Nearer to Nature in British Columbia

Jackson is a reporter and editor for The Seattle Times Travel section

I was the only sour note in nature's symphony. The ocean waves thundered on the beach, sounding just like surf should. The wind moaned around the moss-draped cedars. But I spoiled it, screeching out songs as I walked along the forest path a stone's throw from the sea.

Why was I singing so noisily? Because I had just found a large, steaming pile of bear excrement right in the middle of the trail in British Columbia's Botanical Beach Provincial Park. I almost stepped in the huckleberry-studded mound, so fresh that I knew the bear must be close by. So I belted out a song to steer the creature clear.

Thankfully, the bear and I never met (and most park visitors won't see any sign of black bears). But the near encounter made me appreciate that Botanical Beach truly is a wilderness park.

Botanical Beach is a blend of forest, beach and tidelands on southwest Vancouver Island, near the small community of Port Renfrew and where the Strait of Juan de Fuca opens into the wild Pacific.

Gentle forest trails, wave-sculpted rocks and rich tide pools make Botanical Beach an excellent destination in its own right. The park also is the starting point for the new Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, a 29-mile hiking trail that opened in late April. The trail offers walkers empty coastal beauty within an hour- or two-hour drive of Victoria, depending on which trail head is used. Stroll for a mile or two--or hike and camp for several days.

But this southwest stretch of Vancouver Island--from Victoria 65 miles west to Port Renfrew--is not just for die-hard hikers or beach-walkers; it's also for those who like country drives, seaside camping or watching the waves from the comfort of a B&B; or cabin.

From Seattle or Vancouver, B.C., it's easy to explore the area in a couple of days; hop one of the many ferries to Victoria, B.C., and take off from there.

The route gets most interesting once Victoria's suburbs dwindle at Sooke, about 20 miles west of the city. For the next 45 miles, to the end of the two-lane Highway 14 at Port Renfrew, there's just the occasional scattering of houses; miles of second-growth forest (and some logging clear-cuts that seem to stretch for miles); empty beaches and sweeping views over the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the peaks of Washington's Olympic Peninsula, 15 miles across the water. The road occasionally dips to the shore, but mostly meanders across rolling hills, alternating between thick forest and open stretches.

Here are some suggestions on what to see along the route, traveling west from Sooke. Allow about two hours to drive straight through from Victoria to Botanical Beach since the last third of the road is narrow, winding and slow. But it's easy to spend a whole day along the route with stops for beach walks and lunch.

In several visits to the area, I've usually zipped through Sooke (about a half-hour drive from downtown Victoria, depending on traffic) in my eagerness to get to the beaches. But those interested in the pioneer and logging history of the area could stop at the small Sooke Regional Museum right on the highway. There's also a visitor-information center next to the museum, good for stocking up on brochures.

Either Sooke or Victoria could be used as an overnight base for exploring the coast, although I prefer to stay farther west for quicker access to the beaches. Do check on your gas in Sooke since the next place to fill up is at Port Renfrew.

*

If you're camping in a tent or RV, make a beeline for French Beach Provincial Park, about 12 miles west of Sooke on the shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the only public campground along Highway 14. There are 69 pleasant campsites set amid deep forest. Day-trippers can picnic on the beach and walk the short forest trails.

Just west of French Beach is Point No Point, a cluster of overnight rental cabins on 40 acres of forested, waterfront land. It also has a small restaurant that serves afternoon tea, always welcome after walking the windy beaches. Visitors can walk down trails from Point No Point's restaurant to its sandy beaches and rocky headlands.

River Jordan is the only "town" between Sooke and Port Renfrew. It's at one of the few places where Highway 14 touches the waterfront. But blink and you'll miss it--just a dozen homes, a drive-in cafe and a little restaurant about seven miles west of French Beach.

This is timber country, and logging (plus small-scale tourism) is what keeps the local economy ticking. Behind the River Jordan restaurant there's a block-long log-sorting yard, where house-high piles of freshly cut trees await shipment.

Although Highway 14 continues west to Port Renfrew, don't expect highway road standards. The approximately 20-mile stretch between River Jordan and Port Renfrew is essentially a logging road that's been paved. It's narrow, with dips, twists and some hairpin turns and one-lane bridges. The road is fine for ordinary vehicles. But count on averaging only 25 to 30 mph, even less if you get stuck behind an RV or truck.

*

Watch for the signs to China Beach Provincial Park a few miles west of River Jordan. From the parking lot, just off the highway, it's a 10-minute walk down a broad, sloping forest trail to the beach.

Families and school groups from Victoria come here for the easy access to the wild ocean beach with its tangles of driftwood and almost mile-long stretch of sand. Even toddlers can walk the gentle trail. Don't count on warmth, though; even in summer, a chilly mist and rain can roll in any time. And the water is always frigid, although that doesn't stop wetsuit-clad surfers.

China Beach is the eastern trail head of the new Juan de Fuca Marine Trail. However, the park is for day-use only--no camping.

Port Renfrew is the end of the highway, a scattering of neat wood houses tucked on along the shores of the protected Port San Juan inlet.

