West Coast Trail: Pachena Bay to Port Renfrew (8 days / 75 km)

This is the most intense trail in all of Canada! Packed full of mud, scenic vistas, ladders, bridges, cable cars, all sorts of wildlife, oh and more mud. The trail spans 75 kilometres along the South Western coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia and is not for the faint of heart! Although it is a must for any true adventure seeker. We witnessed some of the most spectacular scenery we have ever seen in our lives, hiking one of the toughest trails.

Trip Summary

Starting Point: Pachena Bay, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Ending Point: Port Renfrew, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Total Distance: 75 kilometres

Elevation Gain: 230 meters at the highest point

Duration: 8 days, 7 nights

Difficulty: Difficult (For experienced multi-day hikers only!)

Location

This hike is on the southern coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. Trail access is from the remote villages of Port Renfrew, Bamfield, or Nitinaht. The entire trail is found inside the Pacific Rim National Park.

Maps & Resources:

Parks Canada – West Coast Trail 2021 Hiker Preparation Guide

Parks Canada – West Coast Trail Map

Permits: You need to reserve a backcountry permit for the dates you will be on the trail through Parks Canada in advance. The trail is very popular and there is a limited number of permits for each day / hiking direction, so reserve well in advance. Backcountry permits can be picked up at the park offices at Pachena Bay and Port Renfrew. Also, a mandatory information session is completed before starting each hike.

Outfitters & Shuttles

Northern Trailhead: We used a shuttle to get us from our hostel in Victoria, British Columbia to the northern trailhead in Bamfield simply called “The West Coast Trail Express” – Trail Bus.

Southern Trailhead: There is a boat shuttle ($22) that takes hikers from the southern end of the trail to the Port Renfrew Trail Office.

Trip Report

Prelude

The two of us travelled from Ontario, Canada for this epic adventure with some close camping friends. A flight out of the Hamilton Airport to Victoria, British Columbia had us arriving late in the evening where we stayed at a hostel called Ocean Island Backpackers Suites. We woke up early, organized our bags in our extremely tiny room and stored our extra bags in the hostel lock up to pick up on our return. Since we were from out of province, we were going to enjoy a few extra days in Victoria after the trip, so we arranged for our extra items to be stored at the hostel. We then met the shuttle in downtown Victoria and hung on as it took us over the very bumpy logging roads to the trailhead at Pachena Bay. We quickly scoped out the area and then walked the 5 kilometres to the small town of Bamfield where we spent the night at Sea Beam Lodge. As soon as we dropped off our packs, we headed back out on the town to get our first view of the ocean and enjoyed a fresh fish dinner at one of the only bars in town. 

Day 1: The Adventure Begins – Trailhead to Darling River (14 km)

We packed up from Sea Beam Lodge and were so lucky that a staff member graciously offered to drive us to the trailhead. It would have added another 5 kilometres to our day! Once at the trailhead, we sat through a very important orientation for the trail, which is mandatory. It discussed the very real possibility of meeting some of the local wildlife on the trail, as well as how to properly read the tidal charts provided. Remember, you are walking along the coast of the Pacific Ocean and the tides play a major factor in the trail you will take each day. If you do not read these correctly you could easily become blocked by rising tides and have to double back and take the muddier forested sections of the trail.

We walked out of the training, ready for what lay ahead and got the obligatory selfies in front of the trailhead sign. Also, just outside of the training room, there is a scale where you can weigh your pack before you set out on the trail. After weighing our packs we tried to figure out if there was anything we could leave behind, but ultimately decided we needed it all. We strolled down to the beach, too excited to feel the true weight of our backpacks, at 41 and 43 lbs. Months of planning, video chats and gear testing in preparation, we were finally at the start of the trail. We felt so ready for this and all high-fived each other in our excitement to start hiking after months of preparation. However, all our preparation did not prepare us to immediately come across fresh bear tracks in the sand. We knew they were fresh as the tide had only recently receded, but it did not even cross our minds to turn back at this moment. 

During our research, it was determined that the majority of the trail hikers begin the trail in the North at Pachena Bay and finish in the South. The reason for this is that the Northern section is supposed to be easier hiking and becomes more challenging as you hike south. We decided to take the advice of the adventurers before us and start with the easier section of the West Coast Trail, which would give our bodies time to acclimatize to the physically demanding trail. We wanted to make sure that we took care of our bodies first and really get warmed up for the difficult terrain ahead of us. Although we had completed many backpacking trips in the past, we had never done an eight-day trek. It is definitely possible to complete this trail in a shorter time frame, depending on your skill level. However, we wanted to really enjoy the trail and take in all the sights as this was a vacation for us. We witnessed several people running the whole trail in a matter of hours, so it is definitely possible to complete it however you wish.

