While there are other places on Vancouver Island to see old growth trees, the Carmanah Walbran Valley is home to the biggest and best collection of huge trees, including Douglas Fir, Red Cedar and Sikta Spruce. It’s a slow and bumpy ride out there, but a pristine rainforest awaits you. The rain soaked valley seems endless as you hike for hours through it, spotting another ‘big one’ after another. Eventually you’ll lose count and just soak it all in. The atmosphere is thick with mist, and the forest quiet with the only sounds being your own footsteps, dripping water and the occasional bird.
Alone in the woods
Some of these trees are many centuries old, but some of the youngest ones are also the tallest and widest (the wet environment here is favourable for quick growth). Well, when I say young, I mean maybe three hundred or four hundred years. At least as old as Canada anyway! At one time, most of BC looked similar to the Carmanah Valley, which makes the experience even more poignant. This is a truly special place, and most likely you’ll have it all to yourself like we did. It requires a bit of effort to reach, but if you’re willing to put in the time, Carmanah Walbran will deliver.
A trip back in time at Carmanah Walbran
After some quality time spent on the Island’s logging roads (around three hours from Lake Cowichan, more from Bamfield) you reach Carmanah’s parking lot. There’s not really much to it, though it feels like entering a bit of a time warp since all of the information on the notice board relates to 1995 – the year BC Parks acquired the Walbran portion. The brochures posted on the board hint that new developments will be happening soon in 1996, once the ‘new’ land is consolidated. Perhaps there were big plans for Carmanah Walbran at one point, but it seems that it has now been left to run a little wild, mostly due to funding issues. In some ways, this may be the best thing for it, though I wish that the route to the Carmanah Giant, the tallest Sitka Spruce in Canada (95m), was still open.**
An overnight stay
Back to the present time of 2014, there are a number of hikes you can take in the Valley, along with a couple of different camping areas and a parking lot for overnight stays for RVs. I had a hard time picturing large RVs making the long journey by logging road (especially the part that went up and over a small mountain and the particularly narrow sections) but they do seem to get everywhere. It costs $5 a night per person to stay in a RV, and $10 per person per night for camping, paid via self-registration. The camping area by the parking lot was surprisingly nice and well kept, though I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to light a fire here.
On the trail
All hikes start from the parking lot – it’s basically just one route heading north through the Valley, with your return route the same way you came. There are some specific trees highlighted for viewing, such as the Hollow Tree, Heaven Tree and the Randy Stoltmann Grove. The latter is named after the environmentalist who tirelessly campaigned for this area to be protected back in the late 1980s/early 1990s. This area was actually scheduled by the Provincial Government to be completely clear-cut but after repeated protests by Randy and friends, the land and trees were saved.
Wet, wet, wet
One thing you must know if you go hiking here is the risk of flash flooding. We spent around three hours wandering six kilometres around the Valley to the Three Sisters and then to the Randy Stolmann Grove before returning to our van. Soon after we got back, the rain really started pouring. It had been raining most of the day and we’d gotten dripped on a fair bit in the forest, but now the heavens just opened. Jean Robert put a quick tarp up and we were collecting 500mls of rain in our water bottles in less than five minutes. I have never seen rain like that anywhere outside of Fiji. I wouldn’t have wanted to be hiking, let alone camping, down in the Valley right then.
Having spent an amazing day amongst the giants in the Carmanah Valley, it was disturbing to see logging trucks on our way home, loaded up with trees not of a dissimilar size than the ones we were recently admiring. On the other hand, I’m not sure there would be any kind of access to Carmanah Walbran if there was no logging in the area. What a weird kind of juxtaposition to be in. This has come up quite a few times during our time on Vancouver Island – why is it that we’re always driving along logging roads to reach the most beautiful spots?
Regardless of the politics, our time at Carmanah Walbran was one of the best days we have spent on Vancouver Island. It is a long way out there, but I urge you to go if you can. If you don’t have much appreciation for trees before you go, you definitely will after.
The Cheewhat Cedar
**On the way to and from the Carmanah Valley, we attempted to find the Cheewhat Cedar, apparently Canada’s largest tree (by width). It is located not far off the logging road on the way to the Provincial Park. Despite it being highlighted in our Backroad Mapbook, and using GPS, we could not locate the start of the hike to the tree. We were pretty disappointed, especially since it was on Jean Robert’s Western Canada bucket list. I can only put it down to visiting the area in early season (May); a lot can happen to the condition of trailheads over the winter, particularly in areas as wet and full of big trees as this (it would only take one big tree across the trail to completely block it from view).
The Three Sisters