If a challenging trek seems appealing, consider the historic West Coast Trail (WCT), a 75 km (47 mi) long trail that winds along the section of coast southeast of Barkley Sound between the villages of Bamfield and Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. Now part of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, it was originally built in 1907 for the rescue of shipwreck survivors. The WCT retraces a telegraph line, established in 1890, that once connected Victoria with Cape Beale. When hiking the trail today, it’s still possible to see rusted remnants of shipwrecks, such as an old steam boiler and an anchor, and sections of the old telegraph line.

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Stunning View ©Diana Vann

The difficulty of the trail depends on the weather conditions at the time. If blessed with sunshine a few days before and throughout a trip, fit and experienced backpackers may find the WCT only moderately challenging, and some may come away wondering what all the fuss is about. But the WCT is located in a rain forest. When rain falls there for several days at a time, the experience can become excruciatingly slow and physically demanding for even the most experienced trekker.

In peak season, June 15 to September 15, reservations are advisable, especially for larger parties. The maximum group size allowed is 10. Hikers with more flexible schedules can visit either of the WCT Information Centres, located at the north and south trailheads, to be placed on the standby list. The northern, Pachena Bay, Trailhead is located at km 0 (zero). The southern, Gordon River, Trailhead is located at km 75.

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Carmanah Point ©Diana Vann

Mandatory orientation sessions are offered at 9:30 a.m., 1:00 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. daily at both WCT Information Centres. At those sessions a permit and a copy of the waterproof, Parks Canada West Coast Trail Map are issued to each hiker. Current tide table information is given to at least one member of each party. Permits for the WCT are open-ended, so it’s possible to go at whatever pace seems best, given the current conditions. Up to 30 hikers start the trail from each direction every day.

Because campsites are not preassigned, any of the main designated campsites can become crowded. These sites feature an accessible water source, metal bear-resistant food lockers, and an outhouse. Most offer spectacular ocean views when sea fog is not present. For parties equipped with the means to hang food out of reach of bears and other animals, it’s also possible to camp at a number of smaller campsites along the trail. Those sites provide a quieter experience, but staying at them requires extra work and planning. Some do not have readily available water sources, and most do not have outhouses or food lockers. One of the loveliest of these smaller sites can be found at Bonilla Point, shown on the map at km 48. A large waterfall near the campsite also provides a great spot to stop for lunch or for a refreshing splash on a sunny afternoon.

Time for completing a trek on the WCT usually ranges from five days to a week. Though it is shorter in actual distance than most week-long treks, progress along some sections of the WCT can slow to less than one km per hour, as the trail winds through root tangles, downed and uprooted trees, mud bogs (sometimes knee-deep following periods of constant rain), and coastal routes. Some sections feature both a coastal route and an inland route, from which hikers can choose. Coastal routes should be considered with care, and the tidal height limits shown on the Parks Canada trail map should be taken seriously. Portions of the coastal routes are made impassable by higher tides. Some past hikers have been swept into the sea by large waves and had to be rescued. Other, less fortunate hikers have lost their lives.

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Hole in the Wall ©Diana Vann

Some coastal routes cross sand or pebble beaches. While they are relatively level, crossing them takes a surprising amount of energy when carrying a full pack. Other coastal routes feature giant boulders, drift logs or rock shelves, made slippery in places by abundant seaweed. Those who plan to spend a full week on the trail can finish their trek early if conditions are favorable, spend a layover day or two at favorite campsites, or hike for shorter distances to allow for a more leisurely experience. If conditions are not favorable, extra days can provide time to move more slowly along trails made muddy and slippery by constant rain or to hunker down during times of heavy downpour when trails can be the most hazardous.

In places the trail moves inland to avoid impassable surge channels and headlands. Some inland sections would be impassable, too, if not for a large number of man-made structures. These include five cable cars, 108 bridge structures, 38 ladder sets and numerous boardwalks. Though sometimes slippery, the boardwalks that are in good repair make walking over bogs and uneven terrain easy. But many are now in various states of disrepair, and some have become obstacles that add to the difficulty of the trail during periods of heavy rain, when the mud holes seem endless.

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Cable Car at Carmanah Creek ©Diana Vann
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Waterfall at Point Bonilla ©Diana Vann

Backpackers can choose to begin the trail in Port Renfrew and travel north, or begin in Bamfield and travel south. The southern parts of the trail have a reputation for being more challenging than the flatter portions of the trail found in the north, so many hikers choose to start in the north and gradually work up to the more difficult terrain in the south. Others prefer to start in the south and get the toughest sections of the trail done first.

The WCT is open from May 1 until September 30. During that period, search and rescue services are included in the price of a permit. This proves to be an important service for many hikers. According to the Parks Canada website, “Seventy to one hundred seriously injured hikers are evacuated every season.” The official trail map states that the WCT is closed from October 1 through April 30.

In spite of the difficulties, trekkers who are equal to the challenges of the WCT are well rewarded. Natural delights encountered along the trail include old-growth spruce, hemlock and cedar trees, a natural sandstone arch, spectacular seas caves, majestic and refreshing waterfalls, gently flowing streams, and beaches with sand fine enough to stroll across barefoot.

[The second half of this article will be featured next week]

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Anchor from a Shipwreck ©Diana Vann

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