Our first day had us hugging the sandy shore for a short time before starting an incline up to the forest path. Hiking through the forest, we quickly realized why the West Coast is called a temperate rainforest, as everything was damp, muddy, covered in moss, and there seemed to be an endless amount of giant slugs. There are a few relics along the trail, and today we came across an old dirt bike standing upright in the middle of the trail. We enjoyed our lunch on a cliff looking out over “sea lion haul-out rock” at kilometre 9. Here, we also saw some whales and had some mice come to check out our salami and cheese wraps.

The first campsite was at kilometre 12 and it was very nice but we decided to push on for the next campsite. To reach the next camp area at kilometre 14 known as Darling River, we had to remove our boots to wade across a small creek crossing. We ate a delicious dehydrated meal by Alpine Air called “Three Cheese Chicken Pasta” for dinner and found a nice flat tent pad to set up our small 2 person tent. After an exciting first day, we put our tired bodies to bed early. 

Campsite: Darling River, Kilometer 14

Day 2: The Day of Trips and Falls – Darling River to Tsusiat Falls (11 km)

We woke, ate breakfast and due to low tides were able to travel along a section of beach for the hike today. Many sections of the trail can either be taken in the forest or along the beach depending on the tides. We used the term beach loosely, as the beach could be gorgeous, almost tropical-like sand easy for walking, or it could be baseball-sized rocks great for twisting ankles, or even massive boulders. 

We experienced more soggy ladders and bridges today that had us working out every muscle in our bodies. This trail is full of many surprises, one of the first on the trail being two seemingly random red Parks Canada Muskoka chairs in front of an amazing lookout. We couldn’t resist taking a break and enjoying the view, as well as a few snacks. 

When travelling through the forest sections, there is more mud than you could ever imagine. Do not think you will be travelling through flat, straight, hikes that you may be used to. Some boardwalks have been built, but with the soggy conditions of the forest, most were so rotten that it was safer to brave the mud. We passed another relic today; it was a large derelict Donkey Engine that would have been used for winching logs through the bush. It is neat to see and experience a bit of the history of the area, but also sad to see how much garbage has been left behind over the years.

We were feeling lucky to have so much sunshine so far on our adventure. We watched several YouTube videos before starting this trip and saw a few hikers experiencing rain every day. This part of Vancouver Island is called a rainforest for a reason and receives up to 330 centimetres (130 inches) of rain per year, so be prepared. In comparison, our hometown in Ontario only receives 97 centimetres (38.5 inches) of rain per year. We ate lunch on the beach and shortly after got to experience our first cable car! It was so much fun to feel some speed as you travelled over a large creek crossing. However, at roughly the halfway mark across the creek the cable you are riding on begins to sag, and you have to use your arm muscles to pull yourself across the rest of the way. We sent one person and their pack at a time until all 4 of us had crossed safe and dry.

This trail is by far one of the toughest things we have ever done! On average it has an emergency evacuation every other day, mostly due to injuries. Our small group had a few close calls on the trail, but luckily none that required evacuation. One such injury happened around mid-day, as we were hiking along the top of a ridge overlooking a beautiful beach travelling at a good clip. Then Jess caught her toe on a root and essentially toppled forward, propelled by the weight of her pack and landed hard, face first. Needless to say, she had a bit of a black eye for the duration of the trip as well as a few scrapes and a slightly wounded ego. Our other near-miss happened late in the day of day two. With both of our friends ahead of us we were all dredging along after many hours on the trail and looking forward to making camp. A gorgeous vista appeared in front of us and distracted us all for one second from the trail and one of our group members slid over the side of a cliff. She clung to the side holding onto roots and vines as we all quickly tried to haul her back up. It was as if one second she was there, the next she wasn’t. Thankfully she didn’t fall far and we were able to pull her up easily with only a few scratches and a new appreciation of the seriousness of this trail.

By this point, we had hiked a total of 25 kilometres (11 km today) and made camp at Tsusiat Falls. However, to get to the campsite from the trail you have to climb down a serious set of slippery ladders. Once at the bottom we walked across a stony beach, littered with other campers and their tents. The waterfall was stunningly beautiful and only one of us was brave enough to take a swim in the cold water before a late dinner and then bed.

