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West Coast Trail Alternatives: Best Coastal BC Backpacking Trips

Traversing wild stretches of coastline and rugged old-growth forest in Pacific Rim National Park, the West Coast Trail is often billed as the best coastal backpacking trip in Canada.

It is no surprise that reservations disappear within minutes of the launch each year. The problem is, there just simply isn’t enough spots for everyone.

Looking across rocks (some covered in seaweed) towards headland and ocean at Thrasher Cove
Thrasher Cove, West Coast Trail

The first limitation is that the West Coast Trail is open just five months of the year. Second, only a maximum of 70 hikers may start each day.

The great news is that there are many alternative hikes to the West Coast Trail.

Read on to discover the best coastal BC backpacking trips and all the details you need to start planning a trip.

Back view of three hikers walking on pebble beach on the Nootka Trail, leaving footprints behind them
Hiking the Nootka Trail

Here’s what to expect in this post:

Updated November 2023. There are affiliate links in this post. If you make a qualifying purchase through one of these links, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Boardwalk path leading down to sandy beach in Cape Scott Provincial Park, photo taken at sunset
Nels Bight Beach, Cape Scott Provincial Park

Backcountry necessities

Coastal Backpacking Trails in British Columbia

The coastline of BC stretches for an incredible 25,725 kilometres. The West Coast Trail is only a very small portion of that; there are many more British Columbia coastal backpacking trails that deserve attention!

The best part is that most of them have zero or minimal fees compared to the West Coast Trail’s $300 per person fee. These trails also attract far fewer people.

Here are eight coastal BC backpacking trips that offer a great alternative to the West Coast Trail, with more solitude, fewer fees and no reservations required.

I have hiked most of these trails and the remaining couple are on my ‘hike soon’ list.

Back view of Gemma standing with backpack and hiking pole in front of sandy beach on the coast of BC
Backpacking the coast of BC

Cape Scott Trail: 47km return, 3 to 5 days

The Cape Scott Trail has to be one of the most unique coastal BC backpacking trips around.

Alongside the sweeping sandy beaches and epic Pacific sunsets you’d hope for on a coastal hike, there are also intriguing signs of civilisation that are being surrendered to nature.

Moss-covered planks of a military road, a meadow surrounded by the rainforest, rusting pots and pans nestling in the ferns. A lighthouse perches at the very end of the rugged coastline, heralding the end of Vancouver Island.

The Cape Scott Trail is as challenging as it is interesting. Despite the majority of the trail is mostly flat, it is not quite a walk in the park. Hikers must be prepared to traverse giant fallen trees, slippery boardwalks and swathes of mud.

Close up of rusted historical artifacts on foliage Cape Scott Trail
Historical artefacts on the Cape Scott Trail

Essential information about this alternative West Coast Trail hike: 

Length: 47km return, 103m total elevation gain
Where: North Coast of Vancouver Island
Best time to hike: May to September
Camping: 6 designated camping areas on or close to the trail
Fees/reservations: $10/per person/per night (1st May to 30th Sept), first come first serve
Transportation: Not required
Dogs: Not permitted
Suggested length of trip: 2 to 4 days
More info: Ultimate Cape Scott Hiking Guide

The Cape Scott hike begins and ends at the San Josef parking lot. It takes around two hours to drive there from Port Hardy, with most of the 70km distance consisting of gravel logging roads.

Gemma looking up at a massive Sitka Spruce tree in Cape Scott Provincial Park
Finding huge trees in Cape Scott Provincial Park

North Coast Trail: 58km thru-hike, 5 to 8 days

The North Coast Trail is the West Coast Trail’s wilder, less developed cousin. It is a bit like what I imagine the WCT to have been maybe twenty or thirty years ago.

This route along Vancouver Island’s northern coastline is a journey through some of the wettest and most rugged terrain in British Columbia. This difficult hike is for physically fit, experienced backpackers only.

Those who do venture on the North Coast Trail will be rewarded with unbeatable solitude, a high chance of wildlife encounters (whales in particular), impressive old-growth forest and several spectacular stretches of sandy beach.

The North Coast Trail connects to the Cape Scott Trail, and, as such, hikers also traverse 15km of the other route to get back to the parking lot. 

