The West Coast Trail’s Little Brother
While many people automatically associate Vancouver Island with the renowned West Coast Trail, the nearby Juan de Fuca Trail features much of the same coastal scenery, rugged muddy trails, beautiful forests, and animal life. Many people even rank their experience on the Juan de Fuca as even better than on the West Coast Trail.
With little more than directions to the trailhead and a quick look at a map online, we headed straight for trail as one of the very first things to do once we reached the Island. After four nights and about four days on the trail, we too can say that it was one of the best and most memorable hikes we have ever done.
On the Trail
We started off by driving our car to the China Beach trailhead, paying the surprise camping fees for our time on the trail ($10 a night per person, so really not so bad), and planned to take a moderate/relatively relaxed pace of four nights to cover the 47 km to the end of the trail.
In less than an hour we encountered beautiful forests, countless streams, lush foliage, the first of several suspension bridges, and a beautiful view of the coast. We knew instantly that this was going to be a hike to remember.
It soon became apparent that we were counting kilometres at a much slower rate than we expected. Admittedly, the trail was a bit demanding in sections. And it probably had something to do with a long, cold winter of inactivity in Regina. Over the days as our shoulders got used to their burdens, our feet got used to the wet, and our legs got used to the constant elevation gain and loss, we started to pick up our pace a little bit… but by the end of the first day’s mere 9 km we were happy to reach the beach and were excited to find a place to camp at Bear Beach. We weren’t in the clear yet, however. As the rain started to come down and the faint rays of sun that found their way through the clouds descended on the horizon, a nice cold creek put itself in between us and our campsite.
No choice but to take our boots off and cross the stream! Silly us… we still thought we would manage to keep our feet dry. That illusion soon ended. That night we were soothed to sleep with the pitter-patter of rain on our tent… and it didn’t really stop pitter-pattering for a few days.
Only a couple of kilometres after the appropriately named Bear Beach, Lisa was doing her regular “whoa bear” calls, about every 30 seconds or less, as usual, when it actually worked! She spooked a black bear who was having breakfast somewhere just after a loud stream crossing. He sprinted into the woods, stopped, and turned back to look at Lisa. She had her bear spray out in a flash, and Elliott arrived to take his camera out (much to Lisa’s anger after the fact), but unfortunately he wasn’t able to snap a picture. We made lots of noise, slowly backed up and gave the bear some space, waited about 10 minutes, and continued on down the trail, never to see the bear again.
It was our first bear encounter on a trail, and it was actually pretty cool. The bear was super cute, it all seemed rather nonthreatening, and now Lisa calls “whoa bear” every 15 seconds whenever we go on a hike.
Once the rain started at Bear Beach we got used to wet breakfast with wet bannock…
Wet rocks for walking and wet (and slimy) stream crossings…
Wet boots when water comes over the top and wet logs that have been carved into deathtrap bridges…
Wet boots when bogging through the endless pools of multicoloured mud with no option but to go straight through…
And plenty of wet critters and plants to accompany us along the way!
Beware of the rogue mud puddle
We regularly stomped right through endless mud puddles/mud lakes/mud rivers throughout our four days on the trail. While it was certainly tempting to go around some of them, taking alternative routes can also damage trails and make them even worse. After all, abused bodies recover, but abused trails don’t.
Most of the time the mud and water ended at about ankle level, which was just low enough for our hiking boots and gaiters to protect us from getting too coated with mud. One time, however, just as Lisa was angry that some mud had gone over her boot and Elliott was telling her of where to step, Elliott’s legs suddenly vanished in a gigantic mud trap!
The puddle looked just the same as all the others, but it certainly wasn’t. If you hike the Juan de Fuca trail, maybe you’ll get a muddy surprise too! Needless to say, Lisa wasn’t so upset about her own muddy boots after witnessing this happen to Elliott.
The endless wet notwithstanding, the trail was still absolutely beautiful and constantly rewarded our efforts with breathtaking views of the surf, the Olympic mountains in Washington State, and the mesmerizing rain forest surrounding the trail at all times.
The Bear Spray
One morning when we were doing our breakfast dishes in a creek we heard some bizarre yelling. At first we looked around briefly and thought some other camper was just really excited or really annoyed at something. It happened again. It seemed very strange, so we looked up the creek and there was a man there, dressed in jeans and hiking boots, standing in the middle of the river, his face and eyes red, crying out in pain.
Lisa asked him what was wrong. It turned out he had bear sprayed himself in his campsite down the beach, ran blind to the sea to try to flush his eyes with seawater, and eventually found his was to our little creek and was trying to continue flushing his eyes with fresh water. He was a bit delirious, freezing cold, and in very obvious extreme pain (afterwards we asked him how bad it hurt. He said it was easily a 20/10).
We asked if we could helped, and sat him down next to the stream. He laid his head back while the two of us poured water from our water bottles directly into his eyes for at least 10 minutes. Elliott also got one of his own fleeces so the man had something to wear that wasn’t soaking wet and cold.
After a while he seemed to be getting a bit better, so we walked him back to his campsite and helped him make a fire to keep warm. He got into some dry clothes, and we promised to check on him before we left the campsite for good. When we came back about 30 minutes later, he was in much better shape and extremely grateful for our help.
While accidents do of course happen, it’s obviously beneficial to know how your bear spray works before you go out on a backcountry hike! Our friend was also equipped with questionable outdoor gear (blue jeans, cotton shirts, etc.), and quite frankly, it was a surprise he had even gotten as far as he did on the trail without suffering from hypothermia already.
Considering we had just taken our wilderness first aid courses, it was surprising how much the situation felt exactly like a scenario from one of the courses. Maybe we are more ready to handle backcounry medical emergencies than we thought!
And then one day, suddenly, there was sun!
We couldn’t believe it. It seemed too good to be true! It came with bits of rain now and then, of course, but after our third night it got sunny, and mostly stayed sunny! It was absolutely glorious.
First things first: GET EVERYTHING OUT IN THE SUN TO DRY, EVEN IF IT WILL ONLY BE OUT FOR FIVE MINUTES!
It also just so happened that the unexpected but warmly welcomed emergence of the sun coincided with our shortest hiking day. We hurried on through sun-soaked forest to our campsite for the night, found a sunny spot to set up camp, and spent the afternoon drying out our clothes and boots, trying unsuccessfully to go for a swim in the cold water, exploring tidal pools, and simply soaking up as much sun and warmth as our bodies could absorb. It was truly glorious.
And the best way to finish off a perfect, sunny day hiking along the coast? Why, with a super tasty meal in even more sun overlooking a beautiful cove, of course!
All good things must come to an end, and even though our experience on the Juan de Fuca trail was about ten times more awesome than just “good,” it sadly had to come to an end eventually too. As we hiked the final few kilometres to the trailhead at Botanical Beach, passing hordes of sandal-clad families, talkative elderly folks out for a stroll, and casual beach combers who were all out to enjoy the sunshine of the Easter weekend, we couldn’t help but repeating to each other “wasn’t that just awesome!?”
We found a couple of friendly men in a vintage Mercedes who offered to drive us the 30+ km back to where our car was parked at the trailhead, which couldn’t have worked out more perfectly. After getting in our car and freeing up a parking space for the hundreds of weekend visitors, the final step was to head back to Victoria and dry out all of our things on the lawn of an incredibly friendly and accommodating couch surfing host who is fast becoming a good friend.
The Juan de Fuca Trail was one of the best hikes we have ever done… and there’s a good chance we may even do it again in the near future. We have big news coming soon that we can’t wait to share with everybody, and which will certainly change the way that we explore this big, wide, wild world!