The southern end of Vancouver Island in British Columbia has the perfect climate for growing trees: It gets plenty of rain and the climate is fairly mild (for Canada!). The area around the little town of Port Renfrew sits right in the middle of this perfect climate, so it’s no surprise that some of the world’s largest trees grow there. The most famous trees are located in Avatar Grove, a small protected stand of huge cedars and firs. But if you’re in the area you can also pay your respects to Big Lonely Doug, a huge Douglas fir who stands alone in a recent clear cut. There are also other giant trees in the area including the San Juan Spruce, the Harris Creek Spruce and the Red Creek Fir. Read on for instructions on how to visit all of these awe-inspiring old growth trees… in one day no less!
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Big Tree Basics
Getting to Port Renfrew
Port Renfrew is a remote community located in south western Vancouver Island in British Columbia. It’s a 2 hour drive on winding and bumpy roads from Victoria in the east or Duncan to the north east. The roads to Port Renfrew are actually part of the Pacific Marine Circle Route and there is lots of stuff to see along the way. Read my guide to this great road trip.
Port Renfrew is a very small community with a population of about 150 people. There is a small general store if you need supplies. They do have a gas station in town now, but it’s safer to fill up in Sooke or Lake Cowichan in case the station isn’t open when you get there. If you’re based on southern Vancouver Island, you can see all of these trees on a day trip, but it will be a bit rushed. I recommend staying overnight in Port Renfrew. We stayed at the Wild Renfrew Seaside Cottages. They were right on the water with an amazing view. Definitely recommended. There are also lots of cute cabins on AirBnb.
Navigating to the Big Trees
Port Renfrew is so small that it doesn’t have cell phone service. You will need to rely on paper maps and maybe a GPS device to find your way to the big trees. The Ancient Forest Alliance has put together an excellent map with turn by turn driving directions. (Click on the images below to download PDFs of the map and driving directions.) However, the map just shows the major roads. I brought my Vancouver Island Backroad Mapbook and it was really helpful to navigate the maze of backroads. In a few confusing spots we also used our Garmin eTrex GPS to figure out which road junction we were at. Make sure you have a full tank of gas just in case you get lost and drive further than you intended.
I recommend visiting the trees in the order listed in this guide: First Avatar Grove and Big Lonely Doug, then the San Juan Spruce and the Red Creek Fir, finishing with the Harris Creek Spruce. If you don’t have a 4 wheel drive you will have to miss Big Lonely Doug and the Red Creek Fir. (Or do a few kilometres of logging road walking.)
Driving on Logging Roads
To visit most of these trees you will need to drive on unpaved logging roads. These roads are actively used for logging so drive with your lights on. Be prepared to pull over quickly if you meet industrial trucks, particularly large fully loaded logging trucks. (They won’t stop for you!) A 4×4 vehicle with high clearance will be helpful to visit some of the trees, but you can visit many of them with a regular car. I’ll let you know in the description for each area what kind of car can make it. No matter what kind of car you bring, make sure you have a working spare tire and know how to change it.
Protecting the Big Trees
The Ancient Forest Alliance discovered, publicized and protected (or attempted to protect) most of the big trees described in this article. The Ancient Forest Alliance is a grass-roots non-profit society working to protect old growth forests in BC and advocate for sustainable forestry practices. They have raised money to construct trails to many of the trees in this article. If you enjoy your visit to the trees, please consider making a donation to their cause or joining their letter writing campaigns. (I give a a recurring donation each month and would love it if you would do the same.) There is still lots more work to do to protect these trees and others.
Respecting the Environment
The big trees are located in remote wilderness areas. There are no toilet or garbage facilities. Please follow Leave No Trace principles and pack out everything you pack in. If you have to go to the bathroom, please dig a small cat hole 70 paces from trails and water sources, then pack out your toilet paper.
Please avoid walking on the root systems of the ancient trees to ensure that they remain healthy and standing for years to come. Even giants don’t like having their feet stepped on! Some of the trees have fencing or barriers around their bases to protect their roots. Please stay on the trail and respect the barriers.
The big trees near Port Renfrew are on the unceded traditional territory of the Pacheedaht First Nation.
How to Visit Avatar Grove
The big trees of Avatar Grove are the closest to Port Renfrew and one of the easiest sites to access. Member of the Ancient Forest Alliance first discovered Avatar Grove in 2009 and named it after the James Cameron film. Avatar grove contains numerous large western red cedars and Douglas firs. The highlight is Canada’s Gnarliest Tree, a huge cedar with numerous gnarly burl growths on its lower trunk. The grove was given protected status in 2012 and is now closed to logging.
There are actually two separate groves at Avatar Grove: the upper grove and the lower grove. You will find Canada’s Gnarliest Tree in the upper grove, reached by climbing wooden stairs and board walks. In the lower grove you’ll find a collection of cedars and firs along a short loop trail. You have to descend a set of stairs to reach the loop. Both trails are under construction and have muddy, slippery and uneven sections, despite the numerous boardwalks and bridges that have already been built. Be sure to wear hiking boots.
Trail Stats: Upper Grove: 500m round trip, 80m elevation gain; Lower Grove: 650m loop, 25m elevation gain
Tree Info: Canada’s Gnarliest Tree (11m circumference), numerous unnamed large red cedars and douglas firs
Driving Information: Avatar Grove is about 10km from Port Renfrew and can be accessed by any car. The last few kilometres of the road are unpaved and bumpy, but regular 2wd cars will be fine if they drive slowly. For complete driving directions refer to the Ancient Forest Alliance map and driving directions pdfs above.
