Hiking Haida Gwaii

🕔Jul 16, 2009

For outdoor enthusiasts, Haida Gwaii is a playground of epic proportions. This world-renowned archipelago is of course a water-sports and fishing haven, but for those more interested in exploring the land on foot, there is an abundance of beautiful views and excursions to explore, from gentle community walks to challenging mountain ascents. As communities on Haida Gwaii look to entice more tourist attention to the islands, some trails and paths that for years have been utilized primarily on a local-knowledge level are gradually being developed into visitor attractions.

Port Clements is one community that recently updated the state of one of the village’s premier walking paths, the Sunset Park Trail. Running from the centre of town to the campground, the two-metre wide trail follows the coast for two kilometres. Urs Thomas, the Chair of Port Clements’ brand-new Tourism Development Committee, headed a group of 10 volunteers and two contractors who repaired bridges, pruned back overgrowth, and cleaned up the beaches along the trail. “We’re focusing on the trails in town for now,” says Urs, “but the plan is to eventually build an extension to the Sunset Trail from the current trail out to the Kumdis Narrows.”
As it exists now, the Sunset Park Trail follows an easy grade, extremely family-friendly, with a shelter and picnic tables, and a bird-watching platform that is, unusually, wheelchair accessible.

“Our Sunset Park Trail is absolutely beautiful,” says Heather Nelson-Smith, administrator for the village of Port Clements. “You’re walking along the water, with neat little bridges, culturally modified trees and—of course—beautiful sunsets.”

Where the golden spruce once stood
Also near Port Clements is the Golden Spruce Trail, leading of course to the site where the sacred tree once stood. This trail is not as developed as the Sunset Park Trail, but is easy to follow nonetheless. Although the famous tree has long been horizontal on the forest floor, many visitors to the islands still come to see the area itself. “Some people follow the book by John Vaillant,” says Thomas. “They want to see where it happened.” Despite the loss of the trail’s namesake, the trail still has a lot to offer. “You’ll see fish, deer for sure, occasionally a bear,” says Nelson-Smith.

Both Nelson-Smith and Thomas see development of Port Clements’ trail system as a worthy project, and one that has become a source of pride for the village. “We have a lot of volunteers who put a lot of time and effort into keeping it maintained,” says Nelson-Smith. “It’s nice to have that volunteer base and a lot of pride in the community.”

In addition to shorter, community-oriented trails such as the Golden Spruce and Sunset Park trails, Haida Gwaii also offers more challenging walks and treks for hikers of all abilities. Jacques Morin, group chair of the Haida Gwaii chapter of the Sierra Club, has done many hikes on the islands and in past years has guided groups of people along some of the most popular. He recommends picking up a good local guidebook, such as Hiking on Haida Gwaii by Fern Henderson, in order to plan one’s expeditions. Or, if possible, hook up with a local who may know some of the more elusive trails.

However, there are many great trails that are well defined with easy-to-locate trailheads.

Climbing Sleeping Beauty
One trail that gets mentioned over and over by hiking enthusiasts, and for good reason, is the Sleeping Beauty Trail near Queen Charlotte City. It’s a strenuous trail, not for the faint-of-heart or out-of-shape, as it is steep over most of its four-to-six hour duration. Despite that, the reward at the top can be well worth the struggle to get there, depending on the weather conditions. “You get a view of the Yakoun Basin, Bearskin Bay area, all the islands,” says Morin. “It’s a pretty stunning view, when you hit the right weather.”

At the northeastern tip of Graham Island, the 10-kilometre-long Cape Fife Trail leads through the forest from one side of Rose Spit to the other. This well-marked trail pops out onto secluded East Beach after three to four hours hiking through muskeg and old-growth forest. It would be a long return trip for a day-hike, but it’s easy enough to walk out one day and return the next, and there is a well-constructed shelter at East Beach. Water availability is an issue, however, and Morin cautions hikers to make sure they bring enough. “There are not many rivers, and unless you have one of those water filter systems, it would be very wise to bring enough water for a two-day trip,” he says. This hike can also be extended by hiking the loop around Rose Spit, which increases the distance considerably, or as a jumping off point for the East Beach trail, a multi-day 89-kilometre trek down the coastal length of Naikoon Provincial Park.

There aren’t as many maintained hikes with clear signage in the north as there are farther south, but there are less well-known trails crisscrossing the area that have great potential for enhancement, something that Morin would like to see happen in partnership with Naikoon Park.

Getting muddy
Down-island, around Tlell, there is a group of trails that have been championed by the Tlell Watershed Society, an organization dedicated to promoting the ecological health of the area through interpretive hikes and low-impact trail improvement. If a person doesn’t mind getting a bit muddy, and scrambling up inclines without the aid of stairs or boardwalks, hikes such as the Anvil Trail, Pretty John Meadow Trail, and Old Growth Alley lead through some exceptional riparian forest terrain.

Many trails on Haida Gwaii follow paths eked out by the islands’ residents in earlier times, and the Pretty John Meadow trail is one of these. “It’s an old settlers’ road you’re using,” says Morin, “and it brings you to the Pretty John Meadow and the Tlell River Falls.”
Also near Tlell is the Pesuta shipwreck hike, a four to six hour family trek which combines both forest and beach hiking, with the highlight of course being the slowly disintegrating wreckage of the 200 foot-long log carrier that went aground here in 1928.

There are many great hikes on Haida Gwaii—so many that it’s impossible to do more than mention some of them in the small space available here. From short, easy walks suitable for families to demanding, sweeping ventures through old-growth forests and alpine meadows, beach walks to muskeg slogging, the variety of trails available is myriad. As time goes on, and more and more trails are developed by the islanders, that in turn will translate to more visitors being able to experience the rugged beauty of Haida Gwaii up close, in depth, and on foot.

For more information
• www.queencharlotteislandsguide.com 
—a downloadable pdf guide to the islands that lists some of the more popular well-marked trails

• www.queencharlotteislandseh.com/parks/—an online guide that describes many trails on Haida Gwaii

• The Tlell Watershed Society has produced some excellent resources in the form of several small booklets detailing the trails in the Tlell River area, each of which includes maps and interesting interpretive information. They are available from merchants in the Tlell area as well as online at www.gwaiiforest.org/library.html under the Ecotourism heading partway down the page.