Length: 75 km as the crow flies
Trailhead: Gordon River in Port Renfrew, BC (south end); ends at Pachena Bay near Bamfield, BC (north end)
Elevation gain: ~150 m overall
Declared one of the world’s best hikes by countless sources, the West Coast Trail (WCT) is an unforgettable hiking experience that asks adventurers to stare extreme obstacles in the face and laugh at them, to immerse yourself so deeply in nature you’d never want to know the way out, and, perhaps most importantly, to grow in more ways in one week than you ever knew were possible.
Yes, the challenge is open to you! You need only accept it. At least that’s what some of my family and I did this summer, and am I ever glad we did.
Located in Pacific Rim National Park on Vancouver Island, BC, the WCT is a 75 km-long, multi-day backcountry hike through one of the vastest arrays of scenery, terrain, challenge and history one could imagine. Thousands of hikers tackle the trail between its open dates of May 1 to September 30 every year — 7,000 people attempted it in 2016, with 70 of these hikers not completing the trail — going either from north to south, or south to north (as my group did). Nicknamed the Graveyard of the Pacific due to the many shipwrecks lining its shores from the past, the WCT is an old trade and lifesaving route with conditions not for the faint of heart. It’s an immersive, intense, wild trail, and will leave you with treasured memories long after your body stops aching.
(Please note that this is simply an entry on my own personal experiences. Every single person who hikes the WCT will have different things to say about it, so take this with a grain of salt if you’re looking for advice. Others have done things quicker, slower, more enjoyably, more painfully and in much different weather than I did — your trail experience will be solely your own.)
I have so much to say about my time on the WCT — you’ve been warned! Congrats in advance to anyone who makes it to the end of this post. In here you’ll find a day-by-day account of my time on the trail; in the future I’ll also be talking about what you need to know before going on the hike and a list of what I packed for the WCT. Please feel free to ask me any questions that weren’t answered here — I’d love to help. Happy trails!
Start/end: Gordon River trailhead to Thrasher Cove
Distance: ~5 km
Having based ourselves in Port Renfrew at the stunning, cozy oasis of Soule Creek Lodge, this day started out pretty awesome. I’d challenge anyone to wake up in a yurt (?!) with a gourmet breakfast knowingly waiting for them and not be abnormally happy with life. However, I was still feeling a little nervous from the mandatory WCT orientation session my group attended the day before, and sat up only to see my huge pack and all my still-to-be-packed gear staring me in the face, so this did not ease said nerves. Oh, and I’d never been on a multi-day hike before. Small potatoes.
Parks Canada makes it mandatory to attend an orientation session when signing in before setting out on your WCT trek. (Here’s a copy of the map they give you at the session.) It’s basically a 45 minute-long lecture on everything that can go wrong on the trail, and covers super basic information for anyone who hasn’t read a lick about the hike before getting to the Parks office. This being said, after the session ends your mind kind of sticks to the scarier things that were mentioned (cougars! loss of limbs! tsunamis!).
Once getting to the trailhead at Gordon River — which requires you to drive to and park at the Parks office for your scheduled ferry departure time, show your group’s trail permits and take the five-minute ferry ride from Port Renfrew across Gordon River to the trailhead — my group and I quickly discovered there was nothing to be fearful of, only the anticipation that comes with exploring the unfamiliar wilderness of the trail. It was time to start getting comfortable with being uncomfortable (thanks to Mac for this mindset).
There were five people in my group: me, my husband Tim, my father-in-law Gerald (who had already completed the WCT four years ago), my sister-in-law Alysha, and her husband Dan. We were a bigger group, all with different skill and experience levels, but knew we all got along really well and were pretty much ready for anything. Once off the ferry, we were all stoked. We’re on the WCT! We’re finally here! Let’s do this.
