North Coast Trail

The North Coast trail, a rough and rugged trail that will take hikers though beautiful forests, stunning coastlines in a truly remote setting on the northern most tip of Vancouver Island. Most hikers start the hike from Shushartie Bay which is accessible via a one hour boat ride from Port Hardy. Once the boat has departed all there is left to do is venture on and take in the beautiful surroundings and the surreal isolation.

Looking out over Shushartie Bay waiting to disembark the water taxi

As soon as you step foot on shore you are greeted by a small taste of what is to come later on in the hike as you have to ascend a step bank using a fixed rope, something that will become common place later in the trip, nothing like a nice easy warm up. Once you climb up to the highest point on the trail you get into one of the upland bog sections of the trail, this is a truly unique ecosystem that feels more like the alpine than something so close to the coast.

Hiking along a nice boardwalk through upland bog

After the longest overland section is complete you are back on the coast although the route takes hikers on a mix of beach and overland, whatever offers the least resistance the rest of the trail. Our first night we made camp at the Nahwitti River which at one was the site of an old settlement. If you look closely across the river from the established campsite you can spot of of the remaining structures.

Looking out towards the mouth of the Nahwitti River

Day 2 we had a leisurely start to our day with the goal of making it to Cape Sutil, the northern most tip of Vancouver Island, although the actual tip is of Cape Sutil is outside of the park and has restricted access that should be respected. Before making it to Cape Sutil you need to decent “long leg stairs” a substantial series of steps which has the one tidal cut off at the bottom which was part of the reason for the late start. We enjoy a late lunch near the tidal cutoff which has a few small sea caves worth exploring.

The sea caves/arch which will block your way at high tide

Shortly after this you are into some of the most technical hiking on the trail, a series of rocky headlands that has hikers going up and down a number of step slopes.

One of the worst offenders, once you reach the top you immediately have to descend a similar slope to what you just scaled

Cape Sutil itself was a stunningly beautiful beach with sweeping views and in our case totally deserted, even the ranger outpost was empty. I have to say one of the perks of remote hikes like this is unusual feeling of being alone in the world.

Hiking into camp at Cape Sutil, the point on the right it the northern most tip of Vancouver Island
Misty views from Cape Sutil

Leaving Cape Sutil you traverse a series of pocket beaches and rocky headlines. Along the way you see some sweeping beaches and you go past a unique geological feature a tombolo which was a great location to stop for lunch.

An example of one of the many pocket beaches one has to traverse
The approach to the tombolo which is on the far right of this image

Getting into camp at Irony creek it was another stunning location and the one camp that had the fresh water source close to camp. One of the oddest things about this trail was that the water source was often up to 500m away from camp which is not always the most convenient. Other hikes I have done usually have the camp locations near the water source.

Looking out from the tent pads towards the beach at Irony creek
Moody skies over Irony creek
Camp fire at Irony creek campsite

The whole time we where at Irony creek we had whales off shore which is always a treat to be able to see. The next morning we a nice easy walk before doubling back to cross Stranby River over the 2nd cable car crossing of the trip.

Crossing the Stranby River on the cable car

After this it was a series of rocky beaches where we ran into a number of bears one just outside of our campsite at Laura creek. This was also the first night we shared our campsite since the first night as a group had caught up to us at this point.

The incoming tide at the Laura creek campsite

The next section was the last overland section before the end of the trail at Nissen bight. Before dropping back down to Nissen bight you pass near the Nahwitti Cone and another section of upland bog which was full of stunted trees.

Hiking through a section of upland bog near Nissen bight

Once you make it to Nissen bight you are technically done the 43km North Coast trail but you still have another 16km or so of hiking left to get to the Cape Scott trail head unless you decide to hike out to the Cape Scott light house. From here we hiked to our final night at Eric which was extremely buggy but was very surprised to find that at the lake the breeze kept the bugs at bay. The following day we hiked out the remaining trail to the Cape Scott trail head where the trail bus drove us back to Port Hardy.

A humming bird on it’s nest hidden away at Fishermans river

The North Coast trail was along what I was expecting, a rugged route along the northern tip of Vancouver Island. We did not spend as much time on the beach as I was expecting but it was a nice variety of terrain. Nothing beats the remoteness of a hike like and it is something I would certainly recommend for anyone looking for something a little more wild and challenging than the other more established coastal hikes on the island like the West Coast trail or the Juan du Fuca.


