Cape Scott Provincial Park has a reputation for being one of the wettest and muddiest places on Vancouver Island. It’s also resoundingly remote, being accessible via gravel roads only and a good few hours from a town of reasonable size.
But what should really be the main topic of conversation is the breathtaking beaches, lush rainforest, stunning sunsets, sand dunes and fascinating history that make Cape Scott Provincial Park so extraordinary.
Whether you’re looking for a spectacular coastal backpacking trip or a change from alpine hiking, Cape Scott should be your next big adventure. Keep reading to discover more about this one a kind trail, followed by a comprehensive adventure planning guide.
Challenges and rewards in Cape Scott Provincial Park
Pristine golden sand beaches reaching into the distance. Campsites with panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. A canopy of magnificent old growth rainforest. A walk on the remains of a WW2 military road. A tranquil meadow with crumbling fences. And at the end of it all, a lighthouse resting at the edge of British Columbia’s wildest coastline.
The Cape Scott Trail is an unforgettable 47km journey to the northwestern tip of Vancouver Island and back. Hikers prepared to get their feet wet will find their efforts rewarded in a number of remarkable and unique ways.
While there may be no need to ascend any mountain peaks to see Cape Scott’s attractions, the challenges here include slippery boardwalks, lowland bogs, swathes of mud and giant fallen trees. It’s a different sort of adventure but an exceptionally beautiful one at that.
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Nels Bight beach
Cape Scott Provincial Park is host to a number of gorgeous beaches but my favourite has to be Nels Bight. With 2400m of sweeping golden sand, it’s also the longest beach in the park. Facing northwest, the sunsets are often spectacular.
Driftwood and giant varieties of seaweed are scattered on the sand, occasionally punctuated by tracks from birds, bears and even wolves. I’ve seen the latter at neighbouring Nissen Bight before, curiously inspecting the sand dunes.
For both its beauty and length, Nels Bight is the ideal place to base yourself while visiting Cape Scott Provincial Park. The expansive size allows for the feeling of remoteness to remain even when several groups of hikers are camping on the beach.
From Nels Bight, the Cape Scott Lighthouse is a comfortable day hike away. Nissen Bight, Experiment Bight, Hansen Lagoon and Guise Bay also make for wonderful day trip destinations.
An earthquake at the edge of the world
Our first trip to Cape Scott was an eventful one. Not only was it our very first multi-day hiking trip but we also experienced a 6.6 magnitude earthquake right on Nels Bight beach.
Relaxing in our tent after a day hike to the Cape Scott Lighthouse, we were playing Yahtzee when the tent walls started moving. Moving backwards and forwards for about 20 seconds, it felt like we were on a conveyor belt. In my panic, I thought it was a bear shaking the tent!
Getting out of the tent to look at the Pacific Ocean right in front of us, we suddenly didn’t feel very safe. Our van was a long 17km hike away.
Luckily, another camping group had joined us on Nels Bight. The father just happened to be the fire chief for Port Alice (coincidentally where the epicenter was) and had a satellite phone at his disposal. We were relieved to hear that there was no tsunami alert issued for the region.
A Complete Planning Guide to the Cape Scott Trail
Cape Scott Provincial Park is a spectacular destination for a multi day hiking adventure. The Cape Scott Trail is the most popular, leading from the parking lot to the Cape Scott Lighthouse via several stunning beaches.
In this section, you’ll find everything you need to know to plan your own Cape Scott hiking adventure. Here are some essential points to get you started:
- Cape Scott Provincial Park is open all year round
- It is free to visit and hike in Cape Scott Provincial Park
- Camping fees are $10/per person/per night (more details below) and there is no reservation system
- Port Hardy is the nearest town for supplies and accommodation, a two hour drive away
- Cell phone signal is not found anywhere in the park. We lost cell phone signal very shortly after leaving Port Hardy
- Campfires are allowed when there is no fire ban in place (please note that the Fog Zone no longer has an exemption)
- Dogs are prohibited in most areas of the park due to high wolf activity
Here’s what to expect on the Cape Scott Trail, from the parking lot all the way to the Cape Scott Lighthouse.
