Hiking the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail


Story & photos by Alistair Cochrane
The morning air was cold and my breath hung in the air. I shivered as I stuffed my rain jacket into my backpack, but starting out cold and warming up is better than sweating for the rest of the day. My packing method for this trip can only be described as “disaster light.” If something went wrong, all I had was my rain jacket, a fleece hoodie, 3 liters of water, some energy bars, and a bagelwich to survive on. In addition to the “essentials” I had a digital and a video camera, a pad of waterproof paper, a pen, and my well worn, water stained, smudged map of the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail.


Once I had my backpack secured and comfortably adjusted, it was time to start. Looking at the 0 km marker was a bit daunting. My legs were already stiff from the cold and I wondered if I had bitten off a bit more than I could chew by only giving myself a day to complete my journey. Pushing these thoughts aside, I bid adieu to the China Beach parking lot and headed into the forest.


The first two kilometers down to Mystic Beach are quite easy. Only a small amount of the early morning light managed to peek its way through the dense canopy above, and the shadows played games with my senses. I would round a corner and my heart would leap in my chest thinking that I had seen a bear, only to find a stump. The forest floor was covered with dead needles from the cedars and Sitka spruces around me. Everything looked so dry; it was hard to believe that I was in a rain forest. The dried needles looked like matches strewn across the forest floor.

After about one kilometer I stumbled upon a mound of rusted cable strewn off to the side of the trail. A relic from when this was a logging area. No matter how much I wanted to feel like I was in the wilderness, every once in a while I would come across something that reminded me that civilization was never very far away. As I journeyed deeper into the forest, the sounds of the passing cars on Highway 14 were soon replaced by the wind in the trees and the crash of the ocean waves.


As the trail begins its slow descent towards Mystic Beach the environment shifts from the matchstick forest to a dry creek bed. My legs and body had finally warmed up and my confidence grew with every step. I picked my way over the loose rocks, congratulating myself on my agility and speed. This self-satisfaction did not last long. On one particularly loose rock my ankle rolled, leaving me to hobble around like a pirate on a wooden leg for a few minutes while the tendons slowly returned to normal.


It took my eyes a moment to transition from dark forest to brilliant beach-front. Mystic Beach is perhaps best know for the waterfall that descends just east from where the trail meets the beach. Unfortunately for me, the tide was up, and I was unable to explore.


The next part of the trail can be a bit monotonous as it winds its way through the forest. The blood was flowing in my legs and I started to zone out as the kilometers ticked away. Rounding a corner, a root from an overturned stump brought me swiftly back to reality. As I looked ahead, I failed to see the root protruding into my path. My leg hit hard and before I knew it I was on the ground lying on my back. I felt like an overturned turtle as I tried to roll over off my backpack and onto my feet. After a quick examination of the growing welt on my left thigh I was off again, this time paying more attention. Lesson learned, do not cut corners.


Passing the signpost at Km 8 I knew that I was close to Bear Beach. A quick glance at the “You are here” signpost confirmed my location. Ten kilometers done, 37 to go. I took a moment to appreciate the view, with Bear Beach just around the next point. The sun came out just as I set foot onto the beach and the view was amazing. The tide was just beginning to go out and the wet rocks reflected the sunlight. I picked my way carefully over the slick rocks, remembering lessons learned earlier. I needed my body to be as unbroken as possible, as the next kilometers of the trail are universally regarded as the most difficult. The ascents were grueling and my legs began to burn after the first two hills. With each step I could feel every ounce of weight in my backpack. I began to lament the packing choices I made, what was I thinking, bringing a video camera? As I breathlessly approached the last peak, I decided to reward my hard work by letting myself run wildly down the other side. I whooped a loud, “WHEEEEEEEEE” as I hurtled myself towards the next creek bed. view from Bear beach


This part of the trail is by far the wettest, as it transitions from the dryness of Mystic Beach, to the rainforest that the West Coast is so well known for. Skunk cabbages bloom throughout this section of the trail and it is odd to see such a vivid shade of yellow contrasted against the dark swamp-like mud. Previous hikers have often thrown logs or large rocks into the middle of the larger mud pits to provide a route through the mess. I managed to pick my way lightly over the majority of the larger mud bogs, but inevitably succumbed to a foothold that looked firmer than it was. Before I knew it my entire foot disappeared into the muck. So much for dry feet.


With the majority of the hills behind me, I started to get excited about my scheduled lunch destination. Chin Beach is one of my favorite places in the world. With a campsite set back into the trees just far enough to muffle the crash of the waves, but close enough that the sound of the sea can still lull me to sleep every time. Aside from the premiere camping spot, Chin Beach also houses the only significant shelter to be found on the trai. It was surprisingly warm in the cabin as it provided my first respite from the cool ocean wind. The guest book that was once present is no longer there, but the walls of the cabin have been used by hikers to record their thoughts and experiences. The interior is much like an amusing bathroom stall, where hikers have come over the years to write notes on the walls, some of them far more appropriate than others. Regardless, they provided excellent entertainment while I took a load off and finished by lunch. Recharged and refreshed, I set off down to the beach.


