The West Coast Trail Guide

Growing up in British Columbia, hiking the West Coast Trail had always been on my Bucket List. The 75km trail through the Pacific Rim National Park on B.C’s Vancouver Island is famous, not just in BC or Canada, but the world over for being a hell of a hike, a chance to see the rugged west coast from a different perspective. I wanted to do it because I heard it was awesome and I have a guilt complex about hiking all over the world but never doing the one mega trek in my own back yard. It was time. I too wanted to see whales and sea lions and then be awestruck by the old growth sequoia trees.

Registration for the 2017 West Coast Trail season opens on January 9 2017 at 8AM PST. The trail season is open between May 1 and September 30th.

Unknowingly, I was also signing myself up for 7 days of physical torment, mud, and knowing that at any time I too could become one of the many medevacs off the trail every year. But we’ll stay on the bright side for now! This blog, and the rest of this series, is my version of the West Coast Trail Guide

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Introduction to the West Coast Trail British Columbia

In this post, I will discuss what the West Coast Trail is, as a general guide.  This will be post 1 of 6 in my West Coast Trail blog series.  The Parks Canada website isn’t full of practical information, so in this blog and in the upcoming ones, I will try to fill in the blanks. I will also be telling the story from a first timer perspective, a West Coast Trail for Dummies guide, because as great as guidebook written by two guys who have hiked the trail 25 times is, it’s not horribly useful to those unaware of the powers of the trail.

As said above, the West Coast Trail is on the southwestern coast of Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, Canada. The trail itself is 75 KM, running between Bamfield at the North end and Port Renfrew at the South. Neither of these places are large centres by any sense of the word, so actually getting to the West Coast Trail is in itself a bit of a process.

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What is the West Coast Trail?

The Pacific Rim National Park is run by Parks Canada, so the trail is managed by Parks Canada and they do love charging you for the honour. You can make reservations for the trail online or by phone starting on January 11 of each calendar year, and if you’re in a group, this is definitely a must.

The West Coast Trail hiking months are from May 1 to September 30 every year, and clearly true high season is July and August, so if you want to attack the trail in the summer, reserve! I’m not the greatest planner, and I was on my own, so I didn’t actually book my spot until the start of June, though days were definitely scarce. There are also seven stand-by spots available every day, which I actually ended up using anyways since I arrived a day early, so if you are a solo and have some flexibility, in May, June, or September, you could probably just wing it a bit. There are no dogs or children under the age of 12 permitted on the trail. Probably for different reasons, or the same reasons, I don’t know. Also no firearms. All good rules.

The West Coast Trail on Canada's Vancouver island is a formidable hike. Making or breaking this 7 day trek is what and how you pack your backpack! Check out my packing mistakes and my wins from my experience hiking the West Coast Trail.
If you liked this post, you may also like: A Solo Hiker’s Packing List for the West Coast Trail

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Where do you Start the West Coast Trail?

You can start the trail at either end, the south or the north, and you make a reservation for a specific start point. Regardless of where you start, be in Bamfield or Port Renfrew, you must hit the Parks Canada information centre for a trail orientation before you start. They happen twice a day at both ends, at 10am and 2pm. It is here you get your permit and your waterproof map of the trail, which we joked about being the most expensive map ever created. At this orientation you will get a very abbreviated lesson of reading the tide tables, spotting wildlife tracks, the question of tsunami risk, and how to best not die on the trail. Speaking of not dying on the trail, I will cover the issue of injury and medevac completely in West Coast Trail Difficulty and Rescue.

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If you liked this post, you may also like: Reflections of the Hike: A West Coast Trail Blog

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The West Coast Trail is a 75KM hike on the southwestern coast of Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, Canada. It is tough, dirty, scary, and phenomenal.

How Long does it Take to Hike the West Coast Trail?

If you don’t get injured, it will take between five and seven days to hike the trail, on average. I don’t know how people do it in five days. I was clearly on the West Coast Trail 7 day plan. I enjoy mediocrity at it’s finest. There are also people who run the trail. Yes, RUN. In one day. Like, they move their bodies so fast for so many hours they both start and finish the trail in one day. I don’t like calling other people and their experiences crazy, but…yeah, that’s bonkers! I tried to move quickly to see a snake once and almost broke my ankle.

