I’m just back from a four day backpacking trip on the 47 kilometre long Juan de Fuca Trail. Located on the west coast of Vancouver Island, a little south of its more famous cousin, the West Coast Trail, its short distance belies the difficulty of the trail. This post is meant for those who have yet to hike the trail but want to – and would like to be as prepared as possible. Here’s what you need to know before you go.
Opening times for the Juan de Fuca Trail
The Juan de Fuca Trail is open year round and reservations are not required for backcountry camping. The trail is busy from mid-June through to early September, with peak times in July and August. Campsites are first come, first served with the exception of China Beach Campground – which isn’t really on the trail anyway. My advice is leave early in the morning (by 9 AM) so you get to the next campsite in good time and have a choice of campsites. In peak periods, some campsites like Chin Beach will be extremely crowded and nice sites will be at a premium.
Trailheads on the Juan de Fuca Trail
If you’re planning to backpack the entire length of the Juan de Fuca Trail then you’ll need to decide whether to start at Botanical Beach near Port Renfrew in the north or at China Beach at the southern end, located just north of Jordan River. The driving time between the two trailheads is approximately one hour. I wouldn’t say one is better than the other though my impression was that there were more people hiking north.
If you have a couple of cars you can do a shuttle leaving one at each trailhead. We chose to start at Botanical Beach so we could walk out to a waiting car at the end. I made a reservation on the West Coast Trail Express for a pickup on the highway at the China Beach Provincial Park Day Use Trailhead. (Drive down about 100 metres and the parking lot is on your right. The trailhead is right there too.) Just make sure you’re there in plenty of time as the bus won’t wait. Also, make sure you’re waiting on the far side of the highway in the pull off a few metres north of the entrance to China Beach Provincial Park. (We were not and had to flag the bus down as it wasn’t planning to stop!) You can also pick up the bus in Victoria. At the end of the hike you can take a bus from Port Renfrew back to China Beach or Victoria.
There are several other access points to the trail if you’re interested in doing only day hikes or a shortened version of the trail. You can get to the trail via Sombrio Beach and Parkinson Creek. Locals know of a road that gets to a trail that takes you to Bear Beach but I’m not sure of its location.
Camping Fees on the Juan de Fuca Trail
Everybody that camps overnight needs to pay $10 per night if they are 16 and older. You can use a self-registration envelope and pay at the trailhead. I found it more convenient to pay online, especially as I knew we’d be rushing for the bus. That link is here.
Campsites on the Juan de Fuca Trail
Everyone is asked to camp at established camping areas to minimized impact. All campsites come with outhouses (toilet paper included) and bear boxes.
There are two forest campsites – Providence Cove (around Km 40) and Little Kuitsche Creek (Km 33). These in my opinion are the least desirable campsites because you don’t have any ocean views. And as you can see in the photo below, not all of the tent sites are well-drained. But unless you hike all the way from Sombrio Beach to Botanical Beach – a very long go – you’ll have to choose one of them. At Little Kuitsche Creek it is possible to hike down to the ocean and enjoy a view.
The beach campsites are found at Sombrio Beach East (~Km 27-28), Chin Beach (Km 21), Bear Beach (Km 9) and Mystic Beach (~Km 2.5). Sombrio Beach would be a great spot for the night if it works with your hiking schedule. We stayed at Chin Beach – on a bench and watched high tide come crashing to within about four feet of our tent around midnight. If you camp on the rocks make sure you’re above the high tide line! Bear Beach has some lovely campsites particularly at the southern end of the beach near a large creek. Mystic Beach gets very busy with lots of people who aren’t hiking the Juan de Fuca Trail.
The Juan de Fuca Trail at High Tide
Some parts of the Juan de Fuca map are impassable at high tide. These sections are clearly marked on the maps and trails. For planning purposes and so you don’t have any surprises its well worth downloading the tide charts beforehand. Use the Port Renfrew section. You will also find tide tables at the trailheads and anywhere there are large boards with maps. Don’t forget to use Pacific Daylight Savings Time for tide times between March and November.