Parking lot to Eric Lake (0km to 3km)
The Cape Scott Trail starts sedately, with a wide flat gravel path leading away from the parking lot and into the old growth forest. After less than 600m, there’s a divide. San Josef Bay is an easy 1.7km hike to the left, while the Cape Scott Trail continues on the right.
The real trail begins! Steps lead onwards and upwards to one of the most difficult parts of the trail. Depending on how much it has rained recently, the next section can feature big swathes of mud as well as slippery boardwalks and rocks. Eric Lake will soon shine through the trees, heralding completion of this tricky part.
Eric Lake to Nissen Bight junction (3km to 13.1km)
The route around the lake mostly consists of boardwalk as well as an impressive giant tree bridge. Eric Lake campground is pleasant enough for a stop, though can be buggy. After 20 minutes after leaving, the trail passes a huge Sitka Spruce tree. It’s not the only giant tree to look out for.
Around Fisherman River, the old growth canopy starts to open and the moss dissipates. The landscape transitions to grey pine trees and shrubs and then to marsh and lowland bog. This is the second wettest area, with huge pools of rainwater a given almost all year round.
This section, the old telegraph route, is host to the biggest concentration of noticeable historical artifacts in the park. Look for rusting saws languishing in the grass and side trails leading to gravesites and building foundations.
Nissen Bight junction to Nels Bight beach (13.1km to 16.8km)
The path splits again with one route to Nels Bight and Cape Scott, the other to Nissen Bight and the North Coast Trail. Turn left for Nels Bight.
The landscape changes again at Hansen Meadows, where 20th century settlers cleared the land in preparation for farming. Nowadays, it’s a tranquil place with wide open views into the distance. The tall grasses here can be misleadingly damp, so watch your step.
Back into the forest, the sounds of the ocean soon be heard. You’re teasingly close, but don’t forget to look around at the stunning old growth lining the trail. This flat, easy section of the trail is regularly used by wildlife too – we’ve spotted both wolf and bear tracks. Turn the final corner and colourful buoys will mark your arrival to spectacular Nels Bight beach.
Nels Bight beach to Cape Scott Lighthouse (16.8km to 23.6km)
The trail to Cape Scott Lighthouse continues from the southwest end of Nels Bight. It ascends a small hill and continues through the forest until reaching the beautiful sands of Experiment Bight. The route also takes in stunning Guise Bay, complete with sand dunes.
The final stretch follows an old military road. Mossy planks line the way to the final destination. It’s a bit like entering a small village, with the squat red and white lighthouse being surrounded by numerous buildings.
Cape Scott Lighthouse is one of the last manned lighthouses in Canada. The lighthouse keeper (one of two) was in a fantastic mood on our visit, probably because he was about to be flown out after a three month stint!
Hikers do not have the same privilege, however, and have to travel out the same way they came – over the military road, along the beaches, over the meadow and through the old growth forest.
From the trailhead parking lot to the Cape Scott Lighthouse, the Cape Scott Trail is a well marked hiking trail.
- There are kilometre markers all the way to Nels Bight beach, which helps to keep track of the journey
- Directional signs clearly indicate where to go and the amount of remaining kilometres at important junctions.
- There are also a number of information boards offering cultural and historical background at points of interest (such as the Cape Scott settlement site, Hansen Meadows etc)
- The Cape Scott Trail is well visited throughout the main hiking season (May to September) but is certainly not overcrowded.
- Park Facility Operators are based at a cabin on Nels Bight beach during the main hiking season. They check camping permits nightly and regularly perform maintenance on the trail
As mentioned, the Cape Scott Trail is maintained during the main summer hiking season. But even with this maintenance, hikers should anticipate rugged backcountry conditions. Expect downed trees, broken boardwalk, massive mud pools and more.
