Backpacking the West Coast Trail was an incredible experience. British Columbia’s iconic 75-km coastal trek exceeded my expectations, with stunning scenery, rugged terrain, and top-notch tenting along the trail. While this difficult hike is not for the faint of heart, it’s a must-do for those seeking some of the best multi-day backpacking in Canada!
The West Coast Trail is a 75-kilometre, multi-day backpacking trail in Vancouver Island’s Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, stretching through the traditional territory of the Huuay-aht, Ditidaht, and Pacheedaht First Nations. The trail was originally part of walking and paddling routes created by Indigenous communities, and then was further developed to help shipwreck survivors from the Juan de Fuca Straight. Today, over 7,500 people hike the West Coast Trail each year.
This popular route had been on my bucket list for a few years, and this year I finally took the leap! My friend, Kevin, and I were very lucky to reserve coveted mid-July permits. This blog post covers some of our day-by-day experiences, but if you’d like guidance for planning your first trip, check out Your Complete Guide to Hiking the West Coast Trail.
About the West Coast Trail
Location: Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, Vancouver Island, British Columbia
Distance: 75 km point to point
Elevation: 230 m elevation gain
Time: 7 days / 6 nights
Dog-friendly: No. Only service animals are allowed on the trail.
Features: The West Coast Trail is an incredibly scenic coastal route with well-maintained campgrounds along the way. There are several lookouts, diverse wildlife, and lighthouses at Pachena and Carmanah. However, this trail is also very technical with over 100 ladders, slippery boardwalk and about 130 bridges, river crossings and four cable cars.
Note: Parks Canada and the West Coast Trail Guardians do an incredible job at maintaining this expansive trail. However, there are sections with rotted-through boardwalks and bridges, and missing ladder rungs. Proceed with caution when trail conditions are not optimal.
Know Before You Go
The most experienced hikers can struggle with the challenging terrain and inclement weather on the West Coast Trail. Moreover, over 100 emergency evacuations happen each season on the trail. During our 7-day trip, there were at least two rescues by helicopter that we learned about afterwards. All to say, assess your skills and personal experience before deciding to take on the West Coast Trail. When you’re ready, it will (hopefully) be the experience of a lifetime!
Getting to the West Coast Trailhead(s)
Kevin and I flew from Calgary to Victoria and spent the night before catching the early morning West Coast Trial Express shuttle. The only shuttle leaves Victoria at 6:30am (sharp!) and arrives in Pachena Bay around 12:30pm. Our 6.5-hour ride was long and bumpy, but also completely worth it. If you ever plan to take the shuttle, book well in advance to ensure availability.
Standard 7-Day/6 Night Itinerary
Before arriving at the trail, we agreed on an itinerary for our 7-day trip. Itineraries depend on the availability of permits (they book fast!) and the starting point. We planned to hike from Pachena Bay (near Bamfield) in the north to Gordon River (near Port Renfrew) in the south. For first-timers, I would highly recommend north to south.
Day 1: Pachena Bay to Michigan Creek (KM0 to KM12)
Day 2: Michigan Creek to Tsusiat Falls (KM12 to KM25)
Day 3: Tsusiat Falls to Cribs Creek (KM25 to KM41)
Day 4: Cribs Creek to Walbran Creek (KM41.5 to KM53)
Day 5: Walbran Creek to Camper Bay (KM53 to KM62)
Day 6: Camper Bay to Thrasher Cove (KM62 to KM70)
Day 7: Thrasher Cove to Gordon River (KM70 to KM75)
Pachena Bay to Michigan Creek (KM0 to KM12)
After arriving at Pachena Bay, we registered in the Parks Canada office and completed a COVID-19 self-assessment form. I also purchased a little WCT sticker from the gift shop, which was possibly premature as I hadn’t finished the trail yet (but I went for it anyway!). Typically, Pachena Bay and Gordon River mandatory orientation sessions happen at 10am and 2pm each day, but this year orientation is staggered as groups arrived from 9am to 3pm. There was able a short video presentation to watch before arriving. We finally hit the trail around 3:30pm.
