A Hiking Guide: The Juan De Fuca Trail
Three words, 47 kilometres of varied terrain, a significant amount of mud, and some of the most beautiful coast line in all of BC. Yes, you can expect all of this and so much more when you commit to hiking Vancouver Island’s Juan de Fuca trail.
It always starts out with ample amounts of enthusiasm, fresh clothing and a moderate to fast past. Eager was the name of the game when we stepped past KM 0 and into pure, unpredictable, emotion filled adventure. They don’t call it a wilderness trail for nothing.
The Juan De Fuca Trail is located along the west coast of southern Vancouver island, and is considered the sister hike to the infamous (and much longer) West Coast Trail. Originally, our plan for the long weekend involved lots of cold beer, a speedboat, and more than a handful of lakeside floaty tanning sessions; essentially the complete opposite of what we signed ourselves up for by committing to do the Juan De Fuca Trail. But plans changed, our flip flops were swapped out for hiking boots, and we found ourselves off the grid instead.
At least getting there is easy. From Tsawassen, take the ferry to Swartz Bay and drive past Victoria through Sooke, and then on toward Port Renfrew. Well before Port Renfrew, you’ll reach China Beach. You’ll park your car at the day use parking lot and start your trek at KM 0. Foreshadow: You’ll have to get back to your car eventually, so plan accordingly. The best option is to either hitchhike back (which is a lot easier than it sounds) or park one car at each end of the trail (China Beach and Botanical Beach) if you’re in a group—this is the more time consuming option.
On average, it takes 3-5 days to complete the entire trail from China Beach to Botanical Beach. Three if you’re a superstar backcountry hiker, and five if you’re with kids, consider yourself a slower hiker, or just want to take your time because it’s that freaking beautiful. We were smack dab in the middle of this at four days, three nights.
Day 1: China Beach – Mystic Beach – Bear Beach, 8KM*
This section is rated as moderate, and weaves its way through the forest until you reach Mystic Beach 2KM in. This is a day-use beach, which means lots of other people will be enjoying the scenery and taking a turn on the Instaworthy beach swing. This is a great place for a water/snack break before you continue another 6 KM to Bear Beach, where you will set up camp for the night**. Hiking from the parking lot to Bear Beach took us 2.5 hours with stops.
The beach itself is rocky, but there are tons of designated camping spots just back from the rocks on dirt. To get to a fresh water source, just keep walking along the beach until you reach a river. Of course, you’ll have to walk up the river a bit to get clearer water and you will definitely want to purify it, but let me tell you, this is stream is a God send. It’s deep enough to bathe in, so make sure you bring some natural soap to clean yourself off with!
If possible, I highly recommend choosing a camping spot as close to this river as possible. That way, you won’t have to travel far to get water or use the outhouse/bear cache.
And yes, you will need to put your food away at the end of the night—or anything remotely smelly, for that matter. If a bear doesn’t come after your trail mix you accidentally left out, then you can almost guarantee that a family of rodents will. And they like anything that smells. They even tried to chew through our big (and expensive) bags, which had zero food or toiletries inside. They’re sneaky devils and they show no mercy for any kind of thick material.
Be prepared to hang your food if you’re hiking the trail on a long weekend. The bear cache isn’t as big as you might think and will most likely fill up before you have the chance to store your food there. Bring rope just in case and ideally put everything you hang in a waterproof bag so the rodents don’t climb the tree and chew through it.
Day 2: Bear Beach – Chin Beach, 11KM
On day two you’ll hike the “most difficult” section to Chin Beach. This 11KM stint climbs up and down steeply almost the entire time. Expect a lot more mud and some more technical spots that you’ll have to take your time passing through. It’s challenging, yes, but I wouldn’t say that it’s more difficult than other hikes I’ve done in BC. I found it challenging mostly because the weight of my bag made me much more unbalanced than usual.
This section took us about 3 hours and 15 minutes, but it felt a lot longer because of the elevation and wide variation in terrain. When you get to Chin Beach, walk along the water until you reach the river (can you sense a common theme here?). Again, camping next to the river will save you trips to the bear cache, outhouse and a reliable water source. This river isn’t nearly as deep as the one at Bear Beach, but there is a section where you can sit and dunk your head back. Swimming in the ocean to clean off is another option, but because of the rocks, it’s quite a trek actually reaching the water.
