Port Renfrew is touted as the “Tall Tree Capital of Canada”, and along with scenic trails, rugged coastline and extreme remoteness, it’s easy to see why nature lovers of all kinds flock to the area. Finding Port Renfrew’s biggest trees is a highlight for any visitor, and this article will help you do just that.
Port Renfrew is wild and rugged, and finding these giants requires driving on rough logging roads throughout most of your journey. So while it MAY be possible to get to these destinations in a lower profile car, it’s definitely not recommended. You also won’t have any cell coverage, nor service of any kind along the way, so be smart and prepare for anything!
If you leave early enough from Port Renfrew, it’s possible to see all of the trees in one day – we did! The directions mentioned below will lead you from one tree to the next, roughly following the Pacific Marine Circle Route.
Canada’s Gnarliest Tree is found in the upper portion of this beautiful protected section of old-growth forest. This approximately 1000-year-old western redcedar is 33 feet in circumference and 230 feet tall; and, it has one of the most unique burls one has ever seen.
Avatar Grove was protected by the BC government in 2012 after a two-year public awareness campaign led by the Ancient Forest Alliance (AFA). The area was named after the James Cameron film Avatar.
Over the years, AFA has strategically constructed a trail that includes boardwalks, stairs and platforms to highlight the biggest and most beautiful sections of the area. Hiking experience is still necessary to help manoeuvre through the often slippery and/or muddy sections, and, as well, the steep stairs.
Along with the ‘Gnarliest Tree’, the trail on the left-hand side of the road, called the Upper Grove, has many large cedar trees to view. This is an out and back trail that ends at the ‘Gnarliest Tree’. While wandering on the path, make sure to view the waterfall along the way. This trail can be completed in approximate 20 – 30 minutes.
The lower section of Avatar Grove is located on the right-hand side of the road and has some other burly cedars along with some large Douglas-firs. This trail is a circle loop, and other than the first set of stairs is less steep than the Upper Grove. The Lower Grove takes approximately 20 minutes to complete.
From Port Renfrew, follow the Pacific Marine Circle route as if heading to Lake Cowichan.
- Turn right onto Deering Road and cross over the large one-lane bridge.
- Stay to the right at the next Y.
- After the next small single-lane bridge, turn left at the intersection onto Gordon Main.
- After approximately 5 km, go left at the “Y” and cross a bridge with the beautiful Gordon River below you.
- Keep to the right at the next “Y” to stay on Gordon Main (now a rough gravel road).
- The signs for Avatar Grove will be on your left-hand side after a small bridge at Baird Creek.
- Park somewhere on the right-hand side of the road after this bridge.
Big Lonely Doug
The “loneliest tree in Canada’ has become a bit of a celebrity; even a book has been written about this tall Douglas Fir.
Ironically, this 230-foot tall specimen was saved by the man responsible for flagging the area for clearcut. After walking much of the block, Dennis Cronin noticed a large species dwarfing all that surrounded him. Although he noted this was one of the bigger trees he’d come across in the four decades of working in the logging industry, what he didn’t know at the time was that he stood next to the second-largest Douglas fir in the country. (The largest is mentioned below).
Although the block was eventually cut, Cronin thankfully had the foresight to mark this particular giant with a green ribbon, telling loggers to leave the tree alone. Hence the name Big Lonely Doug.
The area has since been reseeded, and new growth is happening all around Doug, however, it’s not likely to ever catch up to this big beauty. At sixty-six metres tall, nearly four metres wide, and almost twelve metres in circumference, Lonely Doug is a sight to see!
The size of this tree makes it easy to see and photograph from the road. However, if you really want to take in its mammoth proportions, you’ll need to get up close. Doing this requires walking down a steep, unmarked, rough-warn path to its base.
You’ll notice this trampled down path on the right-hand side of the gravel road. It’s relatively short (approximately 10 minutes to the tree), however, do not attempt unless you have proper footwear!
Getting to Big Lonely Doug
- Keep following Gordon Main past Avatar Grove for approximately 4 more km.
- You’ll pass over Axe Creek, which flows through a culvert under the gravel road.
- Take the junction to your right to continue on Edinburgh Main.
- Shortly after, you’ll come to a bridge that crosses over Gordon River, and the road becomes extremely rough.
- After just over 1 km you’ll see a clear-cut and your first glimpse of Lonely Doug.
- Park on the right-hand side of the road directly across from the giant tree to find the trail.