Campsite: Tsusiat Falls, Kilometre 25

Day 3: Nininat Ferry – Tsusiat Falls to Cribs Creek (16.5 km)

We had pitched our tent between two truck-sized boulders last night to help protect us from the wind coming off the ocean. During the course of our trip we found that it was best to put all of our clothes in dry bags overnight because when we woke, everything was covered in dew. However, this meant each morning when we climbed out of our dry warm sleeping bags we had to put on wet clothes to start the day. By this point, almost everything we owned was damp so we took every opportunity to try and dry things out before packing up and setting off down the trail once more.

We saw many bald eagles today, most were soaring overhead, but we did see one eating a dead fish. There was also another one tearing into a dead sea lion on the beach below the trail. The trail today walked along some more gorgeous cliffs with almost tropical-like beach settings. Eventually, we came upon a large river called Nininat Narrows around lunchtime, where you are forced to use the Nininat Ferry to cross. The ferry runs between 9:30 am and 4:30 pm continuously back and forth as need be. On the southern shore, there was a restaurant that served fresh crab and salmon right from the river we just crossed, as well as snacks and pop. We enjoyed fresh salmon with a baked potato and shared a plate of watermelon! The fresh food was a welcome change from our oatmeal, tortillas and freeze-dried meals. 

There was a long beautiful boardwalk section after lunch. After that, however, the trail got technical, hiking over roots, rocks and steep inclines, but the sunshine made it all tolerable. We eventually reached the Cheewat River which had a large bridge to assist in crossing as it was too big to wade across. Today was our longest day at roughly 16.5 kilometres and we finally made camp at Cribs Creek shortly before sundown. The campsite was a wide-open area that housed the largest grouping of hikers we would see at one campsite. As we set up the tent, exhausted from a good hike we were graced with a beautiful sunset, which made it all worthwhile. 

Campsite: Cribs Creek, Kilometre 41.5

Day 4: Chez Moniques – Cribs Creek to Bonilla Point (6.5 km)

Once again we woke up to a very misty and dewy morning so we didn’t waste any time trying to dry our gear. We just packed up everything damp and tossed it into our packs. We took every opportunity to walk along a beach, and today was no exception. Rounding a small point we could just make out something ahead of us in the sand and we slowed our approach. One of the group members thought it looked like a black Labrador retriever. However, once we approached we could tell it was the remains of a black bear. We are not sure how it met its end, but it certainly looked like it was helping feed many of the other local inhabitants of the area. 

Our beach eventually turned to a stone-like surface, carved out and smoothed by years of crashing waves. The landscape made us feel as if we were walking on another planet, it was so unique. The trail eventually travelled up and around a lighthouse, overlooking the ocean from a cliff as well as the lighthouse keeper’s home. It would have been interesting to be up in that tower years ago watching the ships sail past. Now we only get to see pieces of the ships that met a tragic fate and crashed in the shallow waters along the coast. This section of the coastline is known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific,” as there have been so many shipwrecks over the years.

For lunch, we came across Chez Moniques! It appeared as an oasis down the beach in front of us. Here they serve weary hikers a variety of food, including massive fresh cooked hamburgers, beer, as well as a few convenience store items. We had heard this little restaurant had been washed away due to some wicked weather in the off-season, so we were really excited to be able to stop here for a late lunch. There is also a bin at the restaurant for hikers to unload extra food or equipment that is weighing their packs down or pick up some extra food if need be. After a tough day of hiking through mud, sitting down on a beach in a proper chair with an ocean view to enjoy a beer with a burger was one of the highlights of the trip.

We planned for today to be one of our shorter days so we could really enjoy ourselves and have some time to relax. 6.5 kilometres from our last campsite, we reached Bonilla Point and to our surprise were the only campers there for the whole night! It felt as if the majority of our hike today was along the beach, which gave our bodies a bit of a break from the technical forested sections. Once our tents were pitched we decided to all go for a dip in a very cold waterfall behind the campsite. After a very quick rinse, we were able to have a fire and enjoy a few rounds of cards as we prepared dinner.

Alex took some of his free time to try and dry out his t-shirt that had been damp since day one. However, this turned out to be a mostly useless task and we all just accepted our clothes would be damp for the whole trip. It ended up being necessary to have one dry bag for our dry clothes that were reserved for wearing in the tent only and a dry bag to keep our wet or damp clothes separate from our dry ones. 

