don’t hike the North Coast Trail

(the “standard” NCT)

by site editor Rick McCharles

One of the best hikes in the world is the …

North Coast / Cape Scott Trail, Vancouver Island, BC

It’s PARADISE … so why are we NOT recommending it?

Read on …

The NCT is a “backcountry adventure“, not a hike. There’s a reason some groups manage only 1km (.6mi) / hour on some sections.

On the other hand …

Our #1 hike worldwide is the nearby West Coast Trail.

The North Coast Trail is the newest (2008) of the WCT alternatives. An alternative way to spend time in this wild coastal temperate rainforest. It’s billed as “the WCT circa 1970“.

Was the WCT this bad in 1970? … Probably. 😦

STANDARD ROUTE:

• the North Coast Trail is a 43.1km extension to the original Cape Scott Trail. The total hiking distance Shushartie Bay (from water taxi) to San Josef Bay & Cape Scott Trail parking lot is a minimum of 59.5km (37mi).

• the only ways to get to the NCT are by logging road (64km from Port Hardy), water taxi or float plane.

• actually, a few masochists have bushwhacked in to Shushartie from Port Hardy. Dumb idea.

• best hike is to decide as you go where you want to camp. An “open” itinerary. Base your decisions each day on tides, weather and how you feel.

• many do 7 days, 6 nights on the standard NCT trail but — if you — instead — start at the parking lot, any number of days works. If you have serious problems, walk out.

• often you can choose between an inland path or a coastal route. The coast is almost always better. Certainly more scenic.

• the most detailed route report of the STANDARD NCT was posted in Wild Coast (2008) Shusartie to Laura Creek:

1. Shusartie overland (Shusartie to Skinner)
2. The Nahwitti Stretch (Skinner to Cape Sutil)
3. The Sutil Scramble (Cape Sutil to Irony)
4. Christensen Coast (Irony to Laura)
5. Nahwitti Cone (Laura to Nissen)
… walk out via the easy Cape Scott Trail

Though I had a challenging, terrific experience Sept 2012 (see trip report) … my recommendation is NOT to do what I did. Don’t hike the STANDARD NCT (minimum 61km). You can do better on Vancouver Island.

The new trail is extremely difficult where you start in the east. And gets easier as you head west and then south.

The beaches and trails are “better”, too, I felt, in the older western & southern parts of the Park.

Instead of the standard North Coast Trail: water taxi to Shushartie to Cape Scott Trail parking lot, better itineraries are:

• hiking the easier West Coast Trail, instead
• hiking the much easier Juan de Fuca Trail, instead

• or — best of all — hiking the North Coast Trail, differently:
_____

HIKE DIFFERENT – option 1 of 2:

~ start Cape Scott Trail parking lot (getting there by personal vehicle or Shuttle Van) -> hiking as far into the North Coast Trail as you wish -> then backtracking to the parking lot.

That in-and-out hike gives you many, many options. You can decide what you want to do, as you go. Keeners in your group can go further east, while others in your group relax on a favourite beach.

The very worst section, in our opinion, is Skinner – Shushartie. You can stop when you get to Skinner, if the going is rough.

Downside?

Some hikers hate backtracking. No worry, in this case. The Trail looks completely different walking in different directions. It changes, too, with the tide. Trust me — you won’t be bored.

If you don’t have your own vehicle, you’ll somehow have to arrange the Shuttle to come pick you up.
_____

HIKE DIFFERENT – option 2 of 2:

Start at Skinner. Or even Cape Sutil.

… Why doesn’t everyone do that?

“Park Facility Operators” by email:

Shushartie is by far the safest and most reliable place to drop off hikers. It can be reached at all tides by most boats. I completed a survey of the coastline with the Coast Guard and they also recommended keeping Shushartie Bay as the primary access point strictly from a safety perspective. It is also a hardened area that is not negatively impacted by constant boat landings. …

Though more materials for boardwalk has been airdropped alongside the Trail, I heard money had run out. There has been some controversy regarding the funds expended, too.
_____

If I was going again next year, I’d start at the Parking lot. Not Shushartie.

