There’s no shortage of beautiful trails if you plan to do some hiking on Vancouver Island (and you definitely should!). The most famous is probably the West Coast Trail that cuts through Pacific Rim National Park on the rugged west coast of the island, but even locals and avid hikers will tell you that is a pretty hardcore option and not a route for occasional hikers.
Luckily, for those of us who aren’t so aggressively outdoorsy, there are many much easier coastal trails that offer plenty of scenic rewards without killing yourself. One of these is the trail to Mystic Beach, about a half hour north of Sooke, BC. Not only will you get to hike through a Jurassic-Park-like forest, the beach at the end of the trail offers a photogenic surprise of its own. There are other even easier trails nearby, too, which offer access to unspoiled beaches without much effort at all. So lace up your hiking boots, pack your gorp and start your Vancouver Island hiking adventure with these three trails…
*’Gorp’ is one of those terms that regular hikers and campers know well. For the rest of us it’s just a goofy name for trail mix! 😉
East vs West on Southern Vancouver Island
Having visited Vancouver Island a couple of times now, Henk and I are beginning to get a feel for the southern part of the island, at least geographically. The southeast coast is known for its farming communities in the relatively flat Cowichan Valley, and there are plenty of population clusters on the east coast between Comox and Victoria. Which also means there are definitely more comings and goings on its highway, too.
The west coast, on the other hand, is Vancouver Island’s wild child, with only a few small communities north of Sooke, and huge tracts of coastline between Port Renfrew and Ucluelet completely inaccessible by car. Add to that direct exposure to the changing moods of the Pacific Ocean, and what you end up with in the southwest is a rugged, dramatic coastline with unspoiled beaches and impressive forests. In other words, the perfect choice for spectacular day hiking on Vancouver Island.
An Easy ‘Hike’ to French Beach
Sometimes the hike is about the destination, not the journey. So if that destination is a beach and you want to get there without breaking a sweat, French Beach Provincial Park is a perfect option. Located about 15 minutes’ drive north of Sooke, this park offers beach access via a short (.3 km) easy trail. It’s so easy, in fact, that it’s a stretch to call this a ‘hike’ at all. But save that energy for French Beach itself where wannabe beachcombers and whale watchers will find 1600 metres of shoreline to explore. The beach also offers expansive views over the Juan de Fuca Strait to the Olympic Mountains in the distance, and there are some pretty impressive driftwood specimens here, as well. So bring your camera along with those whale-watching binoculars so you don’t miss a thing.
TIP: Prime season for whale-spotting at French Beach is in the spring when Gray whales pass by on the way to their northern feeding grounds.
Discover a Hidden Gem: Fishboat Bay Beach
It always pays to ask a local where they like to go hiking on Vancouver Island, and Henk and I did just that when we were at a restaurant in Sooke chatting with our server. The recommendation she gave us turned out to be a real hidden gem: Fishboat Bay Beach. Just 3 km north of French Beach, this tiny little community park would be easily missed by many visitors to the Island, yet it turned out to be a real surprise and delight for Henk and I. Not only was the trail a short, easy one, but the reward was twofold: a stunning show-stopper of an old-growth tree at the beginning of the trail and a pristine stretch of completely empty sandy beach at the end!
Finding a centuries-old tree is getting harder and harder on Vancouver Island, with so few old-growth forests left, so this gorgeous giant came as a complete surprise to us.
And when I saw this ‘blank canvas’ of a sandy beach with not even a single footprint on it, I couldn’t resist creating my own temporary sand art on it. And since Henk and I were the only people here, I didn’t think anyone would mind.
TIP: To best enjoy Fishboat Bay beach, time your visit at low tide. You can check daily tide schedules for Vancouver Island here.
Hike the Juan de Fuca Trail to Mystic Beach
Now that you’ve warmed up with some really easy trails to French Beach and Fishboat Bay Beach, it’s time to take it up a notch with a hike to Mystic Beach, one of the most picturesque beaches you’ll find on Vancouver Island’s southwest coast. The hike to Mystic Beach begins at the south/east trailhead for the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, about 30 minutes’ drive north of Sooke on Highway 14. (The Juan de Fuca Trail is like the little brother to the West Coast Trail, in that it can take you 3-5 days to hike this 47-km trail end-to-end. But not to worry: this piece to Mystic Beach is more like a 2-hour return hike, not counting time you will want to spend at the beach.)
TIP: Access to the Mystic Beach trail is from the upper of 2 parking lots (try to park in the lot for the Mystic Beach Campground). Look for the wooden trail map/board, behind which is the trail to Mystic Beach down to the right. It will indicate this is the start of the Juan de Fuca Trail. If you park in the lower parking lot, there is another trail at the far end that leads to China Beach, so you don’t want to confuse the two.
Forest Bathing on the Mystic Beach Trail
One step onto the Mystic Beach trail and you are immersed in a towering forest, where it’s easy to embrace the idea of ‘forest bathing’. The term originated in Japan in the 1980s (it is called Shinrin-yoku) and despite its hippy-dippy English moniker, actually refers to the very real physical and psychological benefits of connecting with nature. After two years of a global pandemic, this kind of ecotherapy is just good for the soul and walking along the forest floor under a soaring canopy of green was exactly what Henk and I needed.
