Friday, 26 September 2014

Juan de Fuca Marine Trail/West Coast Trail/North Coast Trail Comparison

Having now hiked what I consider to be Vancouver Island's version of the Triple Crown, I thought I might write a bit of a comparison between the three hikes.  I should point out that most of the stuff in this post is going to just be my opinion.  It might be helpful to people trying to pick a hike on the island, and then again, it might just be boring rambling.

I should also mention that the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail (JDFT) and the North Coast Trail (NCT) are still fairly fresh in my head as I just finished them a few weeks ago, whereas the West Coast Trail (WCT) is a bit foggier as I did it a few years ago.

For the purposes of this post, I will be including the Cape Scott Trail as part of the NCT, simply because almost everyone who hikes the NCT will need to hike it and it constitutes a full day of hiking.

My intention in this post is not to pick a favourite or least favourite hike of the three, since I don't know that I could honestly do that.  They are all different experiences, and they are all worth doing.  I would be prepared to do any of the three again.


The JDFT is the shortest of the three trails at 47 km.  It is the trail that requires the least amount of time to complete.  I think it is fair to say it takes 3 to 5 days to complete.  I did it in 3 days without having to be all that time conscious.

The WCT is the longest of the trails at 75 km.  I would say that 5 to 7 days is a reasonable time frame to complete the trail.  I did it in 5 days which was pretty tough.

The NCT is technically the shortest at 43.1 km, but factoring in the Cape Scott Trail it becomes around 58.1 km.  I would actually say it is the trail that takes the most time to complete.  I would say 6 to 8 days is a decent time frame to complete the hike.  I did it in 6 days with a day off in the middle.

I think anyone who has hiked the WCT can add 1 day onto their hiking time if they were looking at hiking the NCT.


This should probably be the most straight forward section since it is generally agreed that the NCT is the hardest of the three and the JDFT is the easiest.  However, I'm not sure that I entirely agree with that.  The gap in difficulty between the trails, while present, isn't as big as I thought it would be.

The JDFT is the easiest, largely due to the short length.  The trail is mostly easy to follow, there are no ladders present on it, no cable cars, the boardwalks are in excellent condition, and the trail is fairly well cleared with the least tree roots to climb over.  There are still challenges in a few extremely muddy sections, some slippery stairs, a couple of muddy ropes (which are in worse condition than the NCT ropes) and a very physically demanding stretch from Bear Beach to Sombrio Beach.  In my opinion, Bear to Sombrio is more physically difficult than any section on the WCT or NCT.  That's not to say the other trails don't have more dangerous or technically difficult sections, but the Bear to Sombrio stretch is the stretch of trail that wore me out the most.

The WCT has the same muddy sections and tree roots as the other two trails.  The section from Pachena Bay to Camper Bay is not really that difficult, fairly comparable to most of the JDFT.  The trail does have a lot of ladders to go up and down, but I think their difficulty is a little overstated.  There are also 5 cable cars on the trail, though some of them are pretty easy to skip.  I think that the section from Camper Bay to Thrasher Cove is what gives the WCT its reputation as being an incredibly difficult trail.  In my opinion, this stretch of trail is the most overall difficult section out of the three trails.  It isn't as physically draining as Bear to Sombrio on the JDFT, but it has what feels like a minefield of fallen trees to go over and under.  When things are wet and slippery, this section is not just tough, but also really dangerous.

The WCT is also the trail where you have to be the most aware of tide levels.  This can make things more difficult, as missing a low tide can mean either a long wait or a dangerous wade.

I think the NCT as a whole is harder than the WCT, but I don't think it has a section as difficult as Camper to Thrasher.  The mud in Cape Scott Park is very well documented, and can make it impossible to travel faster than 1 km/h.  I think, like the ladders on the WCT, the difficulty of the ropes on the NCT are a bit overstated.  The ropes are in excellent condition, and I don't believe gloves are necessary to use them.  The boardwalks on the NCT are probably in the best shape if I was comparing boardwalks across the three trails.  I also think the cable cars on the NCT are a bit easier than the WCT, but then again, there are only 2 of them.


The JDFT has lots of camping at all of the beaches.  I can imagine that in the summer it could be difficult to find a campsite, or at least a solitary campsite.  There are a few places you could stealth camp on the trail, but it would mostly be limited to the designated campsites.  The outhouses at the campsites are stocked with toilet paper and hand sanitizer which is an added bonus.

The WCT has the most potential for stealth camping.  Even when I hiked it at a fairly busy time of year, I spent a couple of nights on beaches that I more or less had to myself.  The composting outhouses at the campsites are a nice touch.

