I recently returned from hiking the Walk the Wildside Trail on Flores Island near Tofino, BC. It’s a great 11km one-way hike to a beautiful beach at Cow Bay. You can read my full Walk the Wildside Trail on Flores Island: Trip Report post for all the details of how our trip went. In this post I’ll give you all the info you need to plan your own hike.
Table of Contents
- 1 Getting There: Transportation and Logistics
- 2 Trail Fees and the Walk the Wildside Trail Organization
- 3 First Nations Historical Sites
- 4 When to Go
- 5 How Long to Spend on the Trail
- 6 Navigation and the Trail
- 7 Camping
- 8 Co-Existing with Large Mammals
- 9 More Information and Further Reading:
- 10 Read Next: More Coastal Backpacking Trips
Getting There: Transportation and Logistics
Getting to Tofino
The trail starts at the First Nations village of Ahousaht on Flores Island (also known as Maaqtusiis or Marktosis). Flores Island is located north of Tofino on Vancouver Island. To get to Tofino from the mainland you’ll need to first take a BC Ferry from the Vancouver area to Nanaimo BC and then make the 3 hour drive to Tofino. Reservations for the ferry are highly recommended, especially on holiday or summer weekends. There is also a bus service to Tofino.
Overnight Parking in Tofino
If you drove to Tofino and plan to spend the night on the trail you can leave your car overnight in the gravel parking lot next to the District of Tofino office near the corner of 3rd Street and Campbell street. The lot can get busy on weekends.
Water Taxis to the Wildside Trail
Once you get to Tofino, you will need to take a water taxi from the 1st street dock to Ahousaht. There is a scheduled service from Tofino to Ahousaht twice a day at 10:30am and 4:00pm although the vessel can change. The scheduled return trip leaves Ahousaht daily at 8:30am and 1pm. The cost for the scheduled service is $20/person. The boat trip takes about 35 minutes.
You can also charter a boat for $150 if you want to leave at a different time or you have a larger group. You can find a list of the water taxi operators and their phone numbers on the Ahousaht First Nation’s website. The best way to charter a boat is to contact the Wildside Trail organization as they can arrange the booking for you.
The water taxis are small metal boats that are typical for the region. They seat a dozen or so inside a small cabin and many have seating outside on the back and sometimes on the roof. Your backpacks get loaded on the deck in the back. If you sit outside you’ll want to wear a jacket as it’s windy and in choppier seas you might get splashed. And of course don’t forget your camera!
I’m prone to sea sickness but these little boats go pretty fast and the channels they traverse are quite protected so the boat didn’t bounce around much and I didn’t have any problems. I didn’t bother to take any anti-nausea meds or wear a sea sickness patch and I didn’t feel queasy at all.
The closest public washroom to the dock is at the Co-op grocery store on the corner of 1st Street and Campbell street in case you have to go in between a long car ride and the water taxi ride.
Trail Fees and the Walk the Wildside Trail Organization
The Walk the Wildside Trail organization maintains and manages the trail as an eco-tourism project of the Ahousaht First Nation to generate a sustainable tourism economy for their village and create jobs. They built the trail in the late 1990s along a route that follows their traditional trails in the area. The trail wasn’t used that much for a decade or so, but in 2009 the trail was officially re-opened and renovated. Currently the trail organization helps hikers plan trips, organizes water taxis, gives orientation briefings, offers guided walks and trips and offers assistance if you need help on the trail. When I was planning my trip I sent countless emails to Tara at the Wildside Trail and received detailed and prompt responses. These guys are super helpful and super friendly.
The cost to hike any part of the trail outside the provincial parks and through Ahousaht traditional territory is $25 per person. You can pay your fees in person (cash only) at the trail office in Ahousaht or on their website via Paypal. If you pay online they ask that you leave a note in the comments section on the Paypal invoice giving dates you’ll be hiking. There is currently no permit system or quota system in place – you just pay your fee and that covers you for as many or as few days you spend on the trail. The trail is definitely not crowded so a quota system isn’t needed.
