Exploring Vancouver Island’s Juan de Fuca trail

Juan de Fuca trail on Vancouver Island, BC


Mist and low-hanging clouds, moss-covered branches and smooth, slippery rocks — and at the edge, the tide pulls in and out, in and out. What is it about a lonely stretch of beach that makes the rest of the world fall away?

The more I travel the more I fall in love with the quiet of nature. On Vancouver Island, just off the coast of mainland British Columbia, there’s a lot to love. It doesn’t have the towering and overwhelming awe of the nearby Rockies, but the coastlines and forests have their own humbling mystique.

I recommend renting a car in Victoria — it’s not too expensive and gives you the freedom to properly explore everything. Victoria sits on the southern tip of the island, so if you only have a couple of days, dedicate one day to going up the west coast and the other for the east.

The day my friend and I set out along the Juan de Fuca trail, the weather seemed to be against us. The landscape was a muted watercolour, the Pacific Ocean diffused into the sky by drizzle. But, when we arrived at our first stop, Sombrio Beach, the wet haze lifted.

The rain had brought out the scent of deep woods —Douglas firs and Western hemlocks, vivid green moss coating the tree trunks, a lush carpet of ferns, and red pine needles littering the forest floor. And beyond this tangle of green was the ocean, lapping quietly against a pebbled beach.

The Juan de Fuca trail is popular with hikers, starting at China Beach and ending around Botany Bay. There are a few campsites along the trail, although it’s not crowded. You can walk along the water without feeling completely isolated in the wilderness and still retain a quiet intimacy with nature. When my friend and I explored the area, we passed a few hikers and tents, but for the most part it was just us and the tide.

A hidden gem along the Juan de Fuca trail, and it is literally a hidden secret in the forest, is the Sombrio Waterfall. We passed one traveller on our way there who hadn’t been able to find it, even though they’d walked along the same stretch of beach we did. There’s no sign at the entrance, just a quiet trickle of water that emerges from the woods onto the sand and disappears into the ocean.

A good friend recommended the spot to me, and finding the waterfall is still one of my favourite memories from this trip. We followed the stream up until we came to the mouth of a smoothed-out canyon, fringed on both sides by small ferns. Deep within — a white curtain of rushing water.

Waterfall at Sombrio Beach, Juan de Fuca trail on Vancouver Island, BC

If you’re not afraid to get your feet wet (and even if you are), I strongly recommend climbing inside. The canyon curls into itself like a cave, but when you get to the end it’s possible to stand right next to the waterfall and gaze up into open sky.

The Sombrio Waterfall is a sacred site to local Indigenous peoples so please be respectful of the area when visiting (it saddened me to see someone had carved graffiti into the rocks). It’s an amazing place of natural beauty and I was so in love with the spot that my friend was probably only a few polite hints away from leaving me behind.

Afterwards, to take a break from our exploring, we stopped in Port Renfrew, which sits at the end of the Juan de Fuca trail. I highly recommend going to Coastal Kitchen Cafe if you want to grab a bite to eat. The food is delicious (try the fish and chips!), and the staff are happy to offer suggestions for more adventures.

From there, it was just a short drive to Botanical Beach. This whole area is like a kid’s (or photographer’s) playground, with thousands of tiny tide pools and nooks sheltering all sorts of marine wildlife. I feel like we must have spent a couple of hours just wandering up and down the coast, peeking into every pool, looking for crabs and anemones. We saw strange rock formations and huge piles of giant driftwood, herons fishing among the seaweed and eagles nesting high in the tree tops.

I find that nature can bring out an awe and wonder that cities can’t quite match. Standing on a coastline, looking out at the Pacific Ocean with all of North America behind you, inspires a kind of peacefulness that everyone should experience at least once in their life.

A few tips for the trip:

  • Pack a light rain coat just in case
  • Consider bringing food with you for a picnic (and take any garbage with you when you leave)
  • Stay on the trails or close to campsites to avoid spooking wildlife (we had a couple of hikers direct us away from an area where a bear had been sighted)
  • Hiking shoes or boots are a must for getting traction on the pebbled beaches
Juan de Fuca trail on Vancouver Island, BC
The Pacific Ocean beyond.

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