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don’t hike the North Coast Trail

Posted Sep 18 2012 12:00am

(the “standard” NCT)

by site editor Rick McCharles

One of the best hikes in the world is the

North Coast / Cape Scott Trail on Vancouver Island, BC

It’s PARADISE … so why are we NOT recommending it?

Read on …

The NCT is a “backcountry adventure“, not a hike. There’s a reason some groups manage only 1km (.6mi) / hour on some sections.

On the other hand …

Our #1 hike worldwide is the nearby West Coast Trail .

The North Coast Trail is the newest (2008) of the WCT alternatives. An alternative way to spend time in this wild coastal temperate rainforest. It’s billed as “the WCT circa 1970“.

Was the WCT this bad in 1970? … Probably. :(


• the North Coast Trail is a 43.1km extension to the original Cape Scott Trail. The total hiking distance Shushartie Bay (from water taxi) to San Josef Bay & Cape Scott Trail parking lot is a minimum of 59.5km (37mi).

• the only ways to get to the NCT are by logging road (64km from Port Hardy), water taxi or float plane.

• actually, a few masochists have bushwhacked in to Shushartie from Port Hardy. Dumb idea.

• best hike is to decide as you go where you want to camp. An “open” itinerary. Base your decisions each day on tides, weather and how you feel.

• many do 7 days, 6 nights on the standard NCT trail but if you instead start at the parking lot, any number of days works. If you have serious problems, walk out.

• often you can choose between an inland path or a coastal route. The coast is almost always better. Certainly more scenic.

• the most detailed route report of the STANDARD NCT was posted in Wild Coast (2008) Shusartie to Laura Creek :

1. Shusartie overland (Shusartie to Skinner)
2. The Nahwitti Stretch (Skinner to Cape Sutil)
3. The Sutil Scramble (Cape Sutil to Irony)
4. Christensen Coast (Irony to Laura)
5. Nahwitti Cone (Laura to Nissen)
… walk out via the easy Cape Scott Trail

Though I had a challenging, terrific experience Sept 2012 (see trip report ) … my recommendation is NOT to do what I did. Don’t hike the STANDARD NCT (minimum 61km). You can do better on Vancouver Island.

The new trail is extremely difficult where you start in the east. And gets easier as you head west and then south.

The beaches and trails are “better”, too, I felt, in the older western & southern parts of the Park.

Instead of the standard North Coast Trail: water taxi to Shushartie to Cape Scott Trail parking lot, better itineraries are:

• hiking the easier West Coast Trail , instead
• hiking the much easier Juan de Fuca Trail , instead

• or  best of all  hiking the North Coast Trail, differently _____

HIKE DIFFERENT – option 1 of 2:

~ start Cape Scott Trail parking lot (getting there by personal vehicle or Shuttle Van ) -> hiking as far into the North Coast Trail as you wish -> then backtracking to the parking lot.

That in-and-out hike gives you many, many options. You can decide what you want to do, as you go. Keeners in your group can go further east, while others in your group relax on a favourite beach.

The very worst section, in our opinion, is Skinner – Shushartie. You can stop when you get to Skinner, if the going is rough.


Some hikers hate backtracking. No worry, in this case. The Trail looks completely different walking in different directions. It changes, too, with the tide. Trust me  you won’t be bored.

If you don’t have your own vehicle, you’ll somehow have to arrange the Shuttle to come pick you up.

HIKE DIFFERENT – option 2 of 2:

Start at Skinner. Or even Cape Sutil.

… Why doesn’t everyone do that?

BC Parks by email:

Shushartie is by far the safest and most reliable place to drop off hikers. It can be reached at all tides by most boats. I completed a survey of the coastline with the Coast Guard and they also recommended keeping Shushartie Bay as the primary access point strictly from a safety perspective. It is also a hardened area that is not negatively impacted by constant boat landings. …

Though more materials for boardwalk has been airdropped alongside the Trail, I heard money had run out. There has been some controversy regarding the funds expended, too.

If I was going again next year, I’d start at the Parking lot. Not Shushartie.

… Are we being too hard on the Skinner – Shushartie slog?

BC Parks by email:

It’s unique due to its rare vegetation and tree species, its endangered (and protected) fish and amphibian species and its ability to positively affect the rest of the park’s functioning ecosystem. All rare and unique. These types of ecosystems are often referred to as the lungs of our environment.