First Nations Historical Sites
The trail is a important historical route for the Ahousaht First Nation. There are several plaques and interpretive signs along the trail highlighting culturally important places. At the trail office you can hire a guide or buy a small guidebook written by an elder to learn more about these sites. Unfortunately they were sold out of the guidebook when I hiked the trail so I wasn’t able to pick one up. I think the guidebook would really enhance the trip if you are interested in First Nations culture.
When to Go
The trail can be hiked year round but the Wildside Trail organization officially closes the trail during the winter months. Check their website or email them if you want to hike the trail in the winter, early spring or late fall as the trail may be closed due to winter storms or damaged trail sections.
How Long to Spend on the Trail
The trail is 11km each way from the trailhead in Ahousaht to Cow Bay. Most people will want to spent at least two days and one night on the trail but fit people hike or trail run it in one day. Cow Bay is such a beautiful destination that you may choose to spend more than one night there or on another of the beautiful beaches along the way. In my opinion three days and two nights on the trail is ideal. In any case, you’ll want to keep the water taxi schedule in mind when planning your trip.
The trail is roughly 11km of beach walking with a bit of forest trail and boardwalk thrown in. The trail is generally easy to follow with signs at every junction. Since this is a coastal trail, the trail enters and leaves the forest often. At each place where the trail leaves the beach look for fishing floats strung up in the trees to mark the trailhead. It’s pretty difficult to get lost here but there are a couple of confusing places, some side trails and trail options to choose from so I’ll discuss those in detail below. For a full run-down of the terrain you’ll encounter along the trail, see my Walk the Wildside Trail on Flores Island: Trip Report post.
You’ll want to carry the WildSideTrail Map (available from trail office when you check in the to trail or click the link to view it now) and since this is a coastal trail, you should also carry a current tide table. It’s helpful to know when the tide is low so you can do more beach walking below the high tide line as well as to know when high tide is so you know if your tent is pitched far enough up the beach. The other reason to carry a tide table is for tidal obstacles. There is only one notable tidal obstacle on the Walk the Wildside Trail: the Kutcous River crossing, discussed below.
Getting to the trail head
When you arrive at the dock in Maaqtusiis someone from the Wildside Trail organization will be waiting to meet you if you notified the trail society in advance that you were coming. If you haven’t done this your water taxi operator can radio them. The trail staff will walk you through the village to the trail office where you can pay your fees if you haven’t already. You’ll also need to check in to start the trail. The trail staff will give you a briefing about the trail, answer any questions you might have and give you copies of the trail map. The trail office building has washrooms and a tap to fill up your water bottles. They also have Wildside Trail t-shirts for sale.
After you’ve had your trail briefing, the trail staff will walk with you around the corner and up the hill to the official start of the Wildside Trail. The village of Maaqtusiis has recently expanded and a new subdivision has been opened south of town. The beginning of the trail runs beside the road to this subdivision (but hidden behind a screen of brush) for the first few hundred meters before emerging in the subdivision itself.
Once you emerge from the bush onto the edge of the subdivision turn right onto the paved road then immediately make a left onto the first street and walk straight down that street towards the ocean. At the end of the street as the street curves right the trail leaves the street to the left travelling diagonally between two houses. This short trail starts as gravel then turns into a short boardwalk with planks carved by members of the local community. It leads directly to First Beach where you turn right to start the real beach walking part of the trail.
Side Trail to the Warm Springs
The next few kilometers feature a mix of beach and inland trail that is mostly old boardwalk. You’ll pass by the first campsite at the sand dunes (see the Camping section of this post, below) and take an overland trail to reach the long beach of Whitesand Cove. Near the east end of the cove look for buoys hanging in the trees to mark the start of a side trail to a naturally occurring warm springs. I haven’t taken the side trail but it is about 1 kilometre from Whitesand Cove to the springs and its reportedly very muddy. Apparently there is a man-made stone pool and the springs are slightly warmer than creek or ocean water but definitely not hot.
