The Vancouver Island Trail: A Whirlwind Tour
Here it is, the CliffsNotes of the VIT!
This blog breaks down the main features and highlights of the trail section-by-section. Note: all distances are rough approximations.
If you’d like to follow along on a map, the VITA has a great detailed series of maps posted on their website here.
Victoria to Lake Cowichan, 103km/64mi
Geography: The trail begins on the south coast, just east of Victoria proper. The city lies within the Nanaimo Lowlands physiographic region, a region which contains 90% of the population and most of the fertile farmland of the entire island. It then crosses the Victoria highlands through the Malahat Gap and arrives at the beginning of the South Vancouver Island Ranges surrounding Lake Cowichan, via the Cowichan River Valley.
History: The Galloping Goose and Cowichan Valley trails that make up most of this leg trace the old railway grade that used to whisk passengers, and later logging freight, all the way from Victoria to Lake Cowichan and back again in the 1920s. Many old timber railway trestles including the impressive Kinsol trestle, one of the highest (44m) and longest (188m) still standing, are featured along the way.
Traditional Territory: This section crosses the lands of the Coast Salish peoples, from the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations in the south, through the Malahat Nation, and meeting the Ts’uubaa-asatx (“people of the lake”) Nation located on Lake Cowichan.
Trail Highlights: Views of the Olympic mountains across the strait along the coast. Crossing through historic downtown Victoria. Views of the Saanich Peninsula from the Malahat Gap. The Kinsol Trestle. The quiet and tranquil Cowichan River Provincial Park.
Lake Cowichan to Port Alberni, 111km/69mi
Geography: The trail passes through the valleys of the South Vancouver Island Ranges physiographic region. Though void of glaciers and less imposing than the North Van Isle Ranges, these rugged hills are still a sight to see. The Alberni Inlet trail follows the rim of the steep-walled fjord which terminates at the low and fertile Alberni Basin.
History: The Runner’s trail section follows a historic First Nations overland travel route, through single track and old logging roads. Old railway grades make up the Alberni Inlet Trail. Plans to connect Port Alberni with Victoria by expanding the Lake Cowichan rail route were never realised, and the half-finished tracks were removed in the 1950s. Remnants of trestles and telegraph lines can be found along the trail.
Traditional Lands: This section crosses into the lands of the Nuu-chah-nulth peoples, the second of the three major indigenous groups on the island. The region around Port Alberni and the Alberni Inlet make up the traditional territory of the Nuu-chah-nulth-speaking Hupačasath First Nation, which also overlaps with the Ditidaht Nation to the south and southeast.
Trail Highlights: Various views of the long Lake Cowichan from North Shore Road. Jewel-like bodies of water along Runner’s trail. Fording the Franklin River. Views of the Alberni Inlet.
Port Alberni to Cumberland, 87km/54mi
Geography: The trail climbs steeply into the Beaufort Range, a first taste of the North Vancouver Island Ranges, and remains between 1000-1600m above sea level to traverse a series of mountains before descending to follow the Trent River east to Cumberland.
History: The mountain range was named after the Royal Navy Hydrographer Sir Francis Beaufort. The individual mountains have been named after prominent local figures from the last century, such as the politician Henry Spencer (Mt Henry Spencer), and even George Apps (Mt Apps), a school principle from Cumberland!
Traditional Lands: The indigenous name for the Beaufort Range is Yuts-whol-aht, meaning “walking through the face of the mountains”. The range represents the boundary between the (Nuu-chah-nulth-speaking) Hupačasath First Nation in the southwest and K’omoks First Nation in the northeast. The K’omoks First Nation is a part of the third major indigenous group on the island, called the Kwakwaka’wakw, which means “kwak’wala-speaking peoples”.
Trail Highlights: The historic McLean sawmill at the base of the Beauforts. The steep ascent into some of the highest elevation sections of the entire trail. Various views afforded along the range. Route finding in the alpine.
Cumberland to Upper Campbell Lake, 110km/68mi
Geography: After wrapping around Comox Lake, the trail climbs into the Forbidden Plateau area of Strathcona Provincial Park. A string of lakes and meadows leads to the foot of Jutland Mtn, whose traverse represents the highest point of the whole hike at 1821m. Descending the backside of the mountain, the trail greets a few more peaks of the Northern Vancouver Island Ranges before spitting out at the corner of Upper Campbell Lake.
History: Strathcona Provincial Park is the oldest provincial park in BC, established in 1911. It was named after the railway pioneer Donald Alexander Smith, first Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal. The park includes some of the highest peaks on the island, such as the Golden Hinde at 2200m. Although the area has been designated a park for over 100 years, it has seen various industrial development within its boundaries, including logging, the construction of the Strathcona Dam, and the still-operational Myra Falls Mine.
Traditional Lands: Strathcona Provincial Park lies within the traditional territories of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nations. The Mowachaht and Muchalaht peoples make up a part of the larger group of Nuu-chah-nulth peoples of western Vancouver Island, who share similar language and culture.