You can definitely take longer than seven days, that’s allowed, but for me 6 nights was enough time in a tent on the ground, let’s get outta here! For a breakdown of my days, check out my Hiking the West Coast Trail Blog

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West Coast Trail Campsites

For those of us who need to sleep once or twice on the trail, West Coast Trail campsites are all on the beaches, and there are some ‘amenities’ at these sites. ‘Amenities’ is a loose term, which in WCT terms mean compost outhouses, bear lockers for your food bags, and a fresh water creek. Other than that, the camp-sites range in quality, my favorite being the sites you could pitch your tent back in the forest a little bit, both for sheltering purposes and to not have to be on the sand. Nothing worse than pitching a tent on wet sand, while it is raining, and you are soaked through. After hiking 17km. Kill me. That was the low point! The camp-sites are spaced well, depending on the intensity of the trail to complete in six nights/seven days. If you are wanting to complete the trail faster, you’ll have to combine some days and skip sites.

Where to Stay Before You Start the West Coast Trail

 

Port Alberni (North end)

Best Western Plus Barclay Hotel

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Hospitality Inn

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Swept Away Inn

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Cedar Wood Lodge Bed and Breakfast

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Redford Motel

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Bamfield (North end)

The Bamfield Motel

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The Kingfisher Lodge and Marina

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Sooke (South End)

Sooke Harbour House

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Prestige Oceanfront Resort

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Moonlit Cove B&B

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Victoria (South End)

Oak Bay Beach Hotel

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Swans Hotel and Brewpub

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Hotel Rialto

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Places to Eat on the West Coast Trail

There are two places to get food on the trail. And these spots, oh, they are magical heavens. One is Chez Monique’s, a West Coast Trail institution for the last 27 years on the Aboriginal reservation south of the Carmanah Lighthouse (IR 6, around KM44). At Monique’s you will eat the greatest burger that you have ever had, plus you can buy everything you never knew you would crave so much (jelly beans, candy, brownies, chips, pop, beer, wine, etc). You can also get some necessities; aka tampons and toilet paper, and some free trail advice from Monique “I’m going to tell you what Parks Canada won’t!”

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If you liked this post, you may also like: Hiking the West Coast Trail Blog

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The other place to refuel is the crab shack at Nitinat Narrows, also on an Aboriginal Reservation (IR 3, KM 32). You have to take a water taxi across the Narrows, and a while back the taxi operator Carl Edgar was cooking up some fresh caught crab for his family and some hungry hikers asked if they could get in on that action. Genius was born. Now stopping for lunch at the Narrows is a must, where else can you get caught-that-day salmon, cod, red snapper, halibut, or an entire crab???? They also sell pop, beer, chocolate and chips. I ate salmon, a baked potato, and chips, plus drank a ginger ale and a beer. Absolute bliss. You can also be entertained by Carl’s grandkids running around the dock in lifejackets “helping”. BBQ salmon on the West Coast Trail is one of the best things that has ever happened. For both the crab shack and Chez Monique’s it’s cash only, so bring lots of cash with you!

West coast trail chez moniques

The flip side about these two food shacks, they are the only places to get anything at all. The West Coast Trail does not go through any settlements, there is no easy way to bounce off the trail and back onto it (that would really only involve the medivac Zodiac, and there ain’t no return trip on that), so you need to bring everything you will need for the entire trail. Don’t assume you can pick anything up, because you cannot. Also, don’t depend on Port Renfrew or Bamfield for supplies, these are small villages, Renfrew doesn’t even have mobile reception, so again, plan ahead!

West Coast Trail food

How Difficult is the West Coast Trail?

As already discussed, the trail itself is tough. The West Coast Trail is definitely not for the faint of heart, nor for the person looking for an easy day hike. The word ‘trail’ is one that should be used loosely in certain parts, like for all of day 5, 6, and 7. You’re climbing over a lot of massive root systems and logs, through major mud bogs, and balancing along fallen trees serving as bridges. Boardwalks have rotted away and you’re never totally sure if the plank you’re about to step on will hold your weight.

Mostly, there are ladders. Ladders that take you up, ladders that take you down. The ladder will become your most hated friend. The many wood West Coast Trail ladders get you places, but they also minimize your will to live. Some of the longest ladders seem to go forever, maybe 70 rungs, while some of the steepest may just give you vertigo.