After Chin Beach the trail begins its climb up to the awe-inspiring Loss Creek suspension bridge. This is undoubtedly the most impressive part of the trail. Loss Creek itself is quite remarkable, but from 200 ft in the air, the scene is breathtaking. The other side of the Loss Creek suspension bridge leads up another climb to an abandoned logging road. The road is a salient reminder of the irony of the area; that my enjoyment of the trail was largely made possible by those who came before me trying to destroy it. The history of the area is so rich, the moment that I have now come to appreciate is just an inconsequential blip in the timeline of the region.


I have mixed feelings about the next part of the trail. The logging road is a welcomed break, as it is a smooth, flat highway compared to the rest of the trail, but it ruins the feeling of being in the wilderness knowing that anyone can drive down from the highway to meet you.


At km 24, the halfway point of the trail, I decided to take a moment to express my overwhelming love for the trail… Or maybe document the madness that inevitably comes will long periods of solitude, either/or.


The trail toward Sombrio beach is one of the most breathtaking – and precarious – sections of the whole trail. The path leads along the edge of the a cliff, so closely at times that it felt like I was floating over the edge. Across the bay I could just make out tiny dots strewn about in the water, as surfers took advantage of the large spring swell. The waves crashed on the rocks below so powerfully it sounded like thunder and I felt the mist rise from 50 feet away.


After Sombrio Beach the environment changes again, from the wet dense rainforest to dry, open and arid undergrowth. This is the most recently logged section of the trail. The next ten kilometers wind their way through what was once a clear-cut, and despite efforts to reforest the area, the trees here seem miniscule compared to the giant cedars left behind me.


At Km 37 I was met by one of the more infamous inhabitants of the area, the black bear. I should have expected something, as I was hiking by myself and I was not making as much noise as I should have been to warn them away. I had never met a black bear on the trail before and my heart leapt in my chest as I rounded a corner to find it in the middle of the path ahead. My mind quickly raced through all of the “Bear Aware” videos that I watched in high school P.E. Do I make myself big? No, that’s cougars. Run? Definitely not. Do I climb a tree? Was that for grizzly bears, or black bears? Even so, there were no trees higher than 2 meters anyway. What scared me most of all was that the bear was small, no larger than a cub, which brings to mind only one question… where was the mother? I started to back away slowly, making low noises (I pretended to be Barry White) and looking away from the bear so as not to intimidate it (I think that’s what I was supposed to do…). Quite in contrast to myself, the bear could not have looked more relaxed. He (or she… I decided refrain from a careful examination) looked vaguely in my direction, turned, and continued to lumber along the trail away from me. After a few moments I saw it on the beach below. Inspired by its apparent indifference towards me, I decided to continue on (albeit now singing all of my favorite songs at the top of my lungs… enough to drive away any creature with the gift of hearing).


The last eight or so kilometers went by in a blur. I felt drunk from fatigue, and as the trail continued to weave in and out through the trees the small ascents and descents at each creek bed became more and more difficult. I was still amazed at the view of the ocean through the trees, but my mind had shifted to the plush seats of my car in the parking lot, and I began to plan in minute detail the A&W feast that I was going to have once I made it back to Sooke.


Botanical Beach is renowned as one of the most beautiful and captivating stops on the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail. The tide pools house some of the most fascinating sea life on Vancouver Island.


I have hiked to the Juan de Fuca Marine trail five times now, and I must confess that I have never taken the time to explore Botanical Beach. Every time that I hike, I start at the east end and make my way west. By the time I reach Botanical Beach I am always too tired to make the trek to the beachfront. Luckily, the last two kilometers are an easy gravel roadway leading up to the parking lot.


Due to the proximity with the West Coast Trail, comparisons between the two trails are inevitable. People come from all over the world to hike the West Coast Trail, but few know that the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail even exists. I have hiked both and I must say that the Juan de Fuca Trail holds a special place in my heart. I would rather spend a day appreciating the natural beauty around me, than jostling for position and fighting for firewood on an overcrowded and over-hiked tourist attraction. Also, the Juan de Fuca trail is free, whereas the West Coast Trail costs $110.00.

Like the rest of BC, the Juan de Fuca trail contains a multitude of ecosystems, each with their own merits. The trail winds through scraggly second growth, newly replanted clear cuts, rainforests, and beach-fronts, all within 47 kilometres of wilderness trail.


Alistair Cochrane can be reached at: cochrane@uvic.ca


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