If you are looking for a truly remote area of Vancouver Island, Cape Scott Provincial Park is it!
Located on the northwestern tip of Vancouver Island, Cape Scott offers a rugged coastal wilderness and beautiful unspoiled beaches. The fact that it’s quite an adventure to get to makes it an alluring destination for many.
Quick Trail Facts
- Trail Features: White sand beaches; Remote access; Sea stacks and caves
- Length: Variety of lengths to choose from; San Josef Bay is 2.5 km (one way) and the most family-friendly
- Elevation Gain: Varies
- Hazards: Remoteness; No cell coverage; Wildlife, especially bears and wolves; Challenging trails
- Difficulty: Easy to difficult depending on the trail chosen
- Suitability: See below
- Bike Trails: No
A Bit of History
Heavy rainfalls and violent windstorms make the area inhospitable for settlement despite two historic attempts. Danes from the Midwestern US made the first white settlement attempt during 1897 – 1907. They tried to establish an ethnic community around what is now known as Hansen Lagoon and Fisherman Bay.
The government agreed to build a road from Fisherman Bay to the San Josef River to make transporting goods more accessible. However, the road was never put in and eventually, the colony struggled to survive on their limited resources.
1913 saw another wave of settlers, many of whom established themselves in the homes abandoned by the Danes. This colony was extremely short-lived, lasting only four years, due to the same hardships the Danes experienced as well as conscription to the First World War.
Prior to white settlement, the Tlatlasikwala, Nakumgilisala and Yutlinuk shared the Cape Scott area. Today the people are known collectively as the Nahwitti, and three of their six reserves are located within the boundaries of Cape Scott Provincial Park.
Cape Scott’s name comes from honouring David Scott, a Bombay merchant who was one of the principal backers of a trading voyage to the area in 1786.
The Provincial Park was established in 1973 and includes 115 kilometres of scenic ocean frontage, including approximately 30 kilometres of stunning beaches.
Features of Cape Scott Provincial Park
This is a walk-in park, and the one parking lot is only accessible via a very long drive down a rough logging road. However, if you are up for the adventure, you will have access to pristine rainforests, majestic beaches and unspoiled nature.
One of the area’s unique features is the sea stacks and sea caves which can be accessed during low tide.
The park also has some huge old-growth trees, including a Sitka Spruce and Western Cedar, both over 3 meters in diameter. These can be seen on the trail to San Joseph Bay.
About 20 minutes north of the Eric Lake campsite, one can find a Sitka Spruce that measures more than 7 metres in diameter. Eric Lake is located approximately 3 km from the trailhead.
The best part about Cape Scott, however, is the beautiful white-sand beaches.
The Beaches (and Hikes)
The trails within the park are well marked and include the km to each beach/camping location. Accessing the majority of the beaches requires a multi-day backpacking adventure. If you are up for it, you are in for a real treat.
Nels Bight is apparently the most impressive of these beaches as it stretches more than 2,400 metres long and 210 metres wide at low tide. This area is also a popular camping spot for hikers. Nels Bight is a 16.8 km hike from the trailhead and accessed by hiking the Cape Scott Trail.
The other significant beaches in the area are as follows: (please note the km’s mentioned are from the trailhead and one way only)
- Guise Bay – 20.7 km hike
- Experiment Bight: 18.9 km hike
- Nissen Bight: 15 km hike
- Lowrie Bay – 10 km hike
- San Josef Bay – 2.5 km hike
Bucket List Hiking
The hikes mentioned above (other than San Josef Bay) can be extremely muddy and difficult to traverse. It is not recommended to tackle the majority of Cape Scott’s trails unless you have previous backpacking experience. Visitors should also be well equipped for wet weather.
For those up for the challenge, the Cape Scott and North Coast trails have been cited as one of the best coastal hikes anywhere in the world. It’s the ultimate bucket list for backpackers.
(As the West Coast Trail has become more popular and ultimately more accessible for even the novice hiker, Cape Scott has become the new great challenge).
If interested, here is a great comparison of the West Coast Trail vs the North Coast Trail.
San Josef Bay is the gem you’re after for those who aren’t into overnight backpacking treks and want something nice and easy.
