Backpacking the North Coast Trail

It's safe to say that the North Coast Trail is my favorite backpacking trek I have done thus far. And while I don't think I can call myself an avid backpacker quite yet, I have still done my fair share of trips, big and small. Last summer was the pinnacle of adventuring, with treks on the North Coast Trail, Cathedral Lakes, and the Rock Wall Trail, and a lot of smaller explorations closer to home. I am going to try my best this year, but I think that will be a hard summer to beat.

I am finally taking some time to fully reflect and share some of these adventures. They were such rewarding experiences, I can't let these memories and photos sit on my camera roll collecting 'dust'. I don't think that my words can do much justice to the truly incredible time Stacy, Kyle, and I shared on this trip, but I'm going to try.

Our Itinerary

Most hikers on this trail start either at the San Josef Bay parking lot via a shuttle or get a water taxi to Shushartie Bay. To make it easier for us (and cheaper), we opted out of doing a through hike and decided to see how far we could hike in, then backtrack out. We drove to the San Josef Bay parking lot and started from there. Our original plan was to try and make it as far as Cape Sutil, but we didn't quite get there.


Day 1: Eric Lake (5km)

Day 2: Laura Creek (19km)

Day 3: Shuttleworth Bight (12km)

Day 4: Shuttleworth Bight

Return Trip

Day 5: Nissen Bight (19km)

Day 6: San Josef Bay (16km)

*km is approximately how far we traversed that day.

In More Detail

Day 1: We began our adventure at 2am with a fifteen-hour drive from home to Cape Scott. Thank you, Stacy, for powering through the whole drive! We began our trek from the southernmost part of the trail (entered from the Cape Scott Provincial Park parking lot) and worked our way northward. After such a long travel time, we spent our first night at Eric Lake, only about 4km into the trail. It is well worth a stay there, with a beautiful rainforest setting, boardwalks going between each campsite, and a lake to relax on.

Day 2: The second day was an exciting one, as we knew we would make it to the ocean. Our first glimpse was at Nissen Bight, a beautiful white sand beach 15km in. Still being early in the day we decided to keep going to the next campsite at Laura Creek. This is when the day turned hard and the euphoria of seeing the ocean slowly dwindled. Being a coastal hike, we assumed we would stay next to the ocean for the majority of it, this was backward thinking. After Nissen Bight, the trail goes inland for about 6km, slowly winding up and over a small mountain. Due to lack of signage (we saw only one sign that was crudely carved into a bouy that said 'NTC this way'... we decided to trust it) we felt confused and lost the whole time. We weren't sure we were going the right way, which made it very difficult to enjoy this part of the trail. It also featured very deep mud which we had to navigate through, slowing us down.

After what felt like an eternity, we finally caught glimpses of the ocean and could hear it through the trees. This is when our confidence rose again that we were in fact, headed the right way. It wasn't long once reaching the coastline again that we made it to Laura Creek. Most of the campsites along the NTC have tent pads nestled back from the ocean in the forest, offering good protection from the elements. At this site, we saw our first black bear. With so much food to gorge himself along the coast, we weren't too worried about him coming into our camp. It was an amazing juxtaposition to see a bear walking along the beach. Not a site we would normally expect.

Day 3: This is when the going really got tough. 14 km of rocky beaches to navigate all day. This part of the trail had the worst terrain, in my opinion. It was a long day of hiking on pebbles, soft eelgrass, and awkwardly sized boulders. The rocks were the perfect size for forming blisters. Just the right size that your foot rolls over them in an awkward way, but there is no way around it. You can't walk over them differently. The other difficult aspect of this stretch of trail is navigating which part of the 'beach' to walk on. This depends largely on if the tide is out or not. For some stretches, there would be a sort of 'shelf' in the rocks where the trail was. The coast fell steeply into the ocean, so it was one step forward and one step back as the rocks shift with your weight. It was a beautiful stretch of coastline but definitely made harder knowing that we would have to experience it again on our way back.

