Hiking the Dark Side has been on my list of places to go for quite some time. The kids even waited in anticipation, if only for the lure of its name (they figured it must have something to do with Star Wars).
We finally had a chance to get down to South Nanaimo to check off this epic hike and hidden gem. And even though Stormtroopers and Ewoks weren’t lurking in the bushes, the hike was everything we expected and more.
UPDATE: This post was created several years ago, and since then this trail has new developments. I have heard several reports that the trail is now on private land with signs posted. Please respect the signs. Also, the ladders and climbing apparatuses that made this trail useable and fun, are no longer in place. 🙁 When I get a chance to confirm this information myself, this article will be updated. In the meantime, if you do decide to use this trail, you do so at your own risk.
The Dark Side
The hike starts off at a beautiful spot on the Nanaimo River near Cassidy.
On both sides of this section of the river, you will find steep rock cliffs, which are frequented by climbers. The areas are aptly named for their location. The ‘Light Side’, is situated on the north side of the river and receives more sun. While the ‘Dark Side’ is named for the lack of sun it receives and is located on the south side of the river.
The trail follows the south side of the river upstream, in a meandering sort of way.
You walk upon a high cliff with spectacular views of the flowing water below you. And then when the trail leads down into a canyon, the real fun begins!
The trail is quite short (only about 1 km), but the area is so full of interesting things that you can literally explore for hours.
There are large boulders that need to be passed under and over, two short bridges to cross, narrow paths to meander, and ladders to climb.
The area you arrive at after you descend the first ladder (shown above) is jaw-dropping. The kids thought it looked like something out of Jurassic Park. You wind up being in the middle of towering sandstone cliffs, that are surrounded by lush vegetation (obviously the vegetation would look a little different if it were another season).
As you walk through this narrow canyon, make sure to look up. The rock faces are simply incredible!
If you are a climber you might be interested to know that there are several areas where clips have already been placed. It’s also a great area for caving. We spotted several caves that would be amazing to explore, one of which already has a rope ready to descend.
Length of Trail
It’s really hard to give an exact length of this trail, for there isn’t necessarily an endpoint (that we found anyway). But from what we saw the trail kind of peters out and becomes quite unmaintained at around the 1 km mark.
It was at this point that we decided to head down towards the river to find a spot to have our lunch. We climbed over a few large boulders and sat upon a perch with a spectacular view of the river beneath us.
For a reference point, there is a house (with a unique outdoor spiral staircase) perched upon the rocky cliff on the opposite side of the river. When you see that house, you have come to what we considered the end of the Dark Side trail.
Difficulty of Trail
This trail has no steep inclines (other than the ladders), but as I mentioned, there are lots of other obstacles to manoeuvre around (ladders, bridges, boulders, etc), which are unavoidable.
This hike is NOT suitable for dogs! If you insist on bringing your dog, you will be required to carry him/her up and down the steep ladders.
For obvious reasons, this trail is unfortunately not stroller or wheelchair-friendly either.
This hike deserves to be taken at a slow pace, due to the incredible scenery.
Although I took hundreds of photos, I wasn’t overly impressed with how the majority of them turned out. I am thinking this was due to the light, or lack thereof in some sections. We were there mid-day, so perhaps a different time of day would allow for better photo ops.
From Highway #1, take Spruston Road (near Cassidy). Turn right on Riverbend Road and follow it to the very end. You will see a gravel parking area underneath the power lines. After parking, walk west (upriver) along the trail that stays on top of the southern edge of the river bank. As mentioned above, the trail eventually leads down into a canyon.
If you’re still unconvinced that you need to visit the Dark Side, perhaps you need a bit more persuasion. I’ll leave you with a fantastic video that Tobias, of Trail Raiders, was willing to share with us. The video was captured in January, so it’s neat to see the difference in scenery.
About Trail Raiders
Tobias is a filmmaker from Chemainus who is passionate about creating outdoor adventure films and documentaries. He created Trail Raiders as a means to deliver his films to the online community. Tobias also works with local brands and tourism boards to help promote the incredible diversity found on Vancouver Island. You can find him on Facebook, Instagram and, of course, YouTube. Follow along and join the adventure!
If you’ve been to this incredible area called the Dark Side, let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.
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Hi, is this trail still open? I see some comments that it might be on private land.
That’s very interesting. Your comment got me looking into it, and you are quite right, several recent reports say this is now on private land. As the trail follows the river, I fail to see whose land it belongs to. However, if a private land sign is posted, then following the trail is done at your own risk.
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We are going to Nanaimo in 3 weeks. Will we be able to hike the “dark side” and then swim at the bottom of it? thank you so much. Annette
I don’t see why not! I haven’t heard of any recent trail closures for the Dark Side. It’s also good to point out that while the trail does lead you to the Nanaimo River, you will not end up on the shore, but rather higher up on top of very large boulders looking down on the river. You will then be required to manoeuvre yourself down these boulders to find a safe access point into the river. I hope that helps.
This hike has been shut down!!
Can you give us a bit more information about this, please? Is the trail shut down due to fire risk? Or is it something else?
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Thank goodness for your update! We were all set to head out there for a Father’s Day surprise hike….
Oh man, I am so glad you read the update before you went! And I’m glad I found the information in time. Hopefully you found an equally awesome place to explore!?
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