Western Canada: Driving to Port Renfrew and Walking Botanical Beach

Continued from Sidney by the Sea


On a chilly, gray late-May 2008 day on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, we set out to somehow reach the west side of the island.  

It should be said that doing this is not necessarily easy, and few locals even know how.

Take a look at this map of Vancouver Island to see what I mean.  

The first major path across the island is more than two hours north of Victoria, at Parksville.  Here, the road twists two hours across the island, inlet after inlet, to the small First Nations fishing village of Ucluelet and the apparently stunning, wildlife-filled Tofino.  If you’re staying anywhere near the Victoria area, this drive, rumored to be one of the best in Canada, isn’t designed for a day trip; it should be considered a side trip of at least a couple of days.  

Sadly, Adam and I didn’t leave enough time…this trip.

From the east coast of Vancouver Island, most people would take the 1 South all the way back into Victoria, then pick up the 14 West to reach Port Renfrew, the second major town along the west coast. But we found ourselves tooling up along the east coast to the big town of Duncan, and wanted to find our way to the nearest chunk of the west coast.  Adam asked four people in a row how to do this, all of whom were more confused than the next.  Some pointedly asked, “Why do you want to go all the way over there?”  

Seems that locals here aren’t much for traveling.

Stumped in our quest, we at last found ourselves in the sleepy community of Moonstone Bay, and pulled over for iced coffees at a local cafe.  Adam, still hopeful, asked the woman behind the counter if she knew a way — and hallelujah, she did.  

She told us to turn around, go back 1 km or so, and pick up the Harris Creek logging road; it’s a 40-minute drive through rugged and surprising backcountry, and a mere 4km of it is paved only with a civilized gravel.  She assured us that it’s a strange day when you don’t see bears here…but we never did.

What we did see was a lot of logging, like The Lorax come to life.  The terrain is both beautiful and disquieting, with trees as high as city apartment buildings beside forest slopes hacked to jagged stumps.

Logging here is serious business, but there are no clean cuts; branches, wood shards, and splintered roots blanket the hillsides, straight up to thick lines of trees that seemingly wait their turn, resigned to the same fate.  Adam pointed out that just about every forest we’d laid eyes on in Canada had been cut down and replanted at some point, creating different waves of greens.

Soon we passed over Harris Creek itself, bright green, sun-dappled, deep with heavy rocks, and rimmed by tall, soft pines.  Just past the little bridge that spans it, we stowed our car, walked back and drank in this view for ten minutes before a single other vehicle passed our way.  That vehicle was a great big logging truck.

Once through the John Steinbeck-era town of Port Renfrew, where pretty bayside homes snuggle amongst campgrounds, hostels, and small lodgings like the log cabin Port Renfrew Hotel, we easily found the parking lot for the Botanical Beach Loop of the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail.  

Even if you’re in Vancouver Island for only a few days, know that this gorgeous place shouldn’t be missed.

The marine trail is named for and located on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a narrow strip of the Pacific that separates southwestern Vancouver Island from northwestern Washington State.  Juan de Fuca himself was in fact the Greek navigator Ionannis Phokas, who in the mid 1500s, while captain of a Spanish ship looking for a northern route across from the Pacific to the Atlantic, was given a Spanish version of his name.  

The Botanical Beach Loop is a two-and-a-half mile series of several small, easy hikes through old growth forest and along log-strewn, pebbly beaches with crashing waves and slants of dark, jagged shale softened by wind and water, peppered with a myriad sandstone tidepools.  

These pools, best viewed at low tide (check NOAA for tide info when you plan to be here), host scores of blue-shelled mussels, gooseneck barnacles, tiny anemones, little purple urchins, guppies, miniscule crabs, and a million other things we couldn’t identify without a degree in marine biology.  We searched everywhere for elusive starfish, but maybe they were off with the Harris Creek bears.

Faces turned to the sparkling wind and water, we were startled by a bald eagle soaring home to its nest to roost.  From the top rungs of a tall pine, tiny white heads bobbed up now and again as the mother eagle sat vigil, watching us and the Olympic Range across the Strait.

We didn’t see whales or seals, either, a common sighting here, nor anything but the scat of the black bears and cougars that signs warn about throughout the forest.  We also, however, didn’t see many human beings; at 6pm in late May, we passed a few people along the way, but mostly had the Loop to ourselves.

We prowled through a rainforest full of plants with huge leaves, curling trees, and twisting vines, almost a set from Lord of the Rings.  Sometimes we’d see delicate wildflowers, brambly patches of not-yet fruiting blackberry, and the occasional huge, clear yellow banana slug.

Out on the last beach, the cool air was quiet save for the lapping of the bay and a far-off foghorn.  The sun had grown sharp and glittery, and it was time to seek out some dinner in Sooke Harbour.


* For more photos from this leg of our Canadian journey, click here.


Continued in For Goodness Sooke

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