Additional information

Cape Scott

Earlier this summer I made the long journey up to the northern most point of Vancouver Island and spent 5 days exploring the area in Cape Scott Provincial park. I have never explored the much of northern Vancouver Island but it has always been a place I have wanted to see more of. Cape Scott is an interesting mix of natural beauty and history. It is the site of a number of separate attempts at early settlement and later on a top secret radar instillation that is now home to a lighthouse. After a lengthy drive on winding roads to get to Port Hardy you turn off for the final part of the journey to access the park, 65km of gravel roads that passes through the the small town of Holberg before reaching the trail head. From the trail head there are a number of options but we decided to setup a base camp at Nels Bight, a 2400 meter long sandy beach about 17km from the parking lot that includes a ranger cabin. This central location provides a good starting place to explore the beaches in the area.

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Hiking through lush forests en route to Nels Bight

Nels Bight is a stunning beach that offers stunning views and a fantastic place to watch the sunset. Over the next 2 nights we experienced very different weather patterns, our first night was clear without a cloud to be seen. Waking up the next morning we got to see something a little different as a heavy cloud had rolled in, while the it was sad to loose the sun the fog and cloud made for some unique photo opportunities.

The sunsets on a beautiful evening at Nels Bight
The sunsets on a beautiful evening at Nels Bight

Fog and clouds shroud Nels Bight
Fog and clouds shroud Nels Bight

Under the cover of cloud we made our way towards Guise Bay, Experiment Bight with the Cape Scott lighthouse before returning back to base camp at Nels Bight. Guise Bay was one of the more stunning beaches that we got to see, had it been warmer out it would have been something you could almost imagine as being tropical.

Looking over Guise Bay from the sand dunes between it and Experiment Bight
Looking over Guise Bay from the sand dunes between it and Experiment Bight

Guise Bay was the site of a number of building from a secret radar station at Cape Scott operated by the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II, the current site of the lighthouse was also used for this installation and in fact the lighthouse sits on the same foundations as the old radar dome. Signs of these prior uses are clearly visible, some more than others such as the old plank road that leads from Guise Bay to the lighthouse. The lighthouse is somewhat utilitarian and is not what one would think of when you think of a lighthouse, it is simply a light mounted on a short tower located on the highlands of the cape. Experiment Bight is separated by a small band of sand dunes from Guise Bay, these sand dunes are not something that is commonly found on Vancouver Island so it was neat to explore them on the way over to Experiment Bight.

Looks out towards Guise Bay through a gap in the sand dunes between Guise Bay and Experiment Bight
Looks out towards Guise Bay through a gap in the sand dunes between Guise Bay and Experiment Bight

Flowers grow in sand above the high tide mark at Experiment Bight.
Flowers grow in sand above the high tide mark at Experiment Bight.

By the time the sun was setting it appeared that the fog and clouds that had hung over us all day was starting to clear making for a very different sunset compared to the previous evening.

Twilight as the last of the sun shines through a break in the clouds
Twilight as the last of the sun shines through a break in the clouds

After a day of fog and cloud we once again woke up to beautiful clear sunny skies, this morning we packed up camp and made our way over to the less popular Nissen Bight for the night. The relatively short hike over to Nissen Bight passes through the main Cape Scott settlement area which has a number of remains of attempts to tame the area by settlers in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s although some did stick around until the 50’s most had left with the onset of World War I.

Old tractor at an old homestead site
Old tractor at an old homestead site

Nissen Bight and Fishermans Bay are very close to each other and can be accessed by a short trail or tide permitting over the beach. Nissen bight offers a less populated camp site although the water source is some distance from the main camping area. Nissen bight is also the start (or end) of the North Coast trail.

Sunset as viewed from Fishermans Bay near Nissen bight.
Sunset as viewed from Fishermans Bay near Nissen Bight.

After a night at Nissen Bight it was on to our final camp destination at San Josef Bay before heading home, although it was a long day of hiking it was easy going as it is mostly flat (or downhill) the whole way. San Josef Bay is a stunning white sand beach which has some unique sea stacks and caves between 2 bays. The sea caves and 2nd bay are only accessible when the tides permit, there is a steep overland route but it looked rather difficult. It should also be noted that while San Josef Bay does have a water source it is located at the 2nd beach which may be cut off due to the tide to keep that in mind when planning (we collected water at Eric lake). San Josef Bay is a popular location for day hikers or less adventuress hikers as it is a short few kilometers from the trail head so expect it to see more crowds than other beaches in the park.

Sea stacks at San Josef Bay
Sea stacks at San Josef Bay

Cape Scott is an iconic hike and is well worth the journey to get there. It offers an amazing selection beautiful natural sites with some neat history which is not something you experience at most hiking destinations. While the hiking is relatively easy the distances getting out to the beaches near the cape are long and depending on the conditions can be a challenge in that regard.