The first thing you see at the Gordon River trailhead (new as of 2016) is one of the biggest ladders you’ll encounter on the WCT; you need to climb it to get to the actual trail. It has nearly 90 degrees of incline and is a striking thing to see, especially when knowing you have no choice but to climb it. Taking our time, we all made our way to the top and felt a sense of relief — we had passed the apparent trail initiation.
The next five km were nothing too crazy, in my opinion. Contrary to literally everything I had read prior to starting this hike, these first five km of the WCT are so not the toughest thing you’ll encounter on the trail, especially if you’re heading south to north like we were. Savour it; take in that adrenaline rush.
However, I can see how it would be quite the slog to complete this on your very last day of the hike, if coming from the north. But really, anything would be. Regardless, our energy levels were super high, and the elevation gains were nothing compared to most Rockies-based hiking Tim and I had done. The main obstacle was the heavy weight now glued to our backs — we were all learning the ropes of what it meant to move with your whole life on your back.
The terrain here consisted of pretty dense BC rainforest, with a clearly marked trail the whole way. Lots of roots to step over, and lots of up and down to tackle sums up this section pretty well. Some ladders and bridges in there for good measure, too. Because we had the whole day to complete this section I was happy to cherish my moments as much as possible; I felt a great sense of accomplishment that I was now on the WCT, even if it was just day one.
Before reaching our first campsite at Thrasher Cove, one km-worth of ladders had to be climbed for get us back down to sea level. This was a quick learning experience — the WCT map provided by Parks Canada shows the kms as the crow flies, aka in a straight line with no regard for elevation change (ladders, hills). So yes, the trail technically stretches across 75 km, but know you’ll be walking a heck of a lot more than that in reality. Challenge accepted.
Thrasher Cove was our first taste of ocean camping, and holy moly did I ever enjoy it. Like, I’m ruined for all camping from now on. You set your tent up on the sand, and simply face the ocean and sunset all night. Not too shabby. Knowing this is one of the busiest sites on the trail it was really good we got there so early (at about 2 p.m.) — we got a great camp spot above the high tide line, which turned out to be a rarity. Later in the night many campers awoke only to have their toes being tickled by the Pacific and needed to move their stuff. The closer you are to the trees at Thrasher, the better! Also the bear bins get really full really quick.
The night was pretty laidback, with a campfire capping everything off. We all nodded off pretty early, as we’d be having our earliest wake up time on the trail the following morning, and I went to sleep hoping I could keep up the positivity I had on day one for the rest of the trail.
Start/end: Thrasher Cove to Camper Bay
Distance: ~8 km
4 a.m. wake up call say what! Yep, when on the trail you’ve got to work with the tides if you want to hike along the ocean. Luckily there is always the option to trek inland, but that’s not half as fun as the beach. We were ready to go by 5 a.m. for day two and though at the time it felt way too early, in retrospect I am so happy we did it this way.
The day began with a beautiful sunrise and making our way to picturesque Owen Point. Getting to Owen Point, though, would require some patience. Boulders line this section of the beach trail, with hints of sand poking up every now and then, but mainly you’re scrambling over boulders the whole time. Because the ocean covers these huge rocks once the tide comes in, they get super slippery and hikers need be much more cautious with footing. (Praise be to barnacles and the grip they provide.) Additionally, the tide was coming in, so we had to make good time to get past Owen Point and cross the Sandstone Shelf so we wouldn’t get knee-deep in ocean.
Thankfully no one got injured and we were able to get near the tree line with lots of time to spare. We did leave pretty early, with groups who left nearly two hours after us getting past the Sandstone Shelf only 20 minutes behind us. However, I am still glad we left at 5 a.m. — we could take our time through all the boulders, take in the beauty at Owen Point, and be careful with the surge channels. Surge channels are littered along the Shelf (I think we crossed two or three), and when the tide’s coming in they are serious business. If I didn’t have big men around to help me for one, I wouldn’t have made it across. Hashtag short people problems. But really, be careful with those things (and always unbuckle your pack when crossing).
