Hiking the Juan de Fuca Trail
The Juan de Fuca Trail (JFT) in British Columbia, Canada, is an amazing trail for beginners and experienced hikers alike. It provides 47km of stunning wilderness trail, winding through lush rainforests and expansive beaches, all while hugging the Pacific coastline. It extends from China Beach near the town of Jordan River to Botanical Beach, near Port Renfrew. Terrain varies along the trail, from some very easy stretches on flat ground or wooden bridges, to very difficult, climbing up and down steep and muddy switchbacks and crossing large and slippery tree trunks. As it is a marine route, some timed planning is required as well, since beach stretches can be cut off at high tide. Overall however, it is extremely rewarding; with a bit of preparation and fitness training, it is easily achievable for an average person within three to five days.
Juan de Fuca vs. West Coast Trail
The JFT is the lesser-known trail of two on Vancouver Island’s southwest coast, its bigger sister being the famous West Coast Trail (WCT). The entire WCT is longer, at 75km, but the two trails offer similar vistas since they follow the same coastline. The JFT is often considered a good preparation for later hiking the WCT, and some people even combine the two for an epic double-whammy of a trail. Additionally, the JFT is cheaper at only $10 a night for camping (compared to the reservation fee of ~$150 to hike the WCT) and does not require reservations. There are also multiple access points so you can visit parts of the JFT for just one day or for an overnighter if you want.
One of the many charms of the JFT is the opportunity to view a large variety of wildlife. Along the trail it is possible to spot black bears, whales, sea lions, bald eagles, and herons, just to name a few. I was lucky enough to spot a whale breach in the distance as I was eating a snack, as well as many sea lions swimming and sunbathing at most of our beach stops. My friend also saw a black bear run from the beach into the trees, but all I saw was lots of berry-filled bear poo!
If the thought of bears makes you nervous like it did for me, there are lots of great guides published in British Columbia regarding bear safety and how to respond if you do come across one. Humans and bears can peacefully co-exist as long as humans are respectful of their territory and follow general practices to keep them at bay such as storing food. You can read more about bear safety here.
The Juan de Fuca Trail camping spots are handily equipped with bear caches that you can use to put your food and scented products away. On busy days, however, they can fill up fast. In these cases, you can improvise a bear hang from a tree, like we did our first night on the trail, with a sturdy bag and rope. Just make sure to hang your food away from your campsite. There’s no point in doing it if it’s right beside your tent; that way you’re basically inviting bears to come near you! That’d be un-bear-able.
How to Get There
There are three main ways to access the trail:
- Double Car Drop/ Pickup
If you have access to two cars, you can drive and drop one car at the start of the trail and one car at the end of the trail, for easy return once you’re finished. If you have a nearby friend with a car, you can also ask them to drop you off and pick you up, or just pick you up and bring you back to your car.
- West Coast Trail Express
This is a great service that runs from both Victoria and Nanaimo to multiple spots along the JFT, as well as the WCT. Prices depend on where you are going and where you are coming from. You can find information here.
Although the legality of hitchhiking is a bit confusing in B.C., we learned that it was pretty common practice on Vancouver Island due to the lack of alternative transportation methods. There are many kind souls who are willing to offer rides to backpackers when they see them. This is what my two friends and I did, and it went smoothly.To get there, we took the Route 61 bus from Victoria to Sooke, and found a spot near where we got off to park ourselves. After about 10 minutes, a lady stopped for us on the other side of the road. She said she saw us originally on the right side but was unable to stop – nonetheless she turned around to come get us! Talk about kindness. She even gave us a map to the trail that she happened to have – it couldn’t have been more perfect.To get back, we expected to have a harder time since Botanical Beach is a bit off the highway. However, luck was on our side. We managed to get a ride with a couple that offered to take us all the way back to Victoria! They were just out on a day trip and thought the drive would be fun. The parking lot there is very large and there are a lot of day trippers, so as long as you ask nicely and arrive during the day or early evening, it is very likely that you can find someone to drive you at least to the highway, if not all the way to where you need to go.
Note: Although most people who stop are just friendly and helpful, hitchhiking can be risky as well since you are taking a ride with a stranger. It is better not to hitchhike alone, but if you do, make sure you get the car’s license plate number and text it to someone just in case. Also remember that if you do not get a good vibe right away, you can refuse the ride. Go with your gut – never get in a vehicle if you feel uncomfortable!
Camping on the JFT
There are five possible beach camping spots…
- China Beach
- Mystic Beach
- Bear Beach
- Chin Beach
- East Sombrio Beach
… and two possible forest campsites:
- Little Kuitshe Creek
- Payzant Creek
All campsites are equipped with at least one outhouse, with tide charts and map information, as well as with bear caches to store your food as mentioned. Campsites are pre-made for the most part, and these are the ones you will generally want to use. We met one father-daughter pair that told us that they slept on the trail one night because they were too tired to keep walking, but that it was very uncomfortable since there was hardly any space to set up camp. It is therefore best to plan out where you want to sleep in advance to avoid similar situations.