… Are we being too hard on the Skinner – Shushartie slog?

“Park Facility Operators” by email:


It’s unique due to its rare vegetation and tree species, its endangered (and protected) fish and amphibian species and its ability to positively affect the rest of the park’s functioning ecosystem. All rare and unique. These types of ecosystems are often referred to as the lungs of our environment.

“Park Facility Operators” felt that it was very important to represent this ecosystem as part of the hike. It is very unique and like I say, one of the primary reasons this part of the park was created, from a conservation perspective.

Those upland bogs are interesting.

But visiting them requires one day of your life.

WHY WE LIKE THIS HIKE:

• North Coast Trail is like the West Coast Trail without the hassle of getting a “Trail Use Permit”

• west coast of Vancouver Island is fantastic. This truly is one trek that could change your life.

photo by Sam Yeaman

• NCT camping is only C$10/person/night. May to Sept. You can buy backcountry permits online, or pay cash at the trailhead. Honour system.

• no quota on number of hikers (WCT allows only 60/day)

• no reservations needed

• you can hike NCT / Cape Scott year round, weather permitting, while the full WCT is only officially open 5 months a year. (However, the Water Taxi stops running around Sept. 15th each season.)

• gorgeous beach campsites with sunset views. Nel’s Bight beach is 2.4km long and 210m wide at low tide. Sweet.

• some old-growth forest including giant Sitka Spruce & Western Red Cedar

• pretty sea stacks and other fascinating coastal geology

• tidal pools, bogs, riparian areas, …

• good tent pads, far better than on the West Coast Trail

• campfires allowed. Plenty of drift wood.

• chance to see whales & other marine mammals, bald eagles, river and sea otters, mink, deer, elk

photo by Sam Yeaman

• everybody loves Guise Bay & Experiment Bight

• few biting insects on the coast (you will find mosquitoes inland out of the wind)

• possibly a few horseflies inland (not to mention millions of weird, but non-biting, beach hoppers on the coast)

• creek crossings are only an issue when in flood.

• two new cable cars propel you over the only major rivers

• theft and vandalism of parked vehicles is normally no problem at Cape Scott trailhead, San Josef. No parking fee.

• wild (dispersed) camping is allowed

• many set up tents protected within “fortresses” (temporary beach shelters made of drift logs). “Park Facility Operators” asks that you dissemble those, when finished

•  beach-combing is fascinating, look for wreakage from Japan

• the Cultural Heritage of this area is fascinating. Signage explains the history of native peoples and the failed Danish colonies

• you’ll see BEARS and WOLVES in the wild 🙂

CONSIDERATIONS:

• you’ll see BEARS and WOLVES in the wild 😦

• bears and hikers both love: berries, low tide, trails

photo by Sam Yeaman

• it’s MUDDY, … really, really MUDDY

• did we mention it’s MUDDY?

• prepare for slippery rocks, roots and logs. Eyes blinded with rain, you’ll need to scramble up, over and between giant stumps. With a full pack.

• most wear waterproof hiking boot with high gaiters. It’s a gamble to wear anything else — 5-10 water shoes, for example.

• most hikers get blisters. Bring moleskin, or whatever works best for you

• most hikers bring a second pair of footwear for camp

• consider bringing one or two hiking poles. There are many wooden walking sticks to be found in the campsites, as a back-up

• you must scramble fallen trees, steep slippery slopes sometimes assisted by muddy rope

• expect to fall on your face. Most often at a moment when you’re not paying attention to your footing.

• so far “Park Facility Operators” has recorded more injuries on the “cobble beaches” than any other terrain. Slippery boulders can be ankle busters.