How to Visit Big Lonely Doug
Big Lonely Doug has become a bit of a symbol for the protection of old growth forests in BC. This towering douglas fir stands alone in the middle of a clear cut. Back in 2012 a logger working in the area decided to spare Big Lonely Doug when marking a cut block full of other old growth trees. At the time no one knew that it was the second largest douglas fir tree in the world. The history of how Big Lonely Doug was saved is fascinating. You can read about it in an excellent article on The Walrus. The author of that article, Harley Rustad, has written a book about Big Lonely Doug’s story that is scheduled to come out in September 2018. I know I’ll be picking up a copy.
The best place to view Big Lonely Doug is actually from the logging road where you park. You have to stand pretty far back to fit the whole tree into a photo! If you want to get down close to the tree, there is a rough trail marked with blue flags that descends the hillside, weaving around clearcut debris. It’s pretty steep and in a few places you have to climb over fallen logs that are really slippery when it rains. Try to minimize the time you spend right next to Doug to protect his roots.
Trail Stats: 250m round trip, 20m elevation gain.
Tree Info: Big Lonely Doug is 66m tall and has a circumference of nearly 12m.
Driving Information: Big Lonely Doug is located a few kilometres up the road from Avatar Grove so it makes the most sense to visit them one after another. The road past Avatar Grove gets increasingly bumpy and rocky. But it should still be find for regular cars up until the bridge over the Gordon River. After the bridge the road gets rougher and steeper so you will need a 4 wheel drive. If you only have a 2 wheel drive car you can park at the bridge and walk up the road for about 1.5km to Big Lonely Doug. Be sure to stop and check out the view from the bridge as the Gordon River canyon is spectacular. For complete driving directions refer to the Ancient Forest Alliance map and driving directions pdfs above.
How to Visit the San Juan Spruce
The San Juan Spruce was one of the world’s largest sitka spruce trees by volume. Unfortunately some time in the last year or two the top portion of the tree suffered wind damage. (I haven’t been able to find any news online about this, but when I visited the tree, it was missing it’s top portion and there were tree branch bits on the ground.)
The main trunk still stands, but the tree has lost much of it’s former height. It’s still worth a visit since the beauty of the tree is in it’s huge base with moss and ferns growing out of it. The tree is located in the San Juan Bridge Forest Recreation Site. For just $10 you can camp near the tree next to the river. In the spring the site is almost carpeted in beautiful Pink Fawn Lilies.
Trail Stats: You can park right next to the tree. No hiking required.
Tree Info: The San Juan Spruce has a circumference of 11.6m and was once 62m tall. Now it is about half that height.
Driving Directions: Most of the drive from Port Renfrew to the San Juan Spruce is on a paved road. The last few kilometres are on gravel roads with active logging. The roads are rocky and bumpy but should not pose any significant challenges for 2wd vehicles. For complete driving directions refer to the Ancient Forest Alliance map and driving directions pdfs above.
How to Visit the Red Creek Fir
The Red Creek Fir is the largest known douglas fir tree in the world. However it isn’t the tallest (there’s a taller one in Cathedral Grove) but it is the biggest by volume. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit it on my trip, but I would love to go back and see it. This is the most difficult to reach of the big trees near Port Renfrew. It requires a longer drive on rougher and unmaintained roads. After the drive there is a short uphill hike to the tree. Along the way you’ll pass several giant cedar trees.
Trail Stats: 1km round trip, 50m elevation gain
Tree Info: The Red Creek Fir is the largest douglas fir tree in the world. It is 74m tall and has a circumference of 4m.
Driving Information: I haven’t actually done this drive, but from what I’ve read online it’s a rough, unmaintained road. You need a 4wd car to make the trip. Consider bringing a saw to clear branches out of the way. The route to the Red Creek Fir passes right by the San Juan Spruce so plan to visit both on the same trip. For complete driving directions refer to the Ancient Forest Alliance map and driving directions pdfs above.
How to Visit the Harris Creek Spruce
The Harris Creek Spruce is the easiest tree to visit on this list since it’s located right next to a paved road. It’s not the largest sitka spruce on Vancouver Island, but it is still pretty spectacular. A wooden fence surrounds the tree to protect it’s roots. (Remember, giants don’t like having their feet stepped on.) This tree stands in a second growth forest since the Harris Creek Spurce was spared when the area was originally logged in the 1890s. It grows right on the banks of Harris Creek and has some wonderfully moss-draped branches.
Trail Stats: You can access the tree via a flat trail that is about 20m long.
Tree Info: The Harris Creek Spruce is 4m in diameter and about 80m tall.
Driving Information: The Harris Creek Spruce is located on the east side of the paved Pacific Marine Circle Route road in between Port Renfrew and Lake Cowichan. However, there is only one small sign to indicate that the tree is there. It’s approximately 8km past the Lizard Lake rec site turn off. Start to watch for the sign on your right after you pass by the tight canyon of Harris Creek and a recent forest fire scar. For complete driving directions refer to the Ancient Forest Alliance map and driving directions pdfs above.
There’s something special about visiting these ancient trees. They’ve been on this Earth for hundreds (or even over a thousand) years and have seen so much in their lifetime. I wonder what they would say if they could talk. I feel honoured to have been able to stand in their presence, even just for a few minutes. I loved my visit to Avatar Grove, Big Lonely Doug and the other big trees near Port Renfrew and I know I’ll have to visit them again. Have you visited any big trees? Tell me in the comments.
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