May 27, 2010 at 2:15 pm #1259525
West Coast Trail (British Columbia, Canada)
May 9-11, 2010
My buddy Marc Lindenbach and I tackled the West Coast trail earlier this month and got through it in just over 48 hours from start to finish. We started on the morning of the 9th and finished on the morning of the 11th. This is the first trip report I’ve written up on BPL, so I’ll try and categorize everything for ease-of-reading:
Marc and I drove to the trailhead at Bamfield from Calgary, Alberta. Including the ferry, this made for a 16-hour drive out. The two options to thru-hike this trail are North-to-South, or South-to-North. Because we were trying to get through this trail pretty quickly, we planned to finish at the car so that we wouldn’t need to be done at a specific time of day. Parking at the North end (Bamfield) provided the easier option for driving in/out, and would also allow us to get through the toughest section of trail at the start. After parking at the Bamfield trailhead and camping at Pacheena Bay the first night, we caught the WCT Express Bus, which drove us down to Port Renfrew.
For such a short trail (75-77km depending who you ask) there are a lot of logistical considerations hikers have to make to hike the WCT. This trail is incredibly popular, and during peak season (June 15-Sept 15) you’ll have to book a reservation in order to guarantee starting on the day of your choice. Otherwise, you may have to wait around at the trailhead for a few days in order to get a walk-on permit.
From May 1st to June 14th and from Sept. 16-30, there is no need to reserve your permit ahead of time. Obviously, we were in the first window. It was nice not having to reserve, and obviously shoulder season means the trails are less crowded.
The downsides of shoulder season hiking? The trail maintenance won’t be up to the same standards as in peak season, and the weather is a bit more of a gamble. Also, the ferries, and buses are on more sporadic schedules and the trail towns of Bamfield and Port Renfrew have fewer amenities open.
The WCT has mandatory orientation sessions in order to obtain your permit. These sessions are held three times daily at each end’s trail office: 9:30am, 1:00pm, and 3:30pm. If you want to get an early start, you can attend the 3:30pm session the day before you hit the trail. The folks at the trail office were nice enough to let us take the 9:30am session the day before we started, and at the wrong trailhead. I think that flexibility is another plus-side of doing this trail in shoulder season, when there aren’t many hikers doing the trail.
As far as guide books and resources, “Blisters and Bliss” by David Foster and Wayne Aitken is probably the most popular. At your orientation, you’ll receive a Pacific Rim Nat’l Park map, and they will tape your tide tables to the map. This trail is pretty tough to get lost on, but the guide book is useful for detailing beach access points, water sources, different camping options, etc. so I would recommend checking it out.
Day One- Gordon River to Walbran Creek
Everyone will tell you that the South section of the trail is the most challenging. This is absolutely correct. From the moment you hit the trail (you need to take a ferry from the trail office to the trail head) you’ll encounter the gnarliest terrain of the whole trail. We carefully moved over slick rocks and roots and soon hit the first ladders of the trail. These ladders would prove to be an integral part of the trail. In some cases, they extended for up to 50 rungs, and I’m sure we climbed up and down the equivelant of a skyscraper by the time all was said and done.
We bumped into some hikers who were nearing the end of their trip, and they were eager to know how the Vancouver Canucks were doing in the playoffs. Unfortunately, we’d been on the road for a couple days and had no clue. They warned us about some mud and a broken cable car, and we kept moving.
Not long after this, I tweaked my right knee stepping over a downed tree. This stayed pretty painful for the rest of the trip, but I minimized the pain by keeping the right leg as straight as possible and leading with my left over steps, ladders and trees.
In total, we hiked for a solid 12 or 13 hours the first day, and stopped to camp at Walbran Creek. This site was right on the beach, and provided some great views. The Cable Car at Walbran Creek was broken (the hikers who asked about the Vancouver Canucks apologetically admitted to derailing it!) so I set my alarm for 4am the next day in order to coincide with low tides. We had totally lucked out with the weather on day one, with warm sun and temps around 16 degrees Celsius.
Day Two- Walbran Creek to Michigan
After filling up our bottles further up the creek, we crossed it and started hiking along the beach. After spending the previous day crawling through the technical inland trails at half the speed of smell, the ability to go on autopilot and motor along the beach was a welcome relief!