After taking an hour at the end of the Shelf to relax while eating lunch and watch the tide come in (one of my favourite times on the trail), it was time to walk again. We covered three more km this day, and it was an introduction to what would come on day three: mud. Lots and lots of mud. And dehydration, for me. These three km of the trail were inland (always watch for buoys marking where trail access points are from the beach) with the forest being incredibly lush. We encountered the first cable car of the trail to get to Camper Bay and it was pretty fun!
We got into Camper around 2 p.m., which is super early. This made for plenty of time for napping though, so I was happy. We enjoyed another dinner of dehydrated meals, along with another campfire and ocean views. We met some really nice people during this day and it made day two that much more awesome. Camper turned out to be one of my favourite sites on the trail due to how secluded it felt.
Start/end: Camper Bay to Walbran Creek
Distance: ~9 km
Day three began with a mouse-related incident that I am not going to elaborate on (still not over it!) so, needless to say, I wasn’t in the best mood. However, this helped contribute to my trail name, Mighty Mouse, so maybe it wasn’t all bad.
We got going at a more normal time (hiking by 8 a.m. ish) and I quickly found out that over the course of the first two days, I hadn’t drank nearly enough water. The trail starts with ladders when leaving Camper, and I think this kind of shocked the dehydration to my surface, if that’s a thing. After the ladders the mud came out in full force and this did not help my queasy, spacy feeling. Dehydration is a tricky thing because there are only so many places on the trail where you can actually get water (there’s lots, but you still have to be mindful of rationing your clean water supply) and the dehydration itself makes paying attention to anything really hard, especially your footing.
That all being said, the mud alone slowed my group (and everyone on the trail) down a ton this day, so I was able to take breaks to manage my dehydration which was a gift from God. We had yet to experience a drop of rain on the trail (counting my blessings), but there was also 100% humidity on day three and in the high 20°C range. We were hot. Point is, it took us 10 hours to walk roughly eight km and, by the end of it, I was in more pain physically and mentally than maybe I ever will be. This day was really hard for me and, in hindsight, was totally a low point on the trail — I was completely beat. The mud messed with us —fully exerting yourself to hardly move more than a couple feet gets frustrating after 10 hours.
Halfway through day three we reached Logan Creek. This is where the longest ladders of the trail are, and the majority of them are completely exposed to the sun (makes for hot, hot rungs!). On the last ladder of this section (going up) I really thought I was going to faint. Somehow I made it to the top (I don’t really remember this) and filled my gut with plenty of H2O at the top. The WCT was testing me big time this day.
After more mud and a completely exposed, really long section of boardwalk where I managed to use my flexibility and avoid what should have been the most epic fall into three feet of mud the WCT has ever seen, and then lots more mud, we made it to Walbran Creek. I heard by many that this was their favourite site on the trail solely due to the crystal-clear view you have of Mt Olympus in Olympic National Park from across the ocean (mixed with a sunset this is a sight to behold), but for me it was tough to fully take it in cause I felt so dead. After recovering as much as I could with my gourmet, dehydrated dinner I went to bed super early and prayed for a more optimistic day tomorrow.
Start/end: Walbran Creek to Cribs Creek
Distance: ~12 km
As I awoke on day four I genuinely thought to myself if I’m dead now, then that just makes sense. However! Once I got my bearings and some food I really felt like a new person — not like day three had never happened at all, but recharged and ready to hike nonetheless.
We started by wading across Walbran Creek and that chilly water was quite the wake up call. Once across, all we could see was ocean, rock and beach — that meant low tide and lots of time to hike not inland. Woot woot! I’ve got to say, my group crushed it on day four. We were zooming, doing more than three km an hour. This was the nicest change ever from the hellish slog that was day three and everyone’s spirits were completely lifted. We could once again admire the beauty all around us, laugh with each other and look forward to each step rather than dread it. A small factor that also contributed to this elation was… Chez Monique’s! We knew we’d eventually be encountering the heaven-sent burger hub and couldn’t wait.
