|Hiking in Paradise Meadows - Strathcona Park|
What’s the difference between walking and hiking? One can do plenty of both on Vancouver Island—from lovely urban strolls to massive wilderness journeys. Suffice to say that Vancouver Island is a paradise for all those wishing to extensively research walking and hiking, not to mention ambling, trekking, wandering, beachcombing, perambulating, promenading, striding and roaming.
Consider one extreme along this spectrum, the famous (perhaps even notorious) 5- to 7-day trek along the Island’s outer coast from Port Renfrew to Bamfield, the 75-kilometer West Coast Trail. This wilderness has never been touched by any road; bears not a single town, café, shelter, phone line (or cell tower) or piece of pavement of any sort. It is instead a rugged “trail,” first made more than a century ago for sailors to use when their ships had wrecked along this temperamental and remote coastline.
Today’s it’s one of the best-known and most-sought wilderness journeys in the world, a challenge even for experienced trekkers. (Permits must be acquired from Pacific Rim National Park officials, within whose boundaries the trail lies.) Along the way travelers will traverse long, wave-tossed sand beaches; climb steep rocky headlands; traipse through dense spruce-and-fir rainforest; balance on boardwalks and climb ladders up cliffsides; negotiate knee-deep mud and carefully calculate tide times so as not to be stranded between high points. Rain, wind, sleet, heat, sun, cloud, fog, mist and all weather varieties in between may be expected; whales, bears, wolves, eagles and more may be sighted; struggle is likely and a profound sense of accomplishment is certain. Whatever you use must travel on your back; whatever you desire must be predicted and arranged well in advance.
Few hikes anywhere are as famous, challenging and worthwhile as this. About 6,000 hikers a year complete the trail.
Now consider the other extreme, one of the finest urban promenades in North America, the Inner Harbour walkway in Victoria. One starts at a small park just down the street from the famous “Blue Bridge,” descends some steps, proceeds past the floatplane base that is the centre of the busiest such urban “airport” in the hemisphere; then past imposing granite steps and bulwarks below the Empress, one of our continent’s best-known hotels; then up beside the London-esque Parliament Buildings, and onward past two ferry docks and to a picturesque little headland past which an endless array of planes, yachts, ferries and other conveyances ply the sparkling waters. This is a lovely half-hour “hike.”
Less than 50 kilometers lies between the starts of these two paths, which is just a way of illustrating the variety of hiking territory we hold on Vancouver Island. The entire Island is more than 450 kilometers from tip to top, and along the way is almost every conceivable sort of hike—shoreline rambles, coastline scrambles, rainforest treks and alpine climbs. Whether one heads our from the road with a light daypack, or a fully-loaded mountain expedition pack, our landscape, terrain and vast parkland are open for exploration.
The West Coast Trail has a fine alternative farther back down the coast, in fact. The 47-kilometer Juan de Fuca Trail is a kinder, gentler coastal traverse that encompasses much of the shoreline in the provincial park of the same name, between Port Renfrew and China Beach, a lovely strand 35 kilometers west of Sooke. Here too are wave-ridden wilderness beaches, rocky headlands, deep old-growth spruce forest, dabbling brooks and vast ocean vistas—but the trail can be hiked in 4-5 days, and is significantly less strenuous and remote than its older, stiffer counterpart farther north. Smaller sample stretches of the trail can be ventured as day-hikes for those lacking wilderness trekking experience or ambition.
Another provincial park at the far north end of the Island offers hikers a lesser-known but equally appealing dichotomy. Cape Scott Park occupies a peninsula at the northwest verge of Vancouver Island that receives the brunt of many Pacific storms (year-round), is almost completely untracked wilderness, and lures experienced wildland trekkers seeking a lesser-known challenge that’s in many ways the equal of the West Coast Trail. Here adventurers find wild beaches, rocky headlands, deep old-growth forests, rushing streams, wild weather and wildlife—and far fewer people than on the West Coast Trail, which allows 60 hikers to depart the trailheads each day.
Cape Scott visitors not interested in hard-core wilderness treks can avail themselves of a gentle, 40-minute stroll through spruce woods down to San Josef Bay, surely one of the prettiest curving strands of sand in the world, clasped by twin points, shining ivory in the sun. Here you can amble for miles—literally—taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the sea and woods. The beach is a fabulous spot for a picnic lunch
Other great hikes on the Island range from a lovely 3-kilometer wander through the woods on Nanaimo’s Newcastle Island, making your way from oak prairie into old-growth and back; a half-hour walk along boardwalk at Meares Island, outside Tofino, to see the famous Hanging Garden Cedar, and immense 2,000-year-old tree; trekking through the alpine in Strathcona Provincial Park, which enfolds a vast chunk of the Island Central Range, including 440-meter Della Falls, highest in Canada; the Wild Pacific Trail, which loops along the headlands of Ucluelet; the Heritage Farm Trail at Ruckle Provincial Park on Salt Spring Island, which carries you past Cotswolds-esque farmlands; and the Cowichan Valley Trail, more than 100 kilometers of path winding through the woods, fields, vineyards and orchards of the Island’s sun-blessed “Warm Land.”