The Cape Scott Trail experiences very little elevation gain throughout the 20km distance to the lighthouse. Substantial sections of the trail are flat, with boardwalk being common early on.
While the trail is not technically difficult, however, hikers must be prepared to have wet feet by the end of it. If you go into the experience mentally anticipating that, you’ll have a much better time. If the trail happens to be drier than normal and you manage to avoid all of the mud and water pools, then great!
There are a number of established camping areas with facilities in Cape Scott Provincial Park.
- San Josef Bay – 2.5km from trailhead, beach camping, outhouse, food cache
- Eric Lake – 3km from trailhead, 11 wooden tent platforms, outhouse, food cache
- Fisherman River – 9.2km from trailhead, 2 wooden tent platforms, outhouse
- Nissen Bight – 15km from trailhead, beach camping, outhouse, food cache
- Nels Bight – 16.8km from trailhead, beach camping, outhouse, food cache
- Guise Bay – 20.7km from trailhead, beach camping, outhouse, food cache
Random wilderness camping is allowed but I’d highly recommend sticking to the established areas to reduce damage.
A Rangers Cabin hosts Park Facility Operators (PFOs) from the end of May to mid September. Outside of this time, the cabin is available on a first come, first serve shared basis to hikers. It has a wood stove, two bedrooms with bunks and a sleeping loft (spoiler: it is amazing)
Be sure to pack out everything you brought in with you, including trash. We carried out lots of empty packets and unused food items left in the Nels Bight food caches during our last visit
There is no reservation system for campsites in Cape Scott Provincial Park. All camping is available on a first come, first serve basis. With most campsites being on the beach, there is lots of space.
Backcountry camping fees are collected in Cape Scott Provincial Park from 1st May to 30th September. The cost is $10/per adult/per night.
There is a self registration vault for fees in the parking lot, so bring cash or pay online for a Backcountry Camping Permit in advance instead.
Planning an itinerary
A common backpacking itinerary on the Cape Scott Trail looks a little like this –
- Day 1 – Hike from trailhead to Nels Bight (16.8km, 5-7 hours), camp on beach
- Day 2 – Day hike to Cape Scott Lighthouse (13.6km, 4 hours return)
- Day 3 – Spare day to relax and explore Nels Bight (or skip this day and hike out early)
- Day 4 – Hike back to trailhead (16.8km, 5-7 hours)
This three night, four day trip includes just over 47km of hiking. With the elevation gain being very minimal and the ability to base-camp at Nels Bight, this is an ideal first time backpacking trip. Indeed, it was our first ever multi-day hiking adventure back in 2014.
A longer itinerary may include an additional night at San Josef Bay or Guise Bay. During one trip, we stayed one night at Nissen Bight. This smaller beach is also beautiful and offers a different perspective of the area.
Hiking essentials: what to bring
The Cape Scott Trail is an immensely satisfying trek through beautifully remote, pristine scenery on Vancouver Island. It’s not technically difficult but still has a few challenges. Mud, rain and slippery boardwalks are the most common issues. Here are some essential items to bring to help mitigate these challenges:
- Hiking poles are so helpful on the Cape Scott Trail to assist with balance when navigating mud, pools of water and boardwalks. We share a pair of incredibly light and foldable Black Diamond Carbon Z poles
- Take one more pair of socks than you usually would. Your feet will thank you after being in wet shoes for at least part of the day! We swear by Icebreaker Hike Plus Light Cushion socks (and they have a lifetime warranty!)
