The 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.” Believe me, this is all true. But it doesn’t also mention the breathtaking beaches, lush rainforest, stunning sunsets, sand dunes and fascinating history of Cape Scott Provincial Park. Looking for a change from alpine hiking in British Columbia? This may be what you’re looking for.

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Hiking the Cape Scott Trail

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 i.e. one of the wettest months. 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. It didn’t matter how many guidebooks told us how muddy it would be. And it certainly was. Muddy, I mean.

Challenges and rewards in cape Scott provincial park

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.

Starting the Cape Scott trail, British Columbia

Muddy trail section on Cape Scott hike

Starting on the trail late

We were lucky enough to start the Cape Scott trail on an unexpectedly sunny day. I say unexpectedly since we’d been camping in the north of Vancouver 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!

The worst of 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, concentrating on this first bit. Yes, our late April Cape Scott hike 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 trail - views of mud

Cape Scott Provincial Park Eric Lake

Cape Scott’s mixed scenery

In hindsight, our optimism was not totally unfounded. The trail was generally better after that awful first few kilometres, 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 a 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 beautiful spots amidst the wet – tumbling waterfalls, rushing rivers and silent lakes. 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.

Tree bridge on Cape Scott trail, Cape Scott Provincial Park

JR hiking in Cape Scott Provincial Park

Bird seen on Cape Scott hike

Cape Scott Provincial Park forest

Camping at Nissen Bight, Cape Scott Provincial Park

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 17km 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. By then I think I would have been happy to sleep anywhere!

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike Nissen Bight beach

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike Nissen Bight wolf tracks

Cape Scott Provincial Park Japanese tsunami debris

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike beach bird

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike beach bird 2

Cape Scott Provincial Park trail, remains of settlement

Attempted settlements at Cape Scott

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 had 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.

hansen meadows

Further along the trail, we also saw 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. The default these days is for places to become more built up so it is endlessly interesting to me to explore places that defy this.

Hansens Meadow, Cape Scott Provincial Park

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike Nels Bight beach

Nels Bight camping

After a much easier day two, we set up camp on the very long (2.4km) and flat Nels Bight beach and caught some more rays from the 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 trail through the woods and followed the coast, occasionally having to climb up and over bluffs to avoid the ocean.

Cape Scott Lighthouse hike

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) was in a fantastic mood. 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 Nels Bight camping

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike Nels Bight beach

Sand dunes on Cape Scott trail

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike military road

An earthquake at the edge of the world

Cape Scott’s 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. The epicentre around 60km away from us on the west coast of the island. At 11km, the earthquake was not particularly deep 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 very long muddy hike away.

the best kind of company

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 renovating 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 Lighthouse, British Columbia

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike bald eagle

The hike out

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.

hiking to the end of Vancouver Island

I’m not sure if I’d do it again (ask me in another month when my shoes have dried out), but hiking the Cape Scott trail was certainly an adventure I won’t forget. OK, I could have done without some of the mud, though you could argue 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 (around 21lb each). 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!

The details: Cape Scott Trail

Cape Scott Provincial Park is located at the extreme northwestern tip of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. Access is via a well-maintained logging road from Port Hardy. The park is not limited to the 45km+ multi-day Cape Scott Lighthouse hike as describes above. Visitors can also go to San Josef Bay (a short walk from the parking lot) or continue onto the North Coast Trail. 

Backcountry camping fees are collected in Cape Scott Provincial Park from May 1 to September 30 at a rate of $10/per adult/per night. Random wilderness camping is allowed but there are pit toilet and food cache facilities at Eric Lake, San Josef Bay, Nels Bight, Nissen Bight and Guise Bay. Eric Lake also has 11 designated tent pads. I highly recommend camping at these established areas to limit damage.

If planning a trip like this, please take the 10 essentials of backcountry travel and follow Leave No Trace principles.

Outdoor gear we use and love (2018):

Cooking: Jetboil MiniMo for ultralight trips and Snow Peak Gigapower for trips with more cooking

Sleeping: Klymit Insulated Static V for JR, Exped AirMat Lite for me, Exped Synmat HL Duo together. Sleeping bag wise – old 0c rated bags from MEC.

Tent: MSR Freelite 2.

Clothing: Merino wool tops and socks, usually Icebreaker brand. Trousers/shorts are Kuhl, Rab, Dish, Duer. Rainjackets and down jackets are Arc’teryx and Patagonia.

The Cape Scott trail is an epic 50km hike through lush rainforest, sand dunes, stunning beaches and interesting history at the very North-Western tip of Vancouver Island. Click here to read about our experience and find out all the details to hike this unique trail yourself. offtracktravel.caHiking to the End of Vancouver Island, Cape Scott Lighthouse hike. 50km of rainforest, sand dunes, stunning beaches and history in Cape Scott Provincial Park, at the North-Western tip of Vancouver Island - offtracktravel.ca

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Gemma
Author

One half of a Canadian/British couple currently based in British Columbia, Canada. Gemma is happiest with on the trail or planning the next big travel adventure.

18 Comments

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

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      Thanks Lucy, it was the first big adventure of the trip so despite the mud it was pretty special.

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

    we Are so glad we Met you two.

    Christian

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      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!

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  6. Dave Hedden Reply

    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.

  7. Hiya! My guy and I are travelling from Toronto to Vancouver Island next week. We will be hiking from the trailhead to San Josef Bay and thenjoy North as long as we can. What equipment would you recommend that we bring?

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      Hi Jenne,

      You’ll need everything to be self sufficient for as long as you plan to stay. There is absolutely no supplies in Cape Scott park and Port Hardy is a good couple of hours drive away.

  8. About to hike the North Coast Trail with the Canadian non-profit Connected in Motion. This article is beautifully written and love all the photographs. I am worried about the mud but that is what makes it fun…right? Keep exploring you two.

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      Good luck for your hike Erik! In hindsight, the mud definitely made the hike more memorable for sure 😉 Thanks for your lovely comments about the article.

  9. Hi!
    We would like to hike the whole North Coast Trail next month. Problem is we have really small budget for 1 month in Canada, so we primarily want to hitchhike and sleep outside (as we do everywhere). Is it possible to do wild camping while hiking NCT without paying 10 dolars per night? I mean, not using the official camping places but just random places on the trail. Of course we keep the Leave no trace principle, camp without making noise, fire etc. How does the paying actually work? You need to pay all the cost before you enter the park or are there rangers who control people?
    Thank you very much for response and for great trip report.

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      Hi Kristina,

      You can wild camp (random camping) in Cape Scott Provincial Park outside of the campsites but you still need to pay the nightly backcountry camping fees. Think of it as a trail fee – it pays for the maintenance of the trail so you are able to hike it. You can pay online or self register at the San Josef trailhead. There is a ranger’s cabin on Nels Night beach so it is very possible that you may run into a ranger.

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