BC Parks felt that it was very important to represent this ecosystem as part of the hike. It is very unique and like I say, one of the primary reasons this part of the park was created, from a conservation perspective.

Those upland bogs are interesting.

But visiting them requires one day of your life.


• North Coast Trail is like the West Coast Trail without the hassle of getting a “Trail Use Permit”

• west coast of Vancouver Island is fantastic. This truly is one trek that could change your life.

• NCT camping is only C$10/person/night. May to Sept. You can buy backcountry permits online , or pay cash at the trailhead. Honour system.

• no quota on number of hikers (WCT allows only 60/day)

• no reservations needed

• you can hike NCT / Cape Scott year round, weather permitting, while the full WCT is only officially open 5 months a year. (However, the Water Taxi stops running around Sept. 15th each season.)

• gorgeous beach campsites with sunset views. Nel’s Bight beach is 2.4km long and 210m wide at low tide. Sweet.

• some old-growth forest including giant Sitka Spruce & Western Red Cedar

• pretty sea stacks and other fascinating coastal geology

• tidal pools, bogs, riparian areas, …

• good tent pads, far better than on the West Coast Trail

• campfires allowed. Plenty of drift wood.

• chance to see whales & other marine mammals, bald eagles, river and sea otters, mink, deer, elk

• everybody loves Guise Bay & Experiment Bight

• few biting insects on the coast (you will find mosquitoes inland out of the wind)

• possibly a few horseflies inland (not to mention millions of weird, but non-biting, beach hoppers on the coast)

• creek crossings are only an issue when in flood.

• two new cable cars propel you over the only major rivers

• theft and vandalism of parked vehicles is normally no problem at Cape Scott trailhead, San Josef. No parking fee.

• wild (dispersed) camping is allowed

• many set up tents protected within “fortresses” (temporary beach shelters made of drift logs). Parks BC asks that you dissemble those, when finished

•  beach-combing is fascinating, look for wreakage from Japan

• the Cultural Heritage of this area is fascinating. Signage explains the history of native peoples and the failed Danish colonies

• you’ll see BEARS and WOLVES in the wild :)


• you’ll see BEARS and WOLVES in the wild :(

• bears and hikers both love: berries, low tide, trails

• it’s MUDDY, … really, really MUDDY

• did we mention it’s MUDDY?

• prepare for slippery rocks, roots and logs. Eyes blinded with rain, you’ll need to scramble up, over and between giant stumps. With a full pack.

• most wear waterproof hiking boot with high gaiters. It’s a gamble to wear anything else  5-10 water shoes, for example.

• most hikers get blisters. Bring moleskin, or whatever works best for you

• most hikers bring a second pair of footwear for camp

• consider bringing one or two hiking poles. There are many wooden walking sticks to be found in the campsites, as a back-up

• you must scramble fallen trees, steep slippery slopes sometimes assisted by muddy rope

• expect to fall on your face. Most often at a moment when you’re not paying attention to your footing.

• so far BC Parks has recorded more injuries on the “cobble beaches” than any other terrain. Slippery boulders can be ankle busters.

• bring a first aid kid. There are 3 Ranger stations, but many parts of the trail are not regularly patrolled. Plan to be self-sufficient in any emergency.

• water is a problem in this Park, sources few and far between. By end of season some sources are reduced to a trickle. Or seep. Boil, filter or treat. Collect rain water with a tarp, if you get the chance.

BC Parks by email:

Perennial streams on coastal trails, including the NCT, are hard to predict. With such little relief and few lakes to store runoff, it all comes down to recent rain fall. Even the big streams like Nahwitti and Stranby are tidally influenced and are brackish near their mouths. …

• best bring more water carrying capacity / person (perhaps 4 litres / person)

• there’s no dedicated guidebook available, as yet

• signage is terrific on the Cape Scott Trail, but minimal on the new NCT. Most hikers are working off the $10 Wild Coast Map

• Cape Scott Park explains that when the NCT was built, the signage was combined with the Cape Scott Trail for consistency. Makes sense.

• fishing is permitted as per provincial and federal fishing regulations. Nobody was catching anything when we were there.

• leashed dogs allowed  but NOT recommended. There’s a chance they’ll run into wolves.

• no emergency phone. No phone coverage. (Marine radios can be rented from Cape Scott Water Taxi. If you call, evacuation costs about $1000 … IF they can get to you.)

