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, Vancouver Island
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 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 first section of the trail. 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.
The mixed scenery of Cape Scott Provincial Park
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.
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!
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. There were many pots and pans, saws and other items left in the forest to rust, along with house foundations and an old well.
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.
Nels Bight camping, Cape Scott Provincial Park
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.
Hiking to Cape Scott Lighthouse
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.
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.
The hike out of Cape Scott Provincial Park
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!
Cape Scott Trail: Essential details
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. Some of the roads leading to the park are sometimes closed for maintance – check the BC Parks website for notices before heading out.
The Cape Scott Trail is an ideal 3/4 day hike, especially during the shoulder season (for the well prepared). The elevation gain is low so there is little risk of snow outside of the winter months. No reservations are required.
Random wilderness camping is allowed but there are pit toilet and food cache facilities at Eric Lake, 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.
Backcountry camping fees are collected in Cape Scott Provincial Park from May 1 to September 30. The cost is $10/per adult/per night.
Other hiking in Cape Scott
Hiking options in Cape Scott Provincial Park are 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. Camping on the beach at San Josef Bay is permitted.
Supply stops before Cape Scott
Port Hardy is the last re-supply town before making the journey to the Cape Scott trailhead. Alternatively, Port McNeill is a good option.
There are numerous free Recreational Sites for camping on the way to Cape Scott, with a concentration around the Port Alice area. Cape Palmerston and Raft Cove, close to the park, also have camping options.
Looking to book a stay in Port Hardy before or after your Cape Scott hike?
North Coast Trail Backpackers – Great value
Port Hardy Cabins – Cosy and comfortable
Telco House B&B – Highly rated on Booking.com
Kwa’lilas Hotel – Awesome location
Outdoor gear we use and love (2019):
Tent: MSR Freelite 2.
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