Whether you are a beginner or looking for something more advanced, these hiking trails that surround us are the perfect escape!
BY DAVID LENNAM
The pandemic let us rediscover ourselves. And our environment. You couldn’t get your hands on a tent, walking poles or a backpack because we were busy outdoors, socially distancing, riffing on nature’s balm, doing what the Japanese refer to as shinrin-yoku, forest bathing.
And if you think of it like that, we’ve got a pretty full bathtub.
The southern tip of Vancouver Island means being a few steps away from everything: mountains, valleys, beaches, cliffs, caves, canyons, old growth.
Our geography punches above its weight and a little bit under the radar. For all of its varied terrain, and endless opportunities to explore it on foot, we’re not on the world’s top 10 list yet. Yet. Our bounty of reachable landscape exists, primarily, for our own feet to tromp. If you know where to tromp.
Here are a few hikes I’m familiar with. They’re popular and they are perfect day escapes. Some are less than an hour, others a bit longer, but none of these will grip you with the desire to plant a flag, assemble a cairn or eat your pack animals.
Level: Difficult / Length: 4 km
Duration: 1.5 hours / Elevation gain: 410 m
Named after Roderick Finlayson, 19th-century Hudson’s Bay Company officer and one of the founders of Fort Victoria, the mountain presents a relentlessly steep climb, popular on weekends, but worth the effort to gain spectacular views.
Lorrie Carlson races up and down Finlayson a couple of times a week with her dog, Lily.
“It’s been one of my favourite hikes since I moved here in 1999,” she says.
She heard it was one of the toughest so, competitive person that she is, Carlson has been timing herself on the route. Her best time? Just over 28 minutes from the bottom of the stairs in Goldstream Park.
“It’s a challenge for me. Some people run it. I’m definitely not the fastest, that’s for sure,” she says with a laugh.
What makes Finlayson challenging, she explains, is it’s straight up all the way. And there’s a devilish combination of dirt, loose rocks, rock face, some slippery bits, moss and plenty of chances to turn an ankle.
“The wetter it is the slipperier it is,” she cautions. “And it can also get slippery when it’s really dry. You have to be careful.”
It’s not for the flip-flop set. Nor is it a place to drag your toddler. Or yourself, if you’re not prepared.
“You see a lot of people resting on the way up,” she says. “Not everybody makes it to the top. You can start out with good intentions, but it’s a whole lower body burn.”
And heed the words of mountaineer and author Ed Viesturs (who probably never climbed Finlayson but did write No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World’s 14 Highest Peaks): “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”
Level: Moderate / Length: 4 km
Duration: 1 hour / Elevation gain: 86 m
Alex Van Tol prefers the quiet of the loop trail around Metchosin’s Matheson Lake over Thetis, Elk or Mount Doug trails. She hikes it often, experiencing the variety each season offers.
“In winter, when it’s pouring rain, and there’s all these little waterfalls that come down over the path, it makes for spectacular hiking. I’ve gone in rainstorms, and I’ve gone when it’s dry and hot and when it’s full with swimmers. That’s quite fun.”
It usually takes her 60 to 75 minutes with no stops. It is a rapid enough pace to get the heart pumping.
“I like it because it’s not like walking on a road. You’re asking more of your muscles. It’s kind of like cross-training, not quite trail running, but much more dynamic than flat walking. It’s a bit of a cardio boost without actually having to run.”
There is a bit of scrambly rock to navigate, lush forest to soak up, some boardwalk sections and stumps to jump across — and always something new to discover.
“With Matheson, it’s different every time. People wonder about going back to the same trail over and over, but there are no two days that are the same. It’s always changing.”
Van Tol kicks it up by turning off at the west end of the lake, on an old portage route down to Roche Cove. The easy, 7.7-kilometre trail is named for Richard Roche, who served on the Arctic exploring ship HMS Resolute, which was abandoned in ice in 1854.
“It’s so mossy. It’s like something from a Tolkien book. It’s like a different forest every kilometre.”
Jocelyn Hill Trail Loop
Level: Difficult / Length: 8.9 km
Duration: 3 hours / Elevation gain: 438 m
Trish amid the spring wildflowers in the canyon loop
It seems a lot of those who set out to climb Jocelyn Hill in Gowlland Tod Provincial Park never actually reach the top. There’s a deceptive ridge running along the north and west of Saanich inlet down Finlayson Arm, and the views of the Malahat and beyond from the ridge mean you don’t have to bag the peak to feel like you’ve conquered it.
“The climbing is almost over on top of the ridge, and Jocelyn Hill is still another half hour,” says Mark Spencer, who has hiked it a couple of times but admits that maybe he’s one of those who will never reach the summit of Jocelyn Hill.
“There’s two or three viewpoints before you get to the top,” he says. “Once you get up about as high as you’re going to get, and you’re just going along the top of the ridge, there’s one that’s called the Malahat viewpoint, and you’ve got your Squally Reach viewpoint where you can look all the way north up the Inlet to Salt Spring.”
Spencer says he likes that the first 15 minutes is flat and easy. Until it isn’t.
“You’re in the shade. You get into a bit of a walking rhythm until you start climbing up the incline. You go across a creek, you hang a left and you’re going up.”