Day 3: Chin Beach – Sombrio Beach, 7KM
This is definitely the shortest section of the trail. The hike from Chin to Sombrio beach is only 7KM and is rated “difficult”, but shouldn’t take you more than a couple of hours if you’re a decently paced hiker.
Coming from Bear and Chin Beach, you will be in for a bit of a shock once you finally arrive at Sombrio. This is a day-use and car camping accessible beach, which means that it will be really busy in the summer.
People can park and walk in with their gear, and you will definitely stumble upon campsites that look like they brought their entire home with them. This also means that you’ll hear a lot more noise (and music) at night and you will definitely be tempted with food and alcohol that you didn’t see at the other two campsites—because let’s be honest, when you’re carrying all of your belongings on your back for four days, beer takes much lower priority.
One of the biggest draws of this beach is that it’s actually sandy. This might not sounds like a big deal in writing, but trust me when I say you will be sick of walking on rocks when you get to Sombrio.
There are three sections you can camp at on this beach. East Sombrio (the first campsite you cross when coming off the trail), West Sombrio (you have to walk almost 1 KM to get there from East Sombrio, and this is the section where most walk-in campers stay), and West West Sombrio, which is past the inlet. Each campsite has 1-2 bear caches*** and an outhouse or two. West Sombrio happens to have the nicest, most well maintained outhouses because of their proximity to the parking lot.
We stayed at West Sombrio because of its proximity to the main river and trailhead. If you decide to stay at West Sombrio, you can access fresh drinking water at a river that is located inland, less than 100 meters from the outhouses. If you need to clean off after your hike, you can also bathe in the Sombrio river, which is nestled between West Sombrio and West West Sombrio campsites. The best spot to do this is under the suspension bridge at the inlet. Sombrio River isn’t warm by any means, but there’s nothing like feeling clean after 10KM of hiking through mud and dirt.
Day 4: Sombrio Beach – Little Kuitshe Creek – Parkinson Creek – Payzant Creek – Botanical Beach, 18KM
After Sombrio Beach, you have a few choices for camping, but the bummer is, none of them are on the water. Each campsite after Sombrio is in the forest, which doesn’t sound too terrible, but if you don’t like bugs or mosquitos, I would suggest putting on your game face and completing this section in one day. In all fairness, 18KM does sound like a really long distance, and in some ways it is, but if you have the mindset that you’re walking this distance in one day, your mind and body will work together to push you to the end with a bit more ease.
This section took us 6 hours in total, but the level is “moderate”, so it’s not nearly as challenging as section two or three. There are plenty of places to stop along the way, fill up your water bottle, use an outhouse or cook lunch. If you pace yourself, the journey will be much more enjoyable. Do, however, watch out for bears. You could run into a bear at any point on the trail, but because this last section is a bit less populated and twice as long, there’s a good chance you might cross paths with some kind of wildlife.
About 5KM to the finish of the trail we got stuck between a baby and momma bear. No one was harmed, and no bear spray was used, but we were thankful to be prepared just in case. We all say that we know what to do when we encounter a bear in the forest, but do you really? It’s better to have the necessary gear (bear spray and a bell) than be stuck in a less than ideal situation.
When you finally reach the parking lot at Botanical Beach, you can give a big sigh of relief! 47KM is quite the accomplishment and if you’re anything like me, both your back and feet will be screaming at you for some Rub A535 and a long, hot bath.
If you finish the trail on the weekend, you should have no problems getting a ride back to your car at China Beach. By the time you get there, it should be around 2-5PM (depending on when you left that morning) and lots of people will be leaving the parking lot at this time. Just start asking around if anyone is heading in your direction, or stand at the end of the one way exit and hold up a sign for “China Beach”.
Worst case scenario, someone from your group has to hitch a ride back and return to Botanical Beach to pick up everyone else in your group. This should be a last resort, though, as the drive is a lot longer than you might think (about 45 minutes—yes, you walked that far!).
