To the end of Vancouver Island – Cape Scott Lighthouse hike

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on May 8, 14 • by • with 12 Comments

To the end of Vancouver Island – Cape Scott Lighthouse hike

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Our Vancouver Island Backroads Mapbook describes the Cape Scott Trail as ‘a difficult 23.6km one way hike through the heart of Cape Scott Provincial Park….muddy, rocky and rooty, there are few places on the Island as remote – or as wet – as this.’ You may wonder why this description didn’t put us off, especially considering it would be our first multi-day hike ever and we were planning to do it in late April (to avoid the $10 per person per night fees starting May 1). However, the idea of hiking to the very end of Vancouver Island, our home for the last two and a half years, was all the motivation we needed, no matter how many guidebooks told us how muddy it would be. And it was. Muddy, I mean. It was also rewarding; we hiked through old growth forest, mud, meadows, mud, historic settlements, mud, marsh, mud, sand dunes, more mud and along numerous beautiful sandy beaches to reach the infamous lighthouse at the end of the trail. There was also the time we experienced a 6.6 magnitude earthquake while in our tent, camped next to the Pacific Ocean. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We were lucky enough to start the trail on an unexpectedly sunny day; I say unexpectedly since we’d been camping in the north of the Island for a week or so already and had forgotten what sunshine looked like. Clearly the weather stunned us, and we didn’t actually start the trail until 1.30pm. A nice time to hike to nearby San Josef Bay (2.5km one way) but possibly a bit late in the day to attempt  17km. Especially if you’re on the Cape Scott Trail. Looking back, kilometre 1.5 – 2.5 was actually the worst of the whole trail; we climbed over several recently fallen trees (and these are particularly big in this area; there must be something in the rain), jumped over huge swathes of mud and slipped on and over the disintegrating boardwalk. I think if it had been raining we would have turned back. But the sun made us optimistic. We later found out that as soon as May 1 came around, maintenance would start on the trail, concentrated on this first bit. Yes, we avoided the post-May fees, but it had never occurred to me that there was a real reason for charging $10 a day per person. Lesson learned.

Cape Scott hike Vancouver Island 2

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike mud 2

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike mud

Cape Scott Provincial Park Eric Lake

In hindsight, our optimism was not totally unfounded. The trail was generally better after that awful early kilometre, but it was still damp all the way through. Occasionally there was a piece of wood or two placed in the middle of the various mud-oceans, but sometimes it wasn’t quite trustworthy enough to be of any use (sinking was common occurrence, or, at worst, it turned out to be mud-that-looked-like-wood instead). There was boardwalk too, but you couldn’t get too excited about it or you may have ended up slipping off. It may not have been muddy, but it was sure wet. There were some nice spots, don’t get me wrong; we saw lovely waterfalls, rivers, lakes and approximately 12km in, the rainforest opened up and the huge Spruce trees were swapped for grey Pine and shrubs. It looked more like somewhere in Eastern Canada according to JR, my handy native New Brunswicker.

Now, we were wearing ‘waterproof’ hiking shoes, and they were waterproof, to a degree. It turns out that they weren’t too fond of being submerged continuously for 15km into high levels of mud. It may not have been raining that day, but my feet were pretty wet by the time we reached Nissen Bight beach that evening. We had intended to camp at neighbouring Nels Bight that night (another 2km or so), but we couldn’t have possibly reached it in time before sunset. Nissen Bight was perfectly satisfactory, though it was a bit awkward pitching the tent on a slope and by then I think I would have been happy to sleep anywhere!

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike bridge

Some nice parts of the trail

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike JR

Cape Scott Provincial Park bird

A strange bird we found hooting on the trail. If anyone recognises it, please let us know!

Cape Scott Provincial Park forest

The lookalike Eastern Canada part of the trail – another nice part, until the marsh took over

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike Nissen Bight

 Nissen Bight, with wolf tracks below

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike Nissen Bight wolf tracks

Cape Scott Provincial Park Japanese tsunami drift

 Japanese tsuanmi debris – we saw this all along the northern coast

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike beach bird

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike beach bird 2

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike settlers settlement

A wolf visited Nissen Bight overnight, leaving huge tracks in the sand. We followed these tracks a fairly easy 6km west to Nels Bight, past the remains of various unsuccessful settlements. There were two main attempts for settlement in the Cape Scott area, led first by a Danish community in the 1890s and then a more mixed group from the 1920s up to WW2. Despite the dedication and perseverance of the settlers, both groups were beaten by the harsh climate (I bet they didn’t like mud either) and lack of transportation links (the provincial government of the day backed out on several pledges to build local roads). When leaving the area for the final time, the settlers could only take what they could carry on their backs, so there are many pots and pans, saws and other items left in the forest to rust, along with burnt out house foundations and an old well. Further along the trail, we also saw the the meadow used by the Danish for farming, and hiked the remains of the WW2 military road that led to the Lighthouse. It was fascinating to think of all the history in this area, a place that still feels so remote.