There are literally hundreds of other opportunities for everything from trekking to strolling, sometimes both in the same place. Each of the Island district’s 18 provincial parks has hiking paths that range from manicured trails to wilderness traces; most major cities and towns offer dedicated recreation trails; and a quiet walk along an old mountain road is just as fine as a major expedition into one of our rugged wildland parks. As Hippocrates put it, “Walking is humanity’s best medicine.” Our Island is a vast treasure house of that medicine.
|Low tide at Storey’s beach near Port Hardy|
It’s tempting to describe Port Hardy as “the end of the road” on Vancouver Island—after all, Highway 19 has its terminus here, at the BC Ferries dock across the bay from the town, after a 387-kilometer journey from its start in Nanaimo.
But road’s “end” is, first of all, a charming little city of 5,000 facing east above Hardy Bay, with sparkling waters and distant snowcapped mountains framing the scene. A pleasant stroll along the waterfront leads past parks and picnic grounds; a compact town museum illustrates Port Hardy’s edge-of-the-wilderness history, dating back to its millennia-old identity as a Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations homeland. Market Street, the main thoroughfare in the center of town, has a collection of galleries and shops offering First Nations art and other local crafts; as well as cafes, homey motels and small inns. The Quatse Salmon Stewardship Centre and Hatchery welcomes travelers to learn about the Pacific’s prized fisheries and how they are maintained.
And in reality this compact town on the north end of our Island is the starting point for many marvelous journeys, some of them coastal expeditions that comprise lifetime memories for travelers; some of them day trips to North Island sights that bring visitors right back to this friendly community.
For example, it’s a three-hour drive over to Cape Scott Provincial Park, where a leisurely 40-minute stroll brings you down to San Josef Bay, one of the most picturesque strands of beach on the Island. Along the way from Port Hardy you’ll pass rushing rivers lined with cottonwoods that are the haunt of bald eagles—plus the famous “Shoe Tree,” where residents have hung their old shoes for decades, creating a unique piece of folk art.
Port Hardy is also the gateway for marvelous kayaking, boating and floatplane excursions into the innumerable wilderness islands and inlets north and east of the town, the province of orcas, eagles, bears and other wild creatures that are commonly encountered here. And, of course, this is the embarkation point for BC Ferries’ famous Inside Passage route to Prince Rupert, an 18-hour journey through the Great Bear Rainforest where the wild denizens far outnumber the people.
It’s a five-hour drive from Nanaimo to here, and you can indeed reach the very end of the pavement. But once you reach Port Hardy, you’ve actually just begun; the variety of things to see and do here is as immense as the landscape.
|Artisan crafted cheese and bread from the Cowichan Valley|
Even though it seems like basing meals on produce picked that day at a nearby farm is a distinctly 21st century trend, it’s really not new at all. Once upon a time almost all human beings practiced farm-to-table cuisine—though “cuisine” may be too fancy a term a trip to the root cellar, the backyard garden or the smoke shed as the first step in the dinnertime recipe.
But there truly is nothing new under the sun, and in this regard Vancouver Island has long been a leader. Our First Nations peoples practiced this philosophy, of course—dinner was fresh or dried fish, supplemented with shellfish, seaweed and native root crops; berries comprised “dessert.” Early European settlers added an abundance of agricultural crops, from apples to wheat.
This fresh-food emphasis disappeared across North America in the mid-20th century, only to reappear recently… Except that it reappeared on our Island more than three decades ago when a visionary couple, Frederique and Philip Sinclair, established Sooke Harbour House west of Victoria. Extensive gardens around the inn supplied the kitchen; the Sinclairs patronized local fishers, farmers and foragers for the rest, ranging from sea cucumbers to seaweed. Sooke Harbour house now draws travelers from around the world to experience one of the original North American farm-to-table culinary shrines.
Good ideas spread, and so this one has from one end of the Island to another. The Cowichan Valley is a centre for production of cheese and fresh vegetables—a famed bakery at Cowichan Bay, True Grain, fashions bread using an Island-grown heritage wheat, Red Fife. Beef, bison, lamb and pork producers fill the larders at local restaurants from Port Hardy to Victoria—one new café in the capitol, 10 Acres Bistro & Farm, endeavors to produce as much of its own foodstuff as possible—just as an English or French country manor would have done two centuries ago.
This idea has become so widespread and successful that one can buy a hamburger (or bison burger) at a fast food restaurant on our Island which is practicing farm-to-table cuisine—a darn good hamburger, to boot. Eggs Benedict? Local eggs, and bacon from down the road to boot. Apple pie? Apples from next door, or even from the orchard whose restaurant is serving the pie.
It’s good to keep in mind that all these food providers are embracing this philosophy not because it’s the latest hip thing. Farm-fresh foods are just plain better—better tasting, better nutritionally, and better for our environment. Try some; it’s a simple matter to accomplish these days. Just savor, and you’ll surely agree!
Places to Hike in the Vancouver Island Region
- Cape Scott Trail
- Strathcona Park
- Salt Spring Island
- McKenzie Bight Trail
- Alberni Inlet Trail
- West Coast Trail
- Cable Bay
- San Joseph Bay
- East Sooke Park
- Mount Benson
|What you will find at the end of the Cape Scott Trail!|
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