There are two ways to approach it — from the south via the Caleb Pike trailhead, and from the north through McKenzie Bight along Timberman Trail. The daring will park a car at both ends and do the whole thing.
Or, if you’re Andy Blaine, you’ll find a path even less travelled.
“We found a weird access by accident — the Cal Revelle Nature Sanctuary at the end of Old Mossy Road. It was super quiet. There was nobody there.”
It was still a four-hour loop with plenty of stopping to check the map in an area filled with trails for hikers and mountain bikers.
“There are a lot of junctions. Take a map,” advises Blaine.
Skutz Falls Loop
Level: Moderate / Length: 6.9 km
Duration: 2–3 hours / Elevation gain: 150 m
Just off Highway 18 in Cowichan River Provincial Park lies an impressive canyon loop offering a smorgasbord of hills to raise a sweat, lush forests of maple and fern, Garry oak meadows, Devil’s club glades and an almost bird’s eye view of a surprisingly raging river with kayakers playing in the rapids and anglers casting from the rocks.
“In the springtime, you need to go once every week because the wildflowers are spectacular,” says Trish Letient. “Fawn lilies, camas, tiger lilies — it’s just magical. We go there all the time.”
Trish and her husband, Henri, live nearby in Shawnigan Lake. They often hit the canyon with their two golden labs to burn off some energy.
“We take our guests there,” says Henri. “It’s one of our favourite spots.”
The Letients agree it’s not a difficult trail, but it’s not for walkers, they say.
“You’ve got to be able to hike,” points out Henri. “We’ve taken people on the hike who’ve been huffing and puffing and struggling on the uphill bits.”
And if you’re a dog owner, note there are salmon in the river in the fall. Sometimes dead salmon. “Charlie, this one time, he got into some dead fish,” recounts Henri.
“He rolled in it,” adds Trish, squishing up her nose. Uh, the dog, I presume, not Henri.
Level: Moderate / Length: 4 km
Duration: 2 hours / Elevation gain: 65 m
This writer’s favourite. It’s got everything — a suspension bridge, staircases carved from huge logs, waterfalls, tide pools, caves, ancient rainforest, giant trees and one of the loveliest beaches you’ll ever sit on.
Often muddy, always look-down-or-you’ll-stumble-over-roots, this magical trail, just past Jordan River, is actually the start of the 47-kilometre Juan de Fuca Marine Trail.
Getting there is, literally, only half the fun. You’ll want to spend time on the beach itself. There’s a waterfall you can walk under, sandcastle-diggable sand, and, if you go at the right time, no people.
And it’s a fun hike. Sometimes it’s easy to stray from the trail, but always easy to find it again. (Look for the orange tree markers.) Plus, the sound of the waves pounding the beach reaches up into the forest and lures you down.
Waterproof boots are a must. So is a camera.
Francis/King Regional Park
Level: Easy / Number of trails: 10
Elevation gain: 50 m
There’s probably a great joke about a comedian in a forest. Standup comic Morgan Cranny routinely overcomes his phobia of bears to stroll some of the 11 kilometres of walkable paths in Francis/King, particularly the Elsie King Trail, an 800-metre loop that’s wheelchair accessible over gravel and boardwalks through towering 500-year-old Douglas firs.
“As a trail, it’s about as easy as you can do — a gravel path that goes around a mini peak; okay, it’s not a peak, just a little hill. It’s a great walk if you want to get into the woods but have mobility issues,” says Cranny, perhaps taking heed of one of the ancients, Hippocrates, who described walking as “man’s best medicine.”
“After my partner had her open-heart surgery and was recovering, that was where we walked. Elsie King was just a nice option because some of the trails she wanted to go on were too rigorous.”
Some days the couple veers off and explores a network of forested trails that intersect in this Highlands park, named after the charismatic naturalist Freeman King who encouraged Thomas Francis to deed 168 acres of land to the province in 1960.
“We’ll get there and say, ‘Do you want to go this way today?’ Take a trail we haven’t gone on before,” Cranny says.
Depending on the season, Cranny and his partner find Indian Plum, bigleaf maple, shooting stars, white fawn lilies, Oregon grape, huge ferns and cedars.
And even if the parking lot is full, he says, you don’t tend to run into other hikers because there are so many different trails.
“We do a couple little trails uphill and over rocky terrain … It’s just enough to get a little sweaty and feel like you’ve done something.”
Before you go …
The AllTrails app, is the definitive resource for mapping out your future conquests. Importantly, it allows you to download maps to reference when cell phone coverage gives out.
The Hiking Enthusiasts Vancouver Island Facebook page is ideal for pro tips, finding a hiking buddy, sharing your favourite routes or discovering new ones.
Hiking Trails 1 Southern Vancouver Island, Greater Victoria and Vicinity, 14th Edition (compiled and edited by Gail Harcombe and published by the Vancouver Island Trails Information Society) is a handbook with maps and detailed descriptions of dozens of hikes, how to get to them and what to expect when you’re on them.
The VictoriaTrails.com website offers lots of local trails, maps, a good rating system and a useful how-to-get-there that includes public transit.