There was an ongoing debate whether people enjoyed going up the ladders or down the ladders less, I think it all came out in the muddy wash, both direction sucked in it’s own special ways. Ladders are a necessary evil of the trail, and if you’re scared of heights, you’ll just have to get over it. Embrace the ladders, literally, hold onto them really really tight, falling off would be bad.

West coast trail ladders

I have hiked all over the world, and there is no doubt that the West Coast Trail difficulty is among the highest of hikes I have ever done. It’s straightforward, there is no getting lost, just keep the ocean on the correct side, but the trail itself is just plain difficult. I like to think of myself as pretty strong, both physically and mentally, but there were times when I was stumbling along telling myself aloud “You’re awesome, you can do this, you will not stop moving, if Frodo can walk to Mordor you can walk to Port Renfrew, you are awesome, this is the stupidest idea you have ever had, you can do it, just keep swimming, etc.”

Why Hike the West Coast Trail?

That being said, the West Coast Trail is one of the greatest things I have ever done. The beauty of the West Coast you get the honour to experience is unparalleled, and the feeling of accomplishment at the end is unbridled. I saw whales, sea lions, deer, seals, snakes, and even a marmot, walked on remote beaches and through ancient rain forests, I fell asleep and woke up to the thunder of the Pacific Ocean mere meters away, and for a brief time I got to be a part of a land that deserves every bit of respect it forces you to surrender. Just give yourself to the trail, respect the trail gods, and keep going.

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****This post is Part 1 of my 6-part West Coast Trail blog series.****

 

West coast trail difficulty

21 thoughts on “The West Coast Trail Guide

  1. I’ve been waiting to hear how this trek went. I look forward to the next installment. Your blog reads like an adventure novel which is what your life is. Now off to Jamaica. Love you, Aunt Joan

    1. Thanks Aunt Joan!!! More to follow, was quite the adventure and I have a lot to say haha! You will also greatly enjoy the post of my recent trip to Saskatchewan, just this past weekend, I found some things you and Uncle Larry would absolutely love!

  2. Emily:
    Beautiful pics of BC’s spectacular coast. I admire your spirit. As the Adidas credo says, “Impossible is nothing.”

  3. hey Emily, glad to see you did the west coast trail. I have done it 4 times. the first time Joe H and I ran it in two days when we were 20. the last time I did it with Ben when he was 14. super fun. great photos. here you are off to Jamaica I think…be safe!! Cliff

  4. What an adventure! Looking for more installments (tho not sure about #5- Medivac!). Still I think you’re still in one piece!

  5. Thanks, Emily! That was quite an adventure! The west coast of BC is truly magnificent; great that you enjoyed seeing it up close. Have a wonderful experience in Jamaica! Love, Mike and Ann

  6. What a fantastic adventure, but better you than me! Your mother sent the post to me and really enjoyed seeing the beautiful scenery that the westcoast has to offer. Enjoy!

  7. Lorenzo Dragonieri

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    I am proud of you,Emily.I undesrsatnd what adiificult task this is .I wanted to do it a few years ago.It is beyond my physical ability now.Let me know about Saskatchewan.I love that province.

  8. I like how you are telling “it like it is”, so other adventurers will benefit from your experience. I can smell the salt air and feel the dampness. I bet it rains at least a few days on your trek and not all the days will be sunny and clear as in your pictures. I look forward to the next installment!

    1. Thanks so much for your encouragement! I think it’s good for people to know what they’re getting into, a later post which I am working on right now is entitled West Coast Trail Medevacs: When Shit Goes Sideways !!! Stay tuned!!!!

  9. Great pictures, looks like you got nice weather some days. When I hiked the trail in the 80’s there were far less ladders instead there were ropes that you had to hang on to in order to get up or down. I started in Port Renfrew which is the harder end and finished along the boardwalk into Bamfield making for good memories at the end of the trip.

    Looking forward to the medevac story.

  10. This is gorgeous and reminds me so much of the early 60s when my family moved to the “PacNW” (as my Dad used to call the Wash. coast) and we did a lot of picnicking, rock climbing, & beachcombing. It’s great to see that it still looks like this! Can’t wait to make a trip back home (from NY) soon!

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