The Carmanah Valley is home to the best collection of accessible huge trees on Vancouver Island, including magnificent old growth Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar and Sitka Spruce.
This cathedral of trees seems seems endless as you hike for hours through the rain-soaked valley, spotting one ‘big one’ after another. Eventually, you’ll lose count and just soak it all in.
The atmosphere is thick with mist and the forest is almost silent with the only sounds being your own footsteps, dripping water and the occasional singing bird.
This is one of those truly special places in the world. Here’s everything you need to know about Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, British Columbia.
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The magic of Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park
Located on the traditional territory of the Ditidaht and Pacheedaht First Nations, Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park is not a place you just ‘drive by.’ You have to really want to go here. The effort culminates in almost three hours of driving on bumpy logging roads.
But the reward is immeasurable.
Undisturbed for centuries, the rainforest here is pristine. Enormous tree trunks soar towards the sky, a blanket of ferns and vegetation covers the ground and thick moss cocoons everything else.
Light dapples through the impossibly tall canopy (up to 95m!), revealing the endless layers of green from branches, leaves, moss, fallen trees and ferns.
Over the years, old giants have fallen naturally and provided light and nutrition for new life. With such favourable growing conditions in this wet climate, some of the tallest and widest trees are actually some of the youngest residents of this forest.
A trip back in time
At one time, most of British Columbia looked similar to the Carmanah Valley. This fact makes the visiting experience even more poignant.
This is a truly magical place to visit, 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.
The first time we visited Carmanah Walbran, it was a bit like entering a time warp. Despite being 2014, the info on the bulletin board hinted at ‘new developments coming in 1996’ once new park acquisitions were consolidated.
The park itself felt a little forgotten, with the camping areas being sparse, signage dated and no other visitors to be seen.
On our most recent visit, I was surprised to find things a little different. While the bulletin board had been brought up to date and the camping facilities improved, the boardwalks were in a much worse state than in 2014.
Clearly, storms have been hard on the valley. Being such a remote park, I assume that repair is low on the ‘to do’ list.
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. We can (sadly) never really know how long a place like Carmanah Walbran will be around.
For that reason, I urge you to visit if you can. Even if you don’t have much appreciation for trees before you go, you definitely will after.
The legacy of Randy Stoltmann
The Carmanah Valley was once scheduled by the provincial government to be logged. Unfortunately, this isn’t too surprising since at least 75% of the original old growth forest on Vancouver Island have been logged. Valley bottoms, in particular, have been almost completely decimated since they host the largest trees.
Renowned conservationist Randy Stoltmann first visited Carmanah in 1982 after hearing whispers about a giant 8.5m diameter spruce tree.
He may not have found that particular tree but discovered a number of other old growth groves. On a return visit in 1988, he discovered that the area was about to the logged and sprung into action.
Stoltmann launched an international campaign to protect the Camanah Walbran Valley. With the help of conservationists and the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, Carmanah Pacific Provincial Park was established in 1990. The park was later expanded and renamed.
Just a few years later, Randy Stoltmann died in an avalanche while ski touring. He was 32. Today, the Randy Stoltmann Commemorative Grove is a long lasting reminder of his incredible impact on this beautiful area.
Meeting the Cheewhat Giant
Often called Canada’s ‘biggest tree,’ the Cheewhat Giant sits not far Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park. With a trunk diameter of 6m and a height of 56m, this tree is a magnificent sight to see. Some sources date it to be an incredible 2000+ years old.
I was simply awestruck as I stood in front of the Cheewhat Giant. It was probably one of the most humbling experiences of my life.
This glorious tree is just within the protected boundaries of Pacific Rim National Park. The trail to get there, however, is not.
The route through the forest is not maintained and is vulnerable to damage from storms. It passes a number of other massive trees, each one making you think ‘is it this one?!’ But you need to continue until a brown Pacific Rim National Park sign appears.
The trailhead to the Cheewhat Giant is located along the main Carmanah Walbran road, a short distance before the provincial park gate. During our last visit, there was plenty of flagging next to the road to indicate the trailhead. On our first visit in 2014, we were unable to find it at all.
Planning a trip to Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park
At 16,365 hectares, Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park is a sizeable protected area. Visitor access is centered on the ‘feature zone’ in the western side of the park.
The feature zone is accessed by the Valley Mist Trail, a mostly boardwalk hike snaking along the bottom of the valley. The trailhead parking lot is at the end of Rosander Main, a private logging road.
This is a wilderness park, with the main activities being hiking and camping. Beyond information boards and outhouses, there are very few facilities. In a way, this is part of the appeal.
With Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park being so far from civilisation, many people stay overnight in the area.
The park has three camping options for visitors:
- Upper Valley Campground. This offers four tent pads (and cleared space for more), fire rings, an outhouse and a bear hang. Located within five minutes walk of the parking lot (300m)
- Gravel bar camping in the ‘feature zone.’ Suggested areas on BC Parks maps are near the Three Sisters and August Creek Falls. There is an outhouse at the Three Sisters
- Parking lot camping. There are a couple of wooden corrals, picnic tables, fire rings and two outhouses
There is a water pump in the Upper Valley Campground but was not in operation during our visit in 2019. There is a creek by the logging road, about five minutes drive from the park entrance. Be sure to treat before using.
