With pristine private beaches, old-growth rainforests, and ancient rock formations, the West Coast Trail is one of the ultimate hiking experiences. Six thousand brave souls attempt to hike it every year; it nevertheless remains a truly isolated hike in west coast nature.
While the physical and mental demands of the trail are immense, it remains one of the top hikes in many a backpacker’s wish list. If you enjoy hiking in the great outdoors, then this trip is for you. It truly is the hike of a lifetime.
Here’s everything you need to know about the spectacular West Coast trail.
The West Coast Trail is a world-famous hike made for the experienced hiker, situated entirely in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. Although the trek is relatively short, compared to other backpacking trips, the over 75 kilometers is challenging and should not be undertaken by inexperienced backpackers.
The path winds through the coast as you trek through white-sand beaches, rippling tides, and ancient rock formations. You’ll enjoy the canopy of lush rainforests, cool off in crystal lagoons, and be surprised by the numerous lookouts. It takes anywhere from 5 to 10 days to complete the hike. If you are one for bucket lists, the West Coast Trail has been called the best hike in the world.
Pacific Rim National Park Reserve is over 500 square kilometers of wilderness, bordered by the surfing and fishing towns of Ucluelet and Tofino. Visitors flock to Vancouver Island to escape for its sandy beaches, surfing, and intense oceanic storms. Since the park is well-trafficked, you will occasionally see people on some of the shores of the trail, but for the most part, you will have the beauty to enjoy for yourself.
Located on the territory Huu-ay-aht, Ditidaht, and Pacheedaht Nations, the trail has deep historical significance. When you’re hiking, you’ll be reminded of the many Native people using the original travel corridor along the coast. Over 9000 people lived in the Pacific Rim area before Europeans arrived. And they had lived there for at least 4,300 years.
Because Pacific Rim National Park’s coast is hazardous — rocky cliffs, violent storms, and intense fog frequent the shores — the area used to see many shipwrecks.
When the Valencia ship went down with 100 people in 1906, the Canadian government decided to make the original travel corridor a telegraph route, outfitted with life-saving operations and lighthouses. The trail was soon dubbed Dominion Life Saving Trail. Once navigational systems were improved, the trail became obsolete until the 1970s when growing interest in hiking revived it. The government upgraded the path in the 1970s and 1980s, making the route accessible, adding bridges, ladders, boardwalks, and cablecars to get across some of the tricky bits.
The hike is challenging. Many of the boardwalks originally installed have grown mouldy in the intense climate of the rainforest, rotting away and being even more hazardous than initially. Some sections are so steep that stairs could not be developed. Instead, ladders — over 100 of them — are found throughout the path.
While the beaches often offer a welcome respite from the varying terrain of the rainforest, they come with their own sets of challenges. Slippery rocks, deep sand, and unpredictable tides (print out your own tide table before starting) can slow you down considerably.
Because rivers can be flooded, occasionally you’ll have to wait days to cross. Anything deeper than knee-deep water can sweep you away in a fast current.
There are bridges and cablecars to bring you across the especially treacherous rivers. A new suspension bridge was installed recently, replacing the decaying bridge. Towering 40 meters above Logan Creek, the 114-meter development, was no small architectural feat in this environment.
The cablecars offer a welcome break to tired feet and an arm workout as you manually pull yourself and your stuff across ravines.
While the trail will push you to your limits, the lush setting will carry you onwards. You’ll often be camping on the beach and waking up to breathtaking coastal sunrises. You’ll be hiking through some of Canada’s tallest and oldest trees. In fact, the 314 foot tall, 400-year-old Sitka spruce, Canada’s tallest tree, is located not far from the path. And you’ll often run into other hikers at the campgrounds where you’ll commiserate together.
You’ll be sharing the wilderness with an array of wildlife. Seabirds fly above, shy black bears scamper into the trees, and pods of grey whales feed just off the coast. You might even spot humpback and killer whales.
While you’ll be responsible for packing all the food and equipment you’ll need during your journey, there are a few rest spots on the way. Nitinat Narrows between Cribs Creek campground and Truiat Falls offers fresh crab dinners and lunches. Chez Monique’s, near Carmananah Lighthouse, serves up restaurant fare and beer and wine.
There are three access points to the trail: Pachena Bay, Gordon River, and Nitnaht. To hike this spectacular trail, you’ll need to apply on the Parks Canada website at least a couple of months in advance. While people can cancel last minute and open up a spot, it’s best to plan ahead. You’ll need your preferred start dates and alternatives, preferred entry points and alternatives, as well as the names of all the hikers (up to 10) and emergency contacts.
You’ll also need to pay for the trail permit, reservation fee, river ferry fee, and national park entry fee—all in all, over $300.
Parks Canada stresses you must be physically able to do the hike. Due to the remote location, it can take up to 24 hours for help to arrive if you’re injured. The weather can change fast on the coast, with structures collapsing and campsites flooding. It’s almost always raining, and the temperatures often float around 10 to 15 degrees in the summer. You have to be well prepared to make the West Coast Trail a success.
But it’s worth it. No one who has trekked the arduous coastal path will tell you otherwise.
Hero Image by Destination BC/Yuri Choufour