Cape Scott Provincial Park is relatively flat, with a good trail system. Hiking trails within the park lead off to the Cape Scott Light Station, Hansen’s Lagoon, and to a several outstanding beaches. The addition in 2008 of the North Coast Trail has opened up a number of other spectacular beaches, shoreline features, and upland ecosystems that are hardly seen anywhere else in the world. Getting through this new trail is difficult, however, adding a new challenging hike to British Columbia’s coastal hiking network.
Several features make the trail difficult and the travel relatively slow. Much of the trail is fraught with condition dependent spots, each spot depending on whether it is raining, or whether the tide is in or out. And of course, transportation to and from the trail has its challenges, as well.
If you are starting from the east end of the trail, at Shushartie Bay, you will need to be taken in by water taxi from Port Hardy. This can be a bit pricey, and currently runs at about $110 per person for 3 people. The price goes down for more people, but expect about $100 each. The way out is another matter. The Cape Scott Water Taxi and Marine Services has combined with the North Coast Trail Shuttle to provide transportation both in and out, trailhead to trailhead. This makes it easier to plan a complete hike through all of Cape Scott Park now.
The first leg of the hike out of Shushartie Bay heads immediately up. So the first struggle is uphill, pulling up with a rope to get onto a plateau. The climb from there is pretty steady up to a larger plateau with coastal bog terrain. This area is quite remarkable. There is one section of the West Coast Trail that is particularly similar, but not a lot of it. A fair section of the bog is protected by boardwalk. The boardwalks are new, so they are level and good, but that does not prevent them from being extremely slippery when wet. The hiking pace must slow down on the boardwalk to prevent slips and falls. This is not a bad thing. So much of the bog is small in size, including the trees. A slower pace means more attention goes to the scenery and appreciating the incredible diversity of life there. The upland bog shows up throughout most of the rest of the hike from time to time, but the first day is full of it.
The upland trails contain some deadfall trees that have to be climbed over or through, but also vast arrays of root systems that have to be negotiated. These root systems provide some footing opportunities, but are also usually slippery. Climbing up and over some of these systems can be strenuous and slow. Careful foot placement and a properly adjusted backpack are absolute essentials for travelling over these obstacles. The benefits are travelling through sections of old growth cedar, hemlock, and sitka spruce. The trees are magnificent and the birdsong coming from them is like a serenade. Many aeries are atop tall trees, indicating how high the eagle population is in this area.
After the upland trail on the first leg come creek crossings and beach travel. The creek crossings can be challenging because of swift water. At the end of the day, it is often too time consuming to take off boots and wade across the rivers, but doing so helps prevent the problems of wet feet and wet boots. There are two challenges to beach travel.
The first beach travel problem is the speed and effort to walk on a beach. Some of the beaches are sandy, some are cobblestone. With either type, the footing is somewhat soft and the travel can slow down a bit. It is very tiring to walk on the beach, but psychologically it is great. You can see how far you are travelling and tell you are making progress. Cobblestones can be quite difficult, especially on sloped beaches. Many of the middle beaches on the North Coast Trail are cobblestone. The way between Cape Sutil and Shuttleworth Bight has a large section of cobblestone beaches, and it is called the Sutil Scramble.
The next obstacle has to do with the tides. The tides complicate two things. Some spots are impassable at high tides, so timing is important. This means that you need to have the tide tables with you and be able to interpret them. Some places have upland work arounds to pass these tide dependent spots, some do not. A good section of the Sutil Scramble is walking over pocket beaches and getting around the headlands between them. Some walk arounds take steep, rope scramble courses up and over narrow divides, then back down on ropes again. Low tide walks around the headlands speed things up considerably. Intermediate tides mean judging whether climbing the rocks at the edge of the headlands will be faster and safer than taking the walk-around trail. The really amazing part of this area, particularly on the Sutil Scramble, it the intimate look at sea stacks, sea caves, and tide pools while moving around the headlands.
Parts of the forest trails are old settler routes and have been lined underneath with logs, creating a corduroy effect. The corduroy can be slippery and in places where it is completely rotten, big mud holes dot the trail. Generally, straight through the mud hole is the best way, but sometimes one has a deeper meaning to it, i.e., you are going to sink to your knees. The history here is fascinating and a good study beforehand or with a guide along can help you appreciate the challenges that the early settlers had in trying to carve out homesteads in this wild place.
At the end of the day, after 7 to 9 kilometers of travel, you really feel like you have been somewhere. It is not exactly bushwacking, but not far from it. The ruggedness of the trail is exhausting; the beauty of the scenery is exhilarating; and the abundance of life is awe-inspiring here on this boundary of land and ocean. After the North Coast Trail, Cape Scott’s trails are easy and the visit to the light station over the sand neck at Guise Bay and Experiment Bight caps off the journey with another sense of beauty and wonder.