As the old saying has it, a round of golf is a good walk spoiled. Here on Vancouver Island, we like to think of Island hiking as good walks perfected. The virtue in that is not just its unadorned simplicity—after all, this is how human beings have been seeing the territory for more than 10,000 years here, and we 21st century people walk just as our ancestors did. Better shoes, maybe.
But walking, strolling, hiking, meandering, trekking, all these also bring us a sense of connection to the place we are that can only be achieved on two feet, out in the fresh air, watching where we’re going and what we pass by.
Aside from those basics, hiking on Vancouver Island offers a remarkable breadth of variety, from urbane to primitive. One might start by going for a lovely stroll in a quiet neighborhood of tidy houses and bountiful gardens—we have plenty of opportunities for that; in fact, some of our neighborhoods remind visitors of serene enclaves in English towns, a comparison that’s fine with us.
Take a brisk trek along a waterfront path past lapping waves, tidy boat harbours, arbutus trees with wind-smoothed amber trunks, and sand and pebble beaches—you can do that in Victoria, Nanaimo, Cowichan Bay, Port Hardy, Comox and Courtenay, and among others. Hop on the passenger ferry out to Newcastle Island in Nanaimo Harbour and you’ll reach one of the loveliest (and easiest) walks in all of British Columbia.
You can take a quiet meander through majestic old-growth firs, cedars, spruces and hemlocks in numerous easily reached parks such as Cathedral Grove, Pacific Rim, Juan de Fuca, and the three “Falls” parks: Little Qualicum River, Englishman River and Elk. The riverbank paths beneath tall cottonwoods in Campbell River and along the Cowichan River in Duncan comprise a different kind of old-growth forest, in its own way just as impressive and soothing. The ancient, gnarled Douglas-firs in the dryland woods at Hornby Island’s Helliwell Provincial Park are barely half the height of those in wetter spots inland; but their steadfast beauty is unsurpassed. And the hike around the park is a leisurely two-hour jaunt past some of the most scenic views on our neighbor islands.
A more rigorous hike into the Sitka spruce groves at Carmanah-Walbran Provincial Park, on our West Coast south of Bamfield, is not exactly a stroll. But one need not be a wilderness expert to descend into these lovely woods, hallowed as the site where conservation activism a quarter-century ago preserved the world’s largest spruce. The location of that tree is unmarked, but it’s a lovely 20-minute walk down to a most sublime grove of spruces. Reaching for the sun beside a tumbling cascade, this grove is dedicated to the memory of preservation activist Randy Stoltmann, and it’s easy to see why, standing here in the dappled light, he worked so hard to protect these trees.
Or, for a full-on wilderness experience, you can hoist an expedition pack on your back and head up into the mountains—or along a spectacular coast—for a week of solitude: We have places for this kind of walk—and it is a walk, though a vastly different kind than that neighborhood stroll in Victoria. Strathcona Provincial Park, BC’s oldest and one of its biggest, offers countless miles of wilderness trail, including a 2- or 3-day excursion into 440-meter Della Falls, the highest in Canada. You must take a boat to the trailhead, and then hike a strenuous 16 kilometers uphill to reach the base of the falls.
West of Victoria, the famous West Coast Trail is a rugged coastal path, more than a century old, that was carved along this wilderness coast as an escape route for mariners who survived the many shipwrecks along the rocky shore. Now part of Pacific Rim National Park, it is a weeklong trek that beckons adventurers from around the world. Permits are needed; more important, so is deep wilderness experience, adequate gear and strength—and a lot of determination. Trekkers report challenges such as thigh-deep mud, rope ladders up steep headlands, beaches that disappear at high tide, and periods of rain that can last an entire week. When you complete this “walk,” you have accomplished something.
A kinder gentler version south of Port Renfrew, the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, takes about four days, is less strenuous (but not a picnic!) and leads hikers along a stanchly beautiful shore of broad beaches, mist-hung coastal spruce forests, and occasional headlands. Tidepools beckon for poking about admiring starfish and anemones. The weather is better than up north on the West Coast Trail. But it is still a wilderness shore journey; not many of those are available in North America.
Perhaps the ultimate backcountry test on Vancouver Island is Cape Scott Provincial Park. This huge knob of land that juts out in the North Pacific is almost totally as wild and untouched as it was two centuries ago. The initial entry into the park is, well, a bit misleading: A smooth, level, graveled path provides a half-hour walk down to San Josef Bay, a vast stretch of ivory sand, backed by spruce forest, that on a sunny day seems almost like it’s a tropical bay.