Trail of Tears
On the west side of Whitesand Cove is the trailhead for the Trail of Tears. This is a historic route for the Ahousaht First Nation and travels inland from the trailhead to meet up with the main trail at the metal bridge over the Kutcous River. I haven’t hiked this trail but I have heard it is overgrown, quite buggy and not recommended. The trail is of historical and cultural importance to the Ahousaht but doesn’t hold any particular appeal for hikers.
Kutcous River Crossing and the High Tide Short-cut Trail
After leaving Whitesand Cove you’ll take an inland trail across Kutcous point, then walk down the beach towards the Kutcous River where you’ll have to make a choice between a few different routes: 1) Cross the river at its mouth and take the trail along the coast past the cabin; 2) Take the trail down the river to the bridge, cross the bridge, then take the trail back up the river on the other side to meet back up with the coast trail, or 3) Take the trail down the river to the bridge, cross the bridge, then take the High Tide Short-cut Trail inland to bypass the coastal section.
Each of the three options has its own merits. To help you decide, here are the distances from the east side of the Kutcous River mouth to the junction of the High Tide Short-cut Trail and the regular beach route: Option 1 is 1.6km, Option 2 is 3.1km and Option 3 is 1.5km.
To cross the river at the mouth you need a tide of about 2 meters (6 feet) or lower. At tides between 1.5 and 2 meters you’ll have to walk about 100m upstream to near where the trail leaves the beach and goes into the forest and cross there as it is shallower. Prepare to get wet to about your knees and then scramble over the rocks on the other side back upstream to regain the trail. At lower tides you can probably just cross the river right at the beach without getting too wet. And at high tides of course you can always swim it!
If the river is too high to cross you can take the inland trail which actually has a few interesting things to see. Coming from the east follow the beach along the river down stream for about 100 meters then take the trail into the forest where it is marked by floats. Keep an eye out for a large old growth cedar and then a few hundred meters later a huge culturally modified tree with a big box cut out of it. After about 800m of walking in the forest you’ll reach the large metal bridge over the Kutcous river and the junction with the Trail of Tears.
After you cross the bridge you have two options: continue straight to take the new High Tide Shortcut Trail or turn left to follow the river back to its mouth and continue along the coast. The High Tide Shortcut is, as its name implies, shorter but it stays totally inland and is a bit rough in places since it is only a year old. Its rooty, a bit muddy and has more encroaching vegetation than in other places on the trail so it can be slow going. Even with the slow travel though, it’s a good option if the tide is too high to ford the river and you don’t have time for the longer coastal route.
If you aren’t in a rush you should take the trail back along the river mouth to the coast. Once at the coast you’ll still be in the forest for a little bit to bypass some head lands. You’ll find an old cabin along this part of the trail that the trail society has adopted to serve as an emergency shelter. The cabin sits on the bank above a small pocket cove. After passing the cabin, the trail continues in the forest for a short distance before emerging on a sandy beach that you’ll miss if you take the High Tide Shortcut Trail. The next pocket cove after this beach is where you’ll meet back up with the shortcut trail.
After this junction its straight forward walking across one long beach and a couple of inland sections to the log bridge crossing over a river and then on to Cow Bay.
Mount Flores Trail
Once at Cow Bay there is one more side trail to consider: the trail up to Mount Flores the highest peak on the island at 860m. While I haven’t hiked the Mount Flores trail I can tell you that everything I’ve read about it suggests that the trail is so overgrown that it is almost impossible to follow. In all of the accounts I’ve read of people trying to get to the peak, they have failed to reach it as they either got lost or found the overgrown bush so tough to travel through that they ran out of time. I can’t say that I recommend this route or that it even sounds appealing. If you do decide to try this route it apparently leaves from one of the coves on the west side of Cow Bay. Getting to these coves requires going around or over headlands that are cut off at high tide so keep that in mind.
There are three designated campsites on the trail. The first one is about 2km from the trailhead at the sand dunes. The second is at the mouth of the Kutcous River at around 5km. And of course the final one is at Cow Bay at the end of the 11 kilometre long trail.
