West Coast Trail, Pacific Rim NP, Vancouver Island


Sep 12, 2014
I went in the middle of June. The West Coast Trail was originally built a century ago as a life saving route in response to the frequent shipwrecks along the southern coast of Vancouver Island facing the Straight of Juan de Fuca. It runs between the Gordon River at Port Renfrew, and Pachena Bay near Bamfield. In Canada the trail is 75km, which is ~48 miles. Some of the route travels right along the beach, some of it through forest. There are two ferries involved in the length of it, a few cable cars, a number of bridges, and quite a lot of ladders.

I started from the East end at Port Renfrew and hiked West. From the park office at Port Renfrew it is is necessary to take a very short ferry across the Gordon River estuary to access the start of the trail. Looking back upon disembarking. The last i'd see of the group i rode across with.
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The way is well signed, and rather vegetated. Coming from the East the first several miles are wooded like this.west coast trail 040.JPG

It's not long before the ladders begin. Up and down we go.
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Even before the original trail was finished a telegraph line was strung along the route, also to aid in life saving efforts on account of the ship wrecks. Remnants of it can still be seen along some portions of the trail.
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This picture is a close up from the previous, a glass insulator grown into the tree.
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A not insignificant amount of the far eastern end of the trail looks like this. Right up the rocks.
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An old donkey engine from old trail construction. The two logs it sits on are held together at both ends with timbers, and bolts two or three feet long running through them.
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An old, from old trail construction. There are more of these.
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This was not the only place i had to more than hunch over to get under a tree across teh trail. You might note this one has been here long enough for an other tree to start growing off of it.
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Many sections of the trail have board walk in various states, some better than others.
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One of the aspects of the trail that most impressed me was some of the innovative construction along it. The best parts did not picture well. But there were places where the route passed along a downed tree that had been planed, to an other downed tree that had been planed, lying at a different angle, perhaps to an other. And this would all start and end with steps cut into the log to be able to get on top of and off of it.
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In some places there was mud. When i went it was fairly dry, i did not see any rain, which was fortuitous.
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In some places whole rounds from a log have been sunk into the mire in attempt to make a path across it. At times it was difficult to find solid surface to walk around it on.
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Old board walk.
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One of the creeks, finally with a view out to the ocean.
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And finally a view for a moment.
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This was one of my favorite little gems.
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Ladders for days.
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See three descending in succession here.
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The first cable car, i think at Camper Creek.
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I don't believe that any of the cable cars were necessary given the water levels when i was there. I only used two, this and the next, for the novelty of it. Really it's more of a hassle than it's worth when you can just walk across.
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An other three ladders. I believe the longest single ladder i counted was at least sixty rungs, and the longest series was at least a couple hundred.
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Up on top, between creeks, in the eastern third of the trail.
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This is Logan Creek. I took a few pictures to capture how the trail makes it's way across. I loved it. I really love a nice bridge, especially in back country.
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The bridge.
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Looking back at the way down.
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Looking out from the bridge. You can see the mainland, Washington state, across the straight.
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And on the other side of the bridge.
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Looking back down. I believe there was one other drainage that involved as much up and down to cross it as Logan Creek, one right next to it as i recall. Looking at the topo i believe it was Cullite.
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Back on top, the sun getting lower.
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My first night i camped at Walbran Creek. You can see some backpackers are already here. You might also note the cable care to the left of them. At many of these creeks the tide seems to push up a berm at their mouths that creates these pools. I don't know if this only happens when stream levels are lower as when i was there. I was able to walk on beach below this pool above low tide.
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The cable car.
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The best sun set i got on this trip. The beach faces South all along the island here, and this far North, this time of summer, the sun sets North of West, so i never actually saw it. This in stark contrast to my previous trip in Olympic National Park.
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There were these strange rock formations in the water near the mouth of Walbran Creek, and a lot of birds around too.
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The moon, and Venus and Jupiter if had to guess.west coast trail 238.JPG

The next morning. many of the camp areas were marked with collections of buoys.west coast trail 250.JPG

