Port Renfrew and the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail

Last Tuesday, Nikki Bayley wrote an effusive article on Port Renfrew in the Globe and Mail. She raved about how “the awesome beauty” of the town on Vancouver Island, “at the end of the West Coast highway,” only two hours drive from Victoria, was like “Tofino 20 years ago.” It’s “pristine and untouched…” and to quote her hiking guide Drea Gibson “quiet and quaint and gorgeous.” I agree that “it’s the perfect break for city types seeking a West Coast experience without the crowds.”

Ms. Bayley visited Port Renfrew in the winter when she had “torrential rains” and “a sudden hailstorm,” and the town lived up to its nickname ‘Port Rainfrew.’ Although she describes her hike to Botanical Beach and another to visit ‘Canada’s Gnarliest Tree’ in Avatar Grove, the weather constrained her activities and her review has two glaring omissions.

The first is any mention of the two fabulous hiking trails which run north and south from Port Renfrew and which attract visitors to the area every summer. The other is that Port Renfrew may be “the end of Highway 14” but it is not “the end of the road.”

Port Renfrew is the southern terminus of the West Coast Trail which runs 75 kilometres north to Bamfield in Pacific Rim National Park. This controlled-access coastal route is one of the world’s greatest hikes: a spectacular trail on the beach, beside the beach, through rain forests, down and up numerous river banks, over many rivers, climbing ladders, riding cable cars, and hiking long moss-covered logs. It is remote, accessible only to those prepared to backpack and camp, and a challenge for even experienced hikers.

The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail runs 47 kilometres south from Botanical Beach near Port Renfrew to China Beach near Jordan River (west of Sooke). It is located in Juan de Fuca Provincial Park and, unlike the West Coast Trail, is readily accessible from several trailheads, provides ample opportunity for day hiking and, should you feel so inclined, offers the chance to camp on the beach or in the midst of a west coast rain forest. Like the more well-known WCT, this trail also originated as an old telegraph line and a life-saving route for survivors of the many off-shore shipwrecks.

The last time we were there, admittedly several years ago, we paid memorable visits via three trailheads: Mystic Beach near the south, Sombrio Beach in the middle, and Botanical Beach at the north end.

Mystic Beach is close to popular China Beach, but more remote, accessible by a winding rainforest trail, over a suspension bridge, and down cut logs, about 45 minutes to the beach. At the end of the trail, the beach offers white sand, rocks, hanging waterfalls, and a rock arch one can walk through at low tide. See this video of the trail and beach (shot by van der Valk Photo and Video). When there on a Saturday night, we shared the beach with students from Victoria. The next night, we had the beach and the cold waterfall-fed pool to ourselves.

Sombrio Beach, located at kilometre 29 of the Trail, is an easy ten-minute walk to the wide, cobble-covered beach, the remnants of squatters’ cabins, open ocean vistas, views of surfers on the waves and, if you are lucky, grey or humpback whales. When we hiked from Sombrio Beach to Little Kuiche Creek, we skirted acres of clearcut, a stark reminder that, but for the park, all trees in this area might well also have been cut. It seemed utterly surreal that, as close we actually were to the clearcut, we camped above a creek in a lush rain forest, the only campers in a pristine campsite.

Botanical Beach, near Port Renfrew, is a marvel which obviously impressed Nikki Bayley even in the dead of winter. No wonder. Located at the mouth of the Juan de Fuca Strait, the beach gets the full force of the open water and the tides. Flat granite and sandstone outcroppings form shale rock formations and crystal-clear “basins like miniature aquariums” full of rich marine flora and fauna. As described on the internet, “this crowded intertidal zone has animals normally seen only by scuba divers.” To access this treasure trove of marine life, visitors walk through a network of easy forested trails. The best time for viewing is at low tide of 1.2 meters (four feet).

In the old days, a gravel forestry road ran from Port Renfrew on the coast, inland some 54 kilometres to Lake Cowichan. Locals drive forestry roads all the time; visitors may well be intimidated by the idea of running across fully loaded logging trucks on a gravel road, especially when the trucks have priority. Now, that gravel road is paved and is considered part of the Pacific Marine Circle Tour. It’s an easy drive from Port Renfrew to Cowichan and to the Island Highway which leads south back to Victoria or up island to Nanaimo.

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