Flying into south Vancouver Island, on British Columbia’s west coast, I can hardly contain my excitement. When I see the Gulf Islands, the aerial view shows gradual and abrupt dark rock outcrops, where the sea meets the rugged coast, then green beyond and it is then that I am thrilled to be returning to a place of spectacular ocean vistas and ancient moist rainforests.
After our arrival, near Swartz Bay on the Saanich Peninsula, we drive south past Mt. Doug, winding along Ash, Arbutus and Cadboro Bay, past Loon Bay and Cattle Point lookout near Uplands Park, and hugging the east coastline continuing along Beach Drive and Dallas Road into Victoria. The inland harbourfront here is always busy with strollers, horse drawn carriages and adventurers awaiting whale watching tours. It is the meeting place for the Museum, IMAX Theatre, Art Gallery, Fisherman’s Wharf for fresh salmon, the famous Empress Hotel and to see huge thunderbird totem poles. Cycling enthusiasts can bike into town from the north along the Lockside trail and enjoy the scenery rolling through the brilliant floral gardens of Beacon Hill Park without ever having to park.
We usually stay midway up the Saanich peninsula, where hillside gardens, never far from the ocean, display a diverse array of blooms and shrubs indigenous to this temperate coastal zone. These gardens are often grazed by wandering deer, yet charmingly shaded by ancient giants, Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar trees. The west coast’s abundant rainfall and gentle climate, rarely dipping below freezing, supports prolific year-round growth which is evidenced in the age and size of the super tall and extra thick tree trunks. Short hikes eventually lead us downhill to a beach, like the one at the protected Arbutus Cove, whose entrance is shielded by some notable Arbutus trees. Arbutus trees are fascinating, each one uniquely shaped, with fingering and unbalanced branches of rusty smooth and flaky peeling bark.
Sauntering along this beach, I am always drawn to look for jewels, the tiny wave worn coloured stones, and to strategically step over pieces of rubbery smooth sea kelp and giant sun-bleached driftwood logs that are strewn across its breadth. Once we ventured across the length of this cliffside cove at high tide. It required precarious steps over moving slippery timber logs and hand holding through prickly tangles of blackberry bushes, while manoeuvring just above crashing waves on the rock around us. No amount of forethought ever prepares you for the bittersweet awakening of paralysed toes if you get caught in the alluring waves. I wonder how floating gulls, with their little dangling feet, ever survive the cold.
Glencoe Cove is another impressive oceanfront destination, with rugged, uneven headlands and secluded inlets covered with slimy seaweed clumps that cling to the rocks below the tide’s highest mark. Although the undulating walking is more technical on these bluffs, the exposed ocean scenes are magnificent.
Parking at the base of Mount Douglas, you can climb steep or gentle trails leading to the top. The exposed peak affords spectacular panoramic views; east across Haro Strait to San Juan Island, south overlooking Victoria and north west over rolling farmland hills of the Saanich. After the descent back to your car there is an adjacent trail, leading to a long beach below. North on Cordova Bay Road, there are easy hiking locations including Elk Lake or the extensive shoreline of Island View Beach Regional Park which is popular with dog walkers.
Hikers seeking more challenge and remoteness should go northwards up the Saanich Peninsula to the rainforest trails of Mount Work or Gowlland Tod Provincial Park, which overlooks the Finlayson Arm and eastern shore of the Saanich Inlet. These more secluded parks offer trails which are a feast for the senses as you are led through an enchanting environment which has been evolving, in harmony, for millennia. It is a haven where colossal tree trunks play host to lacey runners of ivy that creep up their deeply furrowed bark and most tree branches are encrusted with various kinds of lichens and clinging green moss growth, that hangs in thick clumps or draping shapes. As we step softly, the undergrowth is a cavalcade of greens; every imaginable silhouette of shape, from spacious graciously drooping clusters of ferns to the lower lying waxy evergreen leaves, like Salal, that flow mingling in unison across the forest floor.
On the western side of Victoria, near Langford there are moderate trail loops at the picturesque rocky shored Thetis Lake and up towards the Malahat, the main gateway to going northwards on Vancouver Island, Goldstream Provincial Park has hiking trails for all levels of adventuring. Easy strollers follow the river, to an interpretive nature museum, passing iconic specimens of Western Red Cedar trees that are bordered by hundreds of enormous golden Yellow Arum in spring. There are picturesque treks up the side valley of the Niagara river canyon or challenging uphill scrambles to the peak of Mt. Finlayson. This notch in the sheer rock gorge is a haunt for Bald Eagles year-round, especially during October when the Chum Salmon come upriver to spawn and it is a haven for nature enthusiasts eager to experience the wildlife and flora of this unique environment.
Whether cultivated or wild, near or far from downtown, beside ocean or in a rainforest, there are always memorable trails to explore near Victoria.
WILDERNESS WRITER AND PHOTOGRAPHER CYNTHIA PERCIVAL