Backpacking Vancouver Island

West Coast Trail Section-By-Section Overview

Hikers on the West Coast Trail. Get the full run down of what the trail is like is this West Coast Trail section-by-section overview

The West Coast Trail is a 75km multi-day backpacking trip along the West Coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Along the way, you’ll hike through the rainforest on rough trail, boardwalks and mud bogs, walk along sandy beaches, boulders, and slippery coastal shelf, cross rivers on high bridges and cable cars, and climb in and out of gorges on towering wooden ladders. Each night you’ll camp on a beautiful beach. I’ve hiked the West Coast Trail twice. I went south to north in June 2004 and north to south in August 2019. Both times it was gorgeous but challenging. I’ve put together a section-by-section overview of the West Coast Trail to give you a taste of the trail and help you get prepped for your trip. It’s got info on distances, difficult, hiking times and things you won’t want to miss for each section. There are also loads of photos!

Use this West Coast Trail section-by-section overview to help you plan your trip. For info about what is campsite is like, read my post about West Coast Trail camping. You should also check out my West Coast Trail itineraries. I’ve got a standard 7-day itinerary, but others for beginners, fast hikers and people starting at Nitinaht Narrows.

 

WANT MORE WEST COAST TRAIL INFO?  Check out these posts:

 
HEADS UP: The West Coast Trail is sensitive wilderness. Learn how to Leave No Trace before you go to ensure we all keep the wilderness wild. Make sure you’re prepared for an emergency by bringing the 10 Essentials.

 

Key Distances on the West Coast Trail

A Quick Note: I’ve chosen to layout this guide from north to south because KM0 is in the north. Also, I use the official Parks Canada kilometre markers throughout this guide. As anyone who has hiked the trail with GPS can tell you, many of Parks Canada’s kilometres are much longer than an actual kilometre! So for each West Coast Trail section below, I’ve given both the “official distance” and the “actual distance” as measured by my GPS.

KM Location
0 Pachena Bay Trailhead
9 Side trail to Sea Lion Rocks
9.5 Pacheena Lighthouse
12 Michigan Creek Camp
13.7 Darling River Camp
15 Orange Juice Creek Camp
16.5 Tscowis Creek Camp 
18 Valencia Bluffs Viewpoint
23 Klanawa River Camp
25 Tsusiat Falls Camp
29.7 Ditidaht Luxury Tents
32.2 Nitinaht Narrows
41.5 Cribs Creek Camp
44 Carmanah Lighthouse
46 Carmanah Creek Camp
47 Chez Monique’s (closed)
48 Bonilla Point Camp
53 Walbran Camp
56 Logan Creek Suspension Bridge
57.7 Cullite Creek Campsite via side trail
62.2 Camper Bay Camp
67 Owen Point
70 Thrasher Cove Junction
75 Gordon River ferry

 

West Coast Trail Orientation Sessions

Every hiker heading out on the West Coast Trail MUST attend an orientation session. At the orientation, a park ranger will give a powerpoint presentation about the trail. It includes information about safety, tides, wildlife and trail etiquette. It also includes a section-by-section breakdown of what the trail will be like. You’ll also learn a bit about the history of the trail and the local First Nations people who have lived in the area since time immemorial. Orientations take about 1 hour.

The Pachena Bay ranger station at the northern trailhead of the West Coast Trail

Arriving at the Pachena Bay Ranger Station to take our orientation session. Photo credit: Laura Zajac

Orientations are offered at each trailhead on the following schedule:

Pachena Bay: 10 am and 2 pm

Gordon River: 10 am and 2 pm

Nitinaht Village: 8 am and 3:30 pm

You can attend either orientation on the day you start the trail. Or, you can attend the 2 pm or 3:30 pm orientation the day before you start. You don’t have to reserve a spot at an orientation – just show up. However, they do ask that you come 15-30 minutes early to check-in.

Bring your emailed permit confirmation to the orientation session. When you get to the orientation, the ranger will check you in and give you a copy of the waterproof trail map and tide table. You’ll also have to buy your National Parks pass (or show your annual pass if you have one.) After the orientation you will sign a waiver and the ranger will give you your trail permit. You must carry your trail permit and parks pass at all times on the trail. They aren’t waterproof so bring a ziplock bag to carry them in.