Time flew by on the beach, including using another cable car, and before we knew it we could see Chez Monique’s in the distance near the striking red and white Carmanah Point Light Station. Chez Monique’s is owned by the intelligent and hilarious Monique, and has been open since the ‘80s. She and her family run the joint, serving incredible burgers (that are actually really delish, not just good cause you’re stranded in the middle of nowhere), alcohol, pop, candy, chips, etc. She even informed us that Walbran Creek was typically the halfway point, timing-wise, on the WCT for the majority of hikers (thank goodness!). I felt like I was experiencing my first mirage, and we all soaked in the eccentric, unforgettable atmosphere of Chez Monique’s for more than an hour.
We then carried on to the lighthouse where Tim and Dan dealt with serious meat sweats (two burgers each will do that to ya), then moved onto the final stretch of beach hiking. Eventually we reached Cribs Creek and took advantage of all the little pools the ocean had created past the sand due to the high tide. Here Tim, Alysha, Dan, and I all took a freezing cold bath in one of the pools, and then dried off in the intense, no-clouds-in-the-sky heat back at camp. I’m pretty sure I eventually got a case of hyperthermia, which caused my time at camp to slow down quite a bit, but overall this was probably my favourite camp night.
At Cribs I realized that each day on the WCT had been so different from the next — you simply can’t anticipate what your next day will bring, making it crucial to be in the moment and take in all you can on each given day. This is a lesson that would last throughout the rest of my hike.
We had so much time to just hang out, I had a full belly and the sunset was stunning (when is it not?). Cribs just stuck with me, and that night my spirits were lifted yet again.
Start/end: Cribs Creek to Tsusiat Falls
Distance: ~16 km
Beach hiking kicked off our morning on day five. There was plenty more sun, heat and humidity this day, so being near the slight breeze of the ocean was quite welcomed. We hiked about three km on rocky, slippery terrain until reaching an impassable headland (access point B on the map) that makes hikers ascend a couple ladders and head back into the trees. We remained on the inland trail for the rest of the day.
The trail after the beach was such a good break from previous times spent inland — flat, defined trail with little mud and incredible ocean views; really similar to hiking around Upper Kananaskis Lake. I’ll take it. However, this next six km would teach me an invaluable lesson on the trail: too much of a good thing isn’t good. The humidity from the dense forest made me insanely thirsty, yet again, and once reaching the long stretch of boardwalk before Nitinat Narrows (fondly nicknamed the West Coast Highway) I was daydreaming of stepping into soft, absorbent sand. Too much of anything from this point on would cause some kind of pain in my body and/or mind — a valuable life lesson, if you ask me.
Once we reached Nitinat Narrows — the port for the ferry that hikers take to access the trail on the other side of the narrows, or to depart from the trail altogether — I basically felt allergic to the sun. The heat was weighing down so heavy and I couldn’t drink enough water to tame this (had already consumed six litres). Fun combination when you’re only half done the day, and there’s almost zero water supplies waiting for you up ahead! Regardless, at the narrows there’s a little restaurant set up where we happily ordered halibut, a baked potato, chips and Gatorade. That Gatorade probably saved my life and I was thankful to grab a seat facing away from the sun.
Once we took the ferry across the narrows there were seven km left to go; this was our longest day, distance-wise, on the trail. These last kms consisted of plenty of elevation gain and loss, some mud, and dense forest; it was definitely not as straightforward as we’d anticipated. Everyone in my group was feeling the physical toll by the end of the day and I personally needed to take a few minutes here and there to recuperate from feeling flat-out exhausted. Like, sleepy beyond belief, which really messed with my emotions. It was tough to keep walking, but still not as bad as day three.