Camping on the NCT is limited almost entirely to the designated camping areas.  The tent pads at the campsites are extremely well constructed and are handy for keeping sand off of your tent.  The outhouses are stocked with toilet paper.


Given that they essentially run into each other, the JDFT and WCT have very comparable scenery.  The JDFT has quite a few interesting rock formations and cliffs present at its beaches, but they aren't as dramatic and rugged as the ones on the WCT.  There are some amazing and colourful tidal pools at Botanical Beach, and Sombrio Beach is as picturesque of a cobble beach as you could find.  The forest you hike through has some areas that feel like old-growth, but a lot of it feels like secondary forest, recovering from logging.  As a result, you see more deciduous trees than on the WCT or NCT.

The wildlife on the JDFT is more habituated than on the other trails.  This is a little scary, and there have been incidents of bear and cougar attacks in the area.

Of the three trails, it feels like the JDFT stays within view of the ocean the most, which is a big bonus.  You are constantly accompanied by the sound of pounding surf.  On the other hand, you are often close enough to the highway to hear traffic.  In addition to many views of the ocean, the trail also grants many views of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.

The WCT has the most dramatic rock formations of the trails.  As it is the longest trail, it also has the most variety in scenery.  Most of the forest you hike though is old growth, but there are still a couple of areas that you can tell are in recovery.  Wildlife viewing is a bit restricted, as the heavy usage of the trail tends to scare some of the animals off.

One feature that is a bit unique to the WCT is the shipwreck debris you find on it.  It is nicknamed the "Graveyard of the Pacific" for a reason after all.  While it is a bit morbid, it is still interesting to see the old ship parts and donkey engines scattered all over the place.

The NCT doesn't have the same rocky terrain as the other two trails, but it makes up for it with some of the most picturesque and pristine sand beaches imaginable.  Nissen Bight particularly is a real treat.  The trail also boasts untouched old-growth forests.  These ancient forests have a mystical quality to them, and definitely add to the unique experience of the NCT.

Given how isolated the NCT is, the wildlife here is abundant, and is truly wild.  There are bears, cougars, and wolves in the area.  To be able to observe these animals in their natural habitat is amazing.  I wasn't granted the good fortune of seeing any on my trip, but I know it is the trail with the most potential for wildlife encounters.


The JDFT is the least expensive trail to hike out of the three.  It is also the easiest to plan.  There are many entrance and exit points on the trail, and since the whole thing is along the same highway, a 2 car set up would be really easy to do.  Even without a second vehicle (or a first vehicle in my case) the West Coast Trail Express allows for pretty easy access to the various trailheads.  I should mention that the China Beach parking lot is infamous for vandalism, and I would not ever leave my vehicle there.  Outside of the standard camping fees, there is nothing else in the park that you have to pay for.  Water is abundant on the trail.  I rarely carried more than 500 mL with me on the trail.

The WCT can be a logistical nightmare, just because you need a trail permit (which is expensive) and they restrict how many hikers can start each day.  Accessing the northern terminus requires driving on some very rough logging roads.  These roads also slow the shuttle bus down (sometimes by as much as 2 hours).  Water is mostly not a problem on the trail, but there are a couple of stretches where it is hard to come by.

There are two places on the trail where you can purchase food and beverages, though it is pretty expensive.  The trail also has only one place where you can get off of it (and it isn't the most convenient location), so if you decide to hike the WCT, you pretty much have to hike the whole thing.

Unless you are planning on doing an in-and-out hike of the NCT from the parking lot, you have to get either a boat or a float plane to drop you off at Shushartie Bay.  This can be a bit pricey, especially if you can't pick a time when other people are going (so the costs get split).  The trail is extremely isolated, with no places you could get off of it.  If you start at Shushartie Bay, you have no choice but to hike all the way through.

The NCT is isolated enough that if you got injured, it could take days before you were found.  For this reason, it is not necessarily the best trail to hike alone (though I hiked it solo).

Outside of the camping fees, there are no fees for permits or anything else.  Water can be a challenge on the trail.  There are a couple of places where you have to more or less hike for a full day before you get to another water source.


The JDFT is perfect for day hikes and short trips.  Given the number of access points on it, hiking it does not require committing to doing the whole thing.  Because of this, as well as the easier nature of the trail, I think it is ideal for novice hikers.  I also think it serves as excellent preparation for some of the harder hikes on the island.  It may not be as spectacular as the other two hikes, but it is definitely worth doing.

