Cape Scott: San Josef Bay to Guise Bay (5 days / 54 km)
Located at the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island, Cape Scott is very remote and very beautiful. This park has a reputation for being rainy and muddy, and we certainly had a lot of that on our trip. Wild beaches and lush old-growth forests are what’s in store for those who take the time to travel out here.
As long as you pack good rain gear and have a positive attitude, this coastal backpacking route is a refreshing change of pace for those used to alpine routes. It is almost entirely flat! Read on for everything you need to know about Cape Scott Provincial Park, a wonderful trail that is surprisingly uncrowded.
Trip Completed: May 2022
Starting Point: San Josef Bay Parking Lot
Ending Point: San Josef Bay Parking Lot
Total Distance: ~54km
Elevation Gain: 1,048 m
Duration: 4 nights, 5 days
Getting there: Port Hardy is the closest town to the park, and the last time you’ll have cell reception. From there, it is a 2-hour drive up a gravel logging road to get to the parking lot. You’ll pass a tiny town called Holberg (population 200) which is about 13km from Cape Scott. It has very few services available to people passing through, so you’ll definitely want to be prepared in advance. A high clearance vehicle, a spare tire (and familiarity changing it) are all recommended!
Traditional Territory: This route takes place on the traditional territory of Quatsino (source).
Maps & Resources
Guidebook: No guidebook is needed on this trip!
Map: Download the area on google maps before you go, as there is no cell service for much of the drive to the trailhead. Once on the trail, we had a map of the park on our phones (we used ‘Gaia’) but this wasn’t really necessary, as there are maps at every junction, campsite, or point of interest in the park. The trails themselves are very clearly marked.
Campsite Reservations: The sites on this route are first come-first served! Many of the camping areas are on long, wide sandy beaches (e.g. San Josef, Nel’s Bight, Nissen Bight) so there is plenty of room to spread out.
Backcountry camping fees are collected in Cape Scott Provincial Park from 1st May to 30th September. The cost is $10/per adult/per night. You can pay in cash at the vaults at the trailhead or when you register for a permit online.
Permits: You’ll need to register for a backcountry permit with BC Parks before your trip.
Know Before You Go
Season: The hiking season for this park is May through September. We completed our trip on Victoria Day Weekend (May 24th) and it was fairly chilly and rainy. Gaiters are a MUST and hiking poles will be a huge asset.
Cell Reception: No cell reception on this route at all. Bring a satellite communication device if you are worried, but the folks on this trail were all super friendly and helpful when we went.
Water: Because this is a coastal route, all the drinking water comes from streams that flow through the forest, before it joins the sea. Clean drinking water sources are marked on the map. You’ll want to know where they are before you start your day, and stock up on water when you’re at a source.
A lot of the water available is ‘cedar water’ – tea-coloured water that has travelled through a lot of deadfall and organic debris to get to the pool or stream that passes the trail. You’ll be on the hunt for the cleanest water you can find. We did drink the cedar water, which remained tea-coloured even after filtration. It was not the freshest water we’ve ever had on the trail but it did keep us hydrated!
Wildlife: Bear Spray is essential as you’re in bear country. But in Cape Scott, you’re also in wolf country! We didn’t see any wolves on our trip but we did see their paw prints in the sand. Fellow hikers warned us of bears on the trail on several occasions during our trip, which ultimately thwarted our plans to hike all the way to the Cape Scott Lighthouse. Definitely review the guidelines on wildlife safety on the BC Parks website before your trip.
Waste: There are outhouses at each campsite which often have toilet paper (such a treat on backpacking trips!) but as a precaution, you should always bring your own.
There are no garbage bins anywhere in the park, including the San Josef Bay parking lot, so be prepared to pack everything out with you and dispose of it in town.
Outfitters & Shuttles
We didn’t use any outfitters or shuttles on our trip. The only way to get to this park is by driving via a gravel logging road from Port Hardy. It’s very bumpy, has a lot of sharp rocks, and is full of big heavy trucks whizzing in both directions. Take extreme caution when driving.
Drive in the middle of the road, where the gravel is at its finest – I can’t stress this enough! Driving on the ‘right side’ means you are driving where there are the biggest rocks and boulders. We did this and got a flat tire! A true mark of city folk said the forestry worker who stopped to help us. Drive slow enough so that anyone passing can see you, and you can pass each other safely.
MAKE SURE YOU HAVE A SPARE TIRE WITH YOU, and KNOW HOW TO CHANGE A TIRE! Bringing a full-size spare would be even better. Seriously, this logging road is long, there’s no service, and sees a lot of flat tires.
Day 1: Cape Scott Parking Lot to San Josef Bay (2.5 km)
Day 1 of this trip is a big travel day. We took the ferry in from Vancouver, picked up a rental car in Victoria, and drove ~7 hours to the parking lot. Hopefully, you live on the island and it doesn’t take you quite as long to get to the park!
From the parking lot, it’s an easy 45-minute walk on a wide, gravel path to the beautiful San Josef Bay. The Bay is a popular camping spot for locals, but the beach is big enough that you can spread yourself and feel like you have a bit of the sea to yourself. San Josef Bay is home to the famous ‘Sea Stacks’ which are often photographed in this area. Take a look at the tide schedule in advance as a high tide may block you from walking over to that side of the beach!