Before we knew it, a small dog was running up to us and we had arrived at Chez Monique’s, a small makeshift restaurant run by an awesome older lady named, go figure, Monique. Despite being in the middle of a speedy hike, we also wanted to take the time to enjoy the trail and soak up the whole experience, so we stopped for a few cups of coffee and some interesting conversation with Monique herself. She’s running a small organic farm at her restaurant and takes university agriculture courses during the winter months.
As we neared the boat crossing at Nitinat Narrows, I observed a huge heap of bear evidence on the trail. As we went through the brush, we were sure to make lots of noise. We had heard from some hikers the previous day that they’d seen a black bear cub near this area. As we neared the water, there was a loud rustling in the bush. I grabbed my bear spray and got ready. Much to my relief, it was the boat operator’s Labrador retriever! (And much to the dog’s relief, I realized this before bear-spraying him!)
The rest of our day saw a combination of beach and inland trail, some more ladders, a couple cable cars and some amazing views. We considered hiking right out that evening, but opted to camp at Michigan instead. This way, we’d get off the trail in the mid-morning and be able to start the drive back at a reasonable hour.
Day Three- Michigan to Pacheena Bay Trailhead (Finish)
We got up early again and started the trek out. For the first time on our trip, we were getting some light rain. After motoring along the beach for the first part of the day, we finished with a few hours of inland trails. For your reference, we noticed that the kilometer-markers close to the North end of the trail seemed pretty close together. We zipped through this section pretty quickly.
The first thing we did upon finishing was run ahead to check Marc’s car- This area has had some major issues with vehicle smash-in’s. Luckily, everything was kosher.
We started the drive back and enjoyed some McDonald’s along the way. We hadn’t really planned where to sleep on the way back, but were lucky enough to sweet-talk an RV Park owner into letting us pitch our tents on her property. Unfortunately, at 20 feet from a highway with all kinds of engine-retardant brakes screeching, it still wasn’t the greatest sleep I’ve ever had!
Gear and Food
As some have hinted to on these forums before, I don’t think the WCT lends itself towards going super light. Marc used his Osprey Talon 33 pack, and I took my Talon 44. We both used trimmed-down ZLite pads. Marc used his hammock at the trail heads, and pitched its tarp for shelter while on the trail. My shelter was the Mountain Hardwear Helion 2. Marmot’s Helium EQ (-9 down with a waterproof face fabric) was my sleeping bag. Some weight was saved by not bringing a stove or cooking system. As far as footwear, I wore Montrail’s Sabino Trail Mid GTX. I’m a big fan of this shoe. 15.6oz isn’t a bad weight for a waterproof mid, and these things flex just like a trail runner.
I left my rain pants in the car, and the DWR finish on Arc’Teryx’s Palisade pant more than sufficed. One item I brought but never used were my gaiters. Most hikers take 5-8 days to do the WCT, and if I were to spend that long out there, I’d have been more concerned about keeping my pants dry and mud-free, but it wasn’t a big concern.
Food was pretty predictable; Lots of beef jerky, pepperoni sticks, chocolate-covered peanuts, dried fruit, granola and clif bars, etc.
Due to the weather you can experience on the trail, how exposed most parts of it are, and the fact that there are only three exit-points, I wouldn’t recommend going unreasonably lightweight on this trail. However, with all the technical sections, ladders, etc. I believe it would be equally hazardous to carry more weight than necessary.
All in all, this hike was a fantastic experience, and I think it’s one of those “must-do” trips in the Pacific Northwest. Any questions, feel free to PM me. Cheers!
-Colin MatthewsMay 29, 2010 at 1:31 pm #1615089
thank you for this nicely written trip report.
it seems that you guys got lucky with the weather.May 29, 2010 at 1:41 pm #1615093
Great pics. I finished the trail on the 15th of this month and we also lucked out with the weather. We went from Gordon to Logan on the first day, took it easy and went to Cribs and then hiked from Cribs to Pachena (42km!).
…then we turned around and hiked back!
Great time and glad you guys did not encounter a ton of rain. Last year it was quite a different experience for us.May 29, 2010 at 2:34 pm #1615105
Stefan- Yes, definitely got lucky with the weather. It's rare to be that dry anytime on the WCT, let alone in early May!
David- That's bad-ass that you guys yo-yo'd the trail in shoulder season!
That's a pretty unconventional timeline you followed on the way out, what inspired the sudden jump in mileage on the third day? Was there a bear chasing you?!