The WCT is an amazing experience, and deserves its status as one of the most famous hikes in the world.  The downside to its fame is that it is a really overcrowded trail, so people who are put off by crowds probably won't enjoy it.  Busyness of the trail aside, it is a true challenge and offers some spectacular scenery.  I don't think a person has to be an expert hiker to do the trail, though I think some experience is a good idea.

The NCT is a unique experience unlike anything I have ever done.  It is a true wilderness adventure.  It is very grueling and challenging, but it is well worth the difficulty.  I think anyone considering the NCT should definitely have the WCT on their resume, or at least another difficult island hike.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Juan de Fuca Marine Trail Day 3: Payzant Creek to Botanical Beach

I woke up to to find one of the most frightening things I have ever seen: a fresh pile of cougar scat, right next to my tent.  For once, the rustling I heard at night was not just a squirrel!  I knew immediately that I would never be able to comfortably sleep in a tent again.

I took my tent down one last time, taking care not to get the scat on the tent.  I was a touch conflicted since I wanted to get a late start, as my shuttle was leaving Port Renfrew at 5:00 PM and I didn't want to be waiting in town for too long, but I didn't want to linger in the woods, knowing there was potentially a cougar on the prowl.

I left around 10:30 PM and started on the last 7 km of the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail.  I came to a junction where a trail to "Providence Cove" split off.  I was already well ahead of schedule, so I took this side trail.  The trail itself was very overgrown and bushy, but it was well worth the little trek.  Providence Cove was a really nice location, probably one of the highlights of the trail in my opinion.

Providence Cove
Back on the main trail, I began to make the same realization I had made on the North Coast Trail: I was extremely close to completing the Juan de Fuca Trail without having a single fall!  This seemed very impressive, especially for a guy who calls himself "Clueless Hiker".  Naturally, right around the time I started thinking this, I got my foot caught in a tree root and had a spectacular fall, nearly going off the trail into some very pokey looking bushes.  This fall was definitely hard enough to make up for my lack of falling from the previous couple of weeks.

The rest of my hike was fairly uneventful.  I could soon see Botanical Beach coming into view, and I knew my hike was almost over.  The trail stayed pretty easy, with lots of sections covered with boardwalk.  I nearly had another fall on a boardwalk which would have been really embarrassing.

I came to the last kilometer of the trail, where the Botany Bay Loop split off.  I hiked down to Botanical Beach, and then hiked the long way to the parking lot, passing by Botany Bay.  In my opinion, this area was the single nicest and most scenic area on the entire Juan de Fuca Trail.  The area had some very vivid colours and fascinating rock formations.

Botanical Beach

Botany Bay

After passing Botany Bay, the trail widened out and began a gentle climb to the parking lot.  Looking at my clock, I was even further ahead of schedule than I had anticipated, so I knew I was going to have a very long wait in Port Renfrew.  At least I could look forward to a hot and filling meal.

I finally reached the end of the trail, completing my North Coast Trail/Juan de Fuca Trail double hike.  I was exhausted, but I definitely was glad I took on this challenge.  It was extremely fulfilling and rewarding, and gave me chance to see parts of the province I hadn't seen before.

Posing with the last km

At the trail head
I wasn't technically done yet, as I had a couple of kilometers to walk on the road into Port Renfrew.  Somehow, this ended up being the hardest kilometers of the entire trip.  The hard pavement did more damage to my feet than over one hundred kilometers of rugged coastal hiking.  This is why I could never pull a Forrest Gump and go across the continent.

In Port Renfrew I went to the Coastal Kitchen Cafe, the same restaurant me and my Dad went to when we finished the West Coast Trail.  The food was just as good as I had remembered.  After eating, I went to wait for the shuttle bus.  A local told me the bus was going to be a couple of hours late, so I went for a bit of a walk around Port Renfrew, going to the West Coast Trail registration office and back.  It sucked having to wait, but there was a multitude of blackberries that were just waiting to be picked, so that made the time fly.

The bus eventually showed up and drove me back to Victoria.  The next day I departed for Princeton, having to take three buses, two skytrains, and a ferry.  It was easily the most stressful day of my trip.  I felt like something was destined to go wrong, but everything went smoothly (though I did get a good scare when I saw that the normal trains were not stopping at the Main Street station in Vancouver).

The whole trip was one of the best experiences of my life, and I am definitely glad I did it.  I have a special appreciation for Vancouver Island now, and want to return in the future to hike more of it (perhaps the Nootka Trail, or the Spine Trail when it is finished).

Riding off into the sunset

Juan de Fuca Marine Trail Day 2: Chin Beach to Payzant Creek

Day 2 had the same clear blue skies I had enjoyed on the previous day.  There was no moisture on my tent, from fog, dew, condensation, or anything else.  This made for one of the most painless tent tear downs I had experienced in a while.