 

Pachena Bay to Michigan Creek (KM0 to KM12)

Official Distance: 12km | Actual Distance: 13km | Time: 4-5 hours | Difficulty: Easy/Moderate | Highlights: Sea Lion rocks, Pachena Lighthouse

The northern-most West Coast Trail section is easier than the rest of the trail, but it’s still not that easy. The trail starts next to the ranger station at Pachena Bay. Right from the start, you have a choice between the beach route and the forest route. You can take the beach route if the tide is below 2.4m. You’ll only be on the beach for 0.5 km, but it’s worth it since the forest route involves a few ladders to go up and over a bluff. The two routes rejoin at a small bridge over Clonard Creek.

Hikers walking on the beach at Pachena Bay to start the first West Coast Trail section

Heading across the beach at Pachena Bay to start the West Coast Trail

The next 12 kilometers are all in the forest. The trail is a former jeep road that was used to supply the Pachena Point Lighthouse. However, most traces of the road are long gone and it’s not entirely easy walking. There are lots of gullies to climb in and out of. There are even a few short ladders to give you a taste of what’s to come on the southern part of the trail. As well, the trail is well away from the coast and climbs up to 100m above sea level, so there is more up and down that you’d think.

Hikers climbing a ladder on the northern-most part of the West Coast Trail

One of the first ladders you’ll encounter on the West Coast Trail

At roughly the 9km mark look for a side trail heading towards the ocean. Follow the trail for about 100m to a viewpoint on a bluff high above the ocean. There are usually sea lions on the rocks just off shore. On my August 2019 visit, we didn’t see any sea lions, but we did spot grey whales feeding!

The view from Sea Lion Rocks on the West Coast Trail

The view from Sea Lion Rocks

Back on the main trail, it’s another 500m of walking to reach the turnoff to Pachena Lighthouse around the 9.5km mark. The side trail emerges from the forest on the manicured lawn of the lighthouse. You are allowed to walk around the grounds and enjoy the views, but respect the privacy of the lighthouse keepers and their homes. Be sure to watch for whales below the bluff. We spotted a grey whale in the cove just below the lighthouse.

Pachena Lighthouse on the West Coast Trail

Pachena Lighthouse

The final 2.5km of walking to Michigan Creek is also in the forest. There are a few more hills to climb before descending to the beach at Michigan Creek where there is a campsite.

Hikers walking through the forest near Michigan Creek on the West Coast Trail

Descending the last stretch of forested trail to Michigan Creek beach. Photo credit: Reid Holmes

 

Michigan Creek to Tsusiat Falls (KM12 to KM25)

Official Distance: 13km | Actual Distance: 14.5km Time: 4-6 hours | Difficulty: Moderate | Highlights: beaches, sandstone shelf Valencia Bluffs viewpoint, Klanawa River cable car

From Michigan Creek, the only route is along the beach for 2km to Darling River campground. There is no bridge at Darling River so you’ll have to ford. It’s not usually very deep, especially at lower tides. Both times I’ve been able to rock hop across without removing my boots.

Hikers walking on the rocky coastal shelf near Michigan Creek on the West Coast Trail

Leaving Michigan Creek along the beach

From Darling River, you can take the beach route for another 2.5km to Tscowis Creek campground at the 16.5km mark if the tides are below 2.7m. Along the way, you’ll pass Orange Juice Creek campground at the 15km mark. I’ve never taken the inland trail option, but I’ve heard it’s a bit overgrown since it doesn’t get used that often. 

Hikers walking on a sandy beach near Darling River on the West Coast Trail

Walking on the beach near Darling River

After Tscowis Creek the trail goes inland and immediately goes up a few sets of ladders and then across a short suspension bridge. For the next 3.5km, the trail runs along the top of the bluffs. The trail is near the edge of the bluffs and there are lots of good viewpoints. The best one is at Valencia Bluff where there are a pair of the iconic Parks Canada red chairs you can take a break in. After the bluff viewpoint watch for a derelict donkey engine and grader. This section of the West Coast Trail is easy walking on a good trail.

