Hiking the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail



In anticipation of my 40th birthday, I scoured the web for fun adventures that I might want to do to celebrate. Knowing that I could only get about two weeks off of work I wanted to cut down on travel time to whichever destination I settled on.  Also, I wanted a physically challenging trip to prove to myself that 40 was just a number and I could still do anything I wanted. I researched hiking down into the part of the Grand Canyon located in the Havasupai Indian Reservation and swimming in the Blue Green Falls. Unfortunately, reservations for that hike ran out far prior to me even thinking about it. Another option I considered was the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island. We have some friends who have hiked it and some friends who have shared their dreams of hiking it so it came pretty well recommended. Unfortunately, I heard if you want to get a reservation in the peak of summer it would behoove you to take a day off of work to be able to constantly refresh your computer screen until you can make your reservation. So I missed the boat on that one. In my research of the West Coast Trail, I came across the Juan de Fuca Trail. This trail is purported to be a wee bit shorter and a smidge easier. It is directly south of the West Coast Trail although the two trails are not connected as the Port of San Juan cuts up between them.  It is also less than half the price and reservations are not required. Scott was pretty jazzed to go backpacking and we both liked the idea of escaping the valley heat for a spell so we set our sights on the Juan de Fuca Trail in late July.

I’d read enough blogs to know that this trail was going to be tough and beautiful. It did not disappoint! We chose to go south to north so that we could get the hardest part of the hike done when we were still fresh. Our hike started with a long descent through a wide-open forest down to Mystic Beach. There were some people still sleeping in their tents when we arrived at the beach.  A charming waterfall poured off the cliff onto the sand and someone had set up a rope swing! We took off our packs and flung ourselves across the beach trusting in the integrity of a stranger’s knots of unknown vintage.

Swinging out over Mystic Beach

The day was beautiful and sunny as we hiked on to our first camping spot. The site we chose on Bear Beach was the most magical place I have ever camped. Rock on Piller Beach it was called. It was all the way at the north end of the Beach and very isolated. We were the only souls that chose to stay there. I think the solitude gave it some of its magic or at least helped it to retain the magic for our whole stay. A few people walked by but they all kept going on to other camping areas. For sure there were more beautiful specific campsites; one site was located in a fern grotto weeping fresh water off the walls with ocean views. I had to peel Scott away from that one. Maybe I shouldn’t have in hindsight but one never knows. My pure motivation was to shorten the next day’s hike which was billed as “most difficult” on the map I had downloaded from the internet. We shaved at least a kilometer off our next day’s hike by pressing on to the north end of the beach. The walk out there was the most meditative hiking I have ever done. I really thought I would hate it because it was a boulder beach. I thought I would be testing and straining my ankle stability the whole way. I would walk that beach every day if I could. The boulders were completely stable (almost) and so well sorted that the steps were predictable enough to trance out on while still being varied enough to force a maintained focus. Also, it was a sunny and windy day so my body felt in perfect stasis. That beach walk is where I will go in savasana to find peace. That beach walk is my happy place.

Bear Beach boulder hiking

When we finally rounded the bend on the beach my breath escaped me. It was so beautiful. The tide was about half way out and the rock-on-pillar was exposed. The sandstone cliff walls at the far north end of the beach were undercut by wave action and covered in vibrant moss. We did yoga on a sun-warmed sandstone slab exposed by the low tide, attempted to capture the magic in photos and communed with an otter family frolicking on the rocks.

Rock on Piller at the north end of Bear Beach
Sandstone cliffs undercut by wave action
Seagrass at Bear Beach

We were exhausted enough after four days of driving and six miles of hiking that we fell asleep early in the night with the deck of cards untouched. Unfortunately, all the creaks in the night woke us around midnight. Deep fog horns, heavy footsteps, sharp water splashes, and insistent critters scratching in the corners of our vestibules magnified the perceived isolation and staved off peace for many hours. The sunrise brought relief and the promise of coffee.