Example 4-Day Itinerary
The beauty of this trail is that it’s very customizable to fit your schedule and preferences. As an example though, my friends and I decided to do the trail in four days. It could definitely have been done in less time, or also extended to last longer, but we found four days was the perfect amount of time to have plenty of time to relax at the campsites after walking while still getting in a good amount of kilometres daily. Here is a breakdown of what we did:
Day One: China Beach Trailhead to Bear Beach (9km)
After analyzing the map at the China Beach trailhead for a while and talking to a helpful warden, we started walking. Getting to the beach, we noticed a rope swing in the distance some people were swinging on. Of course we couldn’t resist the temptation to do the same, so took our first break to play. Make sure to look for it to your left when facing the ocean upon arrival, and remember to put your head back for extra childish glee!
The rest of the trail to Bear Beach was not too hard, just a bit muddy, and it started to rain so we had to get out our rain gear. Magically, we found a campsite that was dry even amid the rainstorm thanks to some big trees. We squeezed both of our tents into the small space and tried not to trip on the cords. We were able to sit outside and look at the grey ocean from the comfort of our dry little nook!
Day Two: Bear Beach to Chin Beach (11km)
“Most Difficult” stretch
Waking up, we were happy to see the rain had stopped and that the sun was trying to come out. We headed off in high spirits and soon learned that this trail stretch’s designation as “most difficult” was correct. We trudged up and down some very steep and muddy hills, trying not to fall (unsuccessfully), and additionally trying to avoid patches where people had placed yellow caution tape with the writing, “Hornet’s nest here!!”
Finally arriving at Chin Beach after the tough terrain was a treat. We got there before any other hikers so got first pick of a nice spacious spot to set up camp. There was even a little swing set up so we could indulge our childishness once again. I sat happily swinging back and forth as other hikers showed up. We also enjoyed our first sunset that night, the red hues of the sky gradually melting into black as we sipped our hot chocolate.
Day Three: Chin Beach to East Sombrio Beach (6km)
We opted for a short day here of only 6km because it was sunny and we really wanted to spend time and camp at East Sombrio Beach. We were happy we did – unlike the other campsites which were by the beach but still under the trees, this site was our first true beach camping experience. We pitched our tent in the sand and then I went for a dip in the ocean to cool off. The water was freezing so I didn’t last long, but I laughed as a sea lion swam by a few metres away!
It also happened to be a long weekend so there were a ton of people around who just came for the night or the weekend, which made for a fun atmosphere. Also, a fire ban that had been in effect for our whole time on Vancouver Island was finally lifted thanks to the earlier rain, so we finally got to make one! It didn’t last long since most of the wood we could find was wet, but it was nice to warm our hands for about an hour as the sun set.
Tip: There are two really beautiful waterfalls at East Sombrio. One is obvious and you will see it right as you hike in, but one is hidden; it’s just slightly to the north once you initially arrive at the beach. You’ll see a sort of cave in the trees. Walk through it following the sound of the falls, you won’t regret the detour!
Day Four: East Sombrio Beach to Botanical Beach Trailhead (20km)
“Moderate” stretch with an “Easy” bit at the end.
This was our biggest day, since we shortened day three. Luckily, the terrain was much easier, plus our packs were light since we’d eaten most of our food, so we were still able to make good time. This stretch is distinct for its younger trees. It was green and humid, a true rainforest. Our feet were pretty sore at the end after such a long walk, but we were soon able to take a nice long shower and sleep at our hostel in Victoria. It was definitely an unforgettable adventure!
Make sure you get a hard-copy of the map for the trail that you can use in case you are lost. It also has useful information about beach cut-offs at high tide, and other general information about the wildlife and camping. You should be able to get one at the trailhead, but if for some reason there are none, you can take a picture of the map with a camera or phone to use. Here is a virtual copy to aid you in planning your hike.
- Plan out your meals. You don’t want to have too much, because it will make your bag too heavy, and you don’t want to have too little, because you’ll be hungry. Think about what you’re going to eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks each day and pack accordingly.
- Treat yourself. Don’t forget to pack along something really yummy that you can look forward to after a long day. My treat was hot chocolate!
- Pack light. Freeze-dried food is often a go-to for multi-day backpacking trips, and is a good source of protein. They’re pretty expensive though, so good alternatives are soups and pastas that come in small paper bags, dried fruit, oatmeal sachets, etc. Get creative! There are lots of yummy light foods out there.
- Stay hydrated. Especially in the summer, you will get thirsty fast. Make sure to carry at least 2L of water, and to have a method to purify water on the trail. This can be purification tablets, or a camp-stove to boil water. There are plenty of water sources along the trail you can use.
- Rain-gear. Vancouver Island’s west coast is notoriously wet. It will probably rain at least one day on your hike. Bring good rain gear, or at least a plastic poncho to cover yourself and your pack. You’ll be happy you did when your sleeping bag is still nice and dry when you crawl into it at night.
- Pack layers. Hiking in the day even when it’s cool will make you hot, so have some light layers to hike in. Nights can also get cold though, so bring a warm sweater and pants as well as a good sleeping bag.
- Bring a swimsuit. If it’s hot, you may want to jump into the ocean and swim!
- Avoid cotton. Try and avoid cotton when hiking. It will hold your sweat and make you cold. Quick-dry fabrics like polyester are better.
- Bring a camera. You are going to see some stunning views. You’ll likely want to snap at least a few shots on this beautiful hike.
- Stay positive. Even if you’re wet, cold, tired, and hungry, stay positive. Nothing ruins a good hike like a bad attitude. Just remember how awesome it will feel when you’re done!
Ready to get hiking? Visit the official JFT website to find out this year’s opening and closing dates, as well as further information.