Look for orange balls on the beach as they indicate an exit onto the trail.
What to Expect Hiking the Juan de Fuca Trail
Even though there are people that run the Juan de Fuca Trail in one very long day – and we saw about a dozen of them – most people opt to backpack it over three to five days. We took four days which felt like the right amount of time, considering we averaged about 2 km/hour except for the first three and last five or six kilometres which were some of the easiest on the trail.
Just because a trail is along the coast and not in the mountains, does not make it an easy trail. The Juan de Fuca Trail has plenty of ups and downs especially on the section between Chin Beach and Bear Beach. One gentleman we met who looked completely bagged called this section “dreadful.” (It was our favourite as there wasn’t much mud.) Expect hours of negotiating mud if its rained at all, slippery boardwalks, roots that are designed to trip you, occasional downed trees, slimy tree trunks and rare sections of lovely flat hiking interspersed with beautiful beach walking if you time the tides right. Suspension bridges, ladders and beautiful sections of rainforest walking round out what you encounter.
Our route on the trail heading south looked like this.
Day One – Botanical Beach to Little Kuitsche Creek – 14 kilometres in about seven hours. Lots of mud; beautiful forest section but overall our least favourite day.
Day Two – Little Kuitsche Creek to Chin Beach – 12 kilometres in about six hours; Lots of mud again, one delightful flat as a pancake section through forest, beach walking with tide pools, Sombrio Beach; three suspension bridges
Day Three – Chin Beach to Bear Beach – 12 kilometres in about 5.5 hours; about a dozen steep ups and downs to bypass creeks but far less mud; the most aerobic part of the trail; the least favourite day of most people because of all the climbing and descending
Day Four – Bear Beach to China Beach – 9 kilometres in about four hours; the easiest day by far; Mystic Beach lovely for lunch but very busy for camping
Other Useful Information for the Juan de Fuca Trail
- The night before we stayed at the Prestige Oceanfront Resort in Sooke. Apart from the fabulous views, it’s got a mini-fridge in the room so you can keep your food cold, a great dining room and it’s only a 30 minute drive to the the parking lot at China Beach.
- Dogs are permitted on a leash.
- Leave valuables at home. Break-ins are a huge problem in the parking lots.
- You can have campfires on the beaches but carry a stove, especially as you’ll need it for cooking in the forest.
- Water needs to be treated. You only need to carry one bottle of water as there are loads of places to fill up.
- Gaiters really helped keep the mud out of our boots.
- Hiking poles are useful in mud and for helping to keep your balance in slippery sections.
- Good rain gear is essential.
- Bear and cougar sightings are possible. We only saw squirrels and seals.
- Before you go, get into shape and do something aerobic a few times a week. It will make the trip far more pleasant and decrease the chances of an injury.
- My cell phone never worked on this trail though there are several exit points should you have an emergency. There is also an emergency shelter immediately south of Chin Beach at the top of the cliff.
- Carry lots of high energy food. Backpacker Magazine suggests for a strenuous day of backpacking – which most of these are – you’ll burn 25 to 30 calories per pound of body weight and even more if your pack is super heavy.
- Stop in at the Coastal Kitchen Cafe in Port Renfrew for breakfast before beginning the trail. If you end in Port Renfrew grab a beer while you wait for the bus at the Renfrew Pub. If you have a big appetite as you’re driving home stop at Mom’s Cafe in Sooke for a piece of their famous apple pie. Each slice has about seven apples!
I’m very glad I hiked the Juan de Fuca Trail but I was equally happy when it was over. I suspect most people feel that way but as usual we met many people who were doing it for the second, third and even the fourth time. I think they forgot about how much their feet and shoulders ached by the end.
Other posts you might enjoy:
- A Guide to Hiking the West Coast Trail
- The Sunshine Coast Trail: What You Need to Know Before You Go
Thank you to Tourism Vancouver Island for help in making this trip possible.