That sunrise also brought a giant day of “most difficult” hiking. Much uppie- downie. Somewhere around the middle of the day a love-lorn tree frog took up residence in my left knee and chirped out in search of a soul mate with every upward step. I was very much feeling like I really did turn forty years old last week. Dang-it! The trail that day gave us suspension bridges, planked boardwalks and oh so many steep root systems to navigate up and down. And up and down and up and down and up and down again… ad infinitum. It is a miracle that neither of us hooked a toe through a root hoop and ended up ass over tea kettle, face down in the gritty mud. A note on the mud: it was the best mud you could hope for. The parent material was sandstone with just enough forest duff added to make a thick but not slick slop. The Juan de Fuca had the best mud…and a lot of it. We were warned that there would be a ton of muddy stretches and at first, there weren’t… then there were. At first, I was ironically saying that the trail was super muddy. Then I was literally saying that the trail was super muddy. Anyhow, I’m afraid that horny little tree frog is quite happy living in my knee for the long haul.

Just a little mud
Idyllic water stop
Scott exploring a side creek
Steeper sections had rope assists
Swaths of equisetum lined the trail
Uh-oh! I guess we’ll have to turn back…
The yellow flag is to warn us that the trail is rough

That “most difficult” day dropped us off on Chin Beach. We were late to the party as far a campsite selection was concerned. So we were stuck with a site spaciously sandwiched between the water source and the bathroom. Things could be worse for certain. We rehydrated split pea soup and added the last of the cashew curry kale chips (kale dust) to give the soup some added character. So delicious! Thankfully our exhaustion from all the uppie downie and the sense of security offered by neighbors in the proximity lead to an actual sound nights sleep, again with the playing cards untouched.

The gateway to Chin Beach
Nothing better than fluffy socks and pea soup after a “most difficult” hike!
Sheltered shelter

The next morning started with coffee (of course) and oatmeal with freeze-dried blueberries and raspberries. It also started with an amazing feat of balance on my part. The first log I stepped on was a mover! Right, left, right, left, right, left, jump and stick the landing! This day was billed on the map as “difficult” for the first half and it was. Especially after the beating we gave ourselves on day two.

The turnbuckles were no joke
The trail widened to follow an old road for a while. It was the first time I have ever backpacked holding hands. <3
The trail is so monotonous I’m stifling a yawn! 😉

Other trekkers heading the opposite direction warned us about the mud on this section. Yes! I love an excuse to don my badass gaiters! The trail did provide legitimate mud to navigate. We got heckled by a day hiker who accused us of taking the “finesse route” as we navigated the muddy sections trying not to inundate our boots. I got pretty good at reading the mud by midday. If you could see sand pooled in the bottom of the footprints then it would likely not sink. Standing water was a big no go. It was the in-between mud that would get you. I was really amazed by the amount of stability afforded by the slightest bit of vegetation laid upon the mud, one equisetum stalk would keep my whole person afloat.

Unavoidable mud
A peaceful bay with a tiny beach and pretty waterfall

At midday, we reached Sombrio Beach and took a much-needed rest. I was getting sloppy with my form and feeling super ready to stop. We stepped over a little stream and parked our bottoms on the first available stretch of sand. We heard stories of our heckler making a kamikaze leap off the cliff onto the sand, and set about making some coffees! We watched a seal eviscerate its lunch… if only we caught that on video; we could all lose our lunches repeatedly! As we sipped our covefefe and munched on our trail mix a fellow northbound hiker from  Germany cruised by with a local Vancouver Islandite headed toward a waterfall upstream from our little stream. When she returned she recommended the jaunt heartily. We were a bit reticent to hike any more than we needed to get the job done but she promised that it was only two minutes so we gave it a go. So worth it! The creek was quickly enshrouded by a slot canyon and soon produced a most beautiful waterfall. There was a sign requesting respect as it is a sacred site to the First Nations of Canada. It is no wonder that the site is sacred. A very powerful place. Visiting that fall was more rejuvenating than the covefefe.

Afternoon coffee break on Sombrio Beach
Moss covered slot canyon leading to a beautiful waterfall

When we exited the falls we discovered that my hydration pouch had sprung a leak. This was a mixed blessing. It brought me relief to know that my butt was not sweating profusely which I had originally thought was the source of the damp sand under my seat. It brought me the lightness that comes with not having 70 ounces of water strapped to my back. The only real downside was that my other water bottle was in a side pocket that was covered by the rain shield protecting my pack so hydration was less convenient. No biggie. After our lunch break on Sombrio Beach, the trail changed to “moderate.” I liked “moderate” very much.

