The West Coast Trail, or WCT, is located on the remote, west coast of Vancouver Island in Canada. A bucket-lister for hikers from all over the world, the trail has an unusual history.
As ship traffic increased in the late 1800s, so did the number of shipwrecks off the treacherous west coast of Vancouver Island. After 125 lives were lost in 1906 when the steamship Valencia sunk, the Pachena Lighthouse was built and the rugged telegraph route along the coast of the island was upgraded to become the Dominion Life Saving Trail.
The trail offered shelters stocked with supplies to aid shipwreck survivors. Known as ‘the Graveyard of the Pacific’ it is possible to see some of the 50 wrecks scattered along the WCT at low tide.
Thanks to advances in navigation technology, this trail was later made redundant and became a recreational-use trail in 1973, known as the West Coast Trail.
At 75 kilometres it is far from the longest trail on the continent but what it lacks in distance it more than makes up for in difficulty and thus requires careful preparation.
The route combines deep sand and mud, cable cars and ladders, river crossings, slippery boardwalks, the possibility of torrential rains and strong winds. Pair this with the fact that it is remote and hard to get to and you’d wonder why nearly 7,000 hikers flock here from all over the world each year.
The first draw is the sheer challenge of it and the second is its beauty. The West Coast Trail is British Columbia at its best, combining unrivalled scenery with an abundance of varied wildlife.
- The West Coast Trail offers the remnants of history that take you back through the footsteps of the First People.
- Get the opportunity to se wolves, black bears, eagles, cougars, humpback whales, seals, sea lions.
- Scenery ranges from dense forest, lakes, creeks and streams, waterfalls, beaches and caves, to lighthouses and rugged coastline.
The WCT is a thru-hike, so it is necessary to arrange your transportation to and from the entry and exit points.
Getting to the West Coast Trail can be a challenge in itself thank to its remote location. Most people fly into Vancouver airport, which has connecting domestic and international flights, and then head to Vancouver Island by ferry or by airplane.
Victoria, the island’s airport also offers some international flights and is about 27 kilometres from downtown Victoria, where most organised trips start. It is easy enough to jump in a taxi or one of the shuttles to cover this distance.
Ferries connect the Lower Mainland of British Columbia with Vancouver Island or if arriving from Washington State you can simply take the Coho Ferry to Victoria.
Note that there are 3 possible entry/ exit points to the trail: Pachena Bay (north), Nitinaht Village (mid-point), and Gordon River (south).
Most people take between five and seven days to cover the 75 kilometre route.
Even if you are in good physical shape, it’s possible that bad weather could impede your progress on some days.
Grade and difficulty of the walk
There are few trails that have such varied terrain as the West Coast Trail. Even the most seasoned of hikers will find parts of the route challenging as you are required to wade through rivers, negotiate steep slopes, climb ladders and use cable cars.
Due to its exposed location, it is not unheard of for structures on the trail to be unexpectedly damaged by storms and weather conditions can change quickly and dramatically.
Over one hundred visitors to the WCT need to be rescued every year. It is important to have extensive hiking experience, ideally with overnight trekking and be in good shape.
The route is in no way fit for anyone with physical impairments as you need to climb ladders and navigate rugged terrain and slippery log bridges with a mid-weight backpack on.
In order to hike all or half of the trail you must reserve your spot through the Parks Canada Website.
You should pay your WCT overnight user fee and secure a valid National Park Entry Pass before setting off. Even day hikers require a WCT Day Use Permit and a valid National Park Entry Pass. Day hikers must enter and exit the trail on the same day, at the same location.
Young people of 17 and under receive free entry to Canada’s National Parks.
Guided or Self-Guided
Many people choose to hike this trail with a tour group or guide. Tour groups typically have a maximum of eight guests with two guides to ensure everyone gets the most of the experience.
Going with a guide will give you peace of mind when crossing the harder sections and takes the hassle out of planning where to stop and what to carry.
Obviously this comes with a cost trade-off, with a one-week guided trip costing around $2,190 CAN per person.
As there is only one main route along the coast and plenty of maps and information online or on arrival, the trail can be completed self-guided. Just ensure to go in a group of three or more in case of injury or difficulty.
The trail is open May through September with hiking season confined to these five months due to the dangerously stormy weather during the winter.
In the summer days are longer, rain is lighter and winds are more forgiving. To keep the trail from becoming overcrowded, overnight hikers are limited to 75 per day so be sure to book your spot in advance.
It is possible to traverse the route in either direction. By starting in the south you complete the most difficult hiking whilst your legs are fresh but your pack will be heavier, filled with a week’s worth of supplies.
Below is a typical itinerary, going from Port Renfrew up to Bamfield. The exact itinerary and daily distances of your trip will be dictated by weather and group strength. Beware that some beach routes cannot be taken at high tide and you must know how to read a tide table (which can be downloaded online).
The best idea is to arrive at your start point the day before to pack up, get a map, finish preparing and do an orientation session if needed, before setting off around 6am.
- Day 1:
Travel from Victoria to Port Renfrew (km 0) and walk to Thrasher Cove – 6km
- Day 2:
Thrasher Cove to Camper Bay – 8km
- Day 3:
Camper Bay to Walbran Creek – 9km
- Day 4:
Walbran Creek to Cribs Creek – 11km
- Day 5:
Cribs Creek to Tsusiat Falls – 17km
- Day 6:
Tsusiat Falls to Michigan Creek – 13km
- Day 7:
Michigan Creek to Bamfield – 12km
Since 2018, all overnight West Coast Trail spots are now reservable.
The town of Bamfield is close to the Pachena Bay access point, and the town of Port Renfrew is close to the Gordon River access point, both offering lodges and campsites should you need accommodation in the area at the start/end of your trek.
Once on the trail you will have to stay in accommodation at the various campsites. These sites vary in terms of their offerings and scenic surroundings.
Some of them can get very crowded, so if you have a preference and are not going with a tour then be sure to book in advance.
The Vancouver Island region is overflowing with things to do – from marine activities and wildlife viewing, to shopping and festivals – there’s something for everyone.
Vancouver Island is home to a temperate rainforest in the Pacific Ocean and a biodiverse ecosystem that includes thousands of species of flora and fauna.
If wildlife is your natural element then you’ll be spoiled for choice with trips and tours to see eagles, whales, bears, seals, elk and marmots. If you’re lucky, it is possible you may even see these animals whilst on the trail.
If you want to unwind at the end of your hike, head to one of the island’s many spas. Treat yourself to a hot stone or aromatic massage just off Tofino beach or rejuvenate yourself with a mud scrub in Sooke.
Before you set off take a look at the upcoming festival calendar, with celebrations of everything from whales, flowers, art, wine, boats and beaches, to books, beer, cars, music and dance. If the weather is good then take to the water in a kayak or try snorkelling, diving or sailing at various points along the 3,340 kilometres of coastline.
|Starts at||Port Renfrew, BC V0S, Canada|
|Finishes at||Bamfield, BC, Canada|
|Length of route||75 Km|
|Average time to complete||5 - 7 Days|
|Possible to complete sub-sections||Yes|
|Highest point||230 metres|
|Equipment needed||Camping equipment, Poles if preferred, Trekking gear, walking boots|