Exploring Majestic Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, British Columbia

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.

Boardwalk leading through tall trees and fallen trees, covered in moss and ferns
The incredible Carmanah Valley
Close up of moss on tree bark in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park
Moss covers almost everything in the Carmanah Valley

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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A wooden elevated boardwalk leads through the mossy forest
An elevated boardwalk helps hikers transverse the rooty, muddy and mossy terrain in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park
JR walking the pathway through the forest with large trees lining the trail
Starting the hike down to the bottom of the Carmanah Valley

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. 

Nature can only remain this beautiful if we leave no trace of our visit. When visiting Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, be sure to stray on the trails, pack out everything you brought in (trash included), only camp in designated areas and avoid touching the trees (roots too). 
Gemma looking up at the tall trees in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park
Some of the trees in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park reach heights of 95 metres and more
View looking up at the tops of trees in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park
Looking up at the impossibly high canopy
Close up of boardwalk fence with moss
Even the boardwalk is covered in moss in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park

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.

A mossy wooden height market with 265 feet / 81 m carved on it
Some of the taller trees have height markers
Large fallen trees lie horizontally on the ground, backdropped by younger trees
Fallen trees become ‘nurse logs’ that help to provide nutrition and more light for younger trees and forest vegetation
Brown and white mushrooms on the side of a log
Mushrooms thrive in the wet environment of the Carmanah Valley

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. 

JR looking up at the huge mossy trees
Hiking in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park
Wooden signs to Heaven Tree and Heaven Grove Trail
The Heaven Grove was renamed the Randy Stoltmann Commemorative Grove after his death in 1994
Looking up at a huge (and mossy) Sitka Spruce tree in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park
The ‘Heaven Tree’ is an impressive Sitka Spruce with a 3.5m diameter and height of 77m

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. 

Gemma standing in front of the Cheewhat Giant, a huge Western Red Cedar tree
Meeting the Cheewhat Giant

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. 

Wooden sign set into forest next to road reading Carmanah/Walbran Provincial Park
The Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park is a very welcome sight after hours on logging roads!
JR walking through Carmanah Valley, looking at the tall trees next to him
Carmanah Valley Provincial Park
A mossy boardwalk surrounded by fern, lit by sunshine
The boardwalk in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park

Camping

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

When campfires are allowed (check the BC Wildfire Service before leaving for your trip), there are time restrictions on burning. Check the BC Parks website for Carmanah Walbran for details. 

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 Camarnah 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.

White van parked inbetween wooden fences, next to picnic table with background of trees
The overnight parking corrals at Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park
A picnic table, fire pit and tent pad set into the forest, covered in fallen leaves
One of the tent pads in the Upper Valley Campground, Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park

Hiking trails

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. 

Elevated view of Gemma walking on the Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park boardwalk, surrounded by tall trees and vegetation
Walking the Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park boardwalk
A huge fallen tree on a mossy boardwalk in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park
Some sections of the boardwalk have been badly damaged in storms
Carmanah Creek is also a victim of storms and blowdowns, with many large fallen trees right in the water

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.
Gemma standing on a viewing platform inbetween three huge spruce trees
The Three Sisters in 2014, with a viewing platform located in the middle of the three spruces
Three tall spruce trees with one being damaged half way
After the storm: the Three Sisters in 2019 (the sister at the back is half gone)

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
JR standing between two parts of a huge tree that fell on the trail. The tree has been chainsawed to provide a way through
With fallen trees like this, it is easy to understand why sections of Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park suffer damage and closure
Two brown signs in front of a river stating that the trail is closed beyond this point
The trail to Carmanah’s Stoltmann Grove is closed due to severe hazards
Looking through the forest in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park
Beautiful Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park

How to get to Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park

Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park is located on the western edge of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

There are two main ways to access the park. The easiest and fastest way for most visitors is via the small town of Lake Cowichan. The drive to the park entrance is about 100km from here. Don’t let the distance fool you though, the road is mostly unpaved and rough in places. It will take up to three hours. 

An alternative way to access the park is from Port Renfrew, via the Pacific Marine Road. This recently paved road ends on the southern side of Cowichan Lake. This route links up with the faster one at the western end of the lake.

  • 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. 

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

Check out these other Vancouver Island articles next:

A Complete Guide to Storm Watching in Tofino

Where and How to Find Big Trees on Vancouver Island

11 Fast and Fun Hikes In and Around Tofino

Beyond the Beaten Path Road Trips on Vancouver Island

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The Carmanah Valley is home to a cathedral of trees, a collection of the biggest and best accessible huge trees on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. This is one of those truly special places in the world. Here's everything you need to know about Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, Canada. offtracktravel.ca
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16 thoughts on “Exploring Majestic Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, British Columbia”

  1. Pingback: 5 Places I Never Expected To See in Canada | Off Track Travel
  2. Hi Gemma,
    Thanks for this post, it’s a nice description of an underrated area.
    I’m about to visit Canada again and I’m wondering if this area can be accessed from the west coast trail?
    When I was hiking the trail 5 years ago I heard a story of someone who went looking for the Carmanah Giant as a sidetrip. I thought it was crazy back then as the trail offers more then enough but since I’m going back I wouldn’t wanna miss it if possible.
    Regards,

    Reply
    • Hi John,

      All of the literature and information I have read implies that the Carmanah Giant is very difficult to access, from either the West Coast Trail OR the road accessible side. They stopped maintaining the trail and now major bushwhacking is required. The official line is to prevent damage to this area, but I would guess that stopping people from accessing the West Coast Trail would have some part in the decision too.