Sand Dunes Campsite
The dunes campsite has a couple of wooden tent pads or you can camp right back in the dunes. There didn’t seem to be much flat beach above the high tide line at this campsite. There is a metal food cache and an outhouse as well. There may be a trickle of a stream at the west end of the beach but in general you will have to bring your own water to this campsite as it doesn’t have a water source.
Kutcous River Campsite
The Kutcous River campsite has a two wooden tent platforms back in the brush behind the beach and space on the beach above the high tide line. There is also a plastic throne style outhouse (so no actual house) and a metal food cache. The mouth of the river is quite wide and tidally influenced so you may have to walk upriver quite a distance to get fresh water, especially at high tide.
Cow Bay Campsite
The Cow Bay campsite actually has two food caches and two outhouses. There is an outhouse located near where the trail meets the beach with the food cache located not far away but reached from the beach, not via the trail. At the far east side of the beach almost at the river mouth there is a trail that leads back from the beach to the tent platforms, second outhouse and second bear cache. You can get water from the river at all but the highest tides as it descends a few feet before it meets the ocean so it doesn’t often get very salty. This stream is actually quite clear for a coastal stream and didn’t have the characteristic swamp tea colour that you often get on the coast so it didn’t tend to clog our water filter. There is also a smaller stream on the far west side of the beach if you want to camp away from the crowds.
There are countless pocket coves and long sandy beaches along the trail that would make great campsites. Of course there are no facilities at these campsites so you’ll have to bring your own water, hang your food in a tree and dig catholes to bury your waste.
There is also an old cabin at around the 6km mark (if you ford the Kutcous River; it’s at the 7.5km mark if you go the long way across the metal bridge). The cabin is now supposed to be used as an emergency shelter but it looks like people stay in it regularly. It has an outhouse nearby but I’m not sure what the closest water source is.
Remember that you are in a wild and beautiful backcountry location that is also an important place for the Ahousaht people. Keep a clean campsite, pack out what you packed in and follow the seven Leave No Trace principles. We want to ensure this amazing place stays pristine and beautiful so generations of hikers can continue to enjoy it.
Co-Existing with Large Mammals
This is the West Coast so of course it is prime cougar habitat. Apparently bears are rarely seen along the trail but they do live in the area so you should take the usual precautions when travelling in bear country.
The other large mammal to be aware of in this area is the wolf. The wolf population on Flores Island and in the Clayoquot Sound area in general has rebounded in recent years and is thriving. This means that human-wolf interactions are on the rise. Unfortunately there have been some unpleasant interactions, mostly in areas where people have been feeding wolves or where dogs are involved. In recent years there have been a number of dogs on Flores that have been attacked and killed. Some of these dogs are local dogs from Ahousaht and some are dogs belonging to hikers.
BC Parks and the Wildside Trail organization both strongly discourage bringing dogs on the trail as they are a target for wolves. As well, many of the dogs in Ahousaht are strays and the local practice seems to be to let strays and owned dogs alike roam the town and the nearby beaches. The Ahousaht dogs have been known to follow hikers for the weekend and then get attacked by wolves in the hikers campsite. If you encounter Ahousaht dogs on the trail, actively discourage them from following you.
Besides leaving your dog at home, the other thing you can do to prevent negative wolf interactions is to keep a clean camp: cook a good distance from where you sleep, don’t leave food out, and don’t bury waste near camp. Remember, wolves are big dogs and they will eat your food scraps and your poo! BC Parks has more information on wolf safety.
More Information and Further Reading:
The best source for information on this trail is the Wildside trail organization. Their website has some info and they will answer all your questions by email. There are also brief sections on the Walk the Wildside Trail in Philip Stone’s book Coastal Hikes and in Hiking the West Coast of Vancouver Island by Tim Leadem.
And of course if you have questions I’d be happy to answer them. Leave them for me in the comments below.
Read Next: More Coastal Backpacking Trips
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