San Josef Bay
With an average one-way hiking time of 45 minutes (2.5 km), San Josef Bay is the easiest and most accessible Cape Scott beach. And the best part is one still gets to experience a taste of Cape Scott’s unique features without having to break a sweat!
The trail to San Josef Bay is very well maintained. I found this a bit shocking, considering the remoteness of the area. The path is easier to walk on than many I have been on locally. It’s definitely family and stroller-friendly.
The only issue you may have with bringing a stroller on the San Josef Bay trail is on the beach itself. The sand is incredibly soft (and oh so lovely to walk on!).
At San Josef Bay, you can see the sea stacks and caves by walking to your far right once you arrive at the beach. Please remember, though, the stacks are only accessible at low tide, so plan accordingly.
You can tent on San Josef Bay, and many families do so, especially on the weekend. Backcountry camping fees apply, and it’s cash only at the self-registration booth located at the trailhead. (Current rates are $10.00 per adult (16+) and $5 per child).
You are in a remote area, so expect to see wildlife and be prepared.
Bear encounters are pretty common in the park. As we came back to the parking lot, a large black bear was right across from our vehicle. Making loud noises was the key to getting it to retreat back into the forest.
Wolves and cougars are also present in the area. Due to more frequent sightings of wolves in the park, dogs are only permitted in the San Josef Bay area and must be leashed at all times.
Centralized food caches are located at each camping area. It is highly recommended you use them if you plan on staying overnight. This way, you can hopefully avoid any unwanted guests in the middle of the night scrounging for food.
As mentioned above, there is only one parking lot within the park. This lot is located 64 km west of Port Hardy and is accessed by travelling on active logging roads.
Port Hardy is a great spot to rest your head and/or stock up on needed supplies (snacks and gas!!) before heading out to Cape Scott. Although you drive right through Holberg (16 km from the trailhead), the small town has extremely limited amenities.
The drive from Port Hardy to Holberg, and ultimately the parking lot of Cape Scott Provincial Park, is well marked. Just follow the signs. Travelling on logging roads is a slow go, so expect the drive to take approximately 2 hours from Port Hardy.
As you are driving on active logging roads, please remember that loaded logging trucks always get the right away.
We saw all types of vehicles travelling up and down the gravel road. However, we also saw a few flat tires or vehicles driving on a spare. The worst section of the road is between Holberg and Cape Scott Provincial Park. Although you will more than likely see other people on the road to help you if something happens, the area does not have cell coverage. So drive with extreme care!
The parking lot can become extremely busy. I was a bit shocked at how many vehicles were in the lot when we arrived. So don’t be surprised if you can’t find a spot and need to park up the road (we had to do this).
Once at the lot, make sure not to leave anything of value in your vehicle. It is also advised not to leave food either, as there have been cases where bears have broken in after smelling someone’s lunch. (I wonder if the bear we saw near our truck was lured there because of the food left inside – oops!).
Other Areas of Interest
You’ve decided to make the trek out to Cape Scott. While you are already out that way, I recommend making a few extra stops. (Are you ever going to go again?? You may as well make the most of it!).
In 1910, Bernt Ronning carved out of the rainforest a five-acre parcel of land for use as an exotic garden. It features fascinating plants brought by the original owner from around the world, including bamboo and Monkey Puzzle trees – one of which is said to be the tallest recorded in North America. Today a small group of volunteers tend to the property.
You’ll see the sign for Ronning’s Garden on your right-hand side between Holberg and Cape Scott Provincial Park.
If you have come from Cape Scott, and especially after a significant hiking expedition, you might be craving some hot food. The Scarlet Ibis Pub in Holberg will do the trick.
There is also a tiny convenience store if you are looking for some snacks.
For a less populated white-sand beach, head to Grant Bay. This beautiful large beach is only a 5 – 10 minute walk from the trailhead on a relatively well-maintained trail. And the hike is through a beautiful old-growth forest full of large trees.
North America’s westernmost point is the historic fishing village of Winter Harbour. With a year-round population of 20, this small boardwalk community is charming. It’s also a great spot to see sea otters!
So tell me, have you been to Cape Scott Provincial Park? Let us know about your time there in the comment section below.
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