Boardwalking Bamfield and Pachena Bay
I was lucky enough to get to go on quite a few getaways this summer. One of my favourites was heading off to the west coast of the island to stay on the beautiful Pachena Bay, which is just a couple of kilometres outside of Bamfield.
I will be upfront, the trip to Bamfield from Victoria is not for everyone. There are two routes, one via Port Alberni and one via Lake Cowichan, neither is easy. I have never taken the Port Alberni route, but I have heard that it is preferred for those that want to maximise their time on a paved road. The Lake Cowichan route takes anywhere from four to six hours from Victoria depending on your vehicle and your comfort on backroads.
To break up the journey and allow for some lake swimming, we spent a couple of days camping at Nixon Creek on Lake Cowichan. That forestry campground is about 20 kilometres down the unpaved part of South Shore Road. The rest of the journey from Lake Cowichan to Bamfield is approximately another 90 kilometres. I know it doesn’t sound too far, but it is a long slow trek. When we went, North Shore Road was closed and there was a bypass to get on the road that takes you to the Nitinat Lake junction. From there you turn north crossing a very cool one lane bridge. A little past the bridge you actually hit a paved section, however it is in worse shape in some ways than the gravel road. The pavement takes you to the old site of Franklin Camp, once a thriving forestry town, now just a dusty field. From Franklin, you get onto the Bamfield road and this road is slow going in a car. Perhaps in a truck you can cruise down it a little faster. After almost an hour on the last part of road we pulled into our campground, though one of my tires was looking a little flatter. (Luckily you can tires repaired at Breakers Marine in Bamfield).
We were camping at Pachena Bay Campground which is run by the Huu-ay-aht First Nation. It is a truly beautiful campground and it has been significantly upgraded since my last trip there. Of course, the magical part of Pachena Bay is the beach. With a very narrow opening to the Pacific Ocean, Pachena Bay is both calmer and warmer than other west coast beaches, such as those in Tofino. Pachena Bay also has a beautiful fine light coloured sand that is great for walking on. Likely due to the significant challenge in getting to the area, the beach never seems too busy. It is pretty easy, especially on a warm summer day, to spend many hours just playing in the waves and sitting on the beach.
The small town of Bamfield is about a ten minute drive from the Pachena Bay campground. Bamfield is split into East and West Bamfield by a narrow inlet. West Bamfield doesn’t have a road over to it and the only way to move between the two parts of town is by boat.
East Bamfield has a small grocery store, cafe, pub, motel and marine repair business (and yes tire repairs). Also a couple of hundred metres past the repair shop is a visitor info centre that also houses the town museum. While it doesn’t have too much there, it is worth the visit. You can learn about early Bamfield, including how it was the Canadian terminus of a the British Australian Telegraph line, the longest telegraph line in the world when laid.
West Bamfield actually feels like the real town in some ways, despite (or because of) its lack of road access. There are two water taxi companies that are ready to whisk you across the harbour. The ride is about seven dollars each for adults and kids are free. Once you are in West Bamfield, you have a narrow boardwalk that moves between both small cabins and stores. In between some of these buildings are a spots littered with thousands of keys, another with coins all over the ground, and a mystical little garden filled with gnomes. Near the north end of the boardwalk you will run into a general store (with ice cream) called Bamfield Mercantile and Marine and the coast guard station. There are more places to walk to nearby like Brady’s Beach, but I haven’t been that far yet. You can pop into the general store and they will call a water taxi for you to take you back to East Bamfield. West Bamfield is truly enchanting. It is what you think of when you picture the perfect west coast fishing village.
Despite the long overland journey, Bamfield and Pachena Bay are one of the most spectacular places to visit anywhere on Vancouver Island. In some ways, the benefit of the lack of a paved road has kept this place more original than it would be if it was easier to get to. The Huu-ay-aht First Nation are working with Hyundai International to build an LNG plant in the nearby town of Sarita and one can bet that, if completed, it would mean a better road. Of course, for the people of the area more visitors would be a great boon. Maybe a good choice for next summer before things change too much!