More boulder hiking!
The saddest attempt of a ballet plie ever recorded on the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail

We hiked on and up toward Little Kuitche Creek for our next campsite. We knew we were close when the unmistakable aroma of vault toilets greeted us like an old friend. We were the last to arrive again. Better late than never. We cooked up our last supper of black bean soup high up on a bluff in the forest. The trees blocked out most of the light putting the campsite in a perpetual state of twilight only punctuated by the darkness of night. We definitely had company in the trees while we ate. We heard something sizable shuffle quickly down a tree and off into the surrounding forest adding drama to dinner. Obviously, I lived to be writing this now so whatever it was it wasn’t interested in me. For the rest of the time we were at that forest site Scott and I employed the buddy system.

The dark forest camp at Little Kuitche Creek
Practicing our Blue Steel looks while we wait for water to boil

Our final day on the trail came with a sense of urgency because we had a shuttle to catch in Port Renfrew. Being the last to arrive at camp is one thing but missing the bus was something we didn’t want to deal with. Plus I was hoping to make it in time to have a cold beer at the pub to cap off the adventure. To this end, I set an alarm to go off at 5:30 and another one at 6:00 with the hopes that we would be on the trail by 7:00 am sharp. We were awakened a few times by the rain beating on the fly. I checked to make sure that my pack wasn’t sitting in a puddle of water and slept the majority of the night peacefully. We skipped out on morning oatmeal took our coffee to go to save time and managed to be hiking by 7:30. Not bad for us!

That smile on my face is directly linked to the coffee in my mug!

Another “moderate” day on the trail. A couple miles longer than we were used to so we made a point of boogieing. The rain made the mud muddier and I eventually forwent rain gear all together. I just sweat under there. Scott runs colder than me and spent the entire day fully bundled. I was down to a tank top within the first hour. The trail was mostly through early successional forest. Masses of salal crowded the trail coating us with rainwater. Around mid-morning the trail dipped down to the beach showing us the rocky expanse of low tide. We took some pictures and moved on. A few hundred more feet of muddy root-strewn trail brought us back to the beach.

The shore is beckoning
I’m pretty much over the steep root laden mud trail

This time we decided to go off trail and walk on the sandstone conglomerate for a while to give ourselves a break from the slippery wet precision hiking. The map showed the trail dipping back down again not too far away so it seemed like a low-risk adventure. The beach walking was different but not easy by any means. Freshwater running off the forest was pouring over the sandstone collecting in what I called toadpools. They were like tide pools but had little tadpoles in them. Unfortunately, the freshwater encouraged algae that made the walking precarious and slick at times. Also, the stone was not uniform. There were steep drop-offs to contend with. In short time we thought it a good idea to get back on the trail proper and started looking in earnest for the buoys that mark exit points from the beach. That is when we looked behind us and saw a mama bear and two cubs foraging in the tide pools headed in our direction; right about where we had first popped onto the beach for some photos. They were pretty far off so we didn’t feel in immediate danger but still wanted to get off the beach with a quickness. We spotted a buoy and high tailed it to the trail passing fresh bear poop along the way. I never felt happier to be on that steep, muddy, root-strewn trail! Feeling the thrill of our not so near bear encounter we hiked along with a new pep in our step. About a hundred feet further down the trail, we came to a vista point overlooking the beach we had just escaped. On that beach was a second mama bear with one cub headed in the direction we just came from! We had been flanked by mama bears! Not a good place to be at all! We got some photos of the bears and headed down the trail with even more pep in our step!

Mama bear and baby bear bearing around like bears do

The rest of the hike was fairly uneventful (thankfully) and the terrain remained blessedly “moderate.” The final loop around Botanical Beach was “easy” and seemed like a little mini version of the trail. It had forests, beaches, stairs, planks, and of course the ubiquitous mud.

Boardwalks are nice, the world needs more boardwalks
Giant driftwood beach
Raindrops caught on the beach flora
Now that I have sat down I’m not sure I can rise again
We made it to Botanical Beach!

Having completed the Juan de Fuca trail proper my mind was trained on the moment I could take off my boots, put on my fluffiest socks with my camp shoes and have a frosty beverage while sitting on a padded chair. The 2.5 km on the pavement was definitely not the longest stretch of the hiking but it sure felt long. The easy redundancy of terrain freed my mind to focus on things like my aching feet and bruised shoulders. And my stinkiness! The Port Renfrew Hotel coming into view was a sight for sore feet for sure! A tall Sombrio Session Ale and a fresh fish and chips set me straight!

This little jaunt was not factored into the total km…
We joined our fellow hikers at the Port Renfrew Hotel for grub and brews

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