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…!?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.