Sea urchin carcass.
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An other skeleton farther down the beach.
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And the beach it's self. Finally i had some open shore to walk along, some thing to see, in stead of being tree bound like all of the first day.
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Strange rock line.
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Old metal.
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Carmanah Lighthouse sits on that point, white structures cut out of the trees.
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Carmanah Creek. I found a piece of drift wood to lay over it and cross rather than using the cable car, or getting my feet wet.
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Here you can buy a burger from the First Nations people who still liver here. It was 9am when i walked by so i passed. But they had a dog there, and i liked that. Nice people.
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From the light house you can look down on a sea lion haul out rock. The keeper had a telescope pointed to it you could look through.
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Carmanah Lighthouse.
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Classic fungus.
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Most of the bridges are labeled like this, numbered and bilingual. They count down from East to West. The ladders are numbered in identical fashion, but there are more of them. 80 passerelles to go.
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Wild life. I love these guys. They present defensively at first, but if you just stand there taking pictures for a minute they switch to passive, lower their claws and wait for you to leave.
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Urchin. Some really cool tidal pools here just West of Carmanah Lighthouse.
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Purple urchin, green anemone. Gray barnacles.
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So many barnacles.
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I got a closer view of the sea lions from below the lighthouse. Pretty cool. You could hear them very well, noisy critters.
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At the same place as the previous handful of pictures.
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And this guy.
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Crowds. There are a good number of people on this trail.
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An other sea lion haul out.
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A shelf one walks along.
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A surge channel.
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Salt left from an evaporation pool. west coast trail 371.JPG

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More buoys. Some times these marked where the trail switched from a beach route to inland trail through the forest, other times just camp sites.west coast trail 376.JPG

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A very large evaporation pool.
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A snake.
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The trail runs above the beach here.
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Softball sized rocks, all rounded by the surf.
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Bridge over the Cheewhat River.
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Old fungus.
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Some of the trees are thick.
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Roughly half way along the trail is the Nitinat Narrows, where a ferry is required. You can buy fresh cooked sea food here also. I should have taken some photos from the ride, it was beautiful, and cool and unique, but i had put my camera away.
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Looking down on a pocket beach.
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A very large ship on the horizon.
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The trail.
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I believe this may have been the beach i climbed the ladder down to and took a nap on.
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In the distance, left of center, you can see the snow capped Olympic Mountains in Washington.
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Tsustiat Arch.
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buoy tangle in the drift wood.
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Tsusiat Arch from the back side.
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The way up to the trail from the camp near Tsusiat Falls. The route transitions here from the beach.
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Tsusiat Falls. A trickle.
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The tent city near Tsusiat Falls. Crowded place. The next camp site was much more low key.
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More ladders.
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This bridge is over Tsusiat Creek above the falls.
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Looking out the creek over the brink of the falls.
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Looking back, Tsusiat Arch at the point.
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I camped here my second night, at Klanawa River. In spite of this large pool, again i was able to walk on beach between it and the ocean. The stream goes under the sand, just as many others did.
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A couple of girls arrived here at the same time i did, and they were kind enough to let me join them for a little conversation as i was hiking by my self. One of the nice things about a well traveled trail. Both of them were originally from Ottawa. One was now living in the Yukon, working at Kluane National Park.
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Hiking out the next morning. a nice rocky beach.
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Marking access to the inland route.
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Channels cut in the rock.
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A second old donkey engine, slightly smaller than the other.
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An old grader.
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The blade of the grader, and the apparatus for setting it's angle.
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I stopped at this beach for a while and watched some whales for about half an hour or more. I think there were three or four of them. They'd surface in succession, then there would be an interval of a couple minutes or more, and then repeat, always surfacing only one at a time. Or one whale was surfacing three or four times quickly, and then waiting to do it again.
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They also did this thing where they would stick a flipper up and spin it in a circle. I took more than a hundred pictures of these things, in bursts hoping to get some good ones.
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More wreckage.
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More beach.
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Some green.
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At Pachena Lighthouse.
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Also at Pachena Lighthouse. Canada's a funny place. In spite of all the kilometers, miles still show up in random places.
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Pachena Lighthouse.
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Not my bike. A few surprising miles from the West trailhead.
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Getting close.
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A view out over Pachena Bay, about a mile from the trailhead.
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And of course, one last ladder.
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For any one who did not get enough, i believe i have a couple hundred more pictures of ladders that did not make the cut.