ColinMay 29, 2010 at 4:48 pm #1615130
Ha – no bears. What had happened is that we decided to explore the tidal shelf and took longer than we should have. After Moniques we only had 2 hours to get to NitNat and having done the trail before, there is no place to camp if you miss the boat. So we lounged around at Cribs and played in the ocean. Unfortunately that meant we had to add 16KM to the next day to make up our required time line. Not recommended as that was a very, very long day!
5th time for me. I just love that area.Jun 4, 2010 at 8:11 pm #1616911
@tomclarkLocale: East Coast
VERY cool hike, with lots of diversity and sights. My favororite photos was of the coastline before your tent photo.
Do you think it was really necessary to have the (huge) ladders?
TomJun 11, 2010 at 9:30 am #1618989
Thanks! There were a lot of insanely scenic areas on this trail and I was worried it wouldn't come across in the photos, but a couple of them turned out not bad.
Interesting question about the ladders. I think the trailbuilders on the WCT go with the ladders because they require less upkeep, are more durable with the large crowds the WCT attracts and are pretty reliable in all forms of weather.
I suspect the "less upkeep" part is especially important, with the remote nature of this trail. Because of all the rain and winter storms, I couldn't see the usual alternatives of fixed ropes or rock steps lasting very long.
The other nice thing about the ladders is they allow hikers to gain/lose elevation very quickly, so the trail can take you a combination of high and low. With so many beach-access points, it would take kilometres of trail to gain the elevation a few steep ladders can do.
But yeah, they were a pretty wacky experience to climb! My preference on most trails would be to keep the man-made features to a minimum, definitely.
Thanks again,Jun 14, 2010 at 12:50 pm #1619926
Did you take in Thrasher at the start ? I know you have to time the tides right to get around the point. Last year we did it North to South and missed the tide so took to the woods. This year we are going South to North…48 hrs. is impressive. I agree it is a great trip, especially the lighter you travel.Jun 14, 2010 at 1:14 pm #1619931
You mean Owen's Point between Thrasher and Camper. You need really low tides, which generally means early in the morning. If you like scrambling over VW Beetle sized boulders you will love this….;)Jun 26, 2010 at 3:59 pm #1623626Jun 29, 2010 at 8:08 pm #1624718
We lucked out with the wind. The first night was perfectly still and just slight winds the second night. The tarp was Marc's, and it's part of his hammock set-up. Not sure if that thing would have been ideal in strong winds. My tent (MHW Helion 2) does super well in the wind.
Interesting to hear your feedback about taking the beach on the South section. We stayed inland that whole part, which was a slog, but I had suspected the beach would present it's own obstacles! Was it scenic at least?
Cheers!Jun 30, 2010 at 2:10 pm #1624968Jul 2, 2010 at 1:39 pm #1625789
@ryancommonsLocale: Bay Area, California
Thanks for the great trip report. The pics are the best I've seen. I know where I'm going on my next big trip.
RSCAug 17, 2010 at 3:51 pm #1638179
@jennjayeLocale: West Coast British Columbia
I have booked my trail permit to begin the trail September 2nd, after reading you post and seeing picures I am just that much more excited to go, and a bit nervous as well, I am a girl :) I was wondering if you could offer any clarification on getting to the trail heads, we had considered the West Coast Express but it is quite costly and the trail is already expensive to hike. We were planning to hike from North to South, I was hoping you may have a suggestion possibly as we will be coming over from Vancouver on the ferry. I appreciate your time and very much enjoyed your post and pictures.Aug 27, 2010 at 10:48 am #1640996Aug 28, 2010 at 8:39 pm #1641287
Mike shared some great info above. Like he implied, there aren't a lot of cheaper options. The bus seems like a bit of a rip-off, but for what you get it's actually pretty good value.
A key decision will be if you want to start or finish at your car. For my trip, we weren't sure what time of day we'd be getting off the trail, so finishing at the car was the best option.
I've heard vehicle break-ins are an issue, but if you're really careful about not leaving things laying around in your car, I personally think you can save some money here by just parking at the trailhead.
If I think of anything else that might be helpful, I'll post it up.
Don't worry about the trail, you can definitely handle it. Some of the literary and web resources make it sound a lot gnarlier than it is. There is some varied terrain but at the end of the day, it's still just putting one foot in front of the other (or above the other, in the case of the ladders :)
ColinAug 28, 2010 at 10:48 pm #1641302
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