• bring a first aid kid. There are 3 Ranger stations, but many parts of the trail are not regularly patrolled. Plan to be self-sufficient in any emergency.

smilewithyourheart – on the road to Cape Scott

• water is a problem in this Park, sources few and far between. By end of season some sources are reduced to a trickle. Or seep. Boil, filter or treat. Collect rain water with a tarp, if you get the chance.

photo by Sam Yeaman

“Park Facility Operators” by email:

Perennial streams on coastal trails, including the NCT, are hard to predict. With such little relief and few lakes to store runoff, it all comes down to recent rain fall. Even the big streams like Nahwitti and Stranby are tidally influenced and are brackish near their mouths. …

• best bring more water carrying capacity / person (perhaps 4 litres / person)

• if you do decide to go, get the only dedicated guidebook

Cape Scott bears

• signage is terrific on the Cape Scott Trail, but minimal on the new NCT. Most hikers are working off the $10 Wild Coast Map

• when the NCT was built, the signage was combined with the Cape Scott Trail for consistency. Makes sense.

• fishing is permitted as per provincial and federal fishing regulations. Nobody was catching anything when we were there.

• leashed dogs allowed — but NOT recommended. There’s a chance they’ll run into wolves. UPDATE – we’ve heard dogs are no longer allowed on the trail.

• no emergency phone. No phone coverage. (Marine radios can be rented from North Coast Trail Shuttle. If you call, evacuation costs about $1000 … IF they can get to you.)

UPDATE from George of North Coast Trail Shuttle:


Only 2 injured hikers picked up in 2012. at no cost, 1 heli 1 coast guard. We picked up 2 on different days that called in to say they were done. 1 pooped 1 mild knee strain. They paid seat price as we were in the area.

We have only had one group pay the charter rate of $1000.00 in 5 years. Most get picked up next morning for discounted rate after we drop off others.

• bring your own satellite phone if you want to maximize safety. VHF radios are going to work. SPOT locators are fairly unreliable, in my opinion.

• sections of the trail are impassable or very difficult at high tide. Check tide tables posted at most official campsites. Get tide tables in advance, as a back-up, in Port Hardy. Jot them down from signs (if posted) in campgrounds, as they may be slightly different

• May to October are the best months

• we like August and early September best of all

• off-season this part of the world is very cold and rainy

• some consider Cape Scott Lighthouse a bit of a letdown. It’s not on the sea.

• rogue waves can knock an inattentive hiker into the sea

• expect torrential rain and wind. You need a good waterproof tent and tie-downs. And clothing for those conditions.

• keep a dry set of clothes in a waterproof bag, for wearing inside the tent

• summer highs around 14C (57F)

• risk of hypothermia

• bring parachute line to hang food from a tree as a back-up, in case you don’t make it to an official campsite, for any reason. There are bears everywhere.

• bear-proof metal food caches are widely available, actually. Near essential in this bear country.

photo by Sam Yeaman

LOGISTICS:

• almost everyone arrives Port Hardy by the only lonely highway. It’s 499km from Victoria, 412km from Vancouver (plus ferry).

• a terrific alternative, would be to arrive or depart by BC Ferry from Prince Rupert. (From Rupert you can catch the Alaska Marine Ferry, something I did once. A superb trip up the Inside Passage.)

• bring stove fuel with you to Port Hardy as stores may be closed

• public transport is convenient
~ one Greyhound bus a day
~ walk a couple of blocks to one of two hostels. There are many hotels, too.
~ walk to the North Coast Trail offices at the Marina, morning of transit

•  both the hostel & North Coast Trail Shuttle will store a small bag for you, while you are gone. Your small bag with CLEAN clothes.

• the city of Port Hardy maintains an updated list of transportation options.

• no reservations are needed to hike the North Coast Trail. But you must book both van shuttle (San Josef) and/or water taxi (Shushartie) in advance. To get a good price you need a number of hikers taking that transport at the same time. North Coast Trail Shuttle rents VHF marine radios too ($50+tax).

You can prepay your $10/night/hiker to North Coast Trail Shuttle, as well. Very convenient.

BEST TREKKING GUIDEBOOKS:

Cape Scott and the North Coast Trail by Maria Bremner (2015)

HIKING TRAILS 3 – Northern Vancouver Island (9 pages) – $31

OTHER RECOMMENDED BOOKS:

• Plants of the West Coast Trail – Collin Varner
• Back Country Bear Basics – David Smith
• A Guide to West Coast Hiking in British Columbia and Washington State – Philip Stone

BEST MAPS:

•  most used map by far is FREE online from Wild Coast. You can get a high quality paper version in Port Hardy. I bought mine for $9.95 from North Coast Trail Shuttle.