Some thoughts on this trip and this trail. My biggest take away was that, while similar, i did not enjoy this hike nearly as much as i had my hike on the coast of Olympic National Park immediately previous to this. There are a few reasons for this. The most glaring is the price difference. While at the most basic level they deliver the same thing, a (semi) wilderness beach/shore hike, a permit in Olympic National Park costs $5/night, while a permit for the West Coast Trail costs ~$150US, including fees for both of the ferries. Part of the reason for the high price is that it covers the rescues for those injured on the trail. Any way. I also preferred the sea stacks and other formations on the Olympic coast. They were bigger, more impressive, more numerous. I preferred the sunsets as well, and i believe a lot of the has to do with the orientation of the coast lines. The Olympic coast also felt more wild. FAR less developed, far fewer people. No where to buy food cooked for you along the way, a lot less boat traffic (i didn't see any in Olympic NP, and i saw it, and heard it, every day from Vancouver Island), and about the closest you got to trail construction in Olympic was a rope tied to a tree to help you make it over a headland. And i felt that the West Coast Trail felt more time than it needed in the trees looking at no thing (i've seen trees before) while basically all the Olympic route is on the beach. It wasn't all one sided. The coolest tide pools i found were on the West Coast Trail, and there were good views of the sea lions, though i'd heard them on the Olympic too. The lighthouses were cool, but again, took away from the wild feel. I probably would have enjoyed the West Coast Trail more if i had taken a little more time with it, soaked it in, and if i'd had some one to soak it in with. I did the hike in three days, many people spend as much as a week doing it. I was rushing on to other places. But regardless of all the redeeming values, i still enjoyed the Olympic better, and there wasn't a single thing that made the West Coast Trail worth the cost. Given the price tags, i would choose the Olympic coast every time.

And finally, for those of you who care for a story, i have one from the day before i began my hike. On that day, when i first approached the park office at Port Renfrew, there were three girls sitting on the steps in front of it. I'd actually ridden past it when i first saw them there. I'd read them as locals hanging out on the porch of a house, and hadn't imagined that it was actually the office i was looking for. Any way, once i figured it out and was walking up the steps past these girls, one of them asked me an odd question. "Can we borrow your motorcycle?". I said "What?". It turned out these girls had hiked the trail from the other end and come out a day earlier than planned. They had reservations for the shuttle bus to take them back to their car the next day, but it had been full this day, so they were stranded in Port Renfrew, and just wanted to go home. They asked if i'd give one of them a ride to their car. They offered to pay me a hundred dollars. I could do it, but i didn't like the idea. They didn't have any gear for it. No helmet, no gloves, no thing even so sturdy as jeans. I'd have to take the ammo cans off of the bike just to make it possible for one of them to ride with me. Further complicating things, the car they needed to go get was a stick shift, and only one of the girls knew how to drive it, and she happened to be the least interested in riding passenger on a motorcycle. Eventually she thought of some thing no one else had for some reason. She asked if i could drive a stick shift. So we settled on them paying me a hundred dollars to ride out to the other end of the trail, leave my bike there, and drive their car back to them. This would take at least six hours to do, but i didn't have a reservation for the hike, or a job at that time, so i could just as easily start my hike the next day. And this way my bike would be at the far trailhead waiting for me when i finished the hike. I wouldn't need any shuttle. And i'd get some dollars out of it. So after i got every thing i needed off my bike and left my pack with them i spent the rest of the day mostly on poorly signed unpaved logging roads making my way along Vancouver Island. This is where my chain first started slipping off the rear sprocket. At the time i assumed it had to do with the quality of the roads, or the new chain that had just been put on, since it had never happened before. But i made it to their car, and with only minimal route confusion made it back to them in the middle of the evening. They were very excited when i showed up since it had taken even longer than we'd thought it would, and there's not really any cell service on that backwoods part of the island, so there was no way for me to let them know any thing. The girl who's keys i'd taken was particularly relieved. It looked like they should just make the last ferry back to mainland BC and be able to drive home by about four am. They were kind enough to give me a ride to a small campground a few minutes away, and we crammed four people and four backpacks into their Saturn. Every one left happy.
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Great! The Great Blue Heron's on the seashore are interesting. All the wildlife you saw makes for a great hike. Thanks.
Brings back a lot of good memories. We took 6 days, and with that slower schedule, we were able to time the tides and walk the beach much more.