Michigan Creek Campground is about 12 km from the trailhead. After a brief walk across the beach, we entered the forest where we stayed for the duration, with a few small ladders to climb. We arrived at Sea Lion Rock (KM9) and stayed for a few minutes to watch these massive mammals. I also caught a glimpse of Pachena Point Lighthouse, but couldn’t enter the grounds as they were closed due to COVID-19. After about 3 hours, we arrived at Michigan Creek and settled in for the evening. Oh, and Kevin introduced “happies” and “crappies” (which he calls “beefs” and “bouquets”) as a way to reflect on the day. Needless to say, the sea lions were my bouquet!
Read more: Nairn Falls Hike Near Whistler, BC
Michigan Creek to Tsusiat Falls (KM12 to KM25)
My first sleep on the beach was very restful. After a hearty oatmeal breakfast, we finished packing and left around 9:15am. One of our top wildlife sightings was the friendly black bear just passed Michigan. It was feasting on muscles and crabs on the shore, and I could bear-ly contain my excitement while snapping a few photos. Kevin yelled, “Hey, Bear!” It darted toward the forest but didn’t fully disappear. After we passed, bear went back to its beach breakfast bonanza.
The 13-km stretch from Michigan Creek to Tsusiat Falls includes beach walking, forest trails (with ladders, bridges, and boardwalk), and the cable car over the Klanawa River. At this point, a series of unfortunate events led to my trekking pole snapping clean in half, but I was able to masterfully MacGyver it back together. Let’s just say: Tent pole splints have multiple uses!
Tsusiat Falls Campground is a very popular spot. So much so, that Parks Canada instituted a one-night maximum stay for 2021 to not overcrowd during the pandemic. Overall, the campground didn’t feel crowded with a long beach. We arrived around 3:00pm after our only rainy hiking day, after about 5.5 hours on the trail (including a long lunch break at Nitinaht Narrows). The chilly evening was spent under my siltarp, wrapped in my warm down jacket, with a hot drink in hand.
Tsusiat Falls to Cribs Creek (KM25 to KM41.5)
After another oatmeal breakfast, we started our 16-km stretch from Tsusiat Falls to Cribs Creek around 10am. This would be our longest hiking day for the entire trip. However, it’s nicely broken up with Nitinaht Narrows (and the delicious Crab Shack) in the middle. So I was eating fresh salmon and baked potato by 12:30pm, with some chocolate bars for dessert. The West Coast Trail hiking permit covers the crossing at Nitinaht Narrows on the water taxi.
We finished our meal and rest around 2pm and continued on our way, over boardwalk and then some beach walking, before returning to the forest before Dare Beach (high tide). Initially, we passed the beach access ladder and were blocked by the impassible headland, but thankfully only had to double back about 50 metres. The forest was very overgrown; almost a few kilometres of bushwhacking! The final half kilometre of beach was a joyous jaunt before reaching our home for the evening.
Cribs Creek Campground has some of the best campsites on the trail. The sun was high in the sky, and there wasn’t a single tent in the forest (except Kevin’s hammock). Tent flys were dryin’ and spirits were risin’! One cool feature of Cribs Creek is the high rock shelf just offshore. Waves pour over the shelf and create a small waterfall. Quite cool!
Cribs Creek to Walbran Creek (KM41.5 to KM53)
Thick fog rolled over the ocean as we left Cribs Creek behind. Today was mostly on the beach, with a short detour through the Carmanah Point Lighthouse grounds. This lighthouse was built in 1922 to replace to 1891 original. Unfortunately, both Pachena and Carmanah lighthouses are closed to the public due to COVID-19, but we were permitted to take this route without dawdling. Lightkeepers aren’t likely to see shipwreck survivors anymore, but they remain a vital resource for thousands of hikers each year (including those who need emergency services).
Our 12-km hike from Cribs Creek to Walbran Creek started at 9am until about 3pm. It’s worth stopping at Bonilla Point to see the waterfall. This stretch usually requires cable car crossings at Carmanah and Walbran, though we were able to hop-scotch across the low creeks. Swimming at Walbran was one of the best parts of my day!