And that’s pretty much all there is to it! It’s one of those bucket list items that you will look back at and smile, but may cause you to never want to do a multi day hike again, depending on your level of adventure. You will be sore, incredibly tired, craving fruit and vegetables, and in need of a really, really cold beer. But I promise you, it’s all worth it. It always is.
Tips and Tricks
- Pack dehydrated meals for your main meals (dinner). You will be VERY hungry and will be burning upwards of 3,000-4,000 calories a day (if you’re a girl). Dehydrated meals are great because they are loaded with calories, they’re light weight and they take up minimal space in your bag. Of course, convenience comes with a price tag, so expect to spend $10-$12 per meal if you go this route.
- Pack LOTS of snacks: It’s better to have too much food than not enough! You will probably underestimate how hungry you will be. I felt like I was snacking all day. Snacks like Clif Bars (all Clif Bars are vegan!), trail mix, and chocolate are fantastic when you need an energy boost.
- Pre-make your lunches or buy pre-packaged foods: We bought organic pre-packaged rice dishes that came in pouches and took five minutes or less to heat up. Other than this, we pre-made pasta sauce with vegan sausage and brought spaghetti for our first dinner. This is a heavier option, but is great if you want to mix things up.
- Bring bear spray and a bear bell: I know that I mentioned this above already, but I can’t stress this enough! There is a very good chance you will run into a bear and you want to be prepared for the worst.
- Bring a waterproof bag to hang your food in: Again, I already mentioned this above but it’s an important one. The rodents along this trail are ruthless and will chew through anything that isn’t metal!
- Bring an extra pair of shoes/sandals to relieve your feet from your boots: This one is crucial, especially if your boots aren’t 100% broken in. At the end of each hiking section you will want to walk in anything that isn’t your hiking boots. Trust me on this one.
- Bring natural soap to “shower off” with: You will stink and you will want to wash your body down in the river. Make sure you bring a bar of natural soap so you don’t pollute the water with toxins. And no, Dove is not natural!
- Bring a water container to store water from the creek: This is another one you might not think of. If for some reason you can’t find a camping spot near the river at any of the above beaches, you will want a container or bag of some sort to store a larger amount of water in. This will minimize the amount of times you will have to return to the river to refill your water bottle.
- Buy a UV water filter: This is by FAR the best way to filter your water. It’s essentially a stick that emits UV light and you place it in your water and swirl it around for a minute. It kills all the harmful bacteria in the water and voila! You have perfect drinking water. I think that this is better than the old school pump because it takes up less room in your bag. I don’t actually have one of these high tech gadgets, but I have camped with a friend who does. The method we chose was a Life Straw, a Pristine water bottle and the standard boil over the stove method (less than ideal).
- Bring a pair of socks and a pair of underwear for each day: I know this one is a given, but you would be surprised how many times I’ve just told myself that I’ll “re-wear my socks on the second day”. In some situations this works, but with all the mud and often, the large amounts of rain this area gets, you won’t want to re-wear sweaty, wet socks.
- Pack for all kinds of weather: This means you should definitely bring a fleece, a pair of long pants, a pair of shorts, a synthetic down jacket, a rain jacket and a toque. We experienced both really cold and hot nights over four days and I was so thankful to have all of the above.
- Prepare for mud: This means you need to wear the right shoes! Nikes are nowhere close to ideal and hiking boots are your best bet, especially because they give you the best ankle support
- Pack it out: Don’t be that douche bag who dumps his leftovers in the outhouse. If you pack it in, take it out with you and leave NO trace.
* These instructions assume that you are hiking in the direction of China Beach to Botanical Beach. It is 100% possible and just as common to hike the opposite direction. In that case, you will just have to reverse these instructions and the KM markings.
** Only camp here if you want to take your time completing the trail. If you’re aiming for a three-day trek, you can also continue on to Chin Beach, which is approximately 19KM from the start of the trailhead. Keep in mind though that the section from Bear Beach to Chin Beach is the hardest, with the greatest elevation gain and the most varied terrain.
*** Again, be prepared to hang your food. We witnessed one group put their entire cooler in the bear cache, which took up essentially the entire box.