Meares Island and the Big Tree Trail

Tales From the Trail…

For years, I had wanted to go to Meares Island to see the huge cedar and spruce trees around which so much controversy was swirling in the 1980’s. During the summer of 2012 while visiting Tofino, I finally had the opportunity.

The Island was the centre of a big dustup between loggers and First Nations in the mid 80’s. The loggers wanted the easy cash the giant trees provided and the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation wanted it preserved as part of their traditional territory. In the end, it wasn’t the arrests of environmentalists aiding First Nations by blocking roads and equipment that put a halt to logging in the area; it was the courts. In a landmark ruling between the Nuu-chah-nulth and the Province of BC, an injunction was granted in favour of the Nuu-chah-nulth and logging has been halted to this day.

Meares Island boardwalk along the Big Tree Trail

Meares Island boardwalk along the Big Tree Trail

Some of these ancient giants are 1500-2000 years old and are now accessible by the Meares Island Big Tree Trail—a 3 km out and back self-guided tour that is almost all boardwalk—or a 5 km circular hike of which 3.5 km is rugged trail. Meares Island and the Big Tree Trail lie to the East of Tofino, so you need to get there by boat. Many outfits in Tofino offer rides to Meares Island and all charge about $20-$25 a head round trip and will drop you off on the island for at least a few hours of exploring. Adults and students also pay a $5 Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations trail access fee, helping to fund trail maintenance.

Getting to Meares Island is Half the Fun

After talking to the folks at Jamie’s Whaling Station, we decided to make the run with Dennis Kay of Clayoquot Connections aboard his converted lifeboat the Kleco. It was a sunny day, and the trip with Dennis was a highlight.

Meares Island aboard the Kleco

Heading to Meares Island aboard Clayoquot Connections vessel Kleco.

Not only was he a wealth of local information but he was terrific with the kids, even letting them take the wheel for a few minutes of supervised fun. We glided down a channel between Morpheus and Meares Island to the drop-off point, and Dennis nudged the bow onto the shore, allowing us to scramble off onto slippery, barnacled rocks. A new dock was being installed the day we visited which should make it much easier now for those with mobility issues to make it to shore and back.

As I entered the forest, it felt like being transported into an enchanted world. All at once I felt extremely small and insignificant amongst giants. Being a coastal resident, I have been to a number of impressive forests, and Meares ranks high on the scale. The feeling I got walking amongst these giants was one of ancient elders standing sentinel. It was not the energy of vibrancy and youth, but rather age and wisdom. Some of the trees are tired and decaying, yet others still have much life left to give.

Meares Island Big Tree Trail

Meares Island Big Tree Trail

The hobbit-like hand hewn cedar boardwalk meanders amongst the cedar, spruce and hemlock forest with several sets of stairs to traverse earthen humps. I found the spruce stands impressive, with trees to rival those of most places on Vancouver Island. After a leisurely stroll to the end of the boardwalk you arrive at the Hanging Garden tree, a massive cedar estimated at 2000 years old with a circumference of over 18 metres.

The Trail to Duckling Mud Flats

At this point, you can turn around and head back along the boardwalk, or continue on a forested loop that adds another 4 km. We decided to do the extra loop and in the end were glad we did. The trail consists of a beautiful walk through enchanted fern forests, winding its way through groves of spruce, cedar and hemlock. At the south end, it emerges on Duckling Mud Flats, and is a choice spot for a lunch break. A couple of our kids found out the hard way why this area is called a mud flat. Venturing out from the shoreline they promptly sank up to their knees, almost losing their boots in the process. Apparently, it’s a very good area for bird watching, though we didn’t see much winged wildlife while we were there during our afternoon break.

Meares Island—Duckling Mud Flats

Duckling Mud Flats on the south end of Meares Island

Once off the end of the boardwalk, the trail is quite rough and muddy in spots requiring a scramble over several huge downed cedar trees. Those with mobility problems should not attempt this section of the trail. If you do decide to take the plunge, be sure to have appropriate footwear, food & water, jackets and first aid kit. I wouldn’t recommend this route if it is raining.

The highlight of the extended trail loop came several hundred meters before we arrived back at the drop-off point. Rounding a bend in the trail, there sat the most immense cedar of the day, seemingly bigger and healthier than any along the boardwalk. I am sure this behemoth must have had a name, but I couldn’t see a sign anywhere. For a shortcut to this tree, take a right turn instead of a left when you enter the trees from the drop-off point. It is well worth the short walk to see this beauty.

This cedar off the main boardwalk was a true behemoth.

This cedar off the main boardwalk was a true behemoth.

Other Meares Island Options

One other Meares Island option is hire a local guide who can detail the history of the area as well as the local flora and fauna along with traditional uses by local First Nations. Ask around to see who is able to act as a guide. Finally, consider kayaking to the island. You will always see more wildlife while silently gliding along in a kayak, plus the opportunity to explore the seashore and intertidal areas. Tofino Sea Kayaking will be happy to help you out.

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Things to do on Vancouver Island

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