The Juan de Fuca Trail
Hiking Vancouver Island's Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
This summer we hiked Vancouver Island's Juan de Fuca Trail. Just south of the more famous West Coast Trail, the Juan de Fuca offers a similar experience in a slightly smaller package. Following the stunningly rugged coastline, you'll see waterfall-carved canyons, grottos and gullies and groves of giant trees, wave-swept beaches, and — if you're lucky — plenty of iconic BC wildlife.
At 47km long , it can be hiked in as little as 2 days but we recommend 4 or even 5 days if you can spare them. There are some long and muddy sections, and despite starting and ending each day near sea level you can still experience substantial elevation gain. Besides, it's just nice to savour wild trails like these, to give yourself ample time to explore and enjoy the area.
Before you go:
The Juan de Fuca Trail is open all year, and the beaches most accessible to the highway (Mystic & Sombrio) can see heavy use throughout the shoulder seasons. But due to the severe weather the region can get, most hikers choose the warmer months from June to September. It can get quite busy on weekends, and all campsites are first-come first-serve, so start early if you want the choicest sites! And maybe avoid Chin Beach if you can... for some reason it acts like a bottleneck and is busy almost every night even when nicer beaches are almost empty.
It costs $10/person/night, which you can pay beforehand at the BC Parks' website. And they do check, so carry your permit(s)! If you plan on hiking the entire thing you'll want to start at either Botanical Beach or China Beach (the day use trailhead). The West Coast Trail Express can shuttle you between trailheads, making it easier logistically. We chose to park our car where we planned on finishing so we wouldn't have to rush the last day trying to time it right, but we met plenty of hikers who thought the other way was easier, so you do you. Hiking west-to-east, the bus picked us up at the pullout across from the China Beach Day Use parking lot and dropped us off at the Port Renfrew Pub, so we had an extra couple km to walk just getting to the Botanical Beach trailhead. I could definitely see the benefit of ending your hike at the pub.
It's predominantly a forest trail, but there are several times when you can choose to hike on the beach instead. These beach cutoffs aren't always easy to recognize however, and I'm sure we chose the more difficult forest routes several times when we could have been on the beach instead. Keep your eye out for big buoys and fishing floats strung up in the trees, as they often mark beach/trail access, and keep a tidal chart and map handy. Sometimes you need to hike in the forest, as rocky headlands and other sections can be cut off at high tide.
You'll of course want to bring a good rain jacket and a lightweight weatherproof tent. Trekking poles are popular due to the rain-slick logs and boardwalks, and gaiters can help keep the mud out of your boots (tho honestly most puddles can be avoided). There are pit toilets at all the main campsites, and most bathrooms even had toilet paper (but always bring some just in case). All drinking water needs to be treated, but the good thing is that water is so plentiful you'll only really need to carry one bottle. You can use driftwood for campfires on the beach, but as you'll likely also be camping in the forest you'll want to bring a stove for cooking.
Our favourite sections were probably Botanical Beach, East Sombrio, and the Loss Creek Suspension Bridge, but each section can feel very different depending on the weather. The only section we actively disliked was the long slog between Sombrio Point and Loss Creek, where the trail takes you up into the hills away from the coast and deep into dark lifeless second-growth forests. The best campsites were Sombrio and Bear Beach. The little fern gully canyon at Payzant was magical, as were the wave-carved caves and bluffs west of Bear, and of course all the old growth sections and the tangled salal tunnels. There's also a chance to see wildlife, including bears and whales, which can sometimes be spotted feeding just off the points. We saw two black bears feasting on mussels at low tide, and I think the best time to see whales is from March to April when the Grey whales are migrating between the Baja and the Bering Sea.
It's a beautiful trail. We definitely recommend it.