• bring your own satellite phone if you want to maximize safety

• sections of the trail are impassable or very difficult at high tide. Check tide tables posted at most official campsites. Get tide tables in advance, as a back-up, in Port Hardy. Jot them down from signs (if posted) in campgrounds, as they may be slightly different

• May to October are the best months

• we like August and early September best of all

• off-season this part of the world is very cold and rainy

• some consider Cape Scott Lighthouse a bit of a letdown. It’s not on the sea.

• rogue waves can knock an inattentive hiker into the sea

• expect torrential rain and wind. You need a good waterproof tent and tie-downs. And clothing for those conditions.

• keep a dry set of clothes in a waterproof bag, for wearing inside the tent

• summer highs around 14C (57F)

• risk of hypothermia

• bring parachute line to hang food from a tree as a back-up, in case you don’t make it to an official campsite, for any reason. There are bears everywhere.

• bear-proof metal food caches are widely available, actually. Near essential in this bear country.


• almost everyone arrives Port Hardy by the only lonely highway. It’s 499km from Victoria, 412km from Vancouver (plus ferry).

• a terrific alternative, would be to arrive or depart by BC Ferry from Prince Rupert. (From Rupert you can catch the Alaska Marine Ferry, something I did once. A superb trip up the Inside Passage.)

• bring stove fuel with you to Port Hardy as stores may be closed

• public transport is convenient
~ one Greyhound bus a day
~ walk a couple of blocks to one of two hostels. There are many hotels, too.
~ walk to the North Coast Trail offices at the Marina, morning of transit

•  both the hostel & North Coast Trail Water Taxi will store a small bag for you, while you are gone. Your small bag with CLEAN clothes.

• the city of Port Hardy maintains an updated list of transportation options .

• no reservations are needed to hike the North Coast Trail. But you must book both van shuttle (San Josef) and/or water taxi (Shushartie) in advance. To get a good price you need a number of hikers taking that transport at the same time. North Coast Trail Shuttle rents VHF marine radios too ($50+tax).

You can prepay your $10/night/hiker to North Coast Trail Shuttle, as well. Very convenient.


HIKING TRAILS 3 – Northern Vancouver Island (9 pages) – $31


•  Plants of the West Coast Trail – Collin Varner
•  Back Country Bear Basics – David Smith
•  A Guide to West Coast Hiking in British Columbia and Washington State – Philip Stone


•  most used map by far is FREE online from Wild Coast . You can get a high quality paper version in Port Hardy. I bought mine for $9.95 from Cape Scott Water Taxi.

•  BC Parks – map (PDF)

• National Topographic Series Maps, Scale 1:50,000, Index No.102, Sheets 1/9 and 1/16, cover the Cape Scott area. Available at most map retailers in British Columbia.


Cape Scott Park has a Flash-based Virtual Tour . Click around to discover highlights.


Coastal Bliss – The North Coast Trail and Cape Scott Park
9 days-Strenuous – CDN$1,799 + 12% HST

Sea to Sky – The North Coast Trail and Cape Scott Park
CDN$1799 + 12% HST [Federal Tax]


After this page, the best links are:

BC Parks – Cape Scott Provincial Park (est. 1973)

BC Parks – Hiking in Cape Scott Provincial Park

Cape Scott Water Taxi and North Coast Trail Shuttle

~ The North Coast Trail by paddle

~ The North Coast Trail versus the West Coast Trail

BC Parks – Bear Safety

BC Parks – Wolf Safety

BC Parks – Park User Fees

Port Hardy Transportation options

Wikipedia – North Coast Trail

Wikipedia – Cape Scott Provincial Park

North Coast Trail Backpacker’s Hostel ( Trip Adviser )

C&N Backpackers Port Hardy ( Trip Adviser )

There are many hotels & motels in town, all within walking distance.


Wild Coast Magazine – Route details

Rick McCharles – trip report – 2012

RichSo’s trip report has fantastic photos

Smile With Your Heart – 2011

Sam Yeaman – North Coast Trail – 2012

Club Tread – North Coast Trail with GPS Waypoints

Jeff Hunt and Bob Wall’s 60k Trail Run – May 10th, 2008 (Opening Day)

David Crerar & 3 others Trail Run – May 2008

Rick McCharles – North Coast Trail photos – 2012

Trees Rocks Dirt – trip report – 2010

Joyce Peralta – North Coast Trail photos – 2009

Leave a comment if you have feedback. Thanks!

But don’t say you weren’t WARNED.

more photos shared by Sam Yeaman

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