Trail Highlights: Beautiful lakes and heather meadows of the Forbidden Plateau framed by surrounding mountains. Views from Jutland Mtn. Glen’s cabin on the shore of Pearl lake, and Rodger’s cabin on Rodger’s Ridge.
Upper Campbell Lake to Woss, 146km/91mi
Geography: The trail continues through the rugged North Vancouver Island Ranges, reaching farther away from the population centers and busy highways of the south and deeper into the wilderness. The trail snakes through lush riparian valleys, following the Salmon and White Rivers, staying at low elevation until it jumps over Kokummi Pass and enters Schoen Lake Provincial Park.
History: Schoen Lake Provincial Park was created in 1977 out of a former Canadian Forest Products rec site to preserve old growth habitat and ungulate winter ranges. Much of the land viewed from this section of the trail bears the patchwork pattern of cutblocks at various stages of regeneration, left behind by decades of logging operations.
Traditional Lands: This section of the trail enters into the northeastern region of the island that has been the home of the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples since time immemorial. The Kwakwaka’wakw (meaning ‘kwakwala-speaking’) peoples are one of the three major linguistic and cultural groups of indigenous peoples on Vancouver Island – the Coast Salish of the south and Nuu-chah-nulth of the west being the other two.
Trail Highlights: Crossing the Strathcona Dam. Old growth ecosystems and elk wallows along the Salmon and White rivers. Views from Kokummi Pass. Schoen Lake campsite.
Woss to Port McNeill, 73km/45mi
Geography: The trail stays close to the highway as it heads north, reaching the northeast coastal town of Port McNeill.
History: Like much of the island, and BC as a whole, the valleys crossed by this section of the trail have been the sites of many resource-based industries, including logging and mining. There are many small abandoned mine sites throughout this area. The timber industry still operates in the region, and it made use of railways to transport logs through the valley for almost a century, up until 2017. The tracks have since been dismantled.
Traditional Lands: This section of the trail is situated in the traditional lands of the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples, which sweep through the northwestern parts of the island and across the Johnstone Strait into the mountains, islets and fjords of the mainland coast.
Trail Highlights: Level walking through green valleys. Seeing the World’s Largest Burl in Port McNeill.
Port McNeill to Port Hardy, 35km/21mi
Geography: Leaving the mountains behind, the trail enters into the physiographic region of the low lying Suquash Basin. The trail emerges on the coastline and follows the beaches and forest paths connecting the two coastal towns of Port McNeill and Port Hardy.
History: The abandoned ruins of the Suquash Coal Mine lie just off the beach between the two towns. As BC’s first coal mine, it mainly employed the Kwakuitl as laborers, and the coal was sold to the Hudson’s Bay Company to run their steam-powered boats.
Traditional Lands: This section of the trail runs through the traditional territory of the (Kwakwaka’wakw) Kwakuitl First Nation, whose village site of Tsaxis (Fort Rupert) is located just east of Port Hardy. Another Kwakwaka’wakw band resides at the Tsulquate reserve west of Port Hardy: the Gwa’sala-Nakwaxda’xw, an amalgamation of two historic tribes. Their traditional territory overlaps with the Kwakuitl and also extends across the strait onto the mainland coast.
Trail Highlights: The indigenous-owned Cluxewe Resort, featuring beachfront campsites. Crossing the Cluxewe River (cluxewe translates as ‘place of the changing river mouth’ or ‘place of refuge’). Walking the sandy beach trail, with views across the Johnstone Strait. The old ruins of the Suquash Coal Mine.
Port Hardy to Cape Scott, 124km/77mi
Geography: The trail enters the last physiographic region of the journey: the Nawhitti Plateau, which encompasses the lowlands and gentle hills of the northern tip of the Island. Much of the final kilometers hug the coast, with muddy overland sections and rocky headlands interspersed with sandy beaches. Cape Sutil features the northernmost point of the Island, and Cape Scott marks the finish line.
History: Cape Scott was named in 1786 after David Scott, who sponsored a prominent trading voyage to this region. Danish settlers once tried to live off the land that is now Cape Scott Provincial Park in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, but the harsh climate and lack of infrastructure to transport farm products to market and receive needed supplies in return led to their abandonment of the area. A second wave of settlers returned only to leave again in 1917. Some place names in the area reflect this Danish history, and the North Coast Trail adjacent to Cape Scott incorporates some of the settlers’ original travel routes.
Traditional Lands: The trail crosses through the traditional territories of the Tlatlasikwala Nation (formerly known as the Nawhitti). Though their new village site is located on Hope Island across from the Nawhitti River, their original village site was near Cape Sutil. The relocation occurred after the British Navy burned the Cape Sutil village down twice in the 1850s.
Trail Highlights: Walking the beautiful beaches and forests of the North Coast Trail. Wildlife and marine life sightings, including coastal wolves, black bears, seals, sea lions, otters, and whales. Cape Sutil, the northernmost point of Vancouver Island. The Cape Scott lighthouse.
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