Hiking the Juan de Fuca Trail has been on my bucket list since we came off the West Coast Trail in 2007. Five years seems like a long time to wait but the Juan de Fuca hasn’t ever felt epic enough to warrant a 14+ hour drive and a ferry ride. However, this summer we decided to combine it with wine tasting in the Okanagan as a BC Road Trip and I finally got to cross it off my list.
We started our hike on a Thursday morning by catching the 8 am ferry to Swartz Bay from Vancouver. From there it was a couple of hours drive to Botanical Bay just outside of Port Renfrew where we dropped off a car and paid half our trail fees. The trailhead is busy with day hikers, other backpackers and people visiting the tidal pools at Botanical Beach but we had no trouble getting a parking spot to leave one car while we hiked. We had decided to start our hike from the south trailhead (China Beach) so from Port Renfrew we drove back south to China Beach to park the other car. The hiking trail is only 47 km long but with the narrow roads and construction it took almost an hour to get back to the south end. There is lots of parking at the China Beach trailhead and we chatted with the very friendly volunteer who was monitoring the parking lot while we got ready. When it was all said and done, we started out on the trail by mid-afternoon.
The section between China Beach and our planned stop for the night at Bear Beach is rated “moderate” and involved some up and down on muddy trails. Most of the hike is in the trees (unlike what we experienced the WCT) which made for differently scenery. The first couple km are used by day hikers and had some nicer trails than we saw further down.
After about 2 km the trail headed down to Mystic Beach before turning back into the trees. This was our first real chance to see the ocean since arriving on the island so we ate a late lunch on the beach to enjoy it.
We made pretty good time and arrived at Bear Beach (~9 km) before our 5 pm tide cut off. There are three camping areas along the beach and we stopped at the middle on near Clinch Creek. There are signs and maps at the entrances to all camping beaches showing the locations of the camping areas and markers at every km along the trail so it is pretty easy to figure out where you are. The BC Parks website had warned that we should be prepared to hang our food but all the spots that we camped at had bear bins. Not everyone seemed to be using the bins but we were happy to be able to stash our stuff without too much work. While I hadn’t been too impressed with the sights along the trail into Bear Beach, the campsite on the water made up for it. It was sunny but cool in the afternoon so we found ourselves bundling up to cook and eat dinner.
Day 2 started off sunny and after a lazy breakfast on the beach we hit the trail around 10 am, knowing that we were only planning on an 11 km day. The first little bit of hiking from the campsite was on the beach but we soon climbed up into the trees for the rest of the day.
There is a lot of elevation gain between Bear Beach and Chin Beach (21 km). We would often climb up a headland to briefly stand on the top before heading straight back down. In some places there were bridges to cross the creeks but we still found it a difficult day. This section of the trail is rated as the most difficult so this didn’t come as much of a surprise to us.
By the time we got to the beach campsite at Chin Beach it had clouded over but we were just happy to be sitting on a beach without our packs on. The campsite at Chin Beach was also really nice and we had a great little site in the trees where previous occupants had taken lots of time to build tables and “decorate”.
Even though it was cool and cloudy we didn’t get any rain that evening and we woke up to another day of hiking in the giant trees along the coast. The part of the trail past Chin Beach to Sombrio Beach is also rated as difficult and we got up early to beat the tide for a little bit of beach walking out of the campsite. This didn’t last long and we soon found ourselves climbing up and down muddy slopes in the forest.
While I love the beach, the forest can be quite pretty in its own way. It was cloudy so the forest was a little dark and damp but the large trees are incredible.
A couple of km from Chin Beach is a large (and rather impressive) suspension bridge. I hate walking across them but the view out towards the ocean was pretty and it did save some elevation changes. Mairi and Jonny spent more time looking at things on the bridge but I crossed pretty quickly.
After the suspension bridge I think we all started to tire out – I’m not sure if this was the trail or just because it was our third day out there. Even though we were only covering ~ 9km that day it took us almost 6 hours to complete. The trail is in the forest and at first I was able to distract myself from the constant up and down by admiring the type of trees we don’t get back at home.