I had breakfast and headed out.  My final destination for the day was the campsite at Payzant Creek, 19 km away.  The strenuous section of the trail was supposed to continue until Sombrio Beach, so I had another 8 km of hard ups and downs to look forward to.

Chin Beach
After hiking the rest of Chin Beach, the trail headed inland, and I was immediately greeted with the same hard terrain that had nearly killed me on the previous day.  The days of hiking that were behind me had started to really pile up, and fatigue set in incredibly early.  At one point, my pace was slow enough that I was debating either stopping at Parkinson Creek, or hiking through the night.

Luckily, I got my second wind and got back on schedule.  I hit an area with quite a number of wasp nests, though many of them were marked, presumably by much less fortunate hikers.

I reached the Loss Creek Suspension Bridge, the highest and longest of the four suspension bridges on the trail.  The views on it were stunning, and again I considered myself lucky to not have to cross it in the rain.  The wind seemed to pick up a bit as I crossed it and there was a brief moment of fear in which I questioned the structural integrity of the bridge, but I managed to cross it, acrophobia and all.

Loss Creek Suspension Bridge

After more hard climbs and descents, I ran into a pretty easy patch of trail, where again it seemed to be on an old road.  After a bit of hiking on this, the trail got on top of a little ridge which it followed down to another strenuous section.

The trail soon got within view of Sombrio Beach, one of the most popular spots on the trail.  I stayed pretty close to the coast line as the trail worked its way to the beach.  I had a couple of near falls on some slippery rocks, but otherwise it seemed like the hard part of my hike was reaching an end.

Sombrio Beach in the distance

The trail went over the stream feeding a little waterfall.  The stream was low enough that I was able to get off the trail and stand right at the top of the waterfall.  It wasn't much more than a little trickle, but it was still worth the side trip.

On top of the waterfall

I came out to Sombrio Beach and could tell that it was the most popular camping spot in the area.  There were quite a few tents up, but it seemed like a big enough beach that it wouldn't be that hard to find a private camping spot.  I considered it to be the nicest and most scenic beach I had seen on the Juan de Fuca Trail so far.  I took a break on the beach to have lunch (in which I cleaned up my very expired hummus).

Sombrio Beach

As I continued along the beach, I missed the cut off to the inland trail that went to the suspension bridge over the Sombrio River.  The river was low enough that it was an easy ford, but the completionist in me had to find and cross the bridge.  I picked up the trail on the other side of the river, found the bridge, and then crossed it twice.  There was really no point to this, but it was going to irritate me incessantly if I didn't do it.

Sombrio River Suspension Bridge

I was soon back on what the map described as "moderate" trail.  It certainly wasn't as endurance-testing as the chunk from Bear Beach to Sombrio Beach, but there were still lots of muddy sections to contend with.

I was a bit disappointed that I wouldn't hit another sizable beach until the end of the trail at Botanical Beach.  The trail stuck close to the ocean, so it didn't seem to leave my view for long, but aside from the occasional short jaunt on some rock shelves, I was basically in the woods the rest of the way.

Good old mud

Minute Creek Suspension Bridge

I passed the Parkinson Creek parking lot and ended up on an actual road for a short time.  I wondered very briefly if I had missed the trail and was on a private property, but the trail went into the trees pretty quickly.

I hiked through a very dense forest where it managed to block out enough sunlight that it felt like it was already dusk.  I'm not sure if this was the result of coniferous trees beginning to overtake a deciduous recovery forest, but whatever it was, it was an interesting effect.

I arrived at the Payzant Creek campsite.  It was pretty spread out and there were more sites than I had expected.  I found a spot I liked and set up my tent for the last time on my big Vancouver Island excursion.  I ate my two burritos which, despite being a bit squished, were not cold in the middle like the ones I had eaten on day 1.

I fell asleep pretty easily, though there was a bit of rustling around my tent at one point that woke me up.  I had discovered that I tended to exaggerate noises outside in my mind.  On the NCT these sounds were usually a bird or a squirrel, so I assumed that it was nothing.  It wasn't like a cougar had walked right up to my tent or something...

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Juan de Fuca Marine Trail Day 1: China Beach to Chin Beach

Just 2 days after finishing the North Coast Trail (NCT), I was on the West Coast Trail Express traveling from Victoria to China Beach.  I had wanted to do the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail (JDFT) for some time, but I had not really had a good opportunity until now.  Already making my hiking plans for 2015 and 2016, I knew that I probably wouldn't have another opportunity to do a big hike on Vancouver Island for a while, so I made the decision to do the NCT and JDFT back to back.

