Trail Overview: The West Coast Trail is located along 75 kilometers of coastline on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. The trail is part of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. We hiked from north to south – beginning in Pachena Bay and finishing at Gordon River. The hike itself takes 5 to 7 days.
The 75 km (46.6 mi) distance doesn’t seem too far, but difficult terrain slows everyone down. There are over 100 ladders and bridges, miles of slippery boardwalks, surge channels to be crossed, and countless mud holes. There are also bears, cougars and wolves. On the bright side, there are no grizzlies, relatively few mosquitoes (at least in May), and no poison oak or venomous snakes. Some sections of trail can only be hiked during lower tides. The weather is unpredictable, but generally it’s wet. Wet = challenging if you’re from California and accustomed to sunny, hot, dry trails.
A Little History…
The Pacheedaht, Ditidaht and Huu-ay-aht people have inhabited this area for thousands of years. A network of trails existed for trade and travel, but the main WCT route was first constructed in 1889 for a telegraph line between Victoria and Bamfield. Bamfield was the terminus of a transpacific telegraph cable connecting the British Empire. (It’s amazing how difficult communication was before the internets were invented.)
The western coast of Vancouver Island is part of the area known as the Graveyard of the Pacific. Hundreds of shipwrecks line this coast. The worst disaster may have been the 1906 wreck of the SS Valencia – an iron hulled passenger steamer traveling from San Francisco to Seattle. In poor weather, the crew overshot the entrance to the Straight of Juan de Fuca and crashed into a reef near Pachena Point. Over 100 people died in the disaster. Following this accident, the trail was improved and came to be known as the Life Saving Trail or Shipwrecked Mariners Trail. Eventually, navigational technology improved and the trail was no longer needed. It quickly deteriorated.
In 1973, the West Coast Trail became part of Pacific Rim National Park (though it still passes through several Indian Reserves). Significant improvements were made and the trail has since been maintained on a regular basis. We did see trail crews rebuilding bridges, but some of the other hikers we spoke with told us the trail was in much better shape a decade ago. (They mentioned something about politics and a lack of funding. I didn’t really get into it.)
Logistics & Red Tape: As with any popular trail nowadays, permits are required. This trek goes a step further and also requires each hiker sit through an orientation before setting out. (Between the many warnings and the orientation session, I get the impression that some very unprepared people show up to try and hike this trail.)
- When to Hike: The trail is open from May 1 through September 30.
- Permits: Permits can be picked up at the ranger stations (open daily) at either end of the trail. During peak season (June 14 through September 16) it’s a good idea to reserve permits ahead of time. Check the Parks Canada website for details. There is also a standby list and chances are you’ll get a permit within one day of your arrival. There are campgrounds at both trailheads, so you’ll have a place to sleep if you don’t immediately get a permit.
- Quotas: As of this year (2015), there is no quota to hike in the shoulder seasons (from May 1 to June 14 and from September 16 to 30.) During peak season, Parks Canada limits the number of hikers to 68 (30 from Pachena Bay, 30 from Gordon River and 8 from Nitinat Village.)
- Cost: It’s a little pricey – we paid $319 (Canadian) for both our permits – but considering the high number of rescues and the continuous maintenance of this trail, it kind of makes sense. The cost also includes the two ferry crossings along the way.
- Communication: Cell phones (including those on Canadian networks) won’t work, unless you have Verizon in which case you’ll have perfect LTE for a large section of the trail.
- Transportation: We took the West Coast Express Trail Bus from Victoria to Pachena Bay. It was a looooong 6-hour bus ride, mostly on logging roads. Take some Dramamine if you’re prone to car sickness! (If I survived, anyone can do this.) Other options include chartering a seaplane or taking a boat. We hiked with four guys from Calgary who had caught over $2000 worth of salmon and halibut on their way to the trailhead. The fishes were cleaned and processed while they hiked, then ready for pickup at the end of the trail. This only works if you drive to Vancouver Island. If you’re coming from California or anywhere else in the States, it’s possible to fly into Seattle, take the Clipper Ferry to Victoria, spend the night in one of Victoria’s many beautiful downtown hotels, then catch the trail bus in the morning. No need to rent a car.
A few words about gear…
Despite all the warnings on the Parks Canada website regarding the difficulty of this trail, it’s really not much different from any other multi-day backpacking trip. I used the WCT checklist from MEC (amazing Canadian version of REI) as a general reference for packing. Here are a few additional things that I wish I had known ahead of time:
- Bring toilet paper. Yes, there are beautifully constructed composting toilets at nearly every established campsite. No, they do not have any toilet paper in them. (This makes sense, but it didn’t really occur to me ahead of time because pit toilets in places like the Yosemite backcountry do generally come stocked with toilet paper.)
- Wear waterproof boots! I was very tempted to bring trail runners but even with my lightweight pack, it would have been a mistake. Boots allowed me to step in mudholes and walk through shallow tide pools, all while keeping my feet clean and dry. It was also nice to have some ankle support.
- Use gaiters. I do not generally hike or backpack with gaiters, but on this trip they were great for keeping the mud and beach sand out of my boots. As a bonus, they covered up my boot laces so I didn’t have to get my hands all muddy when I took my boots off at the end of the day.
- Always keep a pack cover on your backpack, ESPECIALLY AT NIGHT. We were lucky: it did not rain on us for more than about 10 minutes during the entire 7-day trek. Despite this, the pack cover was absolutely necessary for keeping everything dry. On several days and during every night, the heavy “misting” fog rolled in. It doesn’t feel like it’s raining but everything slowly gets wetter and wetter until it’s soaked.
- Bear cans turned out to be useful. There are definitely bears on this trail. Most established campsites have bear lockers, but we weren’t sure if we’d always be staying in those sites. The lockers can also get really full and in some camp areas, they are quite a distance away from where you might pitch your tent. Hanging food is a pain and there isn’t always a suitable tree available. Additionally, there are some voracious crows and plenty of mice on the trail. (At Camper Bay we saw one bird peck through a dehydrated dinner while another flew off a granola bar.) They are a little heavy, but they protected our food and made for nice camp chairs.
- Trekking poles saved both of us from a few falls. Trekking poles were a little annoying on the ladders, but some of the boardwalks are so slippery we were glad we brought them. They are also useful for checking the depth of the mud on the trail.
- Bring cash. There are a couple of places to buy food along the trail. A can of beer will cost you $7 to $9. A burger between $20 and $25. Bring at least $75 per person to give yourself some options.
Trail Description: We spent 6 nights and 7 days on the trail. We were somewhat limited by the trail bus schedule: the bus runs only on odd days during “shoulder season” so we had to either rush to complete the hike in 5 days or take our time with a 7 day hike. The links below will take you to our trip report.
- Day 1: Victoria to Pachena Bay to Michigan Creek, 12 km (7.5 mi)
- Day 2: Michigan Creek to Tsusiat Falls, 13 km (8.1 mi)
- Day 3: Tsusiat Falls to Cribs Creek, 16 km (10 mi)
- Day 4: Cribs Creek to Walbran Creek, 11 km (6.8 mi)
- Day 5: Walbran Creek to Camper Bay, 9 km (6.6 mi)
- Day 6: Camper Bay to Thrasher Cove, 8 km (5 mi)
- Day 7: Thrasher Cove to Gordon River to Victoria, 6 km (3.7 mi)
Maps and trail information can be found on the Parks Canada website. There’s no need to print or purchase a map – they will give you one along with current tide tables when you pick up your permit.
The book everyone seems to have on the trail is: Blister and Bliss – A Trekker’s Guide to the West Coast Trail. It’s certainly not required reading, but it had a couple of helpful tips.