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