Pets allowed
Not Allowed
Elevation Gain
1,056.00 m (3,464.57 ft)
Trail type
Shuttle
Distance
58.00 km (36.04 mi)
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The North Coast Trail's reputation as the rugged badder sibling to the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island is well earned. In all ways it is just that more challenging. The sites are wild and remote feeling, and the expensive shuttle keeps the crowds at bay. Getting onto the trail is an adventure unto itself. The trail is constantly changing from splendid strolls in old growth fern forest, to steep jungly acrobatics around felled trees, onto beaches of beautiful white sand that give way to rolling stones and tidal pools teaming with life. Luckily navigation is generally easy; just follow the beach and the path carved out of thick vegetation. A well prepared but less experienced group of backpackers can accomplish this route in 5 -7 days. Many add on the Cape Scott Trail to take advantage of being in this hard to get to locale. The North Coast Trail is a stunning mostly beach hike, with a very wild feel, garnering it the well deserved reputation as one of the premiere Vancouver Island hikes.

 

The Trail

The only way to get to the Shushartie Bay Trailhead is by boat. There is no wharf, or decent landing. Arrival on the water taxi is a bit chilly (dress warm), and you have to move quickly to hop off the boat. Gaiters, and stout boots are good to have as you jump off. After delayering it’s a steep climb up through jungle-like salal and up rooted trees with ropes to make it easier. If you overpacked, you’ll know in the first 10 minutes. 

The elevation quickly evens out and the trail alternates between rooty mud, decent trail, bog mostly covered by boardwalk, and awkward bushwhacks to avoid sections of completely saturated trail. You'll emerge from the brush into Skinner creek. An awkward climb over a log pile gets you to the first campsite and lovely sand beach. You will see a good sign board, and a steel food cache ;ocker. This is also the first water refill. Keep an eye out for old buoys hung in the trees as trail markers. 

The trail splits into a low tide trail, along the beach with it’s solid sand, and the high tide trail in the woods. The beach gets rougher, and the trail returns to the woods with a descent climb, before returning to more sandy beach. At the end of the beach is the Nawhitti Bay campsite, easily the most scenic on the trip. It also has excellent tent platforms off the beach, some of which overlook the bay. 

Gentle trail then follows the river to a cable car crossing. After zipping across the river, the trail is subdued at first before climbing steeply upwards along rooty sections, interspersed with mud, and more sections of excellent single track. One of the maps refers to this section as the most difficult. While it is a bit steeper than the Shushartie Overland, it isn’t nearly as tricky. Eventually the trail follows the side of the hill, and the better drainage offers better trail through spectacular old growth forest. Even in the woods there is constant change of scenery. No sooner have you gotten used to the woods, then you get to the many steps. 

At the base you get to the first pocket beach section. At low tide you can walk along and between the broad sea stacks and through little caves created by thick vegetation growing over the gaps. If the tide is hide, it’s a bit more of a slog clambering up on a steep hill, and immediately down the other side. Half way down there is a small cave you can crawl through to avoid the high tide line. It’s always worth poking you head around the corner to see if the section is passable. Worst case scenario you get beautiful crashing waves.

Cape Sutil pops up out of nowhere. This site is a popular campsite, though the water source is not particularly great, especially in the dry season. Camping is all on the beach. There is a short trail to the north that accesses the northern beach. At this time you may hear the haunting sound of the acoustic buoy out on the Nawhitti Shoal. The waves cause a mechanism that creates a hooting sound. If you are bothered by noise at night, you may want to skip this campsite. 

Next a bit of forest leads to stoney beaches. These sections pop in and out of the woods. The beach is almost all small round stomes. While a pleasant change from squeezing between trees and dodging mud, the wobbly walking gets tiring quickly, so it’s a good idea to take a rest fairly often. Irony creek is the next main campsite, though it has fewer facilities than the others. This area is where frequent sightings of gray whales occur. 

Shuttleworth Bight is the next stop. Hard packed sand makes for a nice change from the rolling rocks. It’s also one of the favourite campsites along the trail. There is a good creek for water that flows fast and cool. On the far side of the beach the trail darts back into the woods for the second cable car crossing. From here it is a quick up and down in the woods. 

The next section is several pocket beaches that also make good campsites, although there is no infrastructure here. The last pocket beach has a possible side trip to incredible tidal pools. They are volcanic, and made of tiny little rock bubbles. 

The section past this is known as the Christensen Coast. It is a bit of a slog as the trail goes along a big bay, traversing over more small rolling rocks on the shore, before turning into a long, rocky beachfront. This section can be quiet tiring. Laura Creek is a welcome site as both an excellent water source, and excellent location. In the trees there are tent platforms for less sandy camping. The next section is much nicer. The sandy beach heads back into the woods along trail that is for the most part excellent with few muddy sections. Eventually it flattens out as it passes the apex of the trip near Laughing Loon Lake. This site feels very different than the rest of the trail, before heading down through curious pine trees. The long descent ends at Nissen Bight. 

Nissen Bight has campsite facilities at both the east and west end. The east end is much nicer, and offers beautiful sunset views out onto the Pacific Ocean. It also has less traffic from weekenders on the Cape Scott Trail. 

At this point the trail follows a straight path for the parking lot along the scar of an old logging road. It is a  simple trail, and you quickly find yourself at the junction for the Cape Scott section, well worth the detour. 

