Winter can mean chilly days and lots of time spent indoors. Find a healthy work-life balance. Not too little. Not too much. If you are looking for the perfect coastal getaway, look no further than Port Renfrew. This is accessible wilderness.
Located on the West coast of Vancouver Island, this quiet community is not more than 2-hours from Victoria (the Capital of British Columbia). The Pacific Marine Circle Route (Spirit Loop) offers two approaches via Sooke or Lake Cowichan.
Even though the weather can swing between mild and sunny to snow-filled days, good winter tires or all-season Mud/Snow (M&S) are mandatory when driving to Port Renfrew between October 1 and March 31.
Known for its old-growth forests and breathtaking beaches, you won't be short of natural wonders to take in. Here are some of our suggestions to sneak more hours of daylight into your life during our shorter winter days.
Remember your winter day trip essentials. Always layer and include an outer rain shell, mitts, and a toque. Good waterproof hiking boots or runners are critical. If you don’t have a travel first aid kit, we offer a small portable one — located to the right as you enter Bjørn Holm.
Port Renfrew offers hiking trails for all levels of health and well-being. For the fit and hardy, the Juan de Fuca Trail has the advantage of starting and stopping in bits and pieces, whereas the world-famous West Coast Trail is a multi-day commitment. Sombrio Beach has a busy parking lot because it offers a wonderful surfers’ paradise, but the trail is well-graded and short.
Botanical Beach and Botany Bay - a Provincial Park - offers a 3-kilometer loop trail. You can hear the roar of the ocean long before you see it. The trail to Botany Bay is slightly shorter but it is Botanical Beach that offers the world-renown tidal pools. A walking stick (plenty are offered at the front door of Bjorn Holm) is highly recommended as the rocks can be slippery.
Watch the tide charts to maximize your viewing of the tidal pools. And never, never turn back when standing close to the water’s edge. Rogue waves are mercurial and have been known to sweep the unsuspecting into the water. Pacific Northwest waters are cold at best but colder in the winter.
Remember your shoreline etiquette. Take care where you step, it might be someone’s home. And keep hands out of the tidal pools. Body oils and lotions will contaminate the water for the critters that call them home.
Canada’s Tall Tree Capital - Forest Bathing
Did you know that a rainforest escape was closer than you could imagine? Vancouver Island boasts a thriving temperate rainforest. Heavy winter rains, giant sea swells, and stunning coastal views. If you stop long enough, you might find moss growing behind your ears ;-)
Avatar Grove is a remarkable stand of some of the oldest, biggest, and gnarliest trees in Canada. It’s a short drive from Port Renfrew, up a hardscrabble gravel logging road. Take care if you are driving an urban vehicle. Slow and easy. Potholes will swallow you up.
Avatar Grove exists due to the efforts of the Ancient Forest Alliance. When they made their findings public, interest exploded internationally. This has made a significant impact on these forest giants. In an effort for selfie portraits and the breathtaking experience of touching and being at one with these grand living beings, the trees suffered and the trails have eroded.
Efforts are underway to try and resolve the issues at hand. I spoke with officials earlier in the year and they are working hard to reopen in early 2023.
In the meantime, there are other wonders to behold. Both Lonely Doug (a highly recommended read is Harley Rustad’s Big Lonely Doug: The Story of One of Canada’s Last Great Trees) and the newly minted Eden Grove are further past Avatar Grove. A good 4x4 is necessary or anticipate parking along Edinburgh Main (logging speak for ‘road’) and walking a fair to middling distance. Lonely Doug is Canada’s second largest Douglas-fir that stands alone in the middle of a clear-cut.
For car-friendly forest walks, head to Fairy Lake (watch for the much-photographed Fairy Lake ‘bonsai Christmas’ tree and Lizard Lake (yes, there are lizards in the lake). Both offer drive-in camping options and hiking trails. Camping is gated during off-season months. To access it, contact the BC Forest Service.
If heavy snow is in the forecast (yes people, it is possible :-) bring your snowshoes along. Plan a hike in a winter forest. Trails are not groomed, and a better experience might be to park at the gated logging roads and walk the ‘main’. Commune with nature; be wary of cougars and wolves. Enjoy the winter workout. Remember to bring that first aid kit.
It’s cold, and it’s wet, but the birds are still out there! Winter birding in BC may be a bit discouraging given the weather and the dreary skies. But what better way to push yourself to keep active outside than the chance of seeing waterbirds, raptors, and so, so many ducks!
Admittedly, there are some unavoidable downsides to winter birding but rain, wind, snow, and everything else BC winters throw at us can be mitigated with proper gear. Dress in layers for those windy sessions along the shores and good windproof gloves can save your hands some future hurting. Make sure to keep yourself dry to help stave off the cold; don’t forget your rain jacket! And maybe leave a spare set of clothes in your vehicle or backpack if you can, just in case.
Protect your gear! Colder weather drains batteries quicker, so pack a couple of spares for your camera. Also, you may want to invest in a rain cover for your camera that can protect your gear and let you shoot on rainy and snowy days. Heavy-duty covers are available if you’ll be out shooting in the elements quite a bit, but there are also inexpensive ones that can fold into a pocket in your bag just in case the weather turns while you’re out.
This time of the year is great for bird photography! The sun is lower in the sky, meaning you don’t have to deal with the harsh overhead light of summer midday, and you get nicer lighting for longer periods of time. As well, the esteemed “golden hours” for lighting around dusk and dawn are at much more reasonable times than in the summer.
Don’t let the temperature stop you. Don your wet suit, or better yet a dry suit. Unfortunately, there have been no surfboard or SUP rentals in Port Renfrew since the Outdoor Centre burned down whilst undergoing renovations prior to COVID. The closest community to rent from is Sooke or Victoria. Jordan River and Sombrio are well-known surf destinations between Victoria and Port Renfrew, however, a well-kept hush-hush secret is the Gordon River break. You will need to park at the pay for parking at the Pacheedaht First Nations’ Campground next to the West Coast Trail Parks’ Office.
Or if surfing isn’t your thing, stroll the kilometer or so of sand, filled with sun bleach driftwood sculptures. It’s an extremely dog-friendly off-leash beach.
Watch for the big waves when the tide is up, and a storm is brewing.
Aurora Borealis/Starry Nights
A stunner of a shot like this might require a middle-of-the-night wakeup and a special lens for your camera. But it’s possible.
Here are some camera tips from Terence Dickinson:
Today’s digital cameras make capturing the aurora easy. If you own a DSLR (a digital single-lens reflex) camera, you can clearly catch subtle auroral curtains that are barely perceptible to human vision. Use your widest-angle lens at its lowest f-stop (typically between f/2.8 and f/3.5) and set the ISO to 800 or 1600 and the exposure to between 10 and 25 seconds. You’ll need a camera tripod to keep the camera steady during the exposure and a location away from light pollution. Non-DSLR cameras, usually called compact digital cameras, are less capable of taking aurora shots, but are worth trying if tripod mounted. Check the user’s guidebook to see whether you can set the compact camera to a manual mode that allows up to a 15-second exposure around f/3.5, a setting that should record an aurora.
Christmas at Bjørn Holm
And then there’s Christmas at Bjørn Holm. We’re always ready to welcome the festive season. Cozy on in and practice the art of purposefully doing nothing. Lose your concept of time and enjoy a short period of mindless relaxation.