Campsite: San Josef Bay. This will be your first taste of being able to camp anywhere on the beach! The tide does go in and out so you’ll want to make sure you are close enough to the trees that your tent won’t get swept away.
Day 2: San Josef Bay to Nissen Bight (15km)
Get a nice early start for a big second day. You’ll get a sense of the beautiful old-growth forests and mud right away, and your hiking poles will be put to good use. About 3 km in you’ll reach Eric Lake, likely the easiest access (and best tasting!) water source on the trail. You can camp here too if you like: these campsites are set in the forest, not directly on the lake.
Eventually, you’ll reach St Mary Creek, which crisscrosses the trail. There will be lots of boardwalks to keep you dry, but where there aren’t, you’ll find challenging deep mud trail conditions, which can feel like walking through a bog. Keep an eye out for old telegraph wires that are strung along the trail!
Finally, you’ll reach Nissen/Nel’s Bight Junction at km 13.1, which is clearly marked. You’ll continue straight, and Nissen Bight is just 1.9km ahead. Nissen Bight is the terminus of the North Coast Trail.
Campsite: Nissen Bight. Just like San Josef Bay, but now facing another direction, you can camp anywhere on this white sandy beach!
Day 3: Nissen Bight to Guise Bay (11.1 km)
Hike back the way you came until you reach Nissen/Nel’s Bight Junction (1.9km), then turn right to head towards Cape Scott and Nel’s Bight! The trail will go downhill until you will see an information board about Spencer Farm. There are some remains of collapsed buildings as well as some ‘historical garbage’ strewn about – like farming tools or parts of a stove.
About 1.6 km from the junction you’ll reach one of the most unusual parts of the trail. After all the dense forest you’ve hiked through, you’ll find yourself in an open field! This is the Hansen Lagoon, the site of a Danish Settlement.
The remaining 3.7 km to Nel’s Bight is flat and straightforward. Nel’s Bight is one of the trail’s most beautiful beaches. We had a great lunch here, but you can also camp here if you’re so inclined!
From here it’s just 3.9 km to Guise Bay. The trail continues along to the west of the beach, then heads back into the coastline where the coastline is impassable, then emerges back out to Bowen Beach. You’ll follow the coast until you see the hanging buoys, which mark the post where the trail goes back into the forest. Soon you’ll be at your 3rd campsite – Guise Bay!
From here it’s just another 2.9 km / 1 hour-ish hike to the lighthouse! Unfortunately, other hikers warned us of bears on the trail there during our visit. But this side journey would make for a lovely after-dinner excursion.
Campsite: Guise Bay. This was by far our favourite campsite. Guise Bay is smaller than the other beaches and felt beautifully ominous. (We encountered our worst weather at this campsite.) This is another ‘camp anywhere on the beach’ situation.
Day 4: Guise Bay to San Josef Bay (23.2 km)
The way back is fairly straightforward – you are simply backtracking the way you came. You will hike out past Bowen Beach and Nel’s Bight, passing Hansen Lagoon until you reach Nel’s/Nissen Bight Junction. From there you’ll take the trail you took on Day 2 all the way back to San Josef Bay.
This is a huge day, and we were completely exhausted upon arrival at San Josef. If we had to do this again, we may have planned to stay at Eric Lake on Day 4, which would make this day 5.5km shorter, and quite a bit more manageable.
Campsite: Back on the beautiful San Josef Bay, you can camp anywhere on this beach. Return to the spot you stayed at on Day 1 or push yourself to explore the other end of the beach!
Day 5: San Josef Bay to Cape Scott Parking Lot (2.5 km)
On your last day, enjoy breakfast and sunrise on the beach before packing up and completing the final easy 45m walk out back to your car.
There are many ways to explore Cape Scott. It’s possible to do the trip in fewer days if you are short on time, but since our group travelled all the way from Vancouver, we wanted to take our time. The 4th day of this hike described, however, is a big one. 23.2 km is no joke even if it is flat. The trail is muddy and requires careful foot placement to avoid slipping or twisting an ankle. We chose to push through this long day because we had been rained on for 2 nights in a row and absolutely everything we had was wet. We were ready to get home, and to try and dry some of our stuff in that big ocean breeze!
What’s awesome about this trail is you don’t have to choose your campsites in advance, so you’re free to make your own choices on where to stay on the fly based on weather, motivation levels, etc.
I’ve not seen any other blog mention this, but to me, the experience of visiting these wild beaches was bittersweet. I had never truly appreciated the extent of plastic ocean pollution until this trip. The beaches were stunning from afar, but up close, they were covered in sea plastic. At first, we thought it was from hikers, but then we started finding huge pieces of garbage that a hiker would never have left – huge plastic drums, enormous styrofoam rafts, and even an entire front bumper of a car. Close inspection of the roots of plants around the beach revealed multicoloured microplastics in the sand and the soil, sometimes embedded in the plants themselves. The extent of the pollution brought often brought tears to my eyes.
Vote, and write to your MP to demand protections for our precious land and coastline every chance you get.
Sonya is a game producer and outdoorswoman based out of Toronto, ON, and sometimes Kelowna, BC. She is comically bad at rock climbing but is a great cook on a camping trip – things balance out.