Hiking the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail

By Benjamin Massey · August 11th, 2017 · 1 comment

The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail is a 47-kilometre back country backpacking trail, along the south coast of Vancouver Island between China Beach (west of Sooke) and Botanical Beach (a 45-minute walk south of Port Renfrew), paralleling British Columbia Highway 14.

No, you’re thinking of the West Coast Trail. The West Coast Trail is half-again as long, filled with vertiginous ladders, cable cars, and boat rides, and about ten times more famous. The Juan de Fuca Trail is the West Coast Trail’s misshapen bastard brother. You can do them both in one huge trip, connecting through Port Renfrew, but there’s no doubt who the alpha dog is.

I’ve never done the West Coast Trail. I have now done the Juan de Fuca Trail, and my choice was pure practicality: the three-day August long weekend was already coming, and I’d worked enough overtime to win a fourth. The recommended time to spend on Juan de Fuca is four days; for us ordinary Joes the West Coast Trail takes seven. So on Wednesday I was booking buses and a night in Victoria, on Thursday I was on the move, and on Friday I was hiking.

Naturally I had a trail guide. Published in 1998 and allegedly revised in 2008, Donald C. Mills’s Giant Cedars, White Sands paints an idyllic picture:

The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail gives hikers the freedom to use the trail any time. They need not make reservations or pay for trail or ferry permits. The bridges, boardwalks, and suspension bridges are very safe. The Trail is forty-seven kilometers long and can be hiked in part, as a day hike, or hiked all at once, in four to six days. Whether you are a novice or an expert hiker, you will want to experience this new and challenging trail.

As a dissenting view, let us take VancouverElizabeth‘s review via TripAdvisor, from June 29 of this year:

Dangerous Trail.

Just hiked this trail. The trail is seriously degraded. There has been no upgrades in 20 years. At some parts the trail is poorly marked. There is a considerable amount of deep mud and the trail is steep, slippery and difficult to navigate. A challenging trail with many obstacles and many parts that are dangerous.

One star.

VancouverElizabeth’s is the truer analysis. The fine backcountry constructions have become at best worn, at worst ruins. Almost every staircase is missing at least one step, maybe half are only relics in the dirt. Even in a bone-dry summer the mud was unavoidable and thick, while erosion has made steep slopes worse and some flat parts risky. I didn’t find navigation difficult but there are open areas where I can see how one might, and there are opportunities to pass the last marker on a beach and wander into the wild until you run out of either land or patience. Slippery? Definitely, when I did it, despite the drought. It’s probably hard to get yourself killed, but easy to bust an ankle hours from highway and help. Oh, and this part of Vancouver Island is one of the world’s leading black bear habitats.

I disagree with VancouverElizabeth in two ways. First, there have been a few upgrades in twenty years. Over four days I saw nine wood planks that had obviously been replaced since the hardware was originally installed in the late 1990s. So there.

Second, and maybe I’m feeling generous because it was my first multi-day thruhike after a year of one- or two-night ins-and-outs, but it was better than one star. Dangerous, sure, tiring, in spots, but that’s part of the fun. And there were rewards. I wouldn’t leap up and down to call it “a world-class adventure hike” (in the words of Giant Cedars, White Sands) but I might do it again.

This diary is largely for myself, so I can look back years from now and say “oh yeah that was neat.” People making plans might find aspects useful, and I’ve provided statistics for each of my four days. But mostly, this is for buddies and family who want to read about what I’m doing. General interest is likely to be limited. That’s right, blogging it old-school.

There is no cell service or wifi so I wrote each entry in camp and put them together back home. So don’t think this is any sort of as-it-happens diary: they’re a day’s impressions cleaned up after the fact. I hiked westbound, from the China Beach trailhead to Port Renfrew, but the other direction is also popular.

Trigger warning: this post contains materials that may cause distress to readers sensitive to cheap wooden staircases falling apart in public parks. Please read on at your own risk. Emotional counsellors and psychiatric advise are available through the City of Toronto.

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