hike, but I was quite amazed at how we adapted to them. Initially, I think I was holding my breath and then at some point I decided to quietly count the rungs as I was going up/down (down was harder for me). The counting and the deep concentration of keeping 3 points connected to the ladder at all times really helped (nothing like being in the moment).
      We stumbled upon those old, moss-covered hiking boots somewhere along the trail and I love how they look—I couldn’t have staged the scene better myself, and the moss is so pretty and represents how damp this hike is.
      Cheers, Caroline

      Like

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