From here the trail is fairly straight forward. There are several sections that get pretty muddy closer to the parking lot, but they are nothing compared to what has come before. The trail here is mostly in the woods and proceeds into dark old growth and second growth forests, a beautiful sight that becomes increasingly mountainous as you continue down the trail. Erik Lake is the final major highlight. The campsite here is completely connected by boardwalks and tent platforms. If you fancy a freshwater swim, this is the best place to hop in. 

And from there it’s a short jaunt to the dusty parking lot. 

 

Logistics

A good half of the North Coast Trail’s difficulty lies in it’s logistics. Water is sparse, and getting set up with the water taxi and shuttle service is complicated, expensive, and sometimes both. 

Water Taxi

The full trail starts with a water taxi drop off with Cape Scott Water Taxi. They offer water taxi drop off, and a shuttle pickup on the other side. This is definitely the simplest option, but is fairly pricey. As of 2020 it is $80 for the parking lot bus pickup and $100 for the Cape Shushartie drop off. 

The Water Taxi also offers the Nawhitti Bay drop off. If you are short on time this option is worth looking into as the the Shushartie overland is pretty harsh, with challenging trail conditions and offers little in the way of views. Nawhittie Bay is also where a lot of the most interesting terrain begins. 

It would be feasible to do this route as a there-and-back again if one wanted to avoid the shuttle hassle. The campsites are spaced close enough you could even do it without repeating campsites. 

Water

The other logistical challenge is water. There are few spots to refill water, especially during a dry period. Therefore It is highly recommended to refill water whenever the opportunity arises. 

Campsites/Itinerary

Generally people take between 5 and 7 days. A good itinerary would be:

Day 1: Shushartie to Nawhittie Bay

Day 2: Nawhitti Bay to Shuttleworth Bight

Day 3: Shuttleworth Bight to Laura Creek

Day 4: Laura Creek to Nissen Bight ( Or Erik Lake if you need to make the shuttle)

Day 5: Nissen Bight/Erik Lake to all the way out 

If going longer it would be worth adding a day or two for Cape Scott. 

Gear

The North Coast Trail is much like any backpacking route, though there are a few specific recommendations that are worth outlining. The broad advice is pack light. The route may seem flat, but there is more clambering and climbing over terrain and vegetation than you typically encounter on a trail. You will also find yourself squeezing between tree branches, and balancing awkwardly on tiny roots over broad mudflats. Again, pack Light! Key gear recommendations:

  • Trekking Pole with Powder Basket - There is a lot of mud, so having a pole with extra purchase goes a long way. One is sufficient, but on downhill sections it’s nice to have a second pole. 
  • Tarp - Camping is always better with a tarp. There is a lot of dew on this trail even when the weather is nice. 
  • Bear spray - While it’s easy to dismiss black nears as nuisances they can be a bit too curious on this trail. Good to have bear spray for confidence if nothing else. 
  • Swimsuit - With ample beaches it might seem attractive but even at winter it is very cold. Like glacier lake cold. Not necessary, probably best to leave at home. 
  • Water filter - While purification is a good idea many of the streams are little more than puddles. A proper filter that removes both particles and contaminants is ideal. 
  • Bear cannisters - Wildlife is a big issue. Most campsites have steel food caches to store food. If you’re planning on not using the main camp sites then a very good bear hanging is essential. Better yet a bear canister or bag is highly recommended. The wolves in the area are particularly crafty. 
  • Map and tide table- The BC Coast Explorer Map is very good, as is John Baldwin’s Map. One o these is essential as the information on water sources is key. It is also a good idea to have a tidal chart so you know when to use the low tide and high tide trails. Some sections like the Christensen Coast are quick tricky at high tide. 
  • Boots and Gaiters - Solid boots are highly recommended. The trail is slippery, and rooty. Ankle protection and ankle support are very helpful, especially if you are carrying more than 25lb/10kgs. It is also frequently very wet. Trail runners should only be an option if you are a highl trained trail runniner with strong ankles and are in extremely good shape with a light pack. Make sure to have gaiters though or you’ll be emptying your shoes of sand regularly. 
  • Gloves - The cable car and regular ropes make gloves recommended. If you're going lightweight, cycle gloves are sufficient. 

Personal Experience

We took 20lb packs, and used trail running shoes. We were attempting the trail in 3.5 days, so we were moving much faster than most parties, and the light shoes helped. But there were several spots where I nearly busted my ankle. I trail run regularly, so I believe the fitness and reflexes helped avoid disaster. But were I to do it again, I would take 4-5 days and wear boots. 

We did Shushartie to Cape Sutil which felt like a big day. The next day we did Cape Sutil to Nissen Bight. We really should have stopped at Laura Creek though as the rolling rocks really affected my hip flexors. This itinerary change wouldn't have impacted our trip dramatically. We did add in Cape Scott, camping at Guise Bay, then woke up early to make it back to the parking lot for noon. 

Logistics + Planning

Preferable season(s)

Summer

Congestion

Low

Parking Pass

Backcountry BC Parks Pass

Open Year-round

Yes

Pros

Well maintained for how remote. Unique views. Beach camping. Wildlife.

Cons

Need to shuttle (expensive). Muddy trail. Long loose stone beach sections hard for walking.

Highest point

229.66 ft (70.00 m)

Features

Vault toilet
Near lake or river
Backcountry camping
Cave
Native artifacts
Mine
Old-growth forest
Lighthouse
Big vistas
Wildlife
Bird watching
Geologically significant
Historically significant
Fishing
Big Game Watching

Typically multi-day

No

Permit required

Yes

Permit self-issue on site

Yes

Location

Field Guide

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