The West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island has become world renowned for its spectacular scenery and ancient old-growth forests. Every year hundreds of hikers undertake the 75-kilometer stretch along the rugged coastline, which is one of Canada’s eco-tourism highlights.
However, there is another hike that is equally (if not more) challenging, and often gets overshadowed. The North Coast Trail is a relatively new 43-kilometer extension of the Cape Scott Trail on the very tip of Vancouver Island and, in total, it travels 61 kilometers through the dense wilderness of some of the roughest and most fertile coastal rainforest in B.C., ranging from the wind-bruised walls of Sitka spruce to centuries-old pale cedars climbing above the canopy.
In a landscape that has a year-round growing cycle, keeping the trail accessible is an almost impossible feat, and hikers can expect to get dirty trekking through the long expanses of gummy black mud and across the dozens of fallen logs lying in the path like hurdles. Let’s not forget the parts of the trail that require hikers to hoist themselves up heavy ropes anchored to the top of cliffs or pull themselves in cable cars across tannin-rich rivers. Basically, this trail is for adventure travelers and is not an everyday family outing.
[Also see our travel article “Vancouver Island Travel Guide“]
But part of the appeal of the North Coast Trail is exactly that: unmitigated wilderness. The nearest town is Port Hardy and the trailhead at Shushartie Bay can only be reached via water-taxi or seaplane, meaning the trail can only be attempted in one direction. The sense of remoteness is compounded by the fact that, unlike the West Coast Trail, there is far less infrastructure, less chance of a rescue if things get sketchy, and most importantly, far fewer people. However, the elements that contribute to it being a challenging hike are equally matched by its beauty and wildlife. So there is in fact a reward for all of the hard work.
Unpopulated tracts of pristine beach and cloistered lakes yield almost guaranteed black bear sightings, and during the summer months gray whale pods return to their feeding grounds and can often be spotted just off the coast as they breach. Wolves, otters, and sea lions also abound, especially where the trail intersects with the shoreline.
During the 5-7 days it takes to complete the trail, it’s almost as if one reaches a harmony or accord with the natural world. Surrounded by animals and trees, there can be little doubt that this is an ancient place that predates even Canada’s First Nation peoples who once lived and hunted here.
For those brave enough and well prepared (a week’s worth of food, reliable rain gear and a sturdy tent are a must), the North Coast Trail will stand out as a truly memorable camping expedition. The exhilaration one feels when they finally reach the end – be sure to arrange for a shuttle back to Port Hardy – is measured not in kilometers or footsteps, but by the hardships endured with a companion, the laughter shared in the twilight of a tent, and the tears and smiles that come with a modern survival experience.