Shuttleworth Bight was the perfect reward after navigating a stony coastline all day. We had an amazing time here with ocean swimming and campfires on the beach. By this point in the trail, my feet were covered with the worst blisters I have ever had. The stony beaches combined with the added weight of a 35lb bag were too much for my feet to handle. Not to mention, even on short overnight backpacking trips, I am prone to blisters. At this point, we had to come to a decision - continue further on the trail or take an extra rest day here and begin our trek back afterward.

It was a hard decision to make, but we decided to take the rest day. We were all feeling pretty sore from the trek anyway, and the thought of being able to just relax and fully enjoy this gorgeous beach was too much to resist. There was also the added danger that if my blisters got worse, would I be able to walk back the 40km we already traversed. We also heard from fellow backpackers who started at the opposite end of the trail that beyond Shuttleworth was the hardest part of the trail. To this day I don't regret the decision to end our trek there at all. However, it has definitely made me want to go back to complete the whole trail.

Day 4: This was just the best darn day. Until the evening we had this stretch of coastline completely to ourselves. We relaxed on the beach. Stacy and I traversed further along the coastline to continue exploring (much easier and far more fun without a pack). We kept going farther and farther because we continuously wanted to see what was around the next bend. It was hard to turn back. I'm fairly sure we could have made it to Cape Sutil quite easily. We fully enjoyed our time here, knowing that the next day we would be heading back.

Day 5: Experiencing things in hindsight. It is interesting backtracking on trails because you experience something completely different the second time around. The coastal stretch from Shuttleworth to Laura Creek felt ten times longer going back. Around each bend of the coastline, I thought we were almost there, but Laura Creek kept alluding us. This is also the only time we encountered a rainstorm our whole trip. We could see the clouds chasing us and quickly stopped to put all our rain gear on. After only a few minutes of a downpour, it had already moved on.

On this day we also went back through the forest stretch of trail. We hated this part the first time through. It was by far our least favorite. Going back, it was one of the most beautiful stretches of the trail. Some parts looked straight out of a Miyazaki film, it felt absolutely surreal. It is amazing how your mindset changes when you don't feel lost anymore.

On this night, we camped at Nissen Bight, a beach we skipped over our second day in order to make more headway. This night was bittersweet as we knew our trip was soon coming to an end. This night, we camped right on the beach just meters from the ocean.

Day 6: Our last day on the trail. I can't say I enjoyed this day too much, as we were headed east away from the coast and my feet hurt with every step. I couldn't wait for the day to be over, but I was also sad to be leaving this trail. Our plan was to get out then find a forestry campsite somewhere near to spend the night before the long journey home the next day. Luckily, near Eric Lake we met a ranger who recommended staying on San Josef Bay, just 1km away from the trailhead. She told us that there were amazing rock formations here, like a smaller version of Fundy Bay, so we had to see it for ourselves. They did not disappoint. It was the perfect way to spend our last night, walking between sea stacks as the sunset and the tide came in.

Why I recommend it

Coastal hiking is such a unique, rewarding experience, completely different from the mountainous alpine hikes I am used to in BC's interior. It comes with its own challenges but is 100% worth persevering through. The amount of wildlife we saw in these 6 days was unbelievable - black bears walking the beaches scavenging for food, humpback whales swimming just meters from shore in front of our campsite, Eagles and Hawks soaring all along the trail. The NCT offers a unique mix of scenery, going from sandy beach walking to traversing the stony shore to navigating lush forests. The different terrain can make it difficult, but it is worth every hardship. You will feel accomplished after completing this one.

It has been almost a year since this trip, and I have gone on a few more backpacking adventures in between, but still, this is the one I think of the most. It was such an amazing journey, where I learned so much about myself and what I am capable of. Seeing BC's coastline in such an intimate way as this was so rewarding and breathtaking. I recommend this trek to anyone who wants to experience a unique adventure that will stay with you for a long time.


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