Cape Scott Provincial Park
Thursday, August 6
With the kayaking adventure behind us, it was time to turn our attention to the final stop on the Vancouver Island exploration itinerary: a 3-day backpack to the very northern tip of the island, in Cape Scott Provincial Park (Cape Scott is the most northwesterly tip of Vancouver Island). It was a relatively long yet mostly flat endeavour, and hopefully it would provide us with expansive vistas from wide, northern beaches and windswept headlands. There was only one problem: the weather was not looking like it was going to co-operate.
We drove from Port Alberni to Campbell River and stayed overnight in a motel there, getting all of our gear re-organized once again into backpacking configuration. Despite the inclement forecast, which called for more or less rain on Vancouver Island (and more specifically in the Cape Scott area) for the next few days, we got ready anyway, deferring the go / no-go decision to the next morning.
The next day dawned, somewhat counterintuitively, clear, and the sun shone brilliantly as we drove to a diner for breakfast. We re-checked the forecast, just to be sure, but it had not changed. Regardless of what it was like outside right now, we were fairly sure it would be clouds and rain for us in Cape Scott.
We spent some time debating our options. I proposed an alternative destination - nearby Strathcona Park, where perhaps we could eke out a day-hike climb of a peak before the weather turned. There didn't seem to be much enthusiasm for huffing up a big peak, though. We didn't want to subject ourselves to three days of continual wetness and limited views, either. But then, neither did we want to abandon Cape Scott or doing something in the outdoors.
In the end, we decided to drive up to Cape Scott, do a day hike, and then perhaps car-camp in the park or somewhere near by. At least we'd get to see a bit of what North Vancouver Island was like (which none of us had visited before).
After a short stop to pick up rain pants for Gosia and the kids at the local Canadian Tire (they had not brought any with them on the trip), we began our drive north, along highway 19 - the only all-weather paved route to the north country of Vancouver Island.
Vancouver Island's Far North
The weather actually remained fairly nice all the way up highway 19, all the way to Port Hardy, with a mix of sun and clouds. This allowed us to appreciate the fairly mountainous terrain that the highway winds through. They aren't as high as the mountains of central Strathcona, but there are still some fairly respectable peaks up here, with some poking decently up above treeline.
Just before Port Hardy, we turned left onto the long (about 65km) gravel road route that would take us across to the northwestern tip of the island, where Cape Scott is located. The road is clearly primarily used for the extensive forestry industry here, with many "mains" and other such roads branching off regularly. The road itself is actually fairly hilly and twisty, and (at least when we were there) reasonably well-graded.
Although we held out some hope that the relatively decent weather conditions would continue, as we drove down the gravel road west towards Cape Scott, the clouds got lower, the mists began to form, and soon it began to drizzle and rain. By the time we got to the little outpost community of Holberg, things were good and dreary.
Another thirty minutes of driving on increasingly narrow roads (and watch for the signs directing you to Cape Scott, because the maze of forestry roads will lead you astray if you are not careful), we drove past the entrance sign to Cape Scott Provincial park, and we parked alongside about twenty to thirty other very muddy cars. Surprising number of people out here at this remote spot, I thought.
There's not a huge trail network in Cape Scott Provincial Park. Basically there is one main route, heading north from the parking lot to the north coast, and then a continuation west along what is called the "North Coast Trail". Apart from that there are two spurs - one up along the north coast that heads to Cape Scott itself, and the other a short 2.5 km hike from the parking lot, to a nice large bay with beaches and sea stacks.
Main interpretive sign
The 2.5km hike to the nearby bay - San Josef Bay - was clearly our only reasonable non-backpacking option. Since this was a fairly short outing, everyone re-jigged themselves down to a small daypack, except for me. I was feeling too lazy to mess with my carefully-prepped backpack, and I thought - what the hey, its good exercise - and so decided to do the hike with my full pack.
The trail from the parking lot to San Josef Bay is nearly wheelchair accessible - a wide, flat path with a crushed gravel surface. The first 1km was very mildly hilly, up to a junction where the San Jose trail splits off left. Turning left here, the trail is nearly flat, all the way to San Josef Bay. All obstacles or wet spots were very nicely bridged or boardwalked.
I'm not sure if it was the shielding of the big, dense old growth forest, or simply the weather itself, but it seemed to stop raining and drizzling for much of the walk to San Josef Bay.
The end of the crushed-gravel trail marked our arrival at the San Josef backcountry campsites, complete with local tide table, outhouse, and bear boxes. Just beyond, through the trees, we could see the sand and the ocean of the bay.
San Josef Backcountry Camp Area
Heading out to see the bay
The drizzle and rain re-started (or perhaps it had never stopped) as we emerged onto the wide scrub at the head of San Josef Bay. Beyond this extended a huge, beautiful beach - very slight in grade and extending out for what seemed like hundreds of feet before reaching the water. It spread in a wide arc to either side, and then steep forested slopes disappeared up into the clouds on either side. Even with the gloom and the rain, it was quite nice.
We decided to walk northwest along the beach, searching for interesting coastal features like the sea stacks we had seen in some park brochures. If you chose your line carefully enough, picking a nice, firm line of damp sand, walking was easy and good - although I regretted all of the extra weight I had chosen to carry, for it made this task a bit harder without sinking in.
Our walk northwest did in fact bring us to the scenic sea stacks we had seen pictured. The stacks were located in a gap betwen the rocky headland and a detached, forested hump. The pristine beach extended into here, filling the spaces between the stacks with nice, light walkable sand.
The stacks themselves, while pretty, were not as big as I had expected. However, they had these pretty little banzai-style trees atop them. Gave the spot a rather asian feel.
Just around the corner from the stacks, we discovered some excellent sea caves (perhaps better described as deep alcoves), cutting deeply back into the bedrock. In addition to being an interesting exploratory objective, they provided a place out of the rain, which had become rather continuous. A great place to stop for lunch.
Not far beyond the sea cave / alcoves, the beach narrowed and disappeared against a rocky headland. Beyond that, we could see another nice stretch of pristine beach. It looked like at a lower tide, this would be walkable.
With forward progress blocked, we elected to turn around and start our return to the car - but not before taking some shots of the excellent coastal scenery. It was beautiful in the clouds and mist; I can only imagine what it would have been like on a day with blue skies and better visibility.