Location: West coast of southern Vancouver Island
Park here: China Beach or Botanical Beach trailhead
Public Transport: West Coast Trail Express Bus from Victoria or Nanaimo
Hike Distance: 47 kilometres
Elevation Gain/Loss: Approximately 1,700 m
Hike Duration: 3-5 days
What makes it moderate/difficult? Constant elevation change and challenging terrain including slippery roots, deep mud pits, fallen trees and washouts—especially difficult while carrying backcountry camping gear
Park website: Click here
It was the first summer of the pandemic, the summer of exploring our own backyards, the summer of adventure. I was about to embark on my first multi-day hike, my destination being one of the most iconic hiking routes on the west coast (best coast): The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail.
Meandering up, down and along the west coast of southern Vancouver Island, the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail will push your physical and mental capabilities to the max. You’re in for constant elevation gains and losses, challenging terrain, mud puddles (and by puddles I mean lakes) and unpredictable weather. But the challenging aspects are so incredibly worth it for the rugged coastal views, the old-growth forest and crashing waves and the serenity of nature as you escape your day-to-day stresses and prove to yourself just how strong you are.
How to Get to the Trailhead
There are different transportation options to get to the Juan de Fuca Trail including busses from downtown Victoria. I, along with three other adventure-loving ladies, drove to China Beach on the south end of the trail, where I parked my car and took a shuttle up to the north. You can traverse the Juan de Fuca Trail in either direction, but our group chose north to south with the rationale of having our packs lighter near the end for the more difficult parts—we would be going mostly uphill for the muddy parts. Hikers start from either end, so pick your route, pair it with a sense of adventure and you’ll be on the right track.
The typical starting point up north of Botanical Beach was closed due to a problem bear (which is such a shame because it’s absolutely beautiful, with rich tidal pools and a stunning shoreline). We started at the trailhead called Parkinson Creek, shaving ten kilometres off our journey.
I wasn’t that mad about that part.
The Hike Itself
Parkinson - Little Kuitshe Creek (4 km)
Off into the woods we went. If you’re like me and are not used to lugging around a backpack that weighs the amount of a small child, you’re in for a balance struggle right off the bat. The path from Parkinson Creek to our first campground, Little Kuitshe, was only four kilometres, but when your pack is at its heaviest and you’re navigating mud, tree roots and hills, it was nice to ease into the journey with a shorter first leg.
We were happy to have chosen to break our hike up into smaller chunks, though many others shave off a day or two and do Botanical to Sombrio all in one go, as this part of the trail is relatively easy. This campsite was tucked in the trees with some cliffs and pools down by the shore. All the campsites have an outhouse and a water source. We enjoyed our afternoon and evening by relaxing, dipping in the ocean, sunbathing on the rocks, watching sunset and (let’s be real) relieving our hipbones of the weight of our bags.
Little Kuitshe - Sombrio Beach (East) (6 km)
Day two, let’s do this! Quick breakfast, pack up the tents, strap on the backpacks and it's time to go. We loved starting early in the mornings, allowing us to reach the next campsite before the crowds which, with a campsite like Sombrio Beach that has an easy public access point, was definitely a good call.
The trail was fairly similar to the previous day’s—mud, elevation, meandering—but this one had a beautiful stretch of beach near the end. We also had a surprise encounter on this leg, which tends to be common in this area: a black bear! We knew to remain calm and back away slowly while making noise, keeping our bear spray at the ready. It’s the wild west out here, so make sure you’re bear aware.
Sombrio Beach (East) - Chin (6 km)
We kicked off this day with a big ol’ mud lake. Hiking poles are advised as you teeter-totter across the rocks or tree roots and try not to faceplant. We lucked out with dry skies our entire hike, so I can imagine things get quite sloshy with our wet coast weather. This leg also has one of the most beautiful stretches with ample viewpoints of the water, so have your camera at the ready. Around 1.5 kilometres of relatively flat trail goes inland through the woods, a welcome reprieve from the ups and downs you’ve already experienced along the trail, which is great for embracing your inner forest pixie.
Camping at Chin Beach was so lovely, set on a rocky beach and tucked amongst the trees. Don’t forget to appreciate the off-the-grid goodness: surrounded by adventure-loving souls, pristine nature and infinite stars.
Chin Beach - Bear Beach (12 km)
Rating: Most Difficult
This was our longest day, and this part of the trail is ranked as difficult due to elevation gain, including a big climb just before Bear Beach, which covers about 100 metres.
But somehow, I was in my groove and felt I breezed through this part. My pack was lighter; I had finally found my center of balance. You learn that snacks are fuel and breaks are necessary, you get used to navigating the steep inclines and declines, and you get on a roll and keep on going. You’re already so much farther along than you ever thought you’d be!
Bear - China (9 km)
Waking up on Bear Beach, we were treated to some magical light beams trickling through the trees and a misty scene that felt straight out of a movie. We saw a creature gliding through the water that we decided was either a pink beluga, Ogopogo or sea Sasquatch. Please, if you see it on your hike, do report back so we can get to the bottom of this.
Traverse seven kilometres on this leg and you will arrive at the scenic Mystic Beach, a popular day-use and camping spot where you can enjoy the waterfall, sea caves and rope swing. Spend some time here and have some fun! Another two kilometres later and you’ll be back in your car and a blink-of-an-eye later you’ll be stuffing your face with an A&W burger (or your preferred alternative). It’ll all be worth it and while those blisters on your feet will heal, the memories and sense of accomplishment will stay with you forever.
Before You Go:
- Juan de Fuca Marine Trail is designated as a wilderness hiking trail, meaning hiking conditions are always changing and hikers must consult up-to-date information. Check BC Parks for the latest updates, note advisories at the trailhead and information shelters and plan your hike accordingly.
- You must make campsite reservations and register for a permit via the BC Parks reservations system.
- Wildlife is common in this park; be bear aware and never feed wild animals. Check out the Bear and Cougar Safety Guide before you hike.
- This coast is susceptible to rogue waves and even tsunamis, so consult the tide tables posted at the trailheads (use the Fisheries and Oceans tide table for Port Renfrew, Vancouver Island, British Columbia) and be aware of any tremors or sudden receding of water, in which case it is essential to move to higher ground.
- Look for orange balls, which mark an exit from the beach to the trail.
- Ensure you are thoroughly prepared before you go—here is a checklist from MEC.
- Leave no trace and take only photos—there are no garbage cans along the Juan de Fuca, so pack-it-in, pack-it-out.