Featuring a magnificent temperate rainforest with enormous 800 year old trees, a carpet of ferns and draping moss, Cathedral Grove is an essential stop on any Vancouver Island road trip. Officially known as MacMillan Provincial Park, the trees in Cathedral Grove are amongst the oldest and tallest in Canada.
It’s a humbling experience to stand next to these incredibly tall and gnarled tree trunks, some as wide as a car. The tree canopy is up to 80 metres high in places, with the sky a distant proposition. As you walk through the forest, beams of sunlight filter through the branches above, illuminating so many layers of green.
This incredible forest filled with Douglas-fir, Western Hemlock, Grand fir and Western Red Cedar trees is the most easily accessible grove of old growth on Vancouver Island. Breathe in the fresh air, look up to the forest canopy above and prepare for your soul to be refreshed at Cathedral Grove, BC.
A cathedral of nature
The reason for the name ‘Cathedral Grove’ becomes immediately obvious only a few minutes into visiting. Soaring towards the sky, these huge trees form their own beautiful cathedral of nature. Fallen trees here and there allow light to streak through the canopy, much as stained glass windows in churches do.
To indigenous people of the area, these trees have even greater spiritual significance. Cedar trees have long been considered sacred due to their life giving properties. Providing First Nation peoples with shelter, transportation, clothing and tools, these trees would be sustainability harvested and every part put to use.
A short history of Cathedral Grove
Cathedral Grove is part of the traditional territory of the K’ómoks, Tseshaht and Te’mexw people, who have acted as stewards of this area for thousands of years.
As Vancouver Island was settled by Europeans, Cathedral Grove became a tourist stop as early as the 1920’s. At the time, the land was owned by the Victoria Lumbering and Manufacturing Company (VLMC), who continued to log the areas around Cathedral Grove.
The public petitioned the BC government for the protection of Cathedral Grove for years without success, until public pressure on the new owner (H.R. MacMillan) resulted in a 136 hectare land donation in 1944.
Despite the creation of the provincial park three years later, logging continued around the park. This clear cutting destroyed the wind barrier around the grove, threatening the integrity of the ecosystem. This was seen in the aftermath of a severe storm in 1997, which toppled a number of the largest trees in the park.
Cathedral Grove continues to evolve even now, with the 1997 storm opening the canopy to allow for new growth. As you walk around the forest, look out for new plants and trees growing on the fallen logs.
Popular, but rightly so
Cathedral Grove is one of those places that is immensely popular but I do believe it deserves all of the attention it gets. While there are other old growth forests on Vancouver Island to visit (and I’m thankful for that), Cathedral Grove provides an easily accessible example that any visitor can enjoy.
A definitively ‘beaten path’ location, I am featuring Cathedral Grove primarily because I hope it inspires people to see and learn more about Vancouver Island. Visiting this majestic place is a one of a kind experience and I am optimistic that it inspires at least a few people every day to care more about the environment.
What you need to know about visiting Cathedral Grove, BC
Visiting Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park is a highlight for many people exploring Vancouver Island. It is an easy and convenient way to see the incredible old growth temperate rainforest that once was common on Vancouver Island.
Essential things to know about visiting Cathedral Grove:
- Free entry
- Parking is limited and can be very busy at peak times
- Several different easy and short walking trails
- 20 minutes west of Coombs
- 20 minutes east of Port Alberni
- Dogs are allowed on leash only
- There are outhouses but no other facilities e.g. camping, food
How to get to Cathedral Grove
An ideal stop on the way to Tofino and Ucluelet, Cathedral Grove is located directly on Highway 4 between Coombs and Port Alberni. The park is split into two sections, with short walking trails starting immediately next to the highway.
As you drive along pretty Cameron Lake towards Port Alberni, watch for the speed limit reduction signs (50km/h). Cathedral Grove’s roadside parking for will soon appear on both sides of the highway.
Driving from Port Alberni, the park approach is more obvious. The preceding road is long and flat, offering decent visibility of the park ahead. Again, watch for the speed limit reduction signs.
Parking at Cathedral Grove
Parking is free at Cathedral Grove but it is limited to around twenty angled spots on either side of the road (approx forty total). Do not cross the highway to park.
It is very busy during the summer (June-September), on weekends and especially in the middle of the day. If you can, visit early (before 10am) or late (after 4pm).
Driving an RV? Unfortunately, there is no dedicated RV parking at Cathedral Grove and the parking spots are on the smaller side. It is possible you may not be able to park, depending on the size of your vehicle and how busy Cathedral Grove is when you visit.
The great thing about visiting Cathedral Grove as part of a Tofino trip is that you have another chance to stop on the way back. Or a second visit! The majority of people seem to stop at Cathedral Grove on their outgoing journey. This means it can be easier to park on the way back.
Hiking in Cathedral Grove
The paths in Cathedral Grove are a mixture of dirt trail and wooden boardwalk. Each side of the road offers intersecting circular trails. All of the trails are flat, short and fairly wide, offering easy walking and accessibility.
There are interpretive signs scattered throughout Cathedral Grove, explaining the history, life-cycle and biodiversity of the forest.
- On windy days, the trails should not be used in case of falling trees
- Smoking is not allowed
- Stay on the designated trails to reduce damage to the forest
- Snow is possible from November-March, which can result in icy trails
Big Tree Trail: The most visited route at Cathedral Grove, the Big Tree Trail (as you may guess) features the largest tree in the park. This awe inspiring Douglas Fir is over 9 meters in circumference.
Living Forest Trail: Besides the ‘big tree’ as mentioned above, this trail also features a number of notable Douglas Firs. Interpretive signs describe the life-cycle of the trees and other flora.
The northern side tends to be a little quieter than the south.
Old Growth Trail: This trail is actually two loops with an offshoot to Cameron Lake. It starts with a boardwalk before lowering walkers down to the forest floor. There is a huge overturned tree in the northeastern section, a fascinating display of old growth root systems.
Crossing Highway 4
To explore the trails on both sides of Highway 4, it is possible to walk across. Though the posted speed limit is low, keep in mind that this is a busy major highway. It is very, very important to remain cautious and cross carefully.
Drivers sometimes slow down and gesture for pedestrians to cross the road, but be sure to still double check that the coast is clear.
Facilities at MacMillan Provincial Park
There are outhouses located on both sides of the road. Besides these, the parking and forest walking trails, there are no other facilities at Cathedral Grove. Camping or overnight parking is not allowed.
How long to spend at Cathedral Grove
I would estimate the average visit time to Cathedral Grove to be around 30-45 minutes, but I would recommend staying longer. If you choose to walk all of the trails and take time to absorb the surroundings, take photos and read each interpretive sign, an hour and a half is very possible.
If not in a hurry (and hopefully you are not!), I’d recommend bringing lunch or snacks and stopping for a break by the Cameron River.