Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada is one of the country’s top tourist destinations. Even before History Channel’s Alone got outdoors lovers amped to visit, the West Coast Trail (WCT) was on the bucket lists of many. On my own travels, I’ve met dozens of people who’ve asked me if I’ve done it when they find out I’m from BC.
I have, and it’s amazing, but Vancouver Island has several amazing coastal hikes, so when my husband and I decided to head to Vancouver for a coastal hike, we had our hands full with our choices. If you’ve read the title here, you might have guessed that we chose the Cape Scott Trail. Before I tell you why though, I think I should tell you a little about the WCT:
The West Coast Trail
The West Coast Trail is part of Pacific Rim National Park. It follows the 75 km coastline between Bamfield and Port Renfrew along the southwest rim of Vancouver Island. The trail was built in the early 20th century to help shipwrecked sailors find their way to safety. It’s filled with mud, climbs over giant windfalls and rocky shores, and many, many, ladders. It’s also filled with perfect ocean sunsets, gargantuan cedars, and a peek into the wilds of the west coast.
It takes most people 5-7 days to complete. Reservations must be done months in advance as only thirty people per day can start the trail at each trailhead. In the 2018 season, permits and ferry fees totalled $192. Some of the campsites can get a bit crowded, so be ready to make friends.
The advantage of the West Coast trail is that great care is taken into maintaining facilities while still maintaining the trail’s famed ruggedness. In recent years, Parks Canada has added midpoint trailhead at Nitinat Narrows, so you can cut your trip down to 3-5 days. The southern trailhead is around a two-hour drive from Victoria, while the northern end is nearly a four-hour drive. The West Coast Trail Express provides a shuttle service to and from Victoria.
I would happily do the WCT again. However it wasn’t in our budget this year, nor were we able to plan ahead. We started to research some of the alternatives, and it was a tough choice. They all have the allure of scenic beach vistas and incredible old growth rainforests with massive trees and a huge variety of plant life, but each has its own set of appealing (and unappealing traits)
The Cape Scott Trail – Let’s See Why?
Cape Scott is located near Port Hardy, at the northern tip of the island. Port Renfrew is five hours north of Victoria, and the trailhead is another two hours down a gravel road. From the trailhead, many visitors choose to walk the 2.5 km (1.5 mile) walk to San Josef Beach to spend a day or two wandering amongst the sea stacks, but getting to the Cape itself is a 24 km (15 mile) hike one way.
1. The Beaches
Nels Bight just might have provided one of the best campsites of my life. With 2.5 km (1.5 miles) of beach to explore we spend a leisurely afternoon splashing in the water and exploring the tidal pools, and swinging in our private beach garbage swing. Be warned though, the highest tides of summer gave a few campers an unwanted midnight dip in the ocean. San Josef Beach and Guise Bay also offered some amazing oceanside camping. San Josef’s seas stacks are well worth the visit. Be wary of water access though. San Josef’s water can only be accessed at low tide or with a precarious climb. All camping areas have pit toilets and food lockers that are maintained daily.
2. The History
While the WCT has an interesting backstory if being a trail for shipwrecked sailors, the Cape Scott Trail actually threads through several decades of historic settlement attempts. In fact, the trail follows the old road, and much of the wooden corduroy is still there. Danish settlers first arrive in Cape Scott in 1897, but had mostly cleared out by 1907. Another wave arrived around 1913 and quickly grew to over 1000 people. Conscription in World War I effectively put an end to this settlement attempt. Old farming equipment, fences, fields, building foundations, and other relics are scattered about the area. Before the Europeans arrived the Tlatlasikwala, Nakumgilisala and Yutlinuk People used the Cape Scott Peninsula, and there are three First Nations reserves within the park boundaries.
3. It Doesn’t Seem Busy
While Cape Scott is fairly easy to get to, it does take lots of time, which drives off a lot of the crowds. That being said, we were surprised to see so many cars at the trailhead. Most people were day tripping or staying at San Josef and once we got to Nels Bight, campers had spread themselves out along the beach, and we couldn’t see or hear other campers from our spot.
4. There Is a Mountain
While I love hiking through the forests, especially the west coast rainforest, Clay loves mountains, and Cape Scott delivered. Mt St. Patrick, accessed through San Josef Beach, was a hard climb with a sign reading “Danger! Dangerous Route” at the trailhead. It is steep and overgrown, with giant logs and root masses to climb over. Once we got to the top though, we were rewarded with a phenomenal view of the wild west coastline and the ocean beyond. It was just enough climbing to satiate Clay’s need for mountains.