• BC Parks – map (PDF)

• National Topographic Series Maps, Scale 1:50,000, Index No.102, Sheets 1/9 and 1/16, cover the Cape Scott area. Available at most map retailers in British Columbia.

BEST VIDEOS:

Cape Scott Park has a Flash-based Virtual Tour. Click around to discover highlights.

Mikecyclone 2012 – HIKING THE NORTH COAST TRAIL

MrPortsider 2012 – Wolf pesters Bear North Coast Trail

GUIDES:

Coastal Bliss – The North Coast Trail and Cape Scott Park
9 days-Strenuous – CDN$1,799 + 12% HST

Sea to Sky – The North Coast Trail and Cape Scott Park
CDN$1799 + 12% HST [Federal Tax]

Wild Isle Adventures

BEST WEBSITES:

After this page, the best links are:

BC Parks – Cape Scott Provincial Park (est. 1973)

BC Parks – Hiking in Cape Scott Provincial Park

North Coast Trail Shuttle

Wild Coast

~ The North Coast Trail by paddle

~ The North Coast Trail versus the West Coast Trail

BC Parks – Bear Safety

BC Parks – Wolf Safety

BC Parks – Park User Fees

Port Hardy Transportation options

Wikipedia – North Coast Trail

Wikipedia – Cape Scott Provincial Park

North Coast Trail Backpacker’s Hostel (Trip Adviser)

C&N Backpackers Port Hardy (Trip Adviser)

There are many hotels & motels in town, all within walking distance.

BEST PHOTOS & TRIP REPORTS:

Wild Coast Magazine – Route details

Cape Scott and the North Coast Trail guidebook  – photos

RichSo’s trip report has fantastic photos

Smile With Your Heart – 2011

Sam Yeaman – North Coast Trail – 2012

Club Tread – North Coast Trail with GPS Waypoints

Jeff Hunt and Bob Wall’s 60k Trail Run – May 10th, 2008 (Opening Day)

David Crerar & 3 others Trail Run – May 2008

Rick McCharles – North Coast Trail photos – 2012

Trees Rocks Dirt – trip report – 2010

Joyce Peralta – North Coast Trail photos – 2009

photo by Sam Yeaman

Leave a comment if you have feedback. Thanks!

But don’t say you weren’t WARNED.

more photos shared by Sam Yeaman

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25 thoughts on “don’t hike the North Coast Trail

  1. Pingback: pursued by wolves on the North Coast Trail « RickMcCharles.com

  2. Great report Rick!
    We do a lot of drops at Nahwitti and Sutil to miss the 1st days overland/mud. After saying this, more hikers..more revenue..= more boardwalk over the muck!
    For emerg. pick up from NCT by Coast Guard or SAR helicopter IF INJURED, bring VHF radio, SAT. phone or SPOT locater.
    Only 2 injured hikers picked up in 2012. at no cost, 1 heli 1 coast guard. We picked up 2 on different days that called in to say they were done. 1 pooped 1 mild knee strain. They paid seat price as we were in the area.
    We have only had one group pay the charter rate of $1000.00 in 5 years. Most get picked up next morning for discounted rate after we drop off others.
    Hope to see you again. george nctrailshuttle

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  4. Pingback: The North Coast Trail | scenes from the trail

  5. I have done that trail in Summer 2012, alone in 3 days….I hated it but I keep the best
    memories and most proud of all the trails I have done in the past 30 years.

  6. I did the WCT with a group this summer. Admittedly the conditions were ideal, but we completed it in 4 days, 3 nights. It was beautiful, but I would like to give the NCT a try. How many days do you think it would take based on the fact we did the WCT in about 45 hours of hiking?

    Thank you for a thorough, insightful post!

  7. When we were up at Cape Scott this summer – Aug. 2014 we noted that there are no dogs allowed on the trial. To many problems with them and the wolves.