Now you have me interested in checking out the coast in Olympic!
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So many ladders! I'm guessing that makes for some different hiking aches and pains?

Awesome country. I'm really like these reports from different landscapes Ben. Thanks for sharing!
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Makes me think of a Swiss Family Robinson style obstacle course.

Awesome report and pictures, Benjamin.

By the way, did you remember to put oil on that new chain?
very cool. How bizarre to be climbing up and down ladders like that.

$150 is steep, and the social thing isn't necessarely my cup of tea, but this is EXACTLY the kind of thing I think my wife would like.
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Nice report Ben - a very interesting trail. Your picture with the caption More ladders gave me a touch of vertigo when I first looked at it.
Wow... that's a different kind of hiking. Very beautiful place.
I know how you feel about too much in the trees.... That's about all we have over here, "the green tunnel".
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very cool. How bizarre to be climbing up and down ladders like that.

$150 is steep, and the social thing isn't necessarily my cup of tea, but this is EXACTLY the kind of thing I think my wife would like.

The price did seem a bit steep, but after thinking about it for a while, I decided it wasn't too bad. You are paying for 2 different boat rides from private parties and the amount of trail work they do to maintain the ladders and boardwalks can't be cheap. I don't remember the amount of ladders, but it must be over a hundred!

As far as the amount of people on the trail. We did it very early in the season, and while there were a lot of people at the campsites, it seemed semi isolated while hiking. We usually got an early start and wouldn't see anyone for most of the day. We got our choice of camping spots and it was fun to meet other like people later in the evening. Going early in the season also meant that there was plenty of drift wood on the beaches for nice fires.

I had my 2 kids (10 and 13) on the hike. We spent lots of time wandering the tidal pools and taking our time. Couldn't think of a better way to spend 6 days!

One side note. We took a boat back from Bamfield to Port Renfrew. That in itself was amazing. We got to see our entire hike from the boat on the way back. We also took time to view many different killer whales (the captain was part of an organization that help track different pods) and spent time checking out the different sea lion colonies.

I have thought about going back, but always wonder if it would be as good the second time!
I love Vancouver Island, both the good and bad. One of my favorite places.

I don't know if I should mention it, although it's not really a 'secret' trail anymore, but up the coast a bit is another, much wilder version of this. It's on my list, and until I do it I won't say any more.
Heavy handed industrial logging of 90% of the watersheds. Forest is coming back, but not looking too healthy. Despite this, the Northwest logger and his trade fascinates me.
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Yeah, you can see this from the coast. And hear it some times too.
Wow, Amazing report Ben! Great pictures throughout. Interesting hearing you compare this hike to the Olympic Coast. I'm surprised you were in such a rush being that you were on such a long trip. Glad it all worked out with the 2 girls and getting their car for them.
Thanks for this AWESOME trip report, Ben!

We've considered this route for a while, but I have heard a few people say they like Olympic better. We've done only a small portion of the Olympic coast (we saw lots of sea lions at Alava, btw), but we are itching to do the full north segment from Shi Shi to Rialto. I'm not much of an ocean/coast person (prefer mountains), but I have to admit, my backpacks on the California Coast and the short stretch in Olympic have me primed for more PacNW bluffy-coastal hiking.
And I thought permits at the Grand Canyon were expensive!

I'm with you - I don't really care for hiking in forests. I don't much like slogging through mud either. I suppose I'm not alone in that. A lot of impressive board walks. I guess the high fees are necessary to pay to maintain all of that infrastructure, in addition to rescues.

Very cool trip report. I really liked the suspension bridge too. Some of those ladders looked pretty worn. And considering wood in a wet environment - did it ever feel like they might be unsafe? I doubt OSHA would approve of them!
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I really appreciate the effort you put into this trip report and I really appreciate the comparison with the Olympic coast since I can get to western WA a lot easier than middle of nowhere Vancouver Island :)
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Thanks for sharing @Ben - I'm a sucker for tide pools and ocean critters, love the close up with the crab lowering it's claws. :)
I'm not so sure about all those ladders, that's a lot of ladders. But that's some story at the end, nice.... we ONLY have stick shift cars.
Will look for the Olympic NP trip report now - thanks again, love to read about your adventures.
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