After a much easier day two, we set up camp on the very long (2.4km, and flat too) Nels Bight beach and caught some more sun. We couldn’t believe our luck with the weather, and it continued the next day too. Leaving most of our gear at Nels Bight, the 13km round trip to the Lighthouse was a walk in the park. Actually, it was more a walk on the beach, as we eschewed the proper trail and followed the coast, occasionally having to climb up and over bluffs to avoid the ocean. Greeted by sand dunes at the end, we followed the trail back into the forest and then suddenly arrived in what looked like a small village. Cape Scott has one of the last manned lighthouses in Canada, and the lighthouse keeper (one of two) in a fantastic mood since he was only an hour away from leaving the Cape for the first time since January. What a place to live – the end of Vancouver Island, with views out to the Pacific and a few surrounding islands, the occasional hiker for company and no doubt the most extraordinary weather. But they do have internet access.

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike settlers meadow

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike Nels Bight

 Nels Bight

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike Nels Bight camping

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike Nels Bight beach

The Lighthouse keeper caught a helicopter ride back to Port Hardy while we hiked back down to Nels Bight for the night. He had timed his escape just right, avoiding the earthquake that came at 7pm, while we were playing Yahtzee in the tent. About 60km away from us on the west coast of the island, was not particularly deep (11km) but we felt it strong enough. The tent moved forward and backwards for around 40 seconds, as though on a conveyer belt gone haywire. At first I thought it was a bear, playing with the tent. We suddenly didn’t feel particularly safe camping next to the Pacific Ocean, with our van a long muddy hike away.

Luckily, the father from a group of recently arrived campers happened to be a local fire chief, and had a satellite phone at his disposal. Furthermore, Cape Scott Park Facility Operators were staying at the usually unoccupied cabin at Nels Bight and one came down to tell us that they had heard from the coastguard that there was no tsunami alert issued for the region. Good thing too, the evacuation point was 1.5km down the beach away from us – not so convenient! Still, I was glad we chose to camp on the ‘busiest’ beach on Cape Scott; we’d met another group of hikers who were camping nearer the Lighthouse (approx 3km away from us), and we wondered how worried they were.

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike sandunes

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike military road

cape scott collage

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike bald eagle

Our luck with the weather ran out on the final day; we had to hike 17km back to the car in the rain. The puddles were bigger, the mud-oceans wider than ever and the formally fairly-dry pathways had rivers running down them. We made it though, past the meadow, the settlements, the waterfalls, through the seemingly endless forest, over the mud and fallen trees, arriving back at the van seven hours and 50km after we started.  I’m not sure if I’d do it again and how much I’d recommend it (ask me in another month), but it was certainly an adventure I won’t forget or regret. OK, I could have done without some of the mud, but it’s not like no-one warned us. Moreover, I’m proud we completed a ‘difficult’ rated trip as our first multi-day hike, and with relatively light backpacks too (especially compared to our Sayward Forest trip last year). We had the right food and the right equipment (well, minus the shoes I guess), but I didn’t think I’d have to account for an earthquake too!

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12 Responses to: To the end of Vancouver Island –...

  1. Lucy says:

    Sounds like a great adventure Gem. I am (as always) super jealous. Although perhaps not of all the mud ! ;) xx

  2. Christian says:

    Please Continue to Write Gemma, it lights up my day.

    we Are so glad we Met you two.


  3. Martin says:

    Did you manage to get out to San Josef Bay?

    • Gemma Gemma says:

      Hi Martin, our focus of our time in the Cape Scott area was the Lighthouse hike. Had the weather been better after our hike, we may have considered it!

  4. Guy Monty says:

    The hooting bird is a Sooty Grouse.

  5. Dave Hedden says:

    Just came back from five day trip. My girlfriend and I enjoyed this trip so much. We pretty much mirrored yours. This place is so magical and for us the mud and the difficulty of the hikes made it even more rewarding. And besides if it were easy think of how many people would go. Thx for pics and the story, it made it seem as if I were rite there while reading your story. Happy hiking.

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