A hiker crosses the Billy Goat Creek suspension bridge on the West Coast Trail

Crossing the suspension bridge over Billy Goat Creek. Photo credit: Reid Holmes

Descend back to the beach on a ladder near the 20km marker at Trestle Creek. From here you’ll be on the beach for the next 3km to Klanawa River camp. (Keep in mind that you need tides below 2.7m for this route and there is no inland alternative.) You can walk on the sandstone shelf at lower tides for MUCH faster travel. Cross the Klanawa River on the cable car. It’s too wide and deep to wade. In my opinion, this is the most difficult cable car on the West Coast Trail since it sags lower than the others and requires lots of arm strength for pulling.

Hikers walking on the sandstone coastal shelf near Klanawa River on the West Coast Trail

Walking on the sandstone shelf towards the Klanawa River

After the cable car, you’ll climb up onto the bluff again via some ladders. The 2km of trail before the Tsusiat River bridge is easy walking, thanks to the boardwalks. A set of steep ladders drops you down to the beach and campground at Tsusiat Falls just after the bridge. 

The view of Tsusiat beach from a bluff on the West Coast Trail

Looking towards the beach at Tsusiat Falls from the top of the bluffs

Tsusiat Falls on the West Coast Trail

Gorgeous Tsusiat Falls. Photo credit: jameswheeler on Pixabay because somehow I was too busy swimming to take a good photo of the falls. Oops.

 

Tsusiat Falls to Nitinaht Narrows (KM25 to KM32.2)

Official Distance: 7.2km | Actual Distance: 7.25km Time: 3-4 hours | Difficulty: Moderate | Highlights: Hole in the Wall, Ditidaht Luxury Tents, Nitinaht Narrows, beaches

From Tsusiat Falls you have a choice between the beach route and the forest route until near the 29km marker. The beach features some deep sand that can be tough to slog through. On my most recent West Coast Trail hike we got tired in the sand and did a short section in the forest. We decided that we liked the sand better and headed back out again. I’ve heard that there’s a large cave along the inland trail, but I’ve never hiked that portion of the trail so I haven’t seen it.

A hiker walking on a sandy beach on the West Coast Trail

Walking on the beach near Tsusiat Falls

If you take the beach route you can walk through the “hole in the wall” at Tsusiat Point. It’s a natural arch. You’ll need a tide below 2.1m to do that. However, if the tide is too high to go through the hole, you can still walk the beach and take a short bypass trail around Tsusiat Point.

Hole in the Wall on the West Coast Trail

Hole in the Wall. Photo credit: Reid Holmes

You’ll have to go back into the forest near the 29km marker. From there it’s a short hike to the Ditidaht luxury tents near Tsuquadra Point and km 30. The streams here are the last place to get water until kilometer 40 so be sure to fill up. Past the luxury tents, the trail climbs up onto the bluffs a bit, then turns inland on boardwalks towards Nitinaht Narrows. Once you reach the dock, yell across the Narrows. The ferry operator will come pick you up. The ferry runs between 9:30 am and 4:30 pm.

A hiker on a foggy bluff near Nitinaht Narrows on the West Coast Trail

Fog on the bluffs near Nitinaht Narrows

Carl Edgar, the ferry operator at Nitinat Narrows on the West Coast Trail

The Nitinaht Narrows ferry operator, Carl Edgar. Carl has been running the ferry here for 44 seasons.

 

Nitinaht Narrows to Cribs Creek (KM32.2 to KM41.5)

Official Distance: 9.5km | Actual Distance: 11km | Time: 4-5 hours | Difficulty: Easy/Moderate | Highlights: The Crab Shack, Clo-oose Village, Cheewhat River, beaches

You’ll get off the ferry on the south side of Nitnaht Narrows directly on to the dock at the Crab Shack, the Edgar family’s restaurant and cabin rentals. Stop and buy some lunch, then continue up the ramp and into the forest. The trail is almost entirely boardwalk from here until the Cheewhat River bridge near the 36km marker. Along the way, you’ll pass through the abandoned village of Clo-oose. It’s a First Nations Reserve and is private property, so be respectful and don’t leave the trail.

The Crab Shack at Nitinat Narrows on the West Coast Trail

The Crab Shack at Nitinaht Narrows

Hikers walk on a long boardwalk near Nitinaht Narrows on the West Coast Trail

Walking on the boardwalk section south of Nitinaht Narrows. Photo credit: Reid Holmes

Cross the Cheewhat River on a wide suspension bridge. The river is tidal and has a high mineral content so you can’t drink it. Just past the bridge is another beach access. The beach is firm sand that makes for easy walking. I haven’t hiked the inland trail in this West Coast Trail section, but I hear it is also nice and easy to walk. Just past kilometer 38, there’s an impassable headland that forces you to take ladders to an inland trail for a few hundred meters, but you can get down onto the beach again quickly.