- Warm layers are essential, even during the summer months. The weather can change quickly here and the wet climate can make it feel a lot cooler than elsewhere. My backpacking wardrobe basically consists of merino wool, mostly Icebreaker baselayers like this
- A water filter should used to treat any freshwater found in Cape Scott Provincial Park. Nels Bight and Nissen Bight beaches both have natural water sources. The BeFree is ideal for multi-day hiking trips like this
- As mentioned, the Cape Scott Trail is usually very muddy. For a cleaner and drier hike, use boot gaiters – this type work well
- Bear spray is definitely an essential, ideally stored in an easy-to-access holster. Black bears, wolves, cougars and elk live in Cape Scott Provincial Park and you should know how to alert them to your presence and what to do when encountered. On our last visit, we saw a black bear in the Cape Scott parking lot
- Bring cash. The Cape Scott Lighthouse keepers sell candy, chips and pop cans during the main hiking season and accept cash only
Other hiking trails in the park
Nels Bight and the Cape Scott Lighthouse aren’t the only destinations in Cape Scott Provincial Park.
- San Josef Bay is a very popular easy day hike (5km) and offers a great taste of the coastal wilderness in the rest of the park. The sea stacks here are gorgeous
- Hansen Lagoon was the main settlement location of the Danish pioneers and can be visited on a side trail (15.7km from the parking lot). Depending on the tide level, a dyke (built to reclaim land for pasture) can be spotted as well as fence posts and other relics from the past
- Mt. St. Patrick is the highest peak in the park at 422m. The rough, unmaintained 3km trail leading to the summit starts from San Josef Bay
- The North Coast Trail is a 43km extension to the main Cape Scott Trail, creating a 60km multi-day coastal backpacking experience. It is usually hiked in a westerly direction, with hikers being dropped at the Shushartie Bay trailhead by floatplane or boat and then picked up at the Cape Scott trailhead. For more info, check out this guide
A quick history of Cape Scott Provincial Park
For a place that still remains so remote today, it is somewhat surprising to learn that Cape Scott has been settled a number of times. The Tlatlasikwala, Nakumgilisala and Yutlinuk native peoples once shared the area.
Ethnically Danish settlers from the US arrived in 1897 with the intent to be self sufficient with fishing and farming. The lack of transportation links combined with the harsh climate forced a retreat little over a decade later. Many of the current place names (such as Nels Bight) are remnants of that era
Another wave of settlers arrived in 1913, this time a mixed group from the US, Canada and Europe. The population across the Cape Scott locale peaked at 1000 people before suffering similar issues to the Danish pioneers.
The provincial government of the day backed out on several pledges to build local roads, dooming any chance of a successful settlement.
When leaving the area for the final time, the settlers could only take what they could carry on their backs. They left pots, pans, saws and other heavy items in the forest to rust, along with houses, wells and even a boiler.
Historical artifacts such as these still be seen today, next to the trail and in the forest beyond. Several informal paths lead to grave sites, house foundations and decaying farm equipment.
Historical points of interest on the trail
Besides the rusting plows and pulley belts, there are other obvious signs of previous colonisation in Cape Scott Provincial Park.
South of Eric Lake, the trail follows the old corduroy route created by the Danish settlers in 1908. Before a path was built around the lake, a boat ride across the lake was required to continue the journey north. Remains of a wharf can be seen on the shore of the lake.
After Fisherman River, the path follows the very straight route of the telegraph line built in 1913. The old Cape Scott settlement was located just north of here, where the Nissen Bight junction now sits. The heaviest concentration of artifacts can be seen in this area.
Hansen Meadows lies just around the corner. This wide open area is quite a surprise after hours of hiking in the midst of old growth trees. Previously tidal flats, dykes were used to drain the water away and create farmland. Old fence posts still remain, a testament to the determination of the settlers to make this land agriculturally viable.
The final part of the Cape Scott Trail encounters another era of history. A small radar station was built at Cape Scott in 1942. The military road to the radar station, in use until the end of WWII, remains part of the trail today.
For more info, check out this excellent map which offers more details about historical and cultural points of interest in Cape Scott Provincial Park and where to find them.
How to get to Cape Scott Provincial Park
Cape Scott Provincial Park is located at the extreme northwestern tip of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. Getting there requires a little more effort than some of the more popular provincial parks on Vancouver Island.
- Access to the park is via a gravel logging road from Port Hardy. It is bumpy in places and can be very slippery when wet. Be prepared to take your time and drive slowly
- A high clearance vehicle is recommended. Drive with headlights on at all times and be prepared to pull over for industrial traffic. Use caution around corners and avoid the soft shoulders
- Bring a full size spare tire and be familiar with changing it. We passed two groups of people changing tires on our last visit to Cape Scott
- Driving time from Port Hardy to Cape Scott Provincial Park is around 1.5-2 hours. Yes, it’s only around 67km but expect your average speed to be 40-50km/h
- Some of the roads leading to the park are occasionally closed for maintenance – check the BC Parks website for notices before heading out
- Visitors to Cape Scott Provincial Park should be completely self sufficient. After leaving Port Hardy, there are very limited services and facilities available. Fill up on gas and buy all the supplies you need (groceries, propane etc) before heading out of Port Hardy
- The tiny village of Holberg (pop. 200) is located about 13km from Cape Scott. It’s a base for the logging operations in the area and consequently has very limited visitor services. There is an excellent pub though!
- On arrival in Cape Scott Provincial Park, you’ll find a hiking trailhead, two fairly large parking lots, two outhouses, an info board and a covered picnic table area
Where to stay before your Cape Scott hike
Port Hardy has a range of accommodation on offer, including a couple of inns, a backpackers hostel, guesthouses, B&Bs and hotels. Here are my top picks:
North Coast Trail Backpackers – Comfortable hostel with great value dorms as well as private rooms. Walking distance to everything in Port Hardy
Telco House B&B – Welcoming option located very close to the waterfront. Highly rated on Booking.com
Kwa’lilas Hotel – Stylish modern hotel featuring indigenous art and carvings, owned by the Gwa’sala ‘Nakwaxda’xw First Nation
Camping near the trailhead
Overnight parking is not allowed in the Cape Scott parking lot, with signs forbidding it. One option is to hike in and camp at San Josef Bay via the very easy and flat 2.5km trail. Eric Lake (3km) is also an option, though the trail is more difficult.
About five minutes (or less!) from the Cape Scott Provincial Park entrance is the Western Forest Products San Josef River Recreation Site campground. It’s a bit run down, but is completely free and there are about eight separated campsites, outhouses, picnic tables and fire pits. Be aware – this campground can flood quickly in heavy rain.
Another option is the privately run San Josef Heritage Campground just before the Cape Scott entrance. I haven’t visited myself yet but apparently the owner is a character!
Our preferred camping spot is Nahwitti Lake Recreation Site. This free campground is located right on the road, about a third of the way to Cape Scott from Port Hardy and is set under a canopy of huge balsam and hemlock trees.
Other things to do in the area
Cape Scott isn’t the only reason to visit this spectacular region of Vancouver Island. Extend your trip by a few days and explore other local trails and attractions, such as:
Ronning’s Garden – Not far from the entrance of Cape Scott Provincial Park, Bernt Ronning established a homestead here in 1910. As part of his work to clear the rainforest, he ordered seeds from all over the world and established an eclectic mix of plants and trees (including BC’s largest monkey puzzle tree!) Bernt remained here until the 60’s and the garden is now being maintained by Ron & Julia Moe
Raft Cove – A short drive from Cape Scott, the main attraction at Raft Cove Provincial Park is accessed via a difficult 2km trail. The path is exceptionally muddy, slippery and rooty and takes around 45 minutes to hike. The reward is a gorgeous, long windswept white sand beach. Walk-in camping is $5/night/per person
Scarlet Ibis Pub – Located in Holberg (don’t worry, you’ll be able to find it easily), this no-fuss pub is the only place serving hot food for miles around. The hearty pub grub is immensely satisfying after a hike in Cape Scott Provincial Park! There’s an awesome view from the patio too
Telegraph Cove – On your way to or from Cape Scott, take the detour to explore the tiny boardwalk community of Telegraph Cove. There’s a free whale museum as well as whale watching tours launching straight from the boardwalk. Just a warning – it can be very busy in July and August
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