Tales From the Trail…
Hiking the west coast of Vancouver Island always leaves me in awe of the spectacular setting. I really wanted my kids to experience this beauty, so my wife and I along with friends, decided to introduce our children to the Juan de Fuca Trail. Their ages ranged from nine to thirteen years old, and in the past they had enjoyed several previous multi-day hiking expeditions together.
The Juan de Fuca Trail seemed the perfect way to introduce hiking the West Coast to them. The trail is a third shorter than the 75 km West Coast Trail, is accessible at multiple points from the highway throughout its length, and requires no reservations. The no reservation feature is nice when the weather isn’t cooperating as you can postpone the trip rather than feel obliged to go, dragging miserable children along in your wake. For these reasons, we opted to do the shorter 47km Juan de Fuca trek starting from China Beach and moving west to Botany Bay on the Port Renfrew end — or that was the plan. We talked with a number of people who had done the Juan de Fuca Trail, and almost everyone exclaimed how difficult the second day of hiking was from Bear Beach to Chin Beach with continual ups and downs in the terrain. We also read the trail guidebook called “Giant Cedars, White Sands” which is worth the buy if you plan to do a multi-day trip. Considering two of our crew on this trip were eight and nine years old, we decided to modify our original plan of doing the entire trail to just one section. I didn’t feel like carrying my youngest daughters pack for any of it!
One of the attractions of this hike, especially for families with younger children, is the ability to do certain sections and still enjoy the solitude of a hikers-only trail. Our new plan involved starting the adventure at Sombrio Beach and moving west to finish at Botanical Beach. We decided to spend five nights; driving in and establishing camp the first day, doing a day hike east from Sombrio Beach to Chin Beach and back the second day, followed by a beach day the third day and then hiking west for the remaining two days.
Day One- Nanaimo to Sombrio Beach
Plan in hand, we set off to Sombrio Beach from Nanaimo via Lake Cowichan, and after a quick stop in Port Renfrew to pick up last minute supplies, we headed for the beach. The access road from the highway is about a fifteen-minute drive from Port Renfrew complete with the super steep and twisty ‘motorcycle jump’ section that would test your nerves in the winter during an icy cold snap. Unfortunately, the access road from the highway to the beach was in an atrocious condition. The pot holed and water eroded mess was barely passable by car and more suited to 4X4 travel. Apparently, the Provincial Government doesn’t own the road, and a jurisdictional dispute remains over who should be maintaining it. Therefore, no one is maintaining it as of summer 2012. I suggested to the parks maintenance crew that maybe I should withhold some camping fees to help pay for the repairs to my vehicle from the washout in the road, but that didn’t go over well with them and they were eager to take my money. Gear sorted and packs lifted, the short five-minute walk down the wide gravel trail to the beach is a sinch. We pitched our tents at a beautiful area between Sombrio East and Sombrio West beaches. The beach is several km long and varies from coarsely pebbled in spots to fine-grained sand at Sombrio East. Our site had a combination of the two, and the kids wasted no time heading to the water to surf the waves—swimming being a daily attraction for them. We gathered wood from far and wide—the beach being picked quite clean by other hands—but soon had enough for a fire each night. The sun set in beautiful orange hues; the rays breaking from the silver lined clouds silhouetted against the darkening skies. Sleep came easily, eased by the rhythm of the waves against the sand.
Day Two- Day Hike from Sombrio Beach to Chin Beach
Tuesday dawned sunny and blue — a pleasant surprise being that it was August on the West Coast, otherwise known locally as Fogust. Breakfast down the hatch and quick as a herd of turtles we were trail-bound east to Chin Beach. After walking the beach and admiring the waterfall falling to the beach at the beginning of Sombrio East, we made our way onto the trail. Heading along the muddy, rooted trail, we passed numerous parties heading west. A surprising number of younger hikers ranging from eleven to older teens seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. The trail was difficult in places traversing steep, muddy sections closely lined with impenetrable walls of Salal bushes. Fortunately, our troop was motoring along quite well, and we were looking for a decent lunch spot when minor disaster struck. Two of our children in the vanguard were descending a set of earthen stairs and noticed several sheets of paper lying on the ground. Like true environmental stewards, they stopped to pick up the garbage but noticed too late that it marked a large hornet nest built under the supporting log of a step. Multiple stings to both girls ensued, and my daughter who reacts badly to bites and stings swelled rapidly.
A nearby stream provided cool water, to soak stung limbs and down antihistamines. After a bite of lunch, we decided to head back to camp as my daughter was finding it difficult to walk. It would be safe to say there was some melodrama, but back we went being careful to skirt the nest. After an enjoyable return hike to camp, the remainder of the afternoon was spent enjoying the beach.
Day Three- Beach Day
Day three was a lazy beach day spent playing in the sand. Unfortunately, the fog rolled in mid morning , and it never really burned off. A brisk wind sprang up in the afternoon putting a damper on what we had hoped would be a hot day. During the afternoon, Owen and I shuttled a vehicle to Botanical Beach so we would have wheels when we finished the trip at Botanical Beach. We figured a beer at the hotel in Port Renfrew was in order, but ended up grabbing a coffee and heading back toward Sombrio so as not to incur the wrath of our wives so soon into the trip. During the first few days, we had amassed some larger logs from wood foraging expeditions, and that evening we burned them all in a large fire complete with marshmallows and hot chocolate.
