Vancouver Island British Columbia has many fine hiking trails including the world famous West Coast Trail on the southwest coast. Unfortunately, the quota system for the WCT makes it hard to access. The answer, I discovered, is to hike the lesser known Juan de Fuca Marine trail, established in 1995, which runs 30 miles along the same coast line from Sooke to Port Renfrew. The Juan de Fuca has not yet imposed a quota system and, at least when I hiked it over an Easter long weekend in April, it is a quiet trail with long stretches of stunning coastline.

Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
China Beach

The trail runs from China Beach in the east to Botanical Beach in the west and has developed campsites enroute, which vary from beach front to forest. It is designated as a wilderness hiking trail due to the rugged terrain and potentially unstable conditions of the trail. I flew into Victoria British Columbia by floatplane from Vancouver and rented a car for the winding coastal drive to Port Renfrew on the west end of the trail.

Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
Floatplane Base, Coal Harbour, Vancouver

Mountain Equipment Co-op, located within walking distance of the harbour in Victoria, is a great spot for last minute supplies such as fuel. Port Renfrew is a small coastal town, and I stayed at the Soule Creek Lodge overnight and had a gourmet dinner prepared by the two brothers who run the Lodge. In the morning, I dropped my rental car at the Botanical Beach parking lot and then one of the staff from the lodge ferried me to the China Beach end of the trail. During the summer season, there is a shuttle service that runs the length of the trail and which drops off at the major trail heads.

Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
Split Log Staircase

My plan was to do the trail in four days with three overnights, which worked out perfectly. My distances for the four days were:

China Beach to Bear Beach – 6 miles
Bear Beach to Sombrio Beach – 10 miles
Sombrio Beach to Payzant Creek – 9 miles
Payzant Creek to Botanical Beach – 5 miles

The trail is challenging in parts (especially the middle sections) as it follows the coast and drops down into ravines created by streams running into the ocean and then goes back up and over the next cut. Markings are good, and there has been a significant amount of trail construction completed with suspension bridges, stair cases and seven well laid out campsites.

Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
Minute Creek Suspension Bridge

As with all coastal hiking, carrying a tide table is essential. While options are available for high tide routes in some instances, headlands cut off the beach in six places at high tide and make it impassable. The tide chart for this section is Canadian Tide Table Port Renfrew (#8525) using Pacific time. Orange balls are in place to mark the exits from the beach to the trail.

Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
Beach Access Marker

Many portions of the trail are directly on the beach which varies from pure sand to fist sized rocks and upward to football sized rocks. The latter were slippery and difficult to hike, and my hiking poles were a great help. The size and severity of the winter storms along the coast can be seen by the giant shredded logs strewn about and the thicket of detritus at the high water mark.

Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
Bear Beach Looking East at Low Tide

I camped at Bear Beach, Sombrio Beach and Payzant Creek. Camping fees are $10/person per night and can be paid at drop boxes at each campsite on an honor system. Along the trail, water is readily available from streams, and so I carried very little water during the day, choosing to treat day-time water and filter in camp at night.

Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
Waterfall East of Sombrio Beach

All designated campsites have a central aluminum lockers for food storage, as Vancouver Island reportedly has the highest concentration of mountain lions and black bears in North America.

Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
Food Cache Payzant Creek

In that regard, the density of the old growth forest makes it difficult to see more than ten feet into the forest and so, being alone, I carried bells on my pack to announce my presence. One day at lunch, I was sitting eating a pack of tuna looking at the ocean with the forest directly behind me. It suddenly occurred to me that I might end up being someone’s lunch myself, and so I shifted my view to also take in the forest just in case!

Sombrio Beach, my second night camp, was the former location of a 30 year squatter community of 20 or so families who raised their children on the beach (one family reportedly had 10 children!) until the encampment was dismantled in 1997 and the park/trail was developed. The documentary Sombrio tells their story. The location is still popular with the surfing community who camp and surf when conditions are good.

Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
Sombrio Beach from the East

When planning for the trip, I looked at weather forecasts and temperatures and packed for what I expected to be a wet trip. However, I was blessed with four straight days of sunshine and very moderate temperatures, which I later found out is more typical of the southern coast of Vancouver Island because of the rain shadow caused by the mountains in the middle of the island. The rainy season in the area stretches from October to April in most years.

Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
Payzant Creek – Camp 3

Botanical Beach at the end of my hike is renowned for its tidal pools and is easily accessible from Port Renfrew. I didn’t get a chance to look around as I was eager to get back to Victoria and my hotel on the harbour prior to my flight back to Vancouver and then on by car to a family wedding in Kelowna. I did, however stop in for lunch at the Coastal Kitchen Café in Port Renfrew for the best salmon burger I have ever eaten paired with a local craft beer. Delicious!

 

Overall, an excellent and accessible short trail with all of the best features of coastal hiking in a beautiful part of Vancouver Island.

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