There are a couple of small stores; a clapboard church (truly ecumenical with services for Catholics, Presbyterians, Anglicans and others); and the old-time Port Renfrew Hotel where the main business is a friendly pub and cafe. For overnighters, there also are several B&Bs; and an RV park.

Gravel logging roads, and hiking trails to the few giant firs that have been spared the saw over a century of logging, snake off into the valleys. The logging roads are open to the public and eventually link with roads back to Victoria. But get a good map and inquire at the park-service/visitor-information center in Port Renfrew about road conditions. (Otherwise, just retrace your route back along Highway 14).

Salmon fishing, logging and a small stream of tourists and hikers bound for the rugged 45-mile West Coast Trail in nearby Pacific Rim National Park, keep Port Renfrew going. The trail is across the inlet and most quickly reached by boat; hikers and their 50-pound packs are ferried across in small craft.

*

The West Coast Trail is so popular with hikers from around the world that reservations are required, and the new Juan de Fuca Marine Trail is designed to take some pressure off it. But casual walkers can get a taste of the same terrain--and even better tide pools--by driving several miles past Port Renfrew to Botanical Beach Provincial Park.

It's easy to lose yourself in this 627-acre park. Not on the well-marked, gentle trails but by staring into its miniature marine worlds.

A sandstone shelf stretching hundreds of feet along the shore is revealed at low tide. It's dotted with sea-eroded, natural potholes, a foot deep and a foot across, that remain filled with water and a rich assortment of sea plants and sea creatures.

Green sea anemones, purple sea urchins and sea palms (a brown algae that looks like a tiny palm tree) undulate in the tide pools. Boulders are carpeted with mussels and barnacles; sea stars cling to slick, shiny-black basalt rocks.

Gray whales and orcas sometimes cruise past, feeding near the park's rocky points. Harbor seals and, occasionally, sea lions bob in the waves.

Try to be at Botanical Beach at low tide to see the most. (Most stores and lodgings along Highway 14 have tide tables; consult the Tofino tide table for the lowest tides.) But even at high tide, it's still worth going to the park to enjoy a wilderness beach and forest walk.

The two-mile gravel road from Port Renfrew to Botanical Beach has been improved in the past few years and can be driven in a passenger car or even an RV. It dead-ends in a large circular parking area with picnic tables and interpretive signs. Trails lead from the parking lot down to the park's two main beaches: Botany Bay or Botanical Beach (which has the richest tide pools). It takes about 15 minutes to walk down to either beach; everyone from young children to fit seniors can walk the trails.

A lower forest trail joins the two beaches--just a 10-minute walk between them--so visitors can make a loop trip. And wood boardwalks and stairs on the trails prevent visitors from sinking into the mud in this often rain-soaked area.

Botanical Beach has been known for its tide pools for a century, but until recent years it was difficult to get there. The University of Minnesota established a marine research station at the beach in 1900, but gave it up seven years later because of the tough access: In those days researchers had to take a steamship to Port Renfrew then walk for two hours on a muddy, narrow trail to reach the beach. Now it's an easy walk for almost everyone to this bountiful marine garden.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

GUIDEBOOK: Island Crossings

Getting there: From Seattle or Vancouver, B.C., there are various road-and-ferry options for getting to Victoria. My favorite way to go is via the Royal Victorian, a car ferry that sails daily May 16-Oct. 15 from downtown Seattle to downtown Victoria; telephone (206) 625-1880 or (800) 683-7977.

Other options: The Blackball car ferry from Port Angelesto Victoria; tel. (360) 457-4491. Washington State Ferries from Anacortes (about 60 miles north of Seattle) to Sidney, B.C. (about 17 miles north of Victoria); tel. (360) 293-8166.B.C. Ferries offers sailings daily from Tsawwassen, 24 miles south of Vancouver, to Swartz Bay, 20 miles north of Victoria; tel. (604) 386-3431

There's daily float-plane service on Kenmore Air from Seattle's Lake Union and Lake Washington to the Inner Harbor in downtown Victoria; tel. (800) 543-9595.

Where to stay: On southwest Vancouver Island, one of my favorites is Point No Point Resort, about 20 cabins on 40 acres of forest land and beach 16 miles west of Sooke; tel. (604) 646-2020.

Nearby Fossil Bay Resort, just west of Point No Point, tel. (604) 646-2073), offers new view cottages on a bluff overlooking the strait.

In Port Renfrew, there's Arbutus Beach Lodge, tel. (604) 647-5458. It has a restaurant and offers fishing charters. Or try the Orca II Bed & Breakfast, tel. (604) 647-5528. The Port Renfrew RV Park and Marina has sites for self-contained RVs and tent camping; tel. (604) 647-5430.

In Sooke, 20 miles west of Victoria, the Sooke Harbour House, tel. (604) 642-3421, is one of the best known.

For more information: Canadian Consulate, Tourist Information, 550 S. Hope St., ninth floor, Los Angeles 90071, (213) 346-2700; fax (213) 620-8827. Or Discover B.C. at (800) 663-6000.

--K.J.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
73°