Day Four- Sombrio Beach to Little Kuitsche Creek
The next morning dawned fog free, and a beautiful blue sky greeted us as the sun came over the trees. After a leisurely breakfast, we broke camp and were on the trail by mid morning. The hike to our next stop at Little Kuitsche Creek had many steep ups and downs but was easily attainable at only 6.5 km from Sombrio. With regular snack stops for the crew, we pulled in mid afternoon, set up camp, and went down to enjoy lunch at the small beach area. This campsite is located on the bluffs further back in the trees, but you can sit on the rock bluffs above the ocean for impressive views or go down to the rocky shore to explore the nooks and crannies. The two youngsters, Maddie and Sophie, headed straight to the water, paddling around at the beach area while the older girls lounged on the rocks soaking up the rays. We discovered—after our tents were already pitched—a small but fabulous beach area on the east side of the creek with three tent pads right on the beach making for a private camp spot away from the main site. Dinner was enjoyed at the beach sitting atop the warm rocks and looking out to sea at another beautiful sunset.
Day Five- Payzant Creek to Little Kuitsche Creek
The following day during our hike to Payzant Creek, we visited the seal grotto at Parkinson Creek. The parks maintenance man who happened to be at the Parkinson Creek parking lot gave us directions to the well-hidden trail. Stashing our packs, we grabbed our lunch and took the ten-minute walk to the caves. The seals were in the grotto, which is actually a giant cave located at the back of a large channel carved through sheer rock cliffs by eons of wave action. A look at the cliffs revealed white stained rocks crowded with guillemots, their bright red feet standing out like beacons. We ate lunch on the spectacular rock bluffs at the head of the channel with the waves pounding on the ledges below.
Magical Payzant Creek was the destination for our final night on the trail. After an uneventful hike from the seal grotto along both the shoreline and inland, you approach the Payzant Creek campsite through beautiful second growth—now quite mature—Douglas fir, spruce and cedar stands. The towering trees of the open forest are poker straight, and the undergrowth is thick and lush with ferns, mosses and the ever-present salal. The trail crosses Payzant Creek at an enchanting spot where the water upstream meanders down stepped pools creating waterfalls through a small gorge covered in vivid green mosses and ferns—perfect habitat for elves and fairies.
Day Six- Payzant Creek to Botannical Beach
We awoke the next morning to fog drifting through the trees and the sun bursting through from above, creating a mesmerizing scene with fingers of light filtering through the canopy to mix with morning mist. This site had such a positive vibe that it was easily my favourite campsite along the route. It would have been nice to stay longer at Payzant, but we were soon on the move and had a beautiful walk to Botanical Beach with a small detour to gorgeous Providence Cove. The secluded, sandy, pebbly beach was warm and inviting in the morning sun, and we ended up lounging for the better part of an hour before dragging ourselves away.
The final day consisted of walking along shoreline benches and through old growth forest—a relaxing and enjoyable way to end the trip. By this time, the kids were getting their legs under them, and we ticked off the remaining 7 km in short order.
Arriving at the Botanical beach trailhead by early afternoon, we started the migration home with a stop in Port Renfrew at the tasty Coastal Kitchen Café to grab a bite for the road.
Juan de Fuca Trail Recommendations
If you only have a day to spend in the area, I would highly recommend a day hike from Botanical Beach to Payzant Creek and back. The route takes in both shoreline and forested area, and at 14 km round trip is an easy day hike. Walk in to Payzant Creek and enjoy the forest, then retrace your steps to Providence Cove for lunch and an easy walk back to Botanical Beach where you can enjoy the tidepools. Take a look at the tide tables and plan your walk to be at Botanical Beach for low tide to take maximum advantage of the pools.
Getting to the Juan de Fuca Trail
Access to the Juan de Fuca Trail is by one of several routes. If coming from Victoria, proceed along Highway 1 north towards the western communities of Langford and Colwood. Take the Highway 14 exit towards Sooke and drive through Sooke to the southeast terminus at China Beach 35 km further along. The beautiful Provincial Park Campsite at China Beach, several kilometres east of the trailhead, makes a perfect pre-departure camping area. First-come, first-served campsites are available, but reservations are recommended during the busy summer season. Alternatively, you can park in the trailhead lot and camp on the beach at the trailhead.
Continue along highway 14 to the northwest terminus at Botanical Beach just west of Port Renfrew. If coming from Nanaimo or Duncan, proceed west on Highway 18—just north of Duncan—from Highway 1 and drive to Lake Cowichan where you will proceed through town and onto South Shore Road. After 6km look for the sign to Port Renfrew and turn left (south) on Pacific Marine Road. This will take you all the way to Port Renfrew. Follow the signs to Botanical Beach to get to the trailhead. Bus service is available to the trailheads and several points along the trail via West Coast Trail Express Inc. From May 1st to September 30th, the Juan de Fuca Trail Bus picks up and drops off passengers at Victoria, Sooke, Jordon River, China Beach, Sombrio Beach, Port Renfrew, and Nanaimo. During the drive from Cowichan Lake to Port Renfrew, make sure to stop and take a look at the giant Sitka Spruce tree at Harris Creek, the largest known Sitka Spruce in Canada at over 80m high. The pullout is well marked and the short trail to the giant only takes a minute.