Into the Valley of Trees - Carmanah Valley

Story and photos © Elise Mallory
My trip to the Carmanah Valley began as a weekend adventure to view some of the tallest Sitka Spruce trees in the world but ended up being a journey into some of the thickest, richest rainforest that I have ever had the chance to explore. Though the desire to view the massive trees of the valley is what originally draws people to this spot, the experience of being absorbed into the dense valley becomes the most memorable part of the journey.

Exploring the Carmanah Valley was always on our list of weekend ‘to-do’ adventures. Unfortunately, the draws of a perfect pacific swell often lead us to Tofino and a weekend of surfing instead of hiking. It was one hot summer weekend, when the waves were minimal at best, that we packed my boyfriend’s trusty old ford truck (not forgetting the country music playlist of course) and hit the logging roads to the Carmanah Valley. Our plan– a quick trip from Victoria to Lake Cowichan for night one, then onto the Valley in the morning.

The entire drive from Victoria to the Valley can be done in one day without any problem (it is only a 3.5 hour drive) and the logging roads are quite well maintained which allows for fairly smooth travel. It definitely helped to have a truck for a couple of the sections once you begin to approach the Provincial Park entrance, but overall the trip is quite accessible (that being said, we did talk to a couple of girls in a little pickup truck that had difficultly going up some of the steeper inclines - though they were also completely unaware that they had a flat tire so...).

When we arrived at the park there was only three other cars in the large parking lot and we began to get the sense that even though this journey was a mere 3.5 hours outside of the city, not a lot of people ventured out this way. This was further confirmed while we were exploring the tent sites provided by the park and realized they got quite overgrown about 3 sites in. The park also provides several bear caches between the sites and after running into a bear about 10mins after we arrived, I definitely recommend people use these. Be prepared to hike your stuff about 10mins to the tent sites, as several metal poles and large fallen trees prevent any driving down the service road.

Having arrived a little late in the day, we decided to forgo setting up camp and instead begin our hike. There are several different options for hiking the Carmanah Valley; from 1 hour along a man-made boardwalk to different tree viewpoints, to a 3.5 hour one-way hike to August Creek, the hike can be tailored to your desire. We decided to take the 2.5 hours (one way) 5km hike to a alluring point called Paradise Pool. This hike would lead us past a couple of the Valley’s memorable Sitka trees but ultimately bypass the most recognizable tree groves of the Valley (something we left for a considerably shorter walk the next day).

The trail begins with a sharp switchback that quickly descends into the valley floor. It is once you have reached the bottom of this trail that you truly begin feel the all-encompassing presence of the valley. Immediately, the air is sticky with a dense warmth even though only pockets of sunlight shine down through the towering forest ceiling. As you walk along the trail (which is a boardwalk for about the first hour) you will be amazed at the thickness of the bush around you. The entire forest floor is enveloped in salmon berry bushes that tangle themselves among the fallen foliage. There would be no possible way to deviate from the groomed trail without exhausting bushwhacking – and even then you would be so engrossed in navigating the web of growth that you would not be able to see 2 feet in front of you.

Walking on the trail gives you a feeling of being closed in on both sides by the valley itself – the trail is a small refuge cut through the heavy rainforest floor that allows people a glimpse into this secluded area. Every so often the trail offers a detour out to the Carmanah Creek (which follows the main trail) and even though you escape the dense hug of the bush to stand on the river’s edge, you can still feel the overwhelming presence of the valley looming around you.

When we first began the hike we foolishly scoffed at the idea that it would take us 2.5 hours to walk the 5km to Paradise Pool. Our inflated view was further perpetuated by the extremely flat, mostly boardwalk trail that we followed for about an hour and led us to the attractions of the Three Sisters tree and Grunt’s Grove. However, it became quite obvious that not many people use the trail beyond Grunt’s Grove. Instead of being spoiled with an easy boardwalk, the trail quickly disintegrated into a narrow path marked with flags to lead the hiker through areas where the trail was almost unrecognizable. It wasn’t that the hike became too particularly strenuous (there were hardly any hills to climb) but it did became quite difficult to navigate. Crawling under fallen trees, climbing over fallen trees, up rocky creek beds, balancing over log bridges, and pushing our way through overgrown bush became our trail. It was relieving when we had more than ten steps without meeting another obstacle, and after almost exactly 2.5 hours, we were overjoyed to come to Paradise Pool.

Crazy amounts of hungry mosquitoes aside, Paradise Pool was definitely worth the trek through the bush. It was an area where the Carmanah Creek flowed into deep, still, crystal clear pools surrounded by lush old growth rainforest. It felt like a private sanctuary, a grotto carved out of the thick growth just waiting to be stumbled across. “This looks like something out of a movie,” was the first thing my boyfriend said upon viewing the striking green pools. It was also way too inviting to not jump in and cool off from the humid nature of the valley (though it did take me quite a bit of convincing to get my boyfriend to follow my dive in – especially after my shriek at the surprising cold temperature of the water), but we were definitely cooled down for our hike back!

Even though the Carmanah Valley is known for its massive Sitka Spruce trees, the viewing of these monuments became just one part of our experience of the valley. On the day following our hike to Paradise Pool, we made the short, very accessible walk to the main grove of trees that usually attract people to this area. Though the grove offered some amazing growth, we were disappointed to discover that the trail to the Carmanah Giant was closed and completely deactivated (we tried to bushwhack to it but abandoned the idea after discovering it would be painfully slow and difficult). Apparently the Giant stands a little too close to the West Coast Trail and BC Parks does not want people to access the trail without going through the proper procedures. Oh well.

We weren’t that disappointed that we couldn’t get to the Carmanah Giant because our experience of trekking into an area of all-encompassing, isolating, lush rainforest became the highlight of our trip. The intense feeling of being enclosed by this dense wilderness valley was an unexpected, humbling experience.