Walbran Creek to Camper Bay (KM53 to KM62)
“Who’s ready for some tough ladder climbing?” The stretch between Walbran Creek and Camper Bay is entirely in the forest, with major ladder sections to cross the impressive gorges. Some say this is the most difficult part of the trail, and there’s no doubt that skill and fitness are required. How the heck did they do this before the ladders?
Our 9-km trek started around 9:30am and ended around 2pm. Truthfully, I don’t mind climbing ladders, but I was still glad to see the 113-metre long Logan Creek Suspension Bridge hanging 40-metres above the creek. There’s no need to climb down and back up at Logan. However, there are still multiple ladders at Cullite and Sandstone. In fact, Cullite Creek has the highest concentration of ladders on the West Coast Trail— seven on one side and 11 on the other!
Camper Bay Campground is nestled in the cove with limited ocean views. The sun disappeared behind the trees quite early, so it was a windy and cool evening. Time to break out my down jacket and tea again.
Camper Bay to Thrasher Cove (KM62 to KM70)
There’s a lot to love about the 8-km stretch between Camper Bay Campground and Thrasher Cove. Namely, Owen Point is a famous stop to explore the sea caves (when the tides are right!). We stuck around our Camper Bay until 11:30am for the tide to lower before we arrived at the caves. If the tide is too high, you can’t safely pass Owen Point and will miss seeing the spectacular spot. For first-timers, I’d highly recommend timing the tides to take this scenic beach route. From Camper Bay, it took us about 2 hours to reach Owen Point.
One of my favourite experiences from the entire trip: Watching a bald eagle eat a fish off of a driftwood platter! The majestic bird didn’t flinch at our presence, as I filmed for about seven minutes (!). Continuing to Owen Point, the tides still weren’t low enough to pass. We enjoyed lunch while watching seals off the shore—best kind of dinner and a show!
And then there’s a section affectionately called “The Boulders.” For about an hour, we hopped and climbed our way over boulders bigger than cars (well, maybe a smart car….). They say budget 2 hours to manoeuvre over these rocks, as they can become extremely treacherous in wet (or even damp) conditions. Thankfully, it was sunny and dry for us.
We arrived at Thrasher Cove Campground shortly after 4pm. This is the first campsite after the Gordon River/Port Renfrew trailhead, and the last for those who start at Pachena Bay. As you can imagine, this tends to be a popular camping spot. The beach becomes very small when the tide comes in (several tents moved closer to the shore). Even so, I still enjoyed this final night on the trail.
Thrasher Cove to Gordon River (KM70 to KM75)
When we started our journey, back at Pachena Bay, the Parks Canada staff suggested budgeting 1 hour per kilometre for the final 6-km stretch. Right after Thrasher Cove, there’s a steep 1-km section that rises to 230 metres—the highest point on the trail. Kevin and I left around 7am with the plan to arrive at Pacheedhat Campground in Port Renfrew by noon. Our flight was scheduled to depart from the Victoria airport at 5pm.
So pushed through the first kilometre and then continued up and down through the forest until reaching the final ladder before 10am. In just 3 hours, we finished the home stretch! The Gordon River ferry crosses every hour on the half-hour, but remember to raise the buoy. We left for Port Renfrew at 10:30am.
Pacheedaht Campground is the trailhead for south-to-north hikers. There’s a Park Canada office and a small store with candy and snacks. Best of all, Pacheedaht has coin-operated showers! You’re welcome to the person I sat beside on the plane.
I didn’t feel quite done with the West Coast Trail. Perhaps that’s the best time to end? Some say the best part of the WCT is finishing the WCT… but I don’t quite agree. Sure, it feels great to finish my longest backpacking trip to date, but there’s so much more that I gained from this adventure. I especially enjoyed sharing the trip with my pal, Kevin. Thanks for being part of it!
West Coast Trail Map
West Coast Trail Video
Have you hiked the West Coast Trail? How many days did you spend? I’d love to hear about your experience. Leave a comment below!
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