The rest of the park, though, is a vast and stiffly demanding land of woods and stone, beach and cape, rushing streams and lashing storms. There are trails, but they are not neighborhood paths. Hikers here must be prepared for any weather, any incident, and be utterly self-sufficient. It is an unparalleled coastal wilderness. The nearest town of any size, Port Hardy, is two hours away along a gravel road. The broad Pacific brings its might to bear on this shore at regular intervals. And traversing the park is an experience that remains forever with those who accomplish it.
And that, too, is walking. The word “hike” simply suggests an extended walk, perhaps into the country. So whether you meander up Government Hill in Victoria, or up to the alpine in Strathcona Park, you’re walking into the best we have.
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The first bicycles two centuries ago were often ungainly contraptions with shoulder-high wheels, rickety-looking frames and uncomfortable seats carved of wood. Sometimes they had three or four wheels—adult tricycles, in other words. Picture top-hatted, frock-coated Victorian gentlemen, or parasol-shaded Parisian ingenues, demurely traversing cobblestone streets.
That was then, this is now: Picture, instead, athletic men and women in sleek outdoor clothing barreling along a tree-shaded path beneath the shoulders of Vancouver Island’s muscular central mountains. They dash down easy slopes and across small creeks, then back up beside 500-year-old Douglas-firs. They are atop highly engineered, responsive and sturdy recreation vehicles made of space age alloys and sporting vivid colors. The riders cross terrain not even oxcarts could have managed two centuries, and the entire enterprise is the essence of outdoor fun and recreation.
That’s modern bike riding in its most adventurous form, and our Island’s trail networks provide some of the best single-track riding (as it’s called) in the West. Not only do our trails wend their way across memorable landscapes, they are well maintained and marked and suitable for experts or everyday riders.
Those who seek even more exotic rides can head to the mountain bike park at Mount Washington Alpine Resort. Five months a year, the winter sports area’s chairlifts haul skiers 1,567 feet up the mountainside, from where they head back down utilizing deep snow and gravity’s power. June through September, the lifts offer the same service to bike riders, who use the same convenient force of physics to head back down all that vertical. If you’ve never tried this iteration of biking, it’s a unique adventure—all downhill, yes, but harder work than you think, and very invigorating.
It’s a classic win-win: The resort’s season is almost doubled, and bike riders get to enjoy one of the most scenic trail systems in Western Canada. The viewscape consists of Strathcona Provincial Park, one of British Columbia’s treasures; or, at the tip-top, the Strait of Georgia and the Coast Mountains beyond.
But bikers can enjoy far more urbane and gentle forms of riding on Vancouver Island, with an equally extensive network of paved or graveled paths, often laid out on old railroad beds. The best-known example is Victoria’s Exceptional Galloping Goose Trail, which winds its way 36 miles from the heart of the city out past parks, lakes, suburbs and farmland into the mountain foothills near Sooke. An excursion out the Goose can be as simple as a half-day ride from the Inner Harbour, or as expansive as a two-day out-and-back ride, with an overnight sojourn at one of several B&Bs that offer lodging along the way.
Either kind of trip is a delightful expedition—especially as it departs the cheery bustle of downtown Victoria and transports you out to the birdsong-touched countryside.
Many other bike paths beckon. If you’re staying in Tofino, a charming path follows the highway from town out toward Pacific Rim National Park. A similar path follows the road into Ucluelet; and while the paths within the park are not really meant for cyclists, Long Beach itself is a fabulous 6-mile stretch of sand, mostly hard-packed, on which and bike with decent size tires can make its way. Few places anywhere afford bike riders the chance to roll along a beach; here that chance is perhaps more extensive than almost anywhere else. Rentals are available in Tofino.
The Nanaimo Harbour ferry that transports visitors out to Newcastle Island brings bikers to a serenely quiet, graceful isle where a large colony of purple martins greets you at the dock; venerable Garry oaks and bigleaf maples shade quiet meadows; and interior trails lead past old firs. Quiet beaches along the way beckon you to stop for a stroll.
Some of our neighbor islands have back roads that are perfect for low-traffic riding. Salt Spring, Gabriola, Galiano and Hornby are all great candidates for countryside road riding; residents on the islands welcome riders and drive with care and a cheerful wave as the go slowly past.
The fellow who first made a two-wheel self-propelled vehicle (usually considered German aristocrat Karl von Drais in 1817) no doubt intended his contraption solely as a way of getting around. Would that he could see what his imagination has led to—yes, bike riding still is a way of getting around, but a very special way. Fresh air, honest effort, endless views and peace and quiet: Vancouver Island bike riding is a most exceptional way to go from here to there.
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