Port Renfrew // Nanaimo // Port Alberni

As seems to be our custom, we decided to avoid the main highway to begin our trip. We had heard great things about Port Renfrew, one local even comparing it to what Tofino was ten years ago. It piqued our interest that it was off the beaten tourist track and we went on our way. The #14 highway is a winding narrow route that follows the Juan de Fuca Trail and southern coastline. There are a few campsites and views of the ocean along the way but mostly it was bordered by overgrowth and private residences. Before long we stopped at a pebble beach called French Beach, where you could hear the ocean waves as they receded, sucking pebbles back with them as they went. We had been hoping to also stop at Sombrio Beach but the access road was closed due to construction.

Getting into Port Renfrew, we could see just what the local meant by off the beaten tourist track. A very small town in a beautiful setting, it is a wonder why more people don’t visit it. We decided to explore in the car and passed a cool looking cafe, the Coastal Kitchen Cafe. If we hadn’t packed our own lunches previously I’m sure we would have visited. We continued along Cerantes Road until reaching Botanical Beach Provincial Park and the Juan de Fuca Trailhead. Following the Botanical Beach Loop Trail we discovered a rugged, rocky coastline that was free to explore and enjoy. 

Another place we had heard about was Avatar Grove, an old growth forest located near Port Renfrew. Naturally, it was on our list of things to visit. Avatar Grove is far less known than the highly famed, Cathedral Grove. To get to the Avatar Grove trailhead we found these directions. Following them precisely brings you to the easy to recognize trailhead. When we arrived there were two other vehicles, a luxury compared to Cathedral Grove. It plainly states on the governing website of Avatar Grove (run by the Ancient Forest Alliance) that the trail is not boardwalk and can be very rough in places. While we didn’t encounter any serious trouble, there were sections that took a second or two to find the trail. My personal favourite was the burly Cedar Tree (the photo close to the bottom where I am reaching out to touch it). Absolutely massive, it was so big that another full-grown tree was growing out of it (seen in the one below that one).

Moving on to the shorter, one-way Upper trail,  we made it to Canada’s (unofficial) gnarliest tree. While a behemoth for sure, we both wondered whether the burly Cedar in the lower loop was actually a bit gnarlier. Regardless, if you’re ever in the area, we suggest visiting Avatar Grove.

After making it to Nanaimo, we decided to take it easy for a day. We ended up heading to the Visitor Centre looking for something to do in town. The teen working the counter recommended the Mount Benson hike, reassuring us that we wouldn’t find it too much of a challenge,  and that he and his friends made it to the top in little over an hour. With his words in mind we both opted to not wear hiking boots, not change out of our day clothes for something more appropriate, and not bring both water bottles (hi Jasmine!). After about ten minutes of uphill battling we realized our mistake. I imagined the boy back at the Visitor Centre, laughing at us for being so stupid. We had already passed several people and decided to press on. While a great hike, being prepared would have made it all the more enjoyable. The trail did not switchback once. Rather, it kept going forging straight up the hill, requiring you to pull yourself up over ledges many times. Luckily, the view from the top was well worth the struggle.

After another night in Nanaimo we left for Port Alberni. Along the way is the famous Cathedral Grove. It was exactly how I imagined it to be – an incredibly beautiful but touristy place. One man even decided to setup a lawn chair with a 6 pack of beers and people watch. With the parking lots on either side filled, cars lined the road and we found a spot by an access road without blocking the entrance. Once you entered the trails (there is a trail on each side of the road) the crowds thinned out a little. The trees were ancient and the day perfect. Sunlight shone into the forest through the treetops, providing wonderful lighting for many of our photos. My photo favourite being the second from last below, of the little lake through the branches.

We made our way to the other side of the street to where the oldest tree in the grove stands, at 800 years old. It was too enormous to even get a good photo, but we had a friendly woman snap one of us standing in front of it. We decided to explore some of the small paths off the main trail and discovered a river. Children and families were snacking on its shores and we stopped for a photo op before heading back on the highway to Port Alberni.

On the outskirts of Port Alberni you will find the Visitor Centre. Here we had a great talk with the girl working, who pointed us in the direction of the “Hole in the Wall” and a swimming hole. Not really knowing what to expect I threw on my bathing suit just in case the water was suitable. It turned out to be a serene little spot with not a person around. We had it all to ourselves and snacked on a baguette with cheese. We both decided to jump in for a quick swim afterwards. The water was absolutely frigid but refreshing. I would love to go back in the height of summer, although I’m sure it would be much, much busier.

After our swim we continued on the hike towards the Hole in the Wall and found out what it was. A literal hole in a rock wall. They had decided to help the river by blowing through the rock and created this cool little area. This place was a lot busier with children and families frolicking around in the shallow water. The rest of our day was spent feasting on clams and oyster buckets at the famous Clam Bucket. Thanks Bob and Judy for the recommendation!

The next day we drove into town to the Harbour Quay. Here you’ll find some great views of the harbour and quirky shops and stores. Of notable mention was The Donut Shop: Best Donuts in Canada (they were exceptional) and the Cod Father, a fish market. You can also get some tasty fish and chips from Turtle Island Fish and Chips!

Having the entire afternoon to spend in Port Alberni, we headed to Stamp River Provincial Park for a hike and to see the fish ladder there. Fish ladders help salmon and other species over difficult parts of the river. The fish ladder that is part of the Stamp River gets very busy over the fall. Thousands upon thousands of salmon make the trip up the ladder from late August all the way through December. People come from all over to visit the ladder at this time, watching bears prey upon the jumping salmon.

We followed the trail as far as we could and peered down into the pool below the ladder, seeing many baby fish. After getting back to the car we decided to checkout the campground that is part of the Provincial Park. Seeing just how nice it was we decided to stay the night.

We grabbed a riverside spot and having much of the afternoon left, set out on a hiking trail going the opposite way, upstream. Along the way we found a rock beach and both dipped into the river. The current was incredibly strong where we were. I found a couple good rocks and let my feet go, holding on comfortably. It was quite the rush.

That night we slept well, with the sound of the river encouraging us to rest. That campground went in the books as one of the better ones we’ve been at.

We woke up to find another hot and sunny Port Alberni day (something not very uncommon) and left for Ucluelet and our 4-day sea kayak trip through the Broken Group Islands. More on that from Jasmine in our next post!.

Adios for now!

Aaron

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