But it was muddy and even though it is supposed to be less difficult than the terrain covered the previous day I found it to be brutal. This photo shows me smiling but trust that it wasn’t always the case.
There were lots of relieved sighs when, after about 5 km, the trail joined up with an old logging road for a little bit. It felt like we were far away from the ocean but it was flat and only a little damp.
I would have happily hiked a flat, boring trail for a while but it didn’t last forever and soon we found ourselves climbing back up and down as the trail headed back towards the coast. I was amazed at how narrow some of the ridges we walked along were.
You can see the campsites at Sombrio Beach East long before you get there and I found the last km to the beach the worst of the whole day. It is right along the ocean so the views are beautiful but it also involves scrambling up and down a rocky ledge and since we’d held off on lunch until we got to the beach, I was a little hungry and grumpy.
I took two large tumbles on this section, the second one resulting in me lying downhill on my stomach and requiring my pack to be pulled off and a lot of pushing and pulling by my hiking companions to get me back on my feet. Luckily I didn’t hurt myself but nothing made me happier than setting foot on the flat sands of Sombrio Beach.
Sombrio is one of the locations along the trail that can be accessed by day users and since it was a Saturday the beach was packed with people camping. We first set down our packs on the sandy Sombrio East beach in the camping area since the sign at the entrance to the beach had only indicated this one section for camping. After a much needed lunch, Mairi and I headed down the beach to see what else we could find. We weren’t thrilled with the idea of sharing the beach with lots of people so when we came across the Sombrio West camping area just another kilometer or so further down the trail we returned to our packs and carried on. I think this was one of the best decisions that we made because the camping at West Sombrio was fantastic. It’s not on a sandy beach but there are tent platforms scattered in the forest and about 5 sites which have uninterrupted ocean views.
We grabbed a couple of tent pads with a view out to the water and settled in to enjoy. As we were setting up the sun came out from the clouds and our crummy, exhausting trail was forgotten as we enjoyed the best part of coastal hiking – sitting in the sunshine watching the ocean.
The campground was much quieter than the other side of the beach (we shared it with 3 other people) and was my favorite part of the whole trail. I think we were all pretty sad to leave it the next morning. Day 4 stared off with some fog but it quickly cleared and we enjoyed a little time exploring along the coast.
Our plan for Day 4 had been to hike 11 km to Payzant Creek and spend another night on the trail but as we started hiking we all got it in our mind that maybe we would just hike to the end that day. We decided that we’d check out the campsite at Payzant before we made up our minds but I think we were all caught up with the idea of just finishing. We knew that Payzant wasn’t on the beach so I don’t think any of us were really surprised when we got to the campground and voted to continue on. It is really hard to sleep in the forest when you’ve been spending your previous nights on the beach.
The hike between Payzant and Botanical Beach was some of the nicest hiking scenery of the trip – lots of ocean views and less elevation change.
We often crossed little beach stretches and even though the last 7 km were exhausting (it has been a long time since we hiked an 18 km day) it was enjoyable in its own way. I think we were all pretty tired and we required a serious snack break with only 3 km to go but we still took a little time to enjoy the hiking.
When we hit the last 200 m (gravel path) we were all pretty excited. I love hiking but the feeling getting off the trail is amazing. We hustled as fast as we could up the path to our waiting car. I think we all heaved big sighs of relief when we were able to drop our packs and take off our boots. We posed for one last picture before heading to civilization again.
Overall, it was a beautiful hike and I loved camping on the beaches. We were so lucky not to get rain but even without it the trails were wet and muddy for the most part (about what we expected). I loved that the trail was quiet – we usually didn’t see any other hikers until we got to the campsites and even then we usually had our own space. While I enjoyed the West Coast Trail more, the Juan de Fuca was also a really nice experience and it felt great to hike on the coast again.