Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Juan de Fuca Trail

On the week following Victoria Day, Elise and I embarked on our much anticipated spring trip, a hike of the Juan de Fuca Trail on Vancouver Island. I'd been planning this trip for a couple of months, but finding a window of free time for both Elise and I that coincided with a good weather forecast proved more difficult than I imagined. When the opportunity finally arose, we jumped at it and a flurry of organization ensued. The Juan de Fuca trail is a 47-km long coastal adventure that consists of forested paths linked with beach traverses. Some portions of the hike are quite strenuous since they drop in and out of deep river gorges. Our plan was to spend five nights on the trail.

Our trip started in Port Renfrew, a small fishing village about two hours west of Nanaimo. We arrived late in the afternoon, immediately spotted a few elk and then settled in for a pizza dinner at the Coastal Kitchen Cafe, our last "exotic" meal for five days. As we were eating, Elise spotted our shuttle bus arriving early, so we choked down the last of our dinner and ran down the road. Forty-five minutes later we were deposited at the southern trailhead and the start of our hike. Two kilometres of mostly downhill hiking in the evening light took us to our first campsite, the sandy shores of Mystic Beach.

Since it was Sunday night and Monday was a holiday, the beach was packed with weekend campers. After combing the beach for a flat spot, we settled on a cobbled area at the base of the approach trail. It wasn't ideal, but under the circumstances we had little choice. I promptly punctured my sleeping mat on a sharp mussel shell and spent the night rolling around on the cobbles, completely unpadded. Ouch...

Can you spot Elise looking through her "window"?

Elise discovered an amazing swing on the beach that allowed for some dramatic over-the-water stunts. This was a highlight of the first night, for sure.

The morning dawned clear, albeit a bit misty, and we got on our way. Our average distance per day was about 10 km, and Elise got quite good at estimating the length of a kilometre based on the distance markers along the trail.

She enjoyed determining which direction we were hiking using her thermometer/compass/whistle tool. Her stuffy "Pepper" came along for the ride.

Bear Beach was a hit because there were crabs under every rock she flipped. She never tires of this - it's amazing.

On our second day, we passed Rock on a Pillar, a unique feature at the west end of Bear Beach. If you look closely on the beach you'll see a long line of campers approaching. This was a big group of kids from Calgary that matched our itinerary for three days making camping difficult at the smaller sites.

The section from Bear Beach to Chin Beach was the hardest on the trail due to the constant elevation change through the multiple creek gullies. It took its toll on both of us. The emergency shelter above Chin Beach was a welcome site and the beach below did not disappoint.

A Pacific blood star in Elise's hand! Elise says, "don't worry, it doesn't drink your blood!".

Although the forecast was for sunny skies throughout the week, we saw little blue sky. Instead, we woke to mist and fog each morning and the only time we did see the sun was when we hiked inland a fair distance. I've been told this is called "advection fog" and is very common along the Juan de Fuca straight since the waters in the straight are actually colder than those in the open Pacific beyond. This temperature difference is what's behind the creation of the fog. At least it didn't rain...

Elise under a rock arch on our hike to Sombrio Beach. This part of the coast was very interesting. I think it was on this day, our third, that Elise asked how much farther it was to the end? When I told her she said, "good, only two more days of this hell left!". Despite that comment, I think she really enjoyed herself (at least when we weren't hiking). The beach camps each night were a big hit and she often disappeared to explore while I got camp prepared.

A highlight of the Sombrio day was a side trip to a sea lion grotto. When we dropped our packs and started hiking, we were very far from the ocean. The descent down to the water was formidable, but as we neared we could hear the frantic barking of the sea lions. We ended up with a fantastic view from the bushes right above the grotto and enjoyed watching the massive creatures for some time. As Elise said, it was very "stinky".

There were many ancient trees (red cedar, Douglas fir and sitka spruce) along the trail, some estimated at over 1,000 years old. These sat in juxtaposition to the ever-present cut blocks on our right as we hiked, some coming shockingly close to the beaches below.

Our camp at Sombrio was one of my favourites. We found a nice patch of needles in the trees above the beach and set up our tent. Although we were saving our special desert for the final night, it felt like we needed a "boost" so we mixed up our cherry cheesecake and enjoyed a feast. Afterward, we had a nice campfire on the beach and enjoyed reading our book, Julie of the Wolves, together.

Our second to last day saw us hike above a seal grotto where the animals and their pups often shelter. We found the grotto, but unfortunately there were no seals inside. It was an interesting feature nonetheless and we enjoyed snacking by the water.

We opted to skip the last official campsite on the trail - Payzant Creek - and continue toward Botanical Beach, hoping to find something suitable before it got too late. About two kilometres from Botanical Beach, after a very long day, we discovered a perfect rock shelf above the water for our final night. The mist was heavy but we got the tent set up and settled in for a good night. Since we woke early and had no need to rush, I made us breakfast in bed and then we settled back in to read our book. While I was reading, a heard an unmistakable "phooooo", the sound of a whale spouting! I threw open the door of the tent and there, just beyond our rock shelf, was a grey whale surfacing. We jumped out of the tent and watched him traverse back and forth, just offshore. It was a special moment for our last morning together.

After watching the whale, we packed up our very damp gear and started the final two kilometres to Botanical Beach. This area is famous for its tide pools - pot holes in the sandstone shelf that contain lots of interesting sea life. We hit the area at low tide and the pools did not disappoint. They were full of urchins and anemones, some of the biggest I've ever seen!

The Juan de Fuca trail ends at Botanical Beach, but a three-kilometre road walk stood between us and our parked car in Port Renfrew. As luck would have it, a nice couple we met on the trail waited for us on the beach and offered to drive us back into town, a very thoughtful gesture!

We had planned a big feast at the Coastal Kitchen Cafe as a victory lunch so we eagerly changed and went inside. Elise, however, wasn't feeling that well by this point and didn't eat her special meal with the enthusiasm I was expecting. When she left me to finish the cheesecake, I knew all was not well. She had an upset stomach, but after a nap in the car on the way home, she perked up. As luck would have it, we missed our ferry sailing by 15 minutes and got stuck on the Departure Bay terminal for two hours waiting for the next boat. Late in the evening we finally made it home and enjoyed sharing our stories with Pam and getting reunited!


  1. Thanks for this account of your trip! Planning an outing for next week and there's lots here to help envision what's to come - thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks for sharing this, great blog.