Looking across driftwood to long sandy beach on Cape Scott Trail
Many North Coast Trail hikers make the detour to Nels Bight Beach and the Cape Scott Lighthouse

Essential information:

Length: 59.5km one-way hike with 243m elevation gain
Where: North Coast of Vancouver Island
Best time to hike: May to September (but open all year round)
Camping: 7 designated campsites on the trail, plus Cape Scott Trail campsites
Fees/reservations: $10/per person/per night (1st May to 30th Sept), first come first serve
Transportation: Water taxi, shuttle service
Dogs: Not permitted
Suggested length of trip: 6 to 7 days
More info: BC Parks’ website

A 60-minute water taxi from Port Hardy is required to reach the eastern trailhead. The southern trailhead (shared with the Cape Scott trail, above) is accessed via a network of logging roads. A shuttle bus is available. 

Gemma in orange jacket standing behind driftwood watching the ocean waves from pebble Sombrio Beach
Watching the waves on Sombrio Beach, Juan de Fuca coast

Juan de Fuca Trail: 47km thru-hike, 3 to 5 days

The Juan de Fuca Trail (JDF) traverses a scenic stretch of coastline just south of Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island.

As well as crossing some spectacular beaches and rocky coves, the trail spends significant time in the temperate forest.

Most of the camping areas are either located on the beach or have beach access, offering excellent opportunities for watching sunsets and spotting wildlife.

Many people choose the Juan de Fuca Trail as an alternative to the West Coast Trail. With no reservation system, it is certainly less restrictive. There is a shuttle bus running between trailheads.

Debate remains on the overall difficulty, however, with some arguing that certain sections are a lot harder with gruelling switchbacks replacing the WCT’s famous ladders.

Personally, I still found the harder sections of the WCT (southern end) more difficult than anything on the JDF.

Looking east on rocky coastal beach on the Juan de Fuca Trail, with a hiker walking towards camera. The beach is bordered by forest to the left and ocean to the right
Hiking the Juan de Fuca Trail

Essential information:

Length: 47km one-way hike with around 1500m elevation gain
Where: West Coast of Vancouver Island
Best time to hike: May to September (but open all year round)
Camping: 6 established campsites
Fees/reservations: $10/per person/per night, first come first serve
Transportation: Shuttle service between trailheads
Dogs: Not recommended
Suggested length of trip: 3 to 4 days
For more info: Juan de Fuca Trail Guide

China Beach, the southern trailhead of the Juan de Fuca hike, is easily accessible via a short (70 minute), paved drive from the city of Victoria.

There are other access points along the hike with parking lots. Shuttle buses are available.

The trail is usually open throughout the year, except during periods of maintenance and improvements. Heavy rain can sometimes wash out sections of the trail. Check the BC Parks website before planning a trip

Gemma standing on top of a mountain with sun rising behind peaks, cloud blocking the land below
Sunrise on Tin Hat Mountain, my favourite spot on our Sunshine Coast Trail hike

Sunshine Coast Trail: 180km thru-hike, 9 to 14 days

Despite the name, the Sunshine Coast Trail (SCT) spends the least amount of time by the ocean of all these coastal backpacking trips.

While it may not provide a true coastal experience in the same way that the others do (the path is almost always in the forest), I still thought it was a worthy inclusion on this list.

Both of the SCT’s northern and southern trailheads are located by the ocean, with the first section of each staying reasonably close to the water. The majority of the rest of the trail is inland, though there are some epic viewpoints offering ocean vistas.

The total distance of the Sunshine Coast Trail is 180km, but the accessibility of the route makes it possible to hike shorter sections. The most ocean-focused segment is from Saltery Bay to Fairview Bay, which can be included within a 2 to 3-day loop.

JR walking up the wooden steps of the two story Walt Hill hut
Arriving at the Walt Hill hut on the Sunshine Coast Trail, BC

Essential information:

Length: 180km thru-hike
Where: Sunshine Coast from Sarah Point to Saltery Bay
Best time to hike: May to October
Camping: 14 huts plus several established camping areas
Fees/reservations: No fees, first come first serve
Transportation: Shuttle service, water taxi, public bus, taxi
Dogs: Permitted
Suggested length of trip: 9 to 12 days for full length
For more info: Ultimate Sunshine Coast Trail Guide

The northern trailhead is at Sarah Point, about 15km north of the small town of Lund. Most hikers take a water taxi or hire a shuttle.

The southern terminus is at Saltery Bay, very close to the BC Ferries terminal. 

The Sunshine Coast Trail is completely free to hike, with no fees required for camping, huts or trail use. The trail is open throughout the year.

Huts are offered on a first-come, first-serve system for sleeping. Hikers should be prepared to camp if huts are full. The huts vary a little in age and facilities but all have a sleeping loft and outhouse.