We made it to Tsusiat Falls (pronounced Soo-see-it) after 10 hours of hiking (we made good time) and taking all the ladders down back to sea level, and found the south end of this popular campsite to be totally crowded. Luckily we were up to venturing north past the falls and basically had camp all to ourselves. Lining the beach were humungous logs and this allowed us to set up camp like a little house. One “room” for each tent, one for the campfire, etc. We had tons of space, were essentially alone, and concluded the day with the best sunset and campfire we’d experience on the WCT; all pain — mental or physical — seemed to melt away. Nature is the bomb and I was beside myself because of all the beauty that night. The company wasn’t too bad either!
Start/end: Tsusiat Falls to Michigan Creek
Distance: ~13 km
Another long day awaited us on day six. Thankfully we woke up to a cooler, more foggy day with no blaring sun in sight (and no rain either), making for much more comfortable hiking conditions. The terrain was pretty straightforward: inland trail, dense forest, a bit of mud, moderate elevation gain and loss, one long cable car for good measure, and some ladders. We got to hike on the beach in the cooler weather after the cable car, which was really enjoyable, before heading inland for another similar six km. What took a toll was that it was day six and we were tired, but spending 13 km on this kind of terrain meant we had things pretty good.
The last two km were spent hiking on the beach over loose sand and big rocks. The sun had decided to come out in full force by this point, so we were all dying to get to camp and be out of the heat. These two km seemed to drag on forever for me because of the heat (surprise, surprise) but nothing beats those ocean views.
Michigan Creek would be our final campsite of the WCT and I think we were all getting a bit nostalgic here. We could essentially see the finish line, bringing a mix of excitement with reason to relax while we could. We were greeted by yet another beautiful sunset and everyone was making each other laugh like none other around the campfire, where happy tears from laughing too much took my mind off it being the last night of the trail.
Start/end: Michigan Creek to Pachena Bay trailhead
Distance: ~12 km
The beginning of the end — day seven was here! Waking up to the ocean waves rushing into the sand comfortably far away from our tent made me sad that this would no longer be my normal. Goodbye, being in nature 24/7. We woke up slightly early and packed up camp before anyone else on the beach, giving my group plenty of time to reach Pachena Bay by 1:30 p.m. without being rushed. (The one shuttle of the day arrives at 1:45 p.m. to take hikers back to Port Renfrew — you can’t miss it).
This chunk of trail was arguably the easiest, terrain-wise; very similar to the simplest parts of day six. It was all inland, relatively flat, with hardly any huge roots or mud. I can see why hikers coming from the north jet past Michigan Creek to Darling River or beyond — high energy levels mixed with non-technical terrain equals out to long distances being easily tackled. But taking anything on for your seventh day of hiking isn’t easy, and we felt the weight of that.
The last 12 km were pretty quiet between all of us but we crushed over three km an hour, getting us to the beach access point in surprisingly early time. The last km of the trail was made even shorter due to the insanely low tide that allowed us to cut across the beach of Pachena Bay and, before we knew it, we were crossing the daisy-ridden field towards the Parks Canada office at the Pachena Bay trailhead of the WCT. There it was — we finished. We did it!
None of us really knew how to feel at this point. All of a sudden it’s just over, and you’ve accomplished this huge feat. Some celebrated by beating the bejeezus out of their backpack, some by taking off their boots and pack to simply lie in the grass (ahem, me). Regardless of how we celebrated I know every person in my group will remember the highs, lows, and everything in-between of the WCT for the rest of time, to say the very least.
I am so fortunate to God that I possess a body that was capable of completing this trail, and that He gave me a heart of actually wanting to be immersed in such wilderness. I have a far greater understanding of my capabilities and genuinely came to the realization that I can do a heck of a lot more than I ever gave myself credit for. This lesson sunk in pretty quick for me in many different ways, and I’m eager for the next adventure life presents because I know I’ll be able to do it. I know it. I am fully thankful to God for creating such beauty for us all to learn from and enjoy — my soul has been recharged.