Just two hours outside of the province’s capital, Victoria BC, Port Renfrew couldn’t be any more different. While Victoria is Vancouver Island’s largest city, Port Renfrew is one of the smallest with only around 140 people living there year-round. Where Victoria is a place of urban bustle, stimulation and connection, Port Renfrew is a destination of solitude and disconnect; A chance to unplug from the world and get back to the beat and the rhythm of the ocean and forests of Vancouver Island. Originally, Port Renfrew was inhabited by the Pacheedaht First Nation, with the first of the white settlers arriving in the 1800s, just after the establishment of Fort Victoria. Originally known as Port San Juan, it began its career as a logging town, which remained key to the economy until 1990 when operations were moved to Cowichan Lake. Today, Port Renfrew relies mostly on its tourism and fishing.
To some, the concept of a small destination might seem boring beyond belief, but Port Renfrew has days’ worth of activities to enjoy, with enough beauty to last a lifetime. Think you need a chance to recharge and visit Port Renfrew? Check out all the important things to know, and what you could get up to.
Indigenous Culture and History
Home to the Pacheedaht First Nation, numerous traditional sites reside within Port Renfrew and the surrounding area. Pacheedaht translates as “Children of the Sea Foam,” which is appropriate for their coastal beginning and history. The various village sites are the result of the Pachedaht ancestors, who followed a seasonal round, changing their residence throughout the year in order to make the most of the area’s resources. Their main winter village is the current site of Port Renfrew itself.
The West Coast Trail
Those with shipwrecked sailor and marooned pirate dreams will be intrigued by the famous West Coast Trail. Built in 1907, the trail was originally created to help save shipwreck survivors, who fell victim to the treacherous area known as the Graveyard of the Pacific. It runs from Bamfield, south to its terminus at Port Renfrew. Only a set number of hikers can be on the trail at once, and permits must be purchased for overnighting on the trail. Cutting through forest, beach, bog, old growth, streams, rivers, past waterfalls and up ladders, the hike is challenging and a knowledge of backcountry safety and survival, as well as a decent level of fitness is required. The West Coast Trail is 75km in length, and takes about a week to complete. Find more about it here: www.discovervancouverisland.com/overnight-hikes-by-region/south-island/the-west-coast-trail/
Juan de Fuca Trail
Less of a commitment than the West Coast Trail, the Juan de Fuca Trail is just under 50km long, stretching from China Beach to Botanical Beach near Port Renfrew. The views are similar to that of the Juan de Fuca Trail, with incredible ocean views and towering trees in the coastal temperate rainforest being the main features. Day hikes are available, so be prepared to run into plenty of other hikers on the trail, especially in the summer months. You should also be prepared for a lot of mud and wet camping conditions! It is a rainforest after all. The entire thing typically takes about four days, and despite being shorter than the West Coast Trail, the Juan de Fuca Trail is thought to be just as challenging. The beach endings and views in between, however, make it well worth the adventure. Learn more about it on our Juan de Fuca Trail page.
50 hectares of land is covered with the ancient growth forest known as Avatar Grove. Thanks to the Victoria BC based Ancient Forest Alliance, more and more of the grove is being protected. Across the world, people are beginning to notice, and seek out, this incredible living patch of greenery near Port Renfrew. Boardwalks are being constructed, trees are being saved and Avatar Grove is slowly becoming a name known to hikers as a destination worthy of the trip to Vancouver Island. Its growing popularity for tourists is also partially thanks to what has been claimed as “Canada’s Gnarliest Tree.” The incredible western red cedar is tucked in with hundreds of other old growth trees in the area and measures 37 feet around near its trunk base. It’s title as the gnarliest comes from the massive burl, caused by a harmless fungal infection, that caused the tree to bulge and twist. The largest burl, and the tree’s claim to fame, is 10 feet in diameter. Avatar Grove is a breathtaking place to seek solace in the trees.
Tucked into a BC Forest Recreation Site just 5km outside of Port Renfrew, Fairy Lake is great for a sunny day’s getaway. Sandy beaches reside on its shores and there is a quick 2km loop that runs its way around the lake, taking visitors into the forests beyond. While the trail can get muddy, it’s a great way to take in the scenery and makes the trip out to the lake a full day’s endeavour! Fishermen enjoy taking their time to cast a line and attempt to reel in Dolly Varden char and cutthroat trout. The most famous part of Fairy Lake, however, is a true showing of persistence and survival in nature. From the middle of the lake emerges the tip of a sunken log and sprouting from the top is a single, resilient little fir tree. The plucky Douglas fir has been featured in endless photos and is one of the top reasons visitors flock to this particular lake.
One of the most unique beaches on Vancouver Island and in British Columbia as a whole is now a Provincial Park, located just past Port Renfrew. Botanical Beach is a major marker for both the West Coast and Juan de Fuca Trails, and offers unique hiking opportunities, alongside its major attractions: the intertidal zone and crystal tide pools. The massive array of sea life that call the intertidal zone of Botanical Beach home offer endless fascination for young and adult visitors alike. You can spend as long as the tides will allow exploring the tide pools, and in that time see hundreds of different creatures and plants. Looking out to the ocean, you might even spot passing whales. Sections of Botanical Beach will have you convinced you’re on the moon, as ridges of various geological compounds create an other-world setting. Quartz and shale weave through black basalt, and some of the tide pools look like perfectly circular craters. It is a fascinating place to spend an afternoon.
Fishing is a popular way to spend a day in Port Renfrew, and there are numerous charters to choose from! Heading out from the harbour, you’ll have the opportunity to catch chinook salmon, coho, halibut, ling cod, red snapper and black cod depending on the season. The most popular time to go fishing on Vancouver Island is the summer, as that’s when the largest salmon pass through, and the ocean is the most consistently calm enough to get out and enjoy the full day.
Tall Tree + Song and Surf
Oddly enough, the tiny town of Port Renfrew is home to not one, but two music festivals. One even takes place in the dead of winter! Tall Tree is the summer festival, which usually runs the last week of June/first week of July. Its winter little brother, Song and Surf, takes place in February over the Family Day weekend. Both festivals offer limited tickets, which keeps the festival intimate, and leaves the quiet community of Port Renfrew happy enough to bring people together to enjoy some live music. The venues are cozy and both festivals offer what can only be described as truly west coast. Camping in the forest with post-show beach bonfires, ocean-side “hot tubs,” mountain backdrops, new friends and homegrown Canadian talent are all highlights of what these tiny festivals offer and bring to the edge of Port Renfrew. While Tall Tree is taking a break for 2018, Song and Surf went ahead full swing with fantastic results. If you love live music in venues where you can really feel the atmosphere and get to know the artist, these festivals are a must.
Contributed by: Laurissa Cebryk