Cheewhat River bridge on the West Coast Trail

The Cheewhat River Suspension Bridge

Hikers walk through fog on the beach on the West Coast Trail

Walking through the fog on the beach near KM37

Eventually, the sand gives way to tidal shelf with some scrambly bits around the headlands. There’s a brief section around KM38 where you must take a ladder to the forest route to bypass a dangerous surge channel. Then, there’s a short section at KM39 where you must take the beach. Around the 40km mark, you’ll need to make a decision. If the tide is below 2.1m you can take the beach route around the point to Cribs Creek campground. If not, you’ll have to go up the ladder into the forest. The beach route traverses several rocky shelves before emerging on a rocky peninsula that juts out across Cribs Bay. 

A hiker scrambles over rocks at a headland on the West Coast Trail

Scrambling around a headland on the beach route

A rock formation at Cribs Creek on the West Coast Trail

The unique rock formation across the mouth of Cribs Bay

 

 

Cribs Creek to Walbran Creek (KM41.5 to KM 53)

Official Distance: 11.5km | Actual Distance: 12. 1km | Time: 4-6 hours | Difficulty: Moderate | Highlights: Carmanah Point Lighthouse, Chez Monique’s Carmanah Creek cable car, beaches

The route south from Cribs Creek is along the beach. It’s relatively easy walking along the sand for the first kilometre or so. If the tide is below 2.1m you can continue along the coast to Carmanah Point at the 44km mark, then climb the stairs up, up, up! to the lighthouse. If you don’t have the right tides, it’s an easy walk in the forest for a few hundred meters to a junction with the side trail to the lighthouse. 

Hikers walk past a sea stack on the West Coast Trail

Leaving Cribs Creek Campground on the beach

It’s worth taking the detour to Carmanah Point Lighthouse for the great views. They also have a big whale skeleton on the grass that’s pretty cool. Remember, the lighthouse buildings are private property so be respectful.

Carmanah Lighthouse in the fog on the West Coast Trail

A foggy day at the Carmanah Lighthouse

From the lighthouse, it’s a quick walk in the forest, then down some ladders back to the beach. You’ll find Chez Monique’s near the beach access. For decades this informal restaurant on a First Nations reserve was a key stopping point for West Coast Trail hikers. It’s closed as of 2019 since the owners have passed away.

The remains of Chez Monique's on the West Coast Trail

Sadly, Chez Monique’s was closed on my 2019 trip. But I have fond memories of it from 2004.

Past Chez Monique’s, you continue on the beach. The sand gets deeper so it’s not easy walking. You can wade across Carmanah Creek at the 46km mark or take the cable car. There’s a campground here on the north side of the creek. The next 2km to Bonilla Point campground is also on the beach, but you may be able to get on to the sandstone shelf for faster travel. The section of the West Coast Trail from Bonilla Point at km 48 to the beach access just before Vancouver Point near km 51 starts with some easy walking on the shelf but then turns into some brutally deep sand. It’s definitely a workout to walk through it!

A hiker rides the Carmanah cable car on the West Coast Trail

Riding the Carmanah Cable Car. Photo credit: Reid Holmes

Hikers walk through soft sand near Carmanah River on the West Coast Trail

Walking through deep sand is hard work

You need to make a decision at the Vancouver Point beach access. If the tide is below 2.7m and you don’t mind wading a creek, continue on the beach route. If not, take the forest route inland. I’ve never taken it, but I hear it’s a bit rough and overgrown. It ends with a ride across Walbran Creek on the longest cable car of the West Coast Trail. The beach route is mostly easy walking on the sandstone shelf. The crux is the ford of Walbran Creek. Try to cross near the mouth at low tide for the easiest crossing. The campground is near the 53km marker on the south side of the creek.