- Once you’ve explored this area, you’ll need to head back the same way you came in; and, all the way back out to the first junction you took to get to Avatar Grove (Gordon Main and Deering Road/Pacific Marine Road).
- Unless however, you are continuing on to this hidden gem
San Juan Sitka Spruce
At 12.2 feet in diameter, the San Juan Sitka Spruce was once considered the largest spruce tree in Canada and the second-largest in the world. Unfortunately, a massive winter storm hit the area in 2016 and caused this large beauty to lose its top. All is not lost, however, for the mammoth base is still very much intact and well worth viewing.
And, due to its location, this beautiful giant is accessible to all.
- Continue on Pacific Marine Road (heading towards Lake Cowichan) and drive past Fairy Lake. (The famous Bonsai Tree is located just off the shore of Fairy Lake – so you may want to pull over and take a picture while you are in the area).
- After approximately 10 km, you will come to the “9-mile Junction” sign, as well as a sign for Lizard Lake (left) and San Juan River (right). Head to the San Juan River Recreation Site by turning right onto Lens Main.
- Proceed another 2.5 km to Bear Creek Main and turn right.
- Continue on Bear Creek Main until you cross the San Juan River bridge.
- Upon crossing the bridge, hang a left into the San Juan River Recreation Site, where you’ll immediately spot the spruce tree.
On a side note, this recreation site is a rustic campground offering 6 sites, which are open year-round. It’s a beautiful little spot along the river.
Red Creek Fir
The Red Creek Fir is the largest living in the world, and apparently, the seventh-largest tree ever grown. Out of all the large trees in Port Renfrew, this one is my favourite. It measures 43.7 feet in circumference, 14 feet in diameter, 242 feet tall, and has a crown spread of 75 feet across!
At only 500 meters each way, the trail to the giant fir is quick and relatively easy. Along the way, you also come across three HUGE beautiful cedars (watch for them on your left-hand side).
The drive to the fir is not so easy and requires a 4×4 or other high clearance vehicle that can manage the extremely rough gravel roads.
- After leaving the San Juan Sitka Spruce (above), continue on Bear Creek Main, heading uphill.
- After approximately 2km, you come to an intersection of sorts, turn right here onto Mosquito Creek Main.
- Keep driving for another 4 km, staying on the main road, and then at the Y, turn right onto Red Creek Main.
- You will head downhill for approximately 4 km to a T-junction, where you take another right.
- Proceed a short distance (approximately 400 meters) to a parking area (extra-wide spot in the road).
- The trailhead is marked, but can sometimes be covered by greenery depending on the time of year you go.
- After exploring the area, you’ll need to head back the same way you came in, and all the way back to the Pacific Marine road.
Safety precautions when searching for Port Renfrew’s biggest trees
As with Avatar Grove and Big Lonely Doug, when travelling to these destinations, and as well as while you are visiting the areas, you are literally on your own. There is no cell coverage, no gas stations nearby, and no service of any kind.
Avatar Grove and Big Lonely Doug can be popular sites to visit, so you will most likely come across other people while there. The Red Creek Fir, however, is not as popular (most likely due to its remoteness). This means you may not have anyone else around to help should anything go sideways. With this in mind, please plan accordingly.
All of the sites mentioned above are in bear and cougar country. Make sure you know what to do if you come across either. This article will help: Potential Wildlife Encounters on Vancouver Island
To help give you an overview, here’s a map of the whole area, courtesy of Ancient Forest Alliance: “Big Trees Map“.
Harris Creek Spruce
The Harris Creek Spruce is another 10 km or so past that “9 mile Junction” sign (mentioned above), however, if you ARE following the Pacific Marine road to Lake Cowichan, it’s worth the stop. Although the smallest of the trees listed above (in girth, not height) this 200 + year old beauty is still impressive at 269 feet tall and 13 feet in diameter. And with easy access just off the highway, it’s also the most accessible.
A fence was erected around the tree to protect its roots and hopefully preserve it for many years to come. This does, however, hinder the ability to get good photos.
- As mentioned, continue along the Pacific Marine Road for another 10 km (approximately) past the “9 mile Junction” sign.
- Watch for a small sign in the trees, indicating the location of the spruce tree, and a wide spot on the side of the road where you can park.
- This is where you’ll find a short accessible trail to the tree.
How many of Port Renfrew’s biggest trees have you visited? Let us know in the comments below.
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