  8. I loved hiking the North Coast Trail and all of Cape Scott park. It’s one of a kind. But I’m thankful for this article because it might help keep the masses away. If you’re more comfortable with hiking in a lineup, burger shacks on the trail, and camping with 40 other people in designated areas then the west coast trail is for you. Or maybe try the sea wall in Vancouver. You’re feet will stay dry and you won’t have to worry about spotting any wildlife.

  9. We did the West Coast Trail first week of sept this year, and there is a lot of nice sights, but the majority of the boardwalks are rotted away, and a major slipping hazard. 3 out of 5 in our group broke through board walks. We seemed to get on the trail at the biggest storm of the year, after a long dry spell, so there was water and mud everywhere, campsites were flooded, one large tree had hit a pretty new expensive looking bridge and damaged it’s large steel beams, the deck rocked back and forth as you crossed it, there was tons of mud up to the knees and water flowing down the trail even higher in sections, and a ladder in a new waterfall. There was only a few missing rungs on ladders, and one I found that was ready to pop off if you held it wrong. It was still enjoyable for the most part, very little wildlife sightings, a few mice, 1 eagle, and a few distant whales and seals.

    How would the NCT compare to the WCT in above mentioned conditions?

  10. I followed Rick’s advice and started at the parking lot, hiked into Shuttleworth Bight, then back to the parking lot. Six days, five nights. Even though Rick says that this is the easiest part of the trail, I found it difficult because of all the mud holes. One of the most beautiful places I have ever been, particularly Shuttleworth Bight.
    I think that the solution to the Skinner – Shusharte problem is to build a road to the edge of the park parallel to the Skinner Creek campground, then build a trail from the end of the road to the Skinner Creek campsite. This would eliminate the Skinner – Shusharte section and eliminate the need for a boat charter. Since there would be a road to both ends of the trail, two car parties could provide their own transportation. Getting the road built could be accomplished in the same way that the road to the current parking lot was built – by selling the timber rights to an area located where you want the road to go. The timber company builds the road, harvests the timber, and the road is there, ready to go.

    • That sounds brilliant, Chris.

      Sell the timber rights to that specific area immediately. 🙂

      I just got back from 4 days on the Sunshine Coast Trail. Very little mud in May. But the bugs were TERRIBLE.

  11. Pingback: North Coast Trail – Summer 2014 | Explorington

  12. Very thorough and accurate description of the pros and cons of the hike. Having just returned (with experience on several of the other multi-day, coastal Vancouver Island hikes) this is only for the very experienced and those looking for remoteness and additional challenge particularly if you are pushing the pace. We did complete the hike in 3 days (shushartie to parking lot) averaging 9 hrs. hiking per day taking limited breaks and with the benefit of good tides and weather. Personally, another day or two would have been nice but work commitments required an early finish. No doubt in the future I will revisit but more likely skipping the overland section and following the above recommendations. Of course, you haven`t really hiked the NCT if you haven`t experienced a day or two in the muddy bogs.

  13. Hi Rick, we want to hike the NCT this summer and are thinking of following your advice of starting at the Cape Scott Trail parking lot, hiking in as far as we want and then backtracking. We will be in a rental vehicle, with which you are normally not allowed to use gravel roads. So question one: How bad is the road from Port Hardy to the trail head really?
    I have also read about problems with theft and vandalism on the parking lot and even that bears have vandalised vehicles there (because of food in the car). Do you know anything about that (bear scratch marks are going to be a little bit hard to explain away with the rental company…)? I also read that there is another possibility to park your car at the San Josef Heritage Park Camping, where you can apparently leave your car with Doug for a fee. Maybe this is a better option? Any info would be greatly appreciated.
    Best regards
    Claudia

    • All good questions. I’m not sure on any of them.

      But it seems to me there’s a shuttle to and from the Park from Port Hardy. If so, that might be safer than any of the driving options. You would need to check with locals to find out as those kind of shuttles come and go year to year. Good luck. 🙂

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  15. did this trail in July Absolutely loved it I have learned to hate mud but it was part of the experience Absolutely beautiful country

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