5. It’s Easy to Plan
Assuming you have your own vehicle, the logistics of the Cape Scott Trail are easy. It’s an in-and-out trail, so there is no need for shuttling or ferries. There is no need to reserve and you can pay your camping fees at the trailhead. You can also be flexible with time – we spent five nights on the trail and covered around 68 km (42 miles) – but it would be possible to hike out to Nels Bight for just one night.
6. The Hiking is Easier
This is often actually a con for us. We like the challenge, and difficult trails generally come with fewer crowds. n this occasion though, it was pretty nice to find a mellow trail and take it easy. The trail follows the historic road and is mostly covered in boardwalk or on that 100-year-old corduroy road (the later is actually a bit of a pain). Our first stop, San Josef Bay, could probably be accessed by a wheelchair (though BC Parks doesn’t officially call it wheelchair accessible).
7. It’s Cheaper
At $10 per a person per night, we paid less than half what we would have for the WCT, and that’s not including shuttles.
The Other Contenders
The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail (JDF) joins up to the south end of the WCT (or close to it) and continues for 47 km (29 miles) through a provincial park. The hike typically takes 3-5 days, though with four trailheads, you can easily break it up into smaller chunks. It is somewhere between the WCT and the Cape Scott trail in difficulty. Like Cape Scott, camping is $10 per night, and you don’t need to reserve spots. Both trailheads are within a 2-hour drive of Victoria, making it a great weekend hike from Victoria. Shuttles are available through the West Coast Trail Express.
We didn’t choose the JDF because it just didn’t seem particularly exciting or wild. It was just too close to Victoria. While it’s beautiful, most people I know who’ve done it say the ocean views don’t quite measure up to those on the WCT.
The JDF is a great option for someone who wants to do a coastal hike but is short on time, or who don’t have their own transportation.
The Nootka Trail
The Nootka Trail runs for 40 km along the west coast of Nootka Island. It is the most remote hike on my list, and hiking the trail one way will require a float plane charter to the trailhead at the north of the island. A boat runs once every few days from Gold River to the southern trailhead to bring tourists to and from the Mandowachaht/Muchalaht First Nations historic village site at Yuquot.
The trail is mostly on crown (public) land and is largely unmaintained. You won’t find any outhouses, bear caches, or ladders. The trail is rough, with some sections requiring steep climbs or descents on fixed ropes. The Mandowachaht/Muchalaht First Nations charge a $45 trail fee and will collect in Yuquot. It can be done in 4-6 days, and there is a good chance you won’t see anyone else on the trail.
The Nootka Trail was a strong contender for us, but this trip was fairly last minute and we just didn’t want to deal with the logistics of it, nor did we want to fork out the cash for a float plane. It would be a good option for experienced hikers who want to avoid the crowds of the WCT.
The North Coast Trail
Opened in 2008, the North Coast Trail is the newest addition to Vancouver Island’s Coastal hikes. It is a 43 km extensions of the Cape Scott Trail, totalling nearly 60km. While the 16 km Cape Scott Trail portion of the trail is flat and well maintained, the other 43 km is most definitely not. I’ve heard more than a few people say that it’s like the WCT was 30 years ago. Giant mud pits, steep climbs on fixed ropes, and timing your hike around with the tides are all part of the fun. Freshwater is also pretty intermittent. You can get a water taxi to the north trailhead from Port Hardy, and a daily shuttle from the Cape Scott Trailhead. It takes 5-8 days and, like the other provincial park hikes, will coast $10 night.
This was a really, really close second, but when it came down to it, a relaxing trip with lots of beach time just seemed more appealing.
The WCT is an unforgettable experience, but it might not be the right fit for you. If you are a social hiker with some experience, then it’s a great option. For those of us who really can’t seem to plan that far ahead, there are some great options to get you out enjoying BC’s west coast. Just remember to bring your rain jacket.
I’ve also captured the Cape Scott trip on video:
Carley is a teacher and nature nerd with a passion for helping people get outside. Apart from teaching, she leads nature programs and outdoor trips for people of all ages. Carley also manages her own YouTube channel, The Last Grownup in the Woods. Before becoming a teacher, Carley worked as a fisheries technician and backcountry park ranger.