The JDFT is a 47 km long trail on the west coast of Vancouver Island.  It follows the Juan de Fuca straight, affording many great views of the Olympic Peninsula.  The southern terminus of the trail is at China Beach, while the northern end is at Botanical Beach, just outside of Port Renfrew.

The benefit to doing the JDFT after a pretty strenuous hike was that I was in peak physical condition, so I was able to cover a fair amount of ground.  Due to time constraints, I was only going to have 3 days to finish the trail, so being able to make big(ish) kilometers was going to be key.

I got dropped off on the highway at the turnoff to China Beach and hiked down to the parking lot.  I paid my camping fees and started down the trail.  I was a little sleepy, so I didn't realize that the trail wasn't going to actually go to China Beach, so I ended up missing out on it.  I've heard it is a really nice beach, so I guess it gives me something to return to the area for.

The trailhead

Me posing at the trailhead
It became apparent fairly quickly that this was going to be a very different experience from the NCT.  The trail meandered through fairly flat terrain in what seemed like a secondary forest.  The trees were not packed together all that tightly, and there was not the same abundance of shade-loving plants like ferns that I had seen in other parts of Vancouver Island.

The one thing that made it very, very clear that this was not exactly a true wilderness experience was the sounds of the highway in the background.  It got quieter as I progressed along the trail, but I could faintly hear it most of the way to Mystic Beach.

A bit of hiking brought me to the first of four suspension bridges on the trail.  I was impressed by the bridge; it seemed very sturdy and well put-together.  I was fairly certain however, that it would be awful to try to cross in the rain.  It struck me that it could get very, very slippery.  Fortunately I was surrounded by bright blue, cloudless skies, so that wasn't even a remote concern for me.

In what seemed like no time, I was at Mystic Beach, 2 km into the trail.  The early morning mist was still lifting, so it gave the beach a very eery appearance.  I spent some time exploring the beach, fascinated particularly with the cliffs that lined it.

Mystic Beach

I hiked along the beach, eventually getting on an inland trail again.  The trail remained fairly easy as I worked my way towards Bear Beach.  While the section of the hike leading to Mystic Beach had been in the woods with little in the name of views of the ocean, this section never strayed too far from the coast, so I had many glimpses of the ocean and Olympic Mountains.

Two trees uprooted

I encountered my first very small section of mud, but otherwise the trail to Bear Beach was pleasant and went by quickly.  My goal for the day was to make it to Chin Beach, 21 km in.  So far I was on pace to be there around 3:00 pm or so.  Given how easy the trail was, I knew I wouldn't have any difficulty getting there.

I emerged at Bear Beach and had lunch.  I still had my same tub of hummus from the NCT, and at this point, it had definitely started to go a bit funny.  I was too cheap to buy a new tub, so I made do with my expiring hummus.

After lunch, I hiked down Bear Beach, back to the inland trail.  I was a little surprised at how long the beach was.  At one point I thought I might have missed the cut-off because I was still in NCT mentality and was expecting something not necessarily well marked.  Fortunately, the JDFT cut-offs are really, really obvious, so I managed to find the trail pretty easily.

Bear Beach

Back on the inland trail I looked at my map of the JDFT.  The section from here to Sombrio Beach was marked as "difficult", whereas the section I had completed was marked as "moderate".  I couldn't imagine the trail being all that difficult, so I trudged on with a touch of overconfidence.

In no time at all, any thoughts I had about being in peak physical condition were gone as the trail made long and steep ascents and descents, over and over again, kilometer after kilometer.  I was running out of breath faster and faster as I realized that this terrain was almost definitely steeper than anything on the NCT, and maybe even the West Coast Trail.  The trail itself was well constructed, so there weren't the same roots and fallen trees to climb over, but it still felt as challenging as some parts of the other two trails.

I soon realized that I was going at a slow enough pace that I likely wouldn't make Chin Beach until 5:00 PM.  This section was strenuous enough to put me 2 hours off the pace I had been on before.

I continued pounding out the PUDS (pointless ups and downs) until I reached Chin Beach.  I located the food cache and tried to find a campsite as close to it as possible.  I set up my tent and spent a bit of time watching the ocean.  Bored by the rice meals that had been my staple on the NCT, I had decided to experiment with frozen burritos on the JDFT.  I had hiked with them in my pockets for a few hours, but they were still a little frozen.  Still, it was nice to have a different dinner for a change.

I was tired enough that by about 7:00 PM I went to bed, knowing I had another 20 km day ahead of me and I would need all the rest I could get.

Chin Beach