This was such a fun night but also a kind of eerie one. This is the first time we were alone at a campsite and we constantly felt like we were being watched by some of the local wildlife. At times we also thought we could hear voices in the forest behind us, but we calmed our nerves by telling ourselves that it was just some gurgling from the nearby waterfall. At the end to our delight, it was just the four of us for the night and no wildlife encounters that we knew of.

Campsite: Bonilla Point, Kilometre 48

Day 5: Ladders – Bonilla Point to Culite Creek (10 km)

By now we had really gotten into a groove as we developed a good packing routine so we made quick work of packing up this morning. We wanted to put some distance between us and the strange vibes we received from the Bonilla Point campsite. After a review of the map and the tidal chart, we determined we would be able to walk along the beach for the first half of the day before moving to higher ground in the forest for the second half of the day. Due to the low tide, we were even able to skip the cable car at Walbran Creek which saved us quite a bit of time. 

In the forest, we spent a lot of time trying not to slip in the mud pits. We eventually came upon one of the most impressive ladder sections of the whole trail. First, you have to climb down a huge cliff using ladders until you reach a long suspension bridge. From there you cross over Logan Creek on the narrow swinging bridge high up in the air. Once across you have to climb back up more ladders, but one of them is more of an awkward crawl than a climb as it is on a 45-degree angle! On top of all that, the cliffs were very steep so there was no chance for error here. This is not a trail for those with a fear of heights or ladders.

We stayed at the Culite Creek campsite after ten kilometres of hiking today. Once again this site was only accessible by steep ladders down from the main trail, and then back up another few sets again in the morning to get out. It was roughly seven sets of ladders just to get down to this unique cove site. To make it even more of a challenge, on top of the slipperiness of the ladders, some were actually missing rungs. The site was quite small in comparison to the others with not many tent pads. It also felt claustrophobic with steep cliffs towering over our small tents. 

We never took our rain gear off while we were at this site as there was always a mist or fog coming in off the ocean. However, despite the dampness, we were still able to get a small fire going on the stony beach where we enjoyed a hot meal before crawling into our tents. We drifted off the sleep listening to the crashing of the ocean waves not far away.

Campsite: Culite Creek, Kilometre 58

Day 6: Culite Creek to Campers Bay (4 km)

After a steep climb out of the gully we spent the night in, we were greeted with more muddy trails and broken boardwalks. This section of the trail was one of the toughest for us and took us almost all day just to travel four kilometres. On a paved road, one can walk approximately five kilometres in an hour, but on this day we struggled to complete one kilometre an hour. Everything seemed to be extra damp here, making everything slipperier, slowing us down considerably. Even though it had not rained on us yet during our trip, the amount of mud here was insane. We could not imagine what this trail would be like if it was raining while we were hiking it.

Once we finally made it to our campsite area, we were greeted by many other campers setting up for the night. It was awesome to see so many like-minded people out doing this crazy adventure we were also doing. There were so many different types of tents set up along the beach, it made for a very colourful view. Like so many of the other campsites, there were a ton of buoys hanging up in the trees that people have found washed ashore over the years. These markers help you know when you have reached a campsite and are also a sad reminder of how much garbage washes up on the beaches. During one of our hiking days, we came upon a few large totes that had been dropped off along the beaches to put beach trash in. They were put there to help with garbage taken out to sea by tsunamis on the other side of the world.

After we found a spot for our tent we went exploring down to some tidal pools. As we were admiring all the sea stars, anemones and small fish trapped in the small pockets of seawater a sea lion surprised us as it swam up the small river channel that flowed through the campsite. This was so neat to see up close as it calmly floated by looking for a fish meal.

Despite the large group of people, we never felt crowded and never heard anyone during the night. However, the loud crashing waves in the distance could have muffled any noise from any nearby campers. Either way, it was a great experience to mingle with some other campers. Normally when everyone is on the trail they only have one thing on their minds and that is to get to the next campsite, not chit chat.

Campsite: Campers Bay, Kilometer 62

Day 7: Campers Bay to Thrashers Bay (8 km)

We woke up and enjoyed one of our last bowls of oatmeal and sipped some hot chocolate as we watched other explorers emerge from their tiny homes. We packed up quietly and made our way through the small village of tents back to the trail. As we walked out of our campsite, we passed by some yellow cougar warning signs. If any of us were not awake before that, we definitely were after seeing those signs!