With the trail almost to ourselves, we could even hear the forest ‘chattering’, as the wind gently moved the tree canopy causing the trees to creak and clack as they rubbed against each other. Pretty cool, I have to say. Have a listen here:
A Rooty Route, but Beautiful
We had already read on the AllTrails website that the Mystic Beach trail was both rooty and muddy, so we were prepared that our hike might take us a little longer, since we would be choosing our footing carefully. We actually found the rooty nature of the trail quite beautiful, and while there were some muddy patches, these were no problem to navigate around.
TIP: A great resource for hiking on Vancouver Island, (or anywhere globally), is the AllTrails website and app. It gives you maps, detailed descriptions and helps you choose the right trails for you based on difficulty, elevation, etc.) This 4km out-and-back trail to Mystic Beach was listed as ‘easy’ on Alltrails, but ‘intermediate’ on other websites, probably because of the irregular footing aver the roots, and the steep stairs to the beach at the end. But if you watch where you place your feet on the trail, and take your time on the stairs, this trail is very doable. Even for us out-of-shape occasional hikers!
A nice surprise on the Mystic Beach trail was a suspension bridge which we discovered about mid-way to the beach, and Henk was impressed enough with its solid construction that even with his fear of heights he felt comfortable crossing it.
Surprise on the Beach
If the suspension bridge was a nice surprise, the best one awaited us on Mystic Beach itself. After climbing down the last set of steep wooden stairs at the end of the trail, and clambering over some particularly large driftwood logs to get onto the beach, we looked to our left and saw the crown jewel of this hike: a cascading waterfall tumbling over the rocky cliffs right onto the sand below!
Spring had been particularly wet on Vancouver Island just before our visit, which turned out to be good news, because the waterfall was literally pouring off the side of the rugged cliffs, making for great photos from any angle.
It was like something out of a fantasy movie, and I could see where ‘Mystic’ Beach got its name (seriously, I was just waiting for a unicorn to show up).
TIP: If you plan to visit Mystic Beach, time your hike for low tide, as this gives you the most access to the waterfall. Knowing tide schedules can be really important whenever you are visiting a coastal region (particularly in high-tide destinations like the Bay of Fundy).
Post-Hiking Liquid Rewards at Renfrew Pub
Hiking on Vancouver Island doesn’t have to just be about gorp and getting pretty photos. And after the steep-ish climb back up from Mystic Beach to the car (what goes down must come up), Henk and I decided we deserved a reward of a different kind. So we decided to drive a little farther north on Highway 14 to the tiny community of Port Renfrew which we had visited four years previously when we hiked to an old growth forest.
But this time, we had our sights set on a drink at the Renfrew Pub, which was buzzing with customers, and the perfect place to enjoy a local craft beer and some great pub grub.
TIP: Another place to go for dinner that is closer to French Beach is Stoked Pizzeria in the community of Shirley. Locals rave about their wood-fired pizza, but be sure to check the website for hours of operation, and be prepared to wait. It’s that popular.
A Fairy Lake, Fairytale Ending to a Day of Hiking on Vancouver Island
About 8 minutes from Port Renfrew is one of Vancouver Island’s littlest and most charming residents: a tiny tree growing out of a submerged tree stump in the whimsically-named Fairy Lake.
Affectionately known as Vancouver Island’s ‘bonsai tree’, this little tree is an Instagram star in its own right, thanks to its unlikely and unusual location. As golden hour was approaching, Henk and I made a little detour to capture this Fairy Lake phenom before heading back to Sooke for the night. With the low angle of the sun gilding this wee tree, we couldn’t have asked for a more picture-perfect ending to a great day exploring Vancouver Island’s wild west coast.
PRACTICAL TIPS FOR HIKING ON VANCOUVER ISLAND
• A great resource for hiking anywhere globally is the AllTrails website and app. It gives you maps, detailed descriptions and helps you choose the right trails for you based on difficulty, elevation, etc. Plus you can download trail maps right to your phone, which we highly recommend.
• Don’t depend on GPS on your phone for accessing trail maps, as many places do not have cell service. If you haven’t downloaded a map beforehand, or you don’t have a paper trail map, at the very least take a photo of the trail map at the trailhead where the routes are usually posted.
• Bring hiking poles if you have them: they are particularly useful on steep downhills and areas with tricky footing.
• Good hiking boots/shoes designed for rugged terrain are a must. Running shoes are just not as good in slippery conditions, and flip flops or sandals are never a good idea, even on easy hikes.
• Obey any notices re: closures or blocked trails that may be posted on trailhead boards – they are put there for a reason.
• Check the trail conditions ahead of time by reading the latest online reviews (recent rainfall can make for muddy, slippery paths (see ‘hiking poles’ above!) You can also check the BC Parks website for notices, closures, etc.
• Check tide schedules for coastal hikes or you may find less ‘beach’ than you were expecting!
• Bring water, snacks, and a first aid kit. (Getting hangry – or hurt – will take the fun out of your hike.)