Hikers walk on the sandstone shelf on the West Coast Trail

Walking on the sandstone shelf towards Walbran Creek

Hikers wade across the mouth of Walbran Creek on the West Coast Trail

Fording Walbran Creek at low tide. Photo credit: Reid Holmes

 

Walbran Creek to Camper Bay (KM53 to KM 62.2)

Official Distance: 9.2km | Actual Distance: 11.8km | Time: 4-6 hours | Difficulty: Difficult | Highlights: Ladder sections at Walbran, Logan Cullite, Sandstone and Camper Creeks, Logan Creek suspension bridge, boardwalks through bogs, Cullite Creek cable car

Some people find the West Coast Trail section between Walbran and Camper to be the hardest part of the trail due to all the ladders.  The trail from Walbran starts with a section of ladders. At the top, you’ll go through a bog on boardwalks. When the boardwalk ends, the mud, roots, and logs begin. It’s about 3km from Walbran to Logan Creek at the 56km mark.

Hikers climbing a ladder at Walbran Creek. This is one of the most difficult West Coast Trail sections.

Climbing the ladders out of Walbran Creek. Photo credit: Reid Holmes

A hiker navigates through a mud bog on the West Coast Trail

One of the big mud holes on between Walbran and Logan. Photo credit Reid Holmes

At Logan Creek, you’ll drop down into the gorge on a series of ladders. The last one ends directly on top of the infamous Logan Creek suspension bridge. Parks Canada is working on building a new bridge higher up that will skip all the ladders, but as of 2019 you still need to cross the narrow bridge. On the other side, you’ll climb another series of ladders up the sheer cliff face. One of them sits at a low angle and leans slightly inwards towards the abyss, making it awkward to climb. (Some hikers also say it’s pretty scary!)

Hikers cross the Logan Creek suspension bridge and climb ladders on the West Coast Trail

Climbing up the last ladder at Logan Creek. You can see the suspension bridge far below.

Once you reach the top of the Logan Creek ladders you have another 2km of mud, tree roots, and wrecked boardwalks to contend with before reaching the Cullite Creek ladders just before the 58km mark. Cullite Creek has the most ladders on the West Coast Trail: 7 on one side of the gorge and 11 on the other. In the middle, you can wade (or rock hop) across Cullite Creek or take the cable car.

A hiker in a mud bog with ruined boardwalks. One of the most challenging West Coast Trail sections.

Wading through the mud in between Logan and Cullite Creeks

A hiker descending the ladders to Cullite Creek on the West Coast Trail

Descending the ladders into Cullite Creek. You can see the cable car below. Photo credit: Reid Holmes

The Cullite Creek campground is a short walk downstream to the beach. The trail has been washed out in a few places so you may have to walk in the creek bed. (And that’s only possible later in the season at times of lower runoff.) Even if you aren’t camping, the beach is a nice lunch spot.

After Cullite Creek the trail heads through the forest for another 1.5km to Sandstone Creek at 59.5km.  It’s not as muddy or boggy as the earlier section, but it’s also not smooth walking. At Sandstone Creek you’ll descend a few ladders to a bridge, then climb ladders right back up the other side. The route from Sandstone Creek to Camper Bay has a few sections of newer boardwalk, but there are still mud holes, broken boardwalk and tree roots to climb over most of the time. 

A hiker climbing the ladders at Cullite Creek on the West Coast Trail

Working through ladders at Cullite Creek

A section of old boardwalk on the West Coast Trail

The wrecked boardwalks are a welcome reprieve from the mud.

Just past the 62km marker, you’ll descend ladders and a section of steep trail to Camper Bay. The campground is just downstream on the beach.

 

 

Camper Bay to Thrasher Cove(KM 62.2 to KM 70+1)

Official Distance: 8.8km | Actual Distance: 9.76km | Time: 4-5 hours | Difficulty: Very difficult | Highlights: Ladder sections, Owen Point, challenging forest terrain

To leave the campground at Camper Bay you’ll need to take the cable car or ford the creek. Later in the season, it’s possible to rock hop across. Next, it’s time for another section of ladders. The forest trail between Camper Bay and the 65km mark has some muddy sections, but there is lots of boardwalk and it’s not too bad, as far as forest sections go. 

