For those of you who checked out my Outdoors Adventures for 2017, you know I talked about plans to hike the West Coast Trail on the coast of Vancouver Island this summer with friends. Well, that was the first of several adjustments to best laid plans for this year.
One of my regular summer hiking friends suggested this trip and with family willing to help with transportation, she volunteered to be in charge of getting reservations (AKA volunteered her credit card to pay). We picked our dates and let her take the lead. However, things didn’t quite go as planned and we were not able to get reservations for the dates that we all agreed we could go on the trip. This left us with two options, as far as reservations go. We could check regularly to see if there had been a cancellation up to the time we want to go OR we can make the trek all the way up there and hope for no shows. Hmmm, I don’t think so. For that big of a commitment (time, money, travel), I want to know for sure I will get to hike.
So, I started searching for options. My idea originally was to find hikes in the area that we could do in the event we didn’t get permits for the West Coast. I stumbled upon the blog, Slick & Twisted Trails by Dustin Walker who lives in Nanaimo, BC, Canada. By signing up for his blog, I received an e-book called, 23 Amazing Treks That Won’t Stay Hidden For Long.
In this book were a lot of great hike suggestions, one of them being the NORTH Coast Trail. Folks say it is what the West Coast Trail was 30 years ago before it became popular. Just like the West Coast Trail, it is on Vancouver Island but unlike the West Coast Trail it is much more isolated and rugged. Read: less traveled and less popular. Sounded like my kind of trail! It’s not quite as long and with a bit more forest travel in ratio to the beach walk. And best of all, you do not need to get reservations for camping ahead of time. That leaves you only having to worry about the shuttle and ferry transportation up there.
Further online research had me at the Cape Scott & The North West Trail website. Maria has written the definitive book on hiking this trail, including all the details you need to know, itineraries, and the fascinating history of North Vancouver Island. I’ll just give you some of the basics, then you should go check out her book and website (listed below).
The North Coast Trail was completed in 2008 as an extension of the Cape Scott Provincial Park trail system. You can hike from east to west or west to east depending on your preference of starting easy (on the west side) or getting the hard part over first (the east side). If you travel east to west, when you finish the 27 miles of the NCT and enter the park proper, you can choose to continue and explore the Cape Scott Lighthouse, the popular beaches like San Josef Bay or climb Mount Patrick adding another 20+ miles. You can also just head out directly south to the TH 10 miles and complete your trek.
Some important things to know:
The trail is well marked and each campsite has a “You Are Here” sign. Each place you go from inland forest to beach to inland there will be hanging buoys to let you know you are on the right track. There are also a few orange triangles (“blaze”) along the route.
Wildlife abounds: bears, wolves, cougars, deer, elk, squirrels and mink. All campsites have bear boxes but plan to take care of your food and smelly items so they don’t attract the locals. I carried my things in odorproof Opsaks.
Some campsites have tent platforms and some have beach camping. If your trail home is a hammock (like me), there are plenty of trees but have a backup plan in case you need to sleep on the beach. Two park rangers I talked to say that when camping in the park proper on the popular beaches, the trick is to move down the shoreline. Most people stop right when they get to the beach, all you have to do is walk further down and you will find your own special spot. Particularly at the famous San Josef beach, there is a second beach closer to Mt. Patrick you should check out!
There will be mud. Lots of it. The inland sections are mostly a bog ecosystem or jungle-like rainforest of Sitka Spruce, Hemlock and Douglas fir, so expect to get slimed even if the trail is reported “dry”. You will be climbing over and around slippery roots and logs most of the time. Honestly, I don’t even know how you would do this trail if it was wet or raining. And I wouldn’t ever do it without hiking poles, even if you do end up using your hands a lot to maneuver this obstacle course of a trail.
There will also be lots of boardwalks, stairs, ropes, tangled piles of roots and downed trees. Miles and miles of it.
It is remote. No cell phone coverage. You can rent a marine radio at the water taxi or plan to bring a PLB (I carry a SPOT). Be smart and know what you would do if you become injured. Carry your 10 essentials!
The east end of the trail is only accessible via the water and you will need to book a water taxi ahead of time. The boat seats 12 and you can ask to join another party like I did. The website is listed below. They will also pick you up on the Cape Scott TH in a shuttle van.
There are two points on the trail that are not accessible at high tide. They will give you a chart at the water taxi when you check in but if you have a more aggressive itinerary, you will want to know beforehand.
And if you don’t live in Canada, don’t forget that Canada is another country! Think about things like travel insurance and international rates on your cell phone before you go. This is mostly for my fellow Americans, it’s easy to forget with Canada being such a great neighbor and all.
Some anticipated costs (if you drive) at the time of this post:
BC Ferry from Vancouver to Vancouver Island for 1 person: $57 (one way)
Water Taxi to TH: $90
Parking at marina: $30
Camping permit: $10 a night
Shuttle pickup back to town: $75
You will need to pay in cash for the camping permit fee (think putting money in a park envelope and tearing off the stub) but you can use a card for everything else. I failed to remember this until the morning of but luckily I was able to get cash from an ATM located in the convenience store across the street from the hostel.
Websites to help with planning:
If you want to read about how this hike went for me this year, check out my North Coast Trail Attempt page. That’s right, attempt. The trip kicked my butt (or shoulder) on the very first day.
Oh well, best laid plans…