According to our map, there was a section of the hike today that we had to be very mindful of the tide. We could have taken the inland trail, but wanted to soak up all the ocean views we could before heading home. Just before lunch we reached Owen Point and were stopped in our tracks. There was a group of hikers all peering ahead over the edge of a ridge. When we made our way up to see what everyone else had been looking at, we found the ocean blocking us. So we took this opportunity to enjoy an early lunch as we waited for the tide to go out. Other adventurers were doing the same thing, and we all took a break from the trail to watch whales and sea lions swimming just offshore. Once the tide was low enough, we slid down over the rocks to a very slippery seafloor and continued along the trail through some caves. These were definitely a sight to see and would highly recommend taking the beach route here and braving what is to come after the caves.

After exploring the caves we attempted to continue our hike, but some monstrous boulders really slowed us down. We had to scramble over a kilometre’s worth of boulders the size of pickup trucks and around massive logs that had been washed ashore by the powerful tides. This was not part of the trail one could easily train or prepare for. However, we carefully picked our way through and made it to our last campsite.

We camped at Thrashers Bay on our final night. The campsite was narrow against the forest edge and you really had to watch the tide here. The water came extremely close to some other campers’ tents as it rose throughout the evening. We were able to nestle into the forest slightly to ensure we were a safe distance from the water’s edge. There was a great driftwood seating area constructed by campers past and we greatly appreciated their handiwork as we relaxed around our last campfire.

Campsite: Thrashers Bay, Kilometer 70

Day 8: Last Hike Day – Thrashers Bay to Trailhead (5 km)

If walking past cougar warning signs was not enough to get our hearts pumping yesterday, the tsunami warning signs definitely motivated us to climb the ladders a little faster. The signs are there to indicate the highest point to head for in the case of a tsunami. Our final five kilometres of the trail forced us to walk through the forest and we had to climb up a large ladder section to get there from the beach. Once high up into the woods, we experienced a very small taste of why it is called a rainforest. This was the first day that we had rain! From all of our research for this trip, we really beat the odds with the weather and absolutely did not mind the light sprinkle of rain we experienced on our final day.

It was a surreal day as we hiked through the forest, along cliff edges barely big enough for your feet and through a lot more mud. The final section of the trail had us descending one last ladder to a pebble beach where we would wait for the boat shuttle to the Port Renfrew Trail Office. The boat quickly filled with hikers who had reached the end of the trail before us so the four of us found spots on the beach to rest and wait for the boat to return. We did not mind this in the least as we were really not ready to leave. Sitting in near silence, I think we were all in shock with our accomplishment. Once the boat returned we climbed aboard with big smiles, ready to head back into civilization and experience our first shower in 8 days.

Trip Video

It is in the works and will be posted to our channel soon!

Reflections

Overall we were very happy with our preparations for this trip. We used pretty much all the gear we brought, although it would have been nice if it was lighter gear. The weight of our packs definitely affected all of us for the first few days until we became accustomed to them. Our food weighed in around twenty-one pounds for the two of us, but as we ate it, our packs became lighter. By travelling at the end of June, we avoided a lot of the rain that normally falls on this trail, as July is the driest month. Waterproofing is the name of the game on Vancouver Island – be mindful that everything you bring will inevitably get damp or wet.

We want to make a note about the quality of the restrooms on the trail. We were surprised that they were all in great condition and looked as if they had all been updated within the past year. Most were elevated composting style toilets that required the use of a ladder to access. Almost every night we camped on a beach with many other campers, so most mornings there could be a lineup for the restroom. However, the friendliness and kindness we encountered from everyone hiking was heartwarming and kept the line moving quickly as everyone had the same goal, which was to get back on the trail. 

Random Facts and Tips:

  • Orientation took approximately one hour, including some history, tidal information, wildlife, trail etiquette, etc. 
  • We never took our pack covers off the entire trip. 
  • There are over 70 ladders to climb and many bridges to cross, along with 4 cable cars.
  • 80 to 100 people are seriously injured on the trail every year and require evacuation. Don’t take this hike lightly. 
  • Almost every day we saw whales, sea lions, bald eagles and giant slugs.
  • We mainly hung our food bags in trees. There are bear caches provided to store your food in at some campsites. However we found most of them to be full by the time we needed them.
  • Gaiters were one of the best pieces of gear we brought, along with hiking poles. 
  • We loved this hike. It was one of the toughest challenges we have experienced and would do it all over again in a heartbeat!

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Author Bio

Hi, we’re Alex and Jess. A couple that loves being outside, and exploring the backcountry and all it has to offer. You can either find us outside or planning our next adventure. Check out some of our adventures on our YouTube channel and see what we are up to between adventures on our Instagram account.

Facebook: Alex Merwin

Instagram: Tents and Timber

YouTube: Tents and Timber

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