Sunset view from rocky headland on First Beach, with sun lighting up ocean waves on left
First Beach on the Nootka Trail

Nootka Trail: 40km thru-hike, 4 to 6 days

The 35km Nootka Trail offers a wild coastal backpacking experience along on the western coast of Nootka Island, which sits just off the northwestern coast of Vancouver Island.

Though a relatively short distance, the Nootka Trail packs a lot of variety into those kilometres. The untamed path winds its way through beautiful old-growth forest, up and over rocky headlands and along stunning stretches of sand.

There are some challenging sections too, with huge fallen trees to climb over and steep slopes to ascend (aided by rope) as well as mud, slippery rocks and multiple creek crossings. Just over 80% of the trail is directly on the beach.

With the trailheads only accessible via seaplane and boat, solitude is almost guaranteed. Indeed, we saw more black bears than people during our mid-September hike of the Nootka Trail!

Side view of JR and John hiking beach section of the Nootka Trail, with ocean and mountains behind and rocks in foreground
Hiking an easier section of the Nootka Trail

Essential information:

Length: 35km one-way, 520m elevation gain
Where: Nootka Island, off the West Coast of Vancouver Island
Best time to hike: May to September
Camping: 6 unofficial campsites (throne toilets only)
Fees/reservations: $50 per person user fee charged by Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nations
Transportation: Water taxi, seaplane, boat (Uchuck)
Dogs: Not recommended
Suggested length of trip: 4 to 6 days
For more info: Complete Nootka Trail Guide

There are a couple of different options for hikers to access the Nootka Trail’s southern trailhead (Yuquot/Friendly Cove). There are far fewer for the northern terminus.

The most straightforward, but most expensive, method is to get a seaplane from Gold River to the northern trailhead of Louise Bay (Starfish) Lagoon.

The return journey could involve another seaplane back to Gold River from Yuquot. A cheaper option is to take a water taxi or scheduled Uchuck III boat back from Yuquot to Gold River. 

Hikers should reserve their transportation to the trailhead in advance.

The Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation charge a $50 per user fee for hiking on the Nootka Trail. This fee is payable at Yuquot and includes the use of the facilities there.

There are no developed campgrounds or facilities on this trail other than in Yuquot/Friendly Cove at the southern trailhead.

Looking across rocky shoreline and the ocean to Yuquot and Vancouver Island mountains from the Nootka Trail
The Hesquiat Peninsula can be spotted from the Nootka Trail (land mass to right of this photo)

Hesquiat Peninsula Trail: 50km thru-hike, 4 to 5 days

Perched on the west coast of Vancouver Island, the Hesquiat Peninsula Trail is completed by only dozens of hikers every year.

The northern trailhead, Escalante, is a short water taxi journey southwest of Yuquot, on Nootka Island.

Like the Nootka Trail, most of this backpacking route is located directly on the shoreline. The path is varied, with the beaches featuring sandstone rock shelves, tide pools, cliffs, boulders and pebbles as well as sand.

Near the end, there is the opportunity to visit the pioneer homestead of Cougar Annie’s Garden

The name of the peninsula comes from the Nuu-chah-nulth word ‘heish-heish-a’ (to tear with the teeth) referring to the stripping technique used to gather herring spawn from eelgrass.

Orange seaplane parked and floating next to dock at Gold River, with ocean and mountains visible beyond
Most hikers charter a seaplane to reach the Hesquiat Peninsula

Essential information:

It is a bit of an adventure in itself to reach one of the trailheads of this hike. Of the trails listed here, the Hesquiat Peninsula is one of the most complex (read: also expensive) to reach.

The easiest way is to take a seaplane to Escalante (the usual starting point) from Gold River or Tofino. For the return trip, another seaplane would need to be arranged for pick-up at the southern trailhead at Boat Basin.

There are no permits or camping fees required to hike the Hesquiat Peninsula trail. There are, however, no established campgrounds or facilities.

Hikers should ask permission before entering lands owned by Hesquiat First Nation and Homais Indian Reserve.

This coastal BC backpacking trip is covered in detail in Tim Leadem’s Hiking the West Coast of Vancouver Island book.

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike beach bird
Bird watching, Pacific coast style

Wildside Trail: 22km return hike, 2 to 3 days

The Wildside Trail is a true coastal hike, with the path staying very close to the ocean for almost the entire length. The route follows traditional paths used by the First Nation community on Flores Island for thousands of years.

