The North Coast Trail (NCT), located in Cape Scott Provincial Park, is one of Vancouver Island’s most challenging multi-day hikes. It traverses the northern tip of Vancouver Island, crisscrossing through old growth coastal rainforest, upland bog, expansive white sand beaches and around culturally significant historical relics. The North Coast Trail is a rugged 58 km trek that is usually completed over the span of 4-7 days.
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The NCT begins at Shushartie Bay and concludes (officially) at Nissen Bight. However, you must continue on The Cape Scott Trail, for another 15.0km in order to exit the Park. The entire journey is 58.0km in length.
One of the main draws for visitors to the trail is the opportunity for wildlife sightings. It is not uncommon to see humongous whales close to shore and if you’re lucky, Sandhill Cranes, Deer, Roosevelt Elk, Seals, Sea Lions and cute Martens. Because of the trail’s remoteness, you’re likely to enjoy these moments of wonder in solitude, as few people hike the trail.
There are seven campsites scattered along the trail to break up your hike. Each of these campsites have food caches, pit toilets and are close to sources of fresh drinking water (although remember to bring a purifier or a filter!). Campfires are permitted on the beach year-round, unless there is a closure for a fire ban. Make sure you bring your wet weather gear, when it rains it pours here, and mud up to the knee isn’t an uncommon sight!
How do I get there?
The North Coast Trail is located at the very northern tip of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. To get to the hike, you will have to either drive, take the North Island Express or fly from down island to get to Port Hardy. Visit the Cape Scott website for detailed instructions on how to get to the town. Port Hardy is a town of just over 4,000 and is home to the North Coast Trail Hostel, an affordable accommodation option to consider the night before and after doing the hike. From Port Hardy, the North Coast Trail Shuttle offers drop off water taxi and pick up shuttle service to the beginning and end of the trail. They run the shuttle service from April 15 – Sept 15 with frequency according to bookings. Their standard drop off rate is $100 per person for a minimum group size of 4, and $80 per person for the shuttle bus back to Port Hardy. Be sure to call in advance for full schedule details.
When do I go?
The optimal time to visit is late spring and summer, from early May to the end of September. This is when the trail is usually drier and the weather is at its most comfortable for long days of hiking. As well, staff are stationed on the trail during these months ensuring that windfall from the winter is removed and that the excess vegetation gets brushed back. Believe us – this trail needs it!
The North Coast Trail Shuttle, which offers boat transfers to Shushartie Bay and pick up from the Cape Scott Trailhead operates April 15 to Sept 15. Outside of these dates, transport must be arranged on an individual basis, which can come at a higher cost, but can also offer more solitude, if that’s what you’re after.
What should I bring?
It’s critical to pack for the unpredictable, wet and windy climate in the area. Remembering all your wet weather gear, an extra lighter/matches, some fire-starters and dry socks will make a world of difference in morale. Although summertime is usually quite sunny and pleasant, it is hard to predict when the weather on the North Island will deliver a heavy dose of wind and showers. Be prepared. The local staff at Cape Scott Park have put together a helpful checklist of what to pack.
There is no cell phone service in the park, so some hikers do choose to bring an InReach or satellite phone. The North Coast Trail Shuttle does rent marine radios, and the Coast Guard stationed at Cape Scott regularly scans the Marine 16 emergency frequency. However, we do not recommend that you depend on this in case of an emergency.
What is the route like?
As its name suggests, the route hugs the north coast of Vancouver Island. It is muddy, there is a lot of beach to cover and it is beautiful beyond belief. The stark contrast in the landscape as you travel inland, across rivers and along the beach is breathtaking. There are portions of the trail that are treacherous and will challenge you both mentally and physically. However, the vast untouched wilderness that surrounds you will encourage you to keep going. There are few people who make it to this part of the world, and you will be rewarded by the advantages that its isolation brings.
Where do I camp?
Along the trail there are six campsites, plus another four on the Cape Scott Trail, which connects to the end of the hike. They are spread across its 58.0km to offer hikers a place to camp at natural resting intervals. All sites feature pit toilets and bear caches. They are:
Shushartie Bay- 0.0km
The first section of the trail is the Shushartie Overland portion. Most people will say this is the most difficult and slow moving. Despite being only 9.0km in length, it will often take hikers 5- 8 hours to complete as it is often muddy and treacherous. While completing this section, you are mostly inland, which means you will be passing through the upland bog. This rare ecosystem was one of the reasons Cape Scott Park was created and protected. It houses many endemic species of flora and fauna including Sandhill Crane.