Two hikers ride the Camper Creek cable car on the West Coast Trail

Riding the cable car across Camper Creek. Photo credit: Reid Holmes

Hikers climbing ladders out of Camper Bay on the West Coast Trail

Ascending the ladders out of Camper Bay. Photo credit: Reid Holmes

At kilometre 65 you’ll need to make a choice: coastal route or forest route. Despite having hiked the West Coast Trail twice, I’ve never taken the coastal route. Both times the low tide we needed was in the middle of the night! The coastal route includes some sections of easy sandstone shelf walking. But it also includes lots of boulders and logs to scramble over. You need a tide of less than 2.4m to do the coastal route, except around Owen Point where you need a tide of less than 1.8m to pass through a sea cave. Reportedly, the route is much easier at very low tides.

The forest route is one of the roughest parts of the whole trail. The 5km between the 65km beach access and the Thrasher Cover junction at 70km include lots of mud, slippery tree roots and lots of narrow log crossings. Some of the log crossings are 10 to 15 feet off the ground! Both times I’ve hiked the trail I’ve had my slowest travel speeds through here and I think it’s the hardest part of the trail.

Hiking past giant trees on the West Coast Trail

Passing some GIANT trees on the forest route. Photo credit: Reid Holmes

One of the log crossings on the West Coast Trail

One of the many log crossings. Photo credit: Reid Holmes

From the 70km junction you’ll have 1km of side trail to descend to Thrasher Cove campground. The trail is rough and very steep in places. It ends with a series of ladders down to the beach.

Descending the ladders to Thrasher Cove on the West Coast Trail

Descending the ladders to Thrasher Cove. Photo credit: Reid Holmes

 

Thrasher Cove to Gordon River (KM 70+1 to KM75)

Official Distance: 6km | Actual Distance: 6.6km | Time: 4-5 hours | Difficulty: Very difficult | Highlights: Ladder sections, highest point on the WCT, donkey engine, challenging forest terrain

This West Coast Trail section starts with an ascent out of Thrasher Cove. It begins with ladders, then heads steeply uphill on a few switchbacks. After 1km you’ll reach the 70km junction and be back on the main trail. The trail from this point to Gordon River is rough and technical, but I thought it was slightly easier walking than the forest section between km 65 and 70. However, lots of hikers say this is the most difficult part of the trail, especially those who tackle this part on their first day with heavy packs.

Lots of brush on the trail at the Thrasher Cove junction on the West Coast Trail

The bushy trail towards Gordon River from the Thrasher Cove junction

From the junction, the trail starts to climb. It crosses two creeks including one with some ladders. As of 2019, a major bridge is damaged so you have to follow the rough flagged bypass route. Just after the 71km marker, you’ll reach the high point of the trail at 213m. It’s a stiff climb to get up here! The trail undulates gently and passes by a huge derelict donkey engine and a bunch of old logging cables around km 72. 

A wrecked bridge on the southern-most West Coast Trail section

The wrecked bridge

The donkey engine on the southern part of the West Coast Trail

Taking a snack break at the donkey engine

The trail descends slowly towards the ocean over the next few kilometres, although you don’t really get any views. In the last kilometre you might start to see the ocean through the trees and hear the waves. Finally, you’ll come to the top of a very tall and VERY steep ladder. (This is the steepest ladder on the entire trail!) Head down the ladder to the beach. You’re done! Use the rope next to the ladder to raise the buoy up to the top. This signals to the ferry operator that you want a pickup. The ferry comes by at 8:30 am, 11:30 am, 12:30 pm, 1:30 pm, 2:30 pm and 3:30 pm.

Descending a rocky section near Gordon River on the West Coast Trail

Descending a rocky section on the way to Gordon River

 

The final steep ladder at Gordon River on the West Coast Trail

The last (and steepest) ladder

 

Finishing the West Coast Trail

After you take the ferry across Gordon River, you’ll arrive at Butch Jack’s ferry dock. Head up the ramp to the road, turn right and walk a few hundred metres to the Parks Canada office. Head inside to drop off your permit with the ranger and officially check-out from the trail. They have souvenir hats, t-shirts and more if you want them. 

Butch's dock and the Gordon River ferry at the south end of the West Coast Trail

Butch’s dock on the Gordon River. The metal boat on the far side of the dock with no cabin is the West Coast Trail ferry.

 

So that’s my West Coast Trail overview with a section-by-section breakdown of the trail. If you have any questions while planning your hike, let me know in the comments.

 

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