Being relatively short and easy in hiking difficulty, the Wildside Trail is ideal for first-timers looking for a coastal BC backpacking trip. It is usually hiked as a 22km return route from the Ahousaht trailhead.

View across wet sandy beach towards headland with trees
The Wildside Trail is best accessed from Tofino (this photo is Middle Beach)

Essential information:

Length: 11km one-way, minimal elevation gain
Where: West Coast of Vancouver Island
Best time to hike: May to September
Camping: 3 designated campsites
Fees/reservations: $15 per person, per day permit fee
Transportation: Water taxi, seaplane
Dogs: Not recommended
Suggested length of trip: 2 to 3 days
For more info: Wildside Trail website

Despite the relatively remote-sounding location, Flores Island is surprisingly accessible.

There is a scheduled water taxi service from Tofino ($50). Seaplane charters are also available.

Permits are available online or in person at the MHSS office in Tofino or Ahous Fuel Stop.

Close up of bear tracks on sandy beach
Spotting wildlife tracks is always exciting on any backpacking trip

Tatchu Trail: 32km thru-hike, 5 to 6 days

The remote Tatchu Trail is one of the least hiked coastal BC backpacking trips on this list. It’s an ideal West Coast Trail alternative for experienced, self-sufficient hikers.

It is no easy feat to traverse this wild, unmarked route, which features multiple creek crossings, cliff scrambles, slippery surge channels and plenty of bushwhacking.

For some, the challenge is the appeal. For others, it is the chance to hike where very few go and experience true wilderness.

View of three hikers ascending rocky and mossy scramble next to waterfall on the Nootka Trail
The Tatchu Trail features some cliff scrambles like this one on the Nootka Trail

Essential information:

Length: 32km one-way, minimal elevation gain
Where: West Coast of Vancouver Island
Best time to hike: May to September
Camping: Informal campsites (no facilities)
Fees/reservations: No fees, first come first serve
Transportation: Water taxi, seaplane, boat (Uchuck)
Dogs: Not recommended
Suggested length of trip: 5 to 6 days
For more info: 2020 ClubTread Trip Report by ‘Bluefoot’

Most hikers traverse the trail from south (Port Eliza) to north (Rugged Point).

Before 2020, it was an option to take the MV Uchuck boat to Port Eliza. It doesn’t appear that this service has resumed (2023 update).

Seaplane window view looking over isolated islands and inlets on the West Coast of Vancouver Island
Most hikers charter a seaplane to reach the Tatchu Trail

What to Bring on Every Coastal BC Backpacking Trip

When organising your gear, ensure you have the following items:

  • The 10 Essentials – Check and double-check that you have the 10 Essentials before setting out on any coastal backpacking trip in British Columbia. 
  • Sturdy hiking boots. All of the trails mentioned require a good pair of shoes. Unless you’re an experienced ultralight trail runner or thru-hiker, you’ll need sturdy hiking boots. I love the Oboz range of hikers, for day hikers as well as backcountry treks
  • Bear spray. BC’s coastline is a major bear habitat. Carry a full bear spray canister and know how to use it. Always carry bear spray on your person (with a holster), not in a backpack
  • Bear hang equipment. The majority of coastal BC backpacking trails mentioned in this post do not have bear caches at designated campsites. You must be prepared to hang your food. Bring at least 15 metres of strong rope or cord
  • Satellite communicator. Most of these hikes do not have any phone signal on the trail. I would recommend bringing a satellite communicator such as an InReach
  • Gaiters. Coastal British Columbia is wet, no question about it. Gaiters offer protection for the lower legs against water, mud and rock abrasion. I would consider them essential on any coastal hike in BC
  • Tide tables. Use of a tide table is essential for many of these coastal hikes. Otherwise, you may become trapped by incoming tides and unable to continue (or backtrack)
  • Hiking poles. Even just one will help when traversing hills, coastal cliffs and slippery rocks. We love Black Diamond’s incredibly light and compact Distance Z series. Your knees will thank you, I promise
Back view of JR looking out to the ocean from the Nootka Trail, carrying large backpack
Hiking the Nootka Trail

More BC Backpacking Trips

Lake O’Hara, Yoho National Park

Eva Lake Trail, Mount Revelstoke National Park

HBC Heritage Trail, from Hope to Tulameen

Pinnacle Lake, Monashee Mountains

Monica Meadows Trail near Kaslo

Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park

Della Falls Trail (Canada’s highest waterfall)

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