Lush, lichen-covered woodlands studded with waterfalls. Tranquil, tree-shaded pathways opening onto wild ocean panoramas. Eagles whirling overhead while towering elk snuffle through the foliage. An easy escape from mainland British Columbia, Vancouver Island is streaked with inviting trails that provide a deeply restorative connection to nature.
With options for hikers of every skill and fitness level, there’s everything here from short wanders to challenging multi-day routes and from life-affirming shoreline treks to backcountry destinations with remote wilderness camping.
Kinsol Trestle Trail
Best easy hike
2km (1.25 miles) round trip, 30 minutes, easy
Vancouver Island’s railroad history has mostly faded into the past. But while its final passenger route closed a few years ago, there’s a great way to reconnect with this heritage on foot – and it’s less than an hour’s drive from Victoria, the island’s biggest city. Tucked into the woodlands of the Cowichan region, the timber-framed Kinsol Trestle bridge curves 187m (614ft) across the Koksilah River at an impressively lofty height of 44m (144ft).
One of the world’s tallest railway trestle bridges, it was closed to trains in 1979. But campaigners ensured its restoration and now it’s used solely by hikers, cyclists and horse-riders. From the south side parking lot, it’s a leisurely stroll to the bridge, where birds-eye views from the deck are dominated by the tree-lined river canyon. You’ll also find information panels illuminating the history of the trains that once trundled here. Popular with families, there’s a network of woodland trails on the other side of the bridge that call for an extended visit.
Wild Pacific Trail
Best shoreline hike
9km (5.6 miles), 2 hours, easy to moderate
Carved into the kind of rugged, ocean-lashed shoreline that defines the island’s tempestuous west coast, Ucluelet’s Wild Pacific Trail was the result of many years of local planning – and a reflection of the fact that hikers had been heading out over the rocks here for decades. It’s vital to be fully aware of the ocean on this trail; it can whip at unsuspecting visitors if you don’t keep an eye on it, especially during winter stormwatching season when even regulars keep a wary eye on the waves.
The extra caution is well worth it for the jaw-dropping array of mist-fingered ocean vistas, expansive sandy beaches and the ever-present backdrop of wind-twisted trees. Bears and cougars call this area home, although few visitors spot them – far more common are sightings of statue-still herons and busy little shorebirds noodling through the seaweed. Curious about the region’s enduring Indigenous heritage? Informational panels along the route tell the rich story of the region’s first locals.
Elk River Trail
Best day hike
22km (13.5 miles) round trip, 10 hours, moderate
Vancouver Island’s must-see wilderness heart, Strathcona Provincial Park – British Columbia’s oldest provincial park – has plenty of enticing hiking routes. But the famously scenic Elk River Trail to Landslide Lake is a greatest hits package of roiling rivers, mirror-calm lakes, ice-capped crags and as-far-as-the-eye-can-see trees that can calm the heartbeat of any visitor. Never considered forest bathing? This is the place to slow down, breathe deeply and give it a try.
Wildlife-wise, deer often visit this trail, while hulkingly impressive Roosevelt elk are rarely far away. Birdlife is also abundant, including Steller’s jays, red-breasted nuthatches and occasional ravens that transmit their deep-throated calls across the park. Need more? Book a stay at the Strathcona Park Lodge and explore the other amazing trails that branch across the region.
West Coast Trail
Best multi-day hike
75km (46.6 miles) one way, 6-9 days, difficult
British Columbia’s top bucket list hike lures legions of wide-eyed outdoorsy-types. They come to dive deeply into a backcountry wilderness route that threads – sometimes precariously – between rugged shorelines and almost impenetrable rainforest. But the West Coast Trail isn’t for everyone. Rough, slippery conditions are typical, there are dozens of ladders plus tricky river crossings to tackle and the weather and ocean often provide extra challenges.
The reward? Feeling intimate with nature’s untamed edges. Typically open from June to September, only a few dozen participants are allowed to start on the trail each day, which means reserving a spot as far ahead as possible is essential. And although hiking only part of the route is perfectly acceptable, the full multiday odyssey is what most serious hikers crave. There are campsites en route and all overnighters must take an orientation session before starting their trek.
San Josef Bay Trail
Best backcountry beach hike
6km (3.7 miles) round trip, 2 hours, easy to moderate
Loved by locals for its vast, astonishingly beautiful white sand beaches, this northern Vancouver Island region is rarely crowded – except for the birds dancing between the seashells on the shoreline. But it’s not all about beaches here. From the logging road parking area, the trail winds under a dense canopy of fern-carpeted forest where occasional remnants of a long-gone Scandinavian pioneer community can be spotted between the trees – including the mossy planks of timber-framed homes almost fully reclaimed by nature.
After an hour on the flat, mostly well-marked trail, the trees suddenly part and hikers emerge blinking onto the edge of one of B.C.’s most scenic bays. The sandy expanse includes teeming tide pools and a clutch of slender sea stacks, each bristling with foliage and perfect for some extended photo attention. Keen to keep going? Plan ahead and aim for a camping-based long weekend in this area by connecting to the more challenging Cape Scott Trail.
Big Tree Trail
Best tree-hugging hike
3km (1.85 miles) round trip, 45 minutes, easy
Tofino is a magnet for Vancouver Island visitors. But while the community has resort-level restaurants, activities and accommodation, it’s also fringed by powerful natural elements – from storm-whipped shorelines to dark rainforest swathes where sasquatch are reputed to roam. The best introduction to this raw and powerful backdrop? A 10-minute water taxi ride to Meares Island, home of some of the province’s oldest and most impressive trees.
The island’s well-marked, mostly wood-planked Big Tree Trail weaves past towering spruce, cedar and hemlock trees. But the star attraction here is the revered Hanging Garden. This gargantuan, craggy-trunked western red cedar has a circumference of more than 18 meters and is said to be around 1500 years old. Its imposing, sentinel-like presence makes most visitors silent with awe.
Elk Falls Trail
Best waterfall hike
2km (miles) round trip, 1 hour, easy
Not to be confused with Strathcona’s similarly-named route, this trail introduces you to Vancouver Island’s surfeit of scenic waterfalls. A five-minute drive from the mid-island city of Campbell River, Elk Falls Provincial Park offers easy-access woodland with several kilometers of well-marked trails, mostly flanked by tall firs and cedars. The most popular route is also one of its shortest: a forest weave from the parking lot that includes a dramatic 25m-high (82ft) waterfall.
Slicing through a steep river canyon, a steel suspension bridge takes visitors over the water for a spray-faced view of the cascading falls. Continue to the other side and follow the signs to Deer Falls, a quieter tumble of water that is framed by flat rocks and a forested shoreline. Summertime swimming is popular in this park – which is ideal if all that hiking has raised your temperature on a hot day.
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