Skinner Creek – 9.0km
The campsite at Skinner Creek is a simple clearing on the west side of the creek, which is a drinking water source if you have a filter. Many hikers choose to continue on to Nahwitti River if the tide is low, as this section should not be crossed at high tide. Be sure to check tides before you go.
Nahwitti River- 12.0km
The Nahwitti River campsite is reached by a cable car crossing, which makes for a cool trip across the river! The campsite is set just back from the trail, nestled into the surrounding old-growth forest with the river nearby as a water source. Make sure you walk a hundred meters or so upstream as the lower reaches of the river are brackish.
Cape Sutil- 17.0km
Cape Sutil is one of the most picturesque beaches on the North Coast Trail. It is the northernmost point of Vancouver Island, jetting out of the coast to offer panoramic views. Here you will find ample space for beach camping and a small yurt where Parks staff live during the season while maintaining the trail. If staying at Cape Sutil during the summer, it is important to be aware that the water source at the beach can sometimes be dry, but there is a trail a bit further to a reliable source. Or, pack extra water if you are concerned about finding the source.
Shuttleworth Bight/Irony Creek Campsite – 24.3km
Camping is recommended at Shuttleworth Bight- a long, stunning white sand beach that stretches out in front of the open ocean. There are a few campsites set back in the forest if the wind is a problem. There is a water source at this camping area, but again we recommend walking a hundred meters or so upstream.
Laura Creek – 36.0km
Shortly after leaving the Irony Creek campsite, you will encounter the second cable car to cross the Strandby River. Beyond that, you can expect to see a lot of coastline as this stretch is predominantly beach walk! You’ll pass pocket beaches, sea stacks and hike alongside oceanfront coastal rainforest- enjoy the serenity! The campsite at Laura Creek is set just back from the ocean, with several tent pads dispersed amongst a lightly forested area of the trail.
Nissen Bight – 41.3km
The section between Laura Creek and Nissen Bight heads inland and features many boardwalks and bridges. It is not as strenuous as the past sections but can be difficult and is the final stretch of the North Coast Trail! If you choose to camp at Nissen Bight, there is lots of space for beach camping and plenty of tide pools full of intertidal life to check out. Otherwise, many hikers will continue on to Nels Bight if they plan on visiting the Cape Scott Lighthouse. At Nels Bight there are staff stationed at a large cabin about halfway down the beach. As this area is more popular with campers, there are three outhouses and several bear caches placed along this long 2.5km beach! If you are short on time, you can continue out to the San Josef Bay Trailhead, which is where North Coast Trail Shuttle does its pickups at 1 pm.
Fisherman’s River – 49.0km
Fisherman’s River is a small campsite with only 2 tent pads set amongst the trees about halfway between the end of the North Coast Trail and the pick-up point. It is next to a large stream that can be used as a drinking water source (with a filter).
Eric Lake – 54.0km
Eric Lake campsite is a large collection of tent pads set amongst a zigzag of boardwalks in a clearing in the forest. It is next to Eric Lake, which makes it a mosquito haven in summer months. You’ve been warned! Most hikers will continue on to spend their last night at San Josef Bay, or head back to the trailhead. San Josef Bay is technically an additional kilometre in the wrong direction, however, it is a worthwhile detour. The expansive white sand beach features many sea stacks with protruding evergreen trees, caves and tons of beach camping. It is one of the most popular spots in the Park, so expect to see many people here.
Do I need a reservation? How do I pay for my camping fees?
Unlike the West Coast Trail, the North Coast Trail is open to hikers without a reservation. The trail is just starting to get popular on Vancouver Island, so you can literally show up at the trailhead on the day of your hike and get started. Just make sure you have your shuttle booked ahead of time! The season opens May 1, but backcountry permits can be purchased up to a year in advance on the BC Parks Discover Camping website. Backcountry permits allow you to camp at the designated camping spots along the trail at a cost of $10 per person per night.
Enjoy your travels!