One of the most accessible locations to find an old-growth forest on Vancouver Island is MacMillan Provincial Park, otherwise known as Cathedral Grove. Visitors can stroll through giant Douglas fir trees, some of which are more than 800 years old.

Quick Facts

  • Features: Old-growth forest; wheelchair accesible trail; boardwalks
  • Park Size: 301 hectares
  • Trails: Two short loop trails on either side of the highway, approxiamately 0.8 km each
  • Suitability: Walking, stroller and wheelchair accessible trails
  • Hazards: You must cross a busy highway to get to both sides of the park
  • Park Use: Day-use only
  • Washrooms: Two pit toilets on both sides of the highway near the parking areas
  • Pets: As this is a Provincial Park, dogs must remain on a leash at all times
Cathedral Grove MacMillan Provincial Park. Vancouver Island View

A Bit of History

The very first proposal by citizens to the government to protect ‘Cathedral Grove’ happened in 1885. And for over 62 years, several pleas by citizens, lobbyists, activists, and even loggers submitted proposals to protect this magnificent stand of giant trees. Finally, in 1947, it was designated as a Class A Provincial Park. But its sordid history is plenty.

1800’s

In 1886, the BC government transferred 1,900,00 acres of land to coal baron Robert Dunsmuir to build the E&N railway between Victoria and Nanaimo. Cathedral Grove, and much of the east coast of Vancouver Island, were included in this transfer.

After Robert died in 1889, the land was transferred to his son, James. He, in turn, sells some of the best-treed lands to Victoria Lumber and Manufacturing Company, including the block known as Cathedral Grove.

1900’s

In 1905, E & N Railway sold its land to Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). Prompted by the giant trees as an object of curiosity and wonder, CPR had hoped to develop tourism at Cameron Lake. To accomplish this they built a new road to Port Alberni along the south side of the lake between 1907 and 1910. In the process, however, many of the big trees were destroyed.

Several years later, in January 1921, a hurricane-like storm uprooted thousands of giant trees in the Cathedral Grove watershed.

In 1923, The Victoria Lumber Company offered to sell ‘Cathedral Grove’ to the BC Government for $500,000, but the offer was refused.

In April 1944, H.R. MacMillan makes a deal to take over Victoria Lumber Company to consolidate his timber holdings on Vancouver Island. MacMillan is pressured to donate the land known to the public as Cathedral Grove back to the government. On November 20, he gifts 136 hectares of forest for park use in exchange for repayment of all taxes paid on the land since acquired in 1889. He was also granted right away through the park to resume logging in areas surrounding the park until after the year 2000.

Finally, in February 1947, Cathedral Grove was officially declared MacMillan Provincial Park by the BC Government.

To read about the area’s fascinating history in more detail, including the protests after 1944, check out: Cathedral Grove.

Boardwalk at Cathedral Grove. Vancouver Island View

Cathedral Grove Today

Similar in significance to the towering California Redwoods, Cathedral Grove is one of two Class A Provincial Parks in BC established to protect old-growth forests specifically. The other park is Carmanah Walbran, but it’s a little more challenging to get to.

Easy access to old-growth makes Cathedral Grove extremely popular, and the park receives over 300,000 visitors per year.

The environmental impact of the many visitors prompted BC Parks to start a multi-year upgrade project in Fall 2018. The project includes a rebuild of the trail systems, with a focus on the north side (on side of Cameron Lake). Phase one was completed in 2019 and included trail resurfacing, split rail fencing and the beginnings of an elevated boardwalk. Phase two commenced in Fall 2020 and included the completion of the boardwalk.

This boardwalk is fully wheelchair accessible and provides a loop trail. Due to the pandemic, BC Parks has implemented a one-way trail system to protect visitors and support efforts to reduce the spread of Covid-19. This one-way trail system works quite well and makes it even more user-friendly for wheelchairs and large strollers.

Future phases will continue accessibility, visitor information and environmental protection upgrades to both the north and south side of the park. Currently, there is no time frame as to when these next stages may start.

MacMillan Provincial Park. Vancouver Island View

The Giant Trees

People flock to this small park to gawk at and even hug the giant trees. On a recent visit to the park, I noted that the new boardwalks, however beautiful, hinder one’s ability to get up close and personal with some of these giants. With that being said, with so many annual visitors, I completely understand the need for less trodding on tree roots.

For those who venture to the park with the sole purpose of hugging a giant tree, you’ll want to walk through the south side. This portion of the trail system, so far, is still a meandering path through the trees and where you will find the largest Douglas firs. One of them measuring more than 9 metres in circumference.

On New Year’s Day in 1997, a huge storm went through the area and toppled several large trees. Some sections of the trail system were so badly obliterated they have never been reopened. During your walk, you’ll see many large trees lying on the ground. However, these moss-covered logs only add to the natural beauty of the area.

Cameron River. Vancouver Island View

Cameron River

Both sides of the park give you access to Cameron River. This river contains several species of trout, including cutthroat, rainbow and brown.

A couple of steps are provided off the boardwalk on the north side of the trail to give you access to Cameron River. On the south side, the river flows beside you along the final stretches of the trail. When visiting during fall, the surrounding deciduous trees leaning over the river provide picture-perfect views.

Getting There

MacMillan Provincial Park is located 30 kilometres west of Parksville and 16 kilometres east of Port Alberni on Highway 4. As mentioned above, the highway goes right through the middle of the park. Parking is available on either side. To get to both sides of the park, one must cross the highway on foot. Please use caution when doing so. This highway can be extremely busy, especially during the summer, for it continues on to the Pacific Rim.


Have you seen the new boardwalks at MacMillan Provincial Park? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.

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MacMillan Provincial Park. Vancouver Island View

1 Comment

  1. Jenny Buzek Reply

    Thank you for highlighting the plight of old growth forests on Vancouver Island…. the BC government continues to ignore the importance and value of our remaining old growth trees. In our need to slow global warmer it makes no sense to cut these massive trees which act as carbon sinks and remind us of our ancient heritage that needs preserving.

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