      Reply
      • Gemma,
        Thanks for the reply, I’ve done some further research as well. It seems you’re right. The Carmanah Giant is probably impossible if not very hard(!) to reach. The distance from the trail is also not realistic as a side trip.

        Two much more realistic possibilities would be to look for the Cheewhat Giant (Canada’s largest) near the Cheewhat lake approx half way on the trail. Or Big Lonely Doug close to Port Renfrew (unreal scenery).
        We haven’t decided yet.

        Reply
        • Hi John,

          We tried to find the trail to the Cheewhat Giant both on the way to and from Carmanah Park, but had no luck! It was early May so we wonder whether the trail just doesn’t get bushwhacked until the summer. Would love to know if you make it!

          Reply
  3. Hi Gemma. I was reading your story about your trek into Carmanah-Walbran PP. I had the pure joy of visiting the park back in the late 1990s with my sister and her boyfriend. We camped out on the sat and did our hiking on Sunday. A sunny summer day with no rain! A miracle! We were told that the extension of the trail that went to the Giant was closed because it was too dangerous. The tree sits on the face of a cliff so you had to repel down a rope to see the tree. At the bottom of the cliff the trail continued to join up with the southern extent of the west coast trail. I am returning next week and hope to visit the giants again so I enjoyed your story about the drive into the park. Thanks

    Reply
  4. Does anyone have any updated info on reaching this? It’s been on my list for awhile and I just found out that certain parts are flagged for logging. Breaks my heart, I love the old growth stands on the island and I’ve yet to see this one! Thanks

    Reply
    • Oh wow, I had no idea that loggers were trying to log in this area again. That is really sad. From my research, it doesn’t sound like access to the park is unavailable. Definitely try and go if you can!

      Reply
      • Hey, I am planning to visit the area in April of 2016; as far as I can tell it is all still accessible. I loved your post, sounds spectacular! My question is in regards to the road conditions leading up to the parking lot. Since you also visited the area in early spring I am wondering what the 3 hours of rough roads entail? Is it accessible my car, or is an SUV/truck necessary. Would greatly appreciate any help on the matter as it is my first trip to Vancouver island!
        Thanks!

        Reply
  5. Hi Breanna,
    I’ve been to the Park a few times and it is well worth a visit. The road however is very rough and includes but not limited to: potholes that are difficult to avoid, fallen trees, sharp stones and in wet conditions, run away streams. A larger vehicle is recommended as you will have more clearance but at the very least bring a spare tire and jump cables with a battery pack. This is essential. It is remote and does not see many people in a day. However that said, it is an incredible experience and a great way to immerse yourself in nature. Keep an eye out for the Cheewhat Giant Cedar trail- a small flag that is easily missed! Enjoy

    Reply
  6. Hi Gemma,
    Thank you for your excellent account, including great photos, of exploring the giants in Carmanah-Walbran. In July I’m going to be on Vancouver Island for about 3 days, landing in Victoria. After considering the physical and time challenges of driving into Carmanah-Walbran for a day, I’m wondering if you could recommend another forest hike in the central/south end of the island. I have stayed in Sooke in the past and enjoyed some hikes in that area, including the Potholes. Many years ago I hiked the west coast trail, which today is a bigger commitment than I’m prepared to make, and I’ve visited Cathedral Grove over the years, which is ok but it’s over-crowded and closer to a theme park.
    John (above) mentioned “Big Lonely Doug” near Port Renfrew. Do you have any info on that area, or could you pass on any website or name of a good book/guide that would be helpful? Or maybe John or someone else can jump in.

    Reply
  7. Just got back from Carmanah a couple of hours ago. Left the parking lot at 9am got back at 6:45 . Tried to make it to the Giant but gave up after 5 hours. The trail is poorly marked and not maintained at all. Did it 10 or 12 years ago and it was no problem. Saw the giant and went as far as the west coast trail in about 8 hours return. Today we got to a signpost that said the giant was still 2.1 km away. That was after 5 hrs of steady hiking. I would not attempt this hike now unless you are a glutton for punishment . Beautiful place tho. Stoltsmangrove is incredible . When you see the sign at the end of the boardwalk that says the trail is closed don’t go too much further. Enjoyed the ancient forest hope you do too!

    Reply
    • Thanks for the update on the Carmanah Giant trail – or the non-existant trail to be more accurate! I’m glad you still had a great time despite not seeing the Giant.

      Reply

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