An alternative option for camping is Nitinat Lake Campground, 32km from Carmanah Walbran.
The winds on Nitinat Lake are renowned by windsurfers. The rustic campground is currently being expanded to offer more than 100 sites. There’s a motel in Nitinat Village too, info at campground link above).
All hiking trails start from the main Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park parking lot. The Valley Mist Trail is leads to the valley bottom and developed ‘feature zone.’ The return route is the same way you came.
The Valley Mist Trail loses elevation quickly as it descends (it’s not as fun on the way back). After passing the first significantly large tree (the ‘Coast Tower’) on the right, the path splits at the 1km mark.
The ‘Three Sisters Trail’ leads north to the Hollow Stump (500m return), the Three Sisters (2km return) and Grunt’s Grove. There is an outhouse near the Three Sisters.
In the other direction, the southern ‘Heaven Grove Trail’ heads first to the Heaven Tree (2km return) and then to the Randy Stoltmann Commemorative Grove (previously known as the Heaven Grove, 4km return). There is an outhouse near the Heaven Tree.
Hiking trail condition and closures
The condition of the park’s trails have deteriorated over the last few years.
- Most noticeably, storms and flooding have caused substantial damage to the elevated boardwalk. Some sections are fine, while others sit at a 45 degree angle and are impossible to walk on.
- The Randy Stoltmann Grove is closed for the foreseeable future, due to hazards from falling tree limbs.
- The Three Sisters is now only two, with one of the huge spruce trees falling naturally during the winter of 2018/19. The viewing platform in the middle of the three trees is now closed.
- Beyond the Three Sisters, the trail is not maintained. On our most recent visit (2020), the route was hard to follow after it reached the creek.
- Many years ago, the trails once continued further south into the park. One led to the Carmanah Giant, Canada’s tallest Sitka Spruce (95m!) The route is apparently now so overgrown that it would be dangerous to attempt to hike.
Essential visitor information
Before heading out on a trip to Carmanah Walbran, there’s a few things you should know.
There is a serious risk of flash flooding in this park. We experienced this during our first visit, when torrential rain started just as we arrived at our van. It lasted for hours and the volume of water was intense. I wouldn’t have wanted to be hiking, let alone camping, down in the valley right then.
- Check the weather forecast before starting your journey
- Be prepared to cut your trip short if the weather changes
- Watch your step on the boardwalks, they can be very slippery when wet
Visitors to Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park should be prepared to see loaded logging trucks on the way to the park. It’s a sobering sight but I’m not sure whether there would be any kind of access to this area without existing logging operations.
- Drive slowly and defensively on the dirt roads leading to the park
- Logging trucks have right of way at all times – be prepared to pull over
- Drive with headlights on at all times, no matter the weather conditions
Carmanah Walbran is one of the the most remote provincial parks I have visited in BC. Visitors must be self sufficient and prepared for difficult road and trail conditions.
- Nearby services are very limited. The closest community is Nitinat Village, 30km away. The gas station here is open May to September only
- The closest cell phone signal is in Lake Cowichan, three hours drive from the park entrance
- Bring a fully inflated spare tire, a tire compressor kit (like this), first aid supplies, plentiful water, extra food and warm clothing
- Wildlife sightings are not uncommon in the park. Carry bear spray as a precaution and know how to use it
How to get to Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park
Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park is located on the western edge of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.
- The easiest way to access the park is via Cayuse, on the southern shore of Cowichan Lake
- From here, you head west towards (but not all the way to) the tiny town of Nitinat Village
- There are Carmanah Walbran signs, but I’d recommend getting a Vancouver Island Backroad Mapbook for navigation. The road systems here can be confusing
- It is also possible to drive to Carmanah Walbran via the north shore of the lake – we’ve done this once too.
Either way, the drive to the park entrance is about 100km from the town of Lake Cowichan. Don’t let the distance fool you though, the road is mostly unpaved and rough in places. It will take up to three hours.
Alternatively, there is apparently a third route via Port Renfew but I haven’t ever tried this. Having driven a little in that area (to see Avatar Grove and Big Lonely Doug), I think the journey would be rougher and potentially more complicated too.
- Some sections of the road are narrow and slippery when wet. Don’t rush
- Be prepared to meet loaded logging trucks at any time
- A 4X4 is not needed, however I would recommend using a vehicle with decent clearance
- Secure items in the vehicle that may move – some sections of the road are very bumpy
- On our last visit, there were Carmanah Walbran signs leading the way to the park from the end of Cowichan Lake
- A Vancouver Island Backroad Mapbook is ideal to use for navigation in this area
- Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back
- There is no fee required to enter Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park. Camping in the park (backcountry or in the parking lot) is $5/night/person
- I’d recommend using hiking poles as the boardwalk can be quite slick. We use and love Black Diamond’s superlight and foldable Carbon Z hiking poles
Looking to book a stay in Lake Cowichan before/after your trip to Carmanah Walbran?
Lake Cowichan Lodge – Great value
Riverside Inn – Highly rated on Booking.com
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One half of the Canadian/British couple behind Off Track Travel, Gemma is happiest when hiking on the trail or planning the next big travel adventure. JR and Gemma are currently based in the beautiful Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada