Vancouver Island’s Pacific Marine Circle Route

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Sombrio Beach with the ocean on the left, a sandy, rocky beach in the foreground and huge green trees to the right.

Sombrio Beach. Photo: Shirley Culpin

Vancouver Island’s Pacific Marine Circle Route isn’t as well known as many other destinations on the island. However, completion of road paving on the entire 207-km (130-mi) trek between the southwest town of Sooke, cross-Island to  the east coast and south through the city of Duncan and back to the southern terminus is rendering the trip more appealing to increasing numbers of travelers – us amongst them.

The outside of Sooke Region Museum, with a wooden fence on the left, green painted wooden picnic tables to the right and a old wooden shed in the background.

The Sooke Region Museum features many historical buildings and artifacts. Photo: Shirley Culpin

Some people manage the entire drive in a single day, but there was clearly so much to miss by taking that approach that we scheduled four full days for our trip – and we still didn’t manage to experience everything on my carefully compiled travel agenda.  We were so taken with the area; however, that it’s no hardship to envision another trip to the southwest coast of the island.

Wooden sitting benches on a cement platform amongst the grass and trees of French Beach with the ocean in the background.

French Beach has many offerings for campers and daytrippers. Photo: Shirley Culpin

We began our explorations with a leisurely visit to the Sooke Region Museum, a treasure trove that showcases the rich history of the area, from logging and gold mining to hundreds of shipwrecks. A leisurely lunch in a garden setting in Sooke was followed by a wander along Whiffin Spit, a 1.2-km (.75-mi) stretch of sand and cobble beach with walking trails that protects Sooke Harbour. From there, we checked in for the night at 4 Beaches Bed and Breakfast, then made the short drive back in to Sooke for an outstanding meal at a relatively new eatery, Wild Mountain Food and Drink. Water views and a relaxed vibe combined with good service and innovative offerings left us in a happy and relaxed state of mind.

A hiker walking through a trail of dense green forest toward Sandcut Beach.

Part of the trail in to Sandcut Beach. Photo: Shirley Culpin

Day two found us heading up the west coast, exploring the easily-accessed French Beach and the more challenging Sandcut Beach. The two beaches are fairly close to each other, but have entirely different characters. Sandcut exudes the wild beauty that to me defines the west coast of the island, while French Beach has a more sedate setting that offers camping, picnic sites and fire pits.

We popped into the delightful Shirley Delicious (how could we not, with a name like that?) for a hearty, reasonably-priced, innovative and tasty lunch.  Shirley is a tiny community located between Sooke and Jordan River  – one of the most unlikely spots one might expect to find such great food, good service and cheerful ambiance.

Waves crashing on the rocks at Sandcut Beach, casting mist into the sky with dark green trees in the background.

Sandcut Beach. Photo: Shirley Culpin

From Shirley, we skedaddled up past Port Renfrew  – not the original plan, but tides play a large role in what you are or are not going to see on this trip and we were keen to visit Botany Bay and Botanical Beach. The hike in was rough and a little confusing direction-wise, but we managed to explore the wilder Botany Bay, complete with crashing surf, and then pop across to Botanical Beach to take in the huge variety of marine flora and fauna in the tidal pools.

Tired and hungry, we checked in at Soule Creek Lodge, a rustic spot 183 metres (600 feet) uphill at the end of a 2-km (1.25-mi) gravel road. Brothers Tim and Jon Cash have been running the lodge since 2001. There is no television and there are no phones in the rooms but there are spectacular views to forever, pretty outdoor gardens and a delightful sense of total detachment from the modern world.

A white plate with salmon, grains and an array of colourful vegetables at Soule Creek Lodge.

Dinner at Soule Creek Lodge. Photo: Shirley Culpin

Guests staying at the lodge have the option of enjoying dinners created by Tim and Jon; I can only say that doing that was one of the best decisions we made on the entire trip. As many ingredients as possible are locally sourced and are combined to create a sublime meal bursting with freshness and innovative flavour combinations.

After a hearty breakfast cooked to order the next morning, we headed off to explore the untamed beauty of historic Sombrio Beach. The site of a squatters’ camp in the 1960s through to 1997 and a consistent favourite with the surfing crowd, Sombrio has an ethereal loveliness beyond description. The combination of salt spray, pounding surf, waterfalls, caves, beautiful cobble beach and an endless horizon to the wild Pacific are enough to capture the heart and imagination of anyone who loves the outdoors. The place certainly had that effect on me.

A gnarly tree up close at Avatar Grove.

The gnarliest trees in Canada are featured in Avatar Grove. Photo: Michael Goldman

Sombrio is also part of the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, so it’s not unusual to see heavily-laden hikers trekking along the beach. And, although the squatters have been banished, wilderness camping on the beach is still allowed.

A late lunch at the funky Coastal Kitchen Café in Port Renfrew left us happily satisfied and amazed – yet again – at the many astonishingly good dining options in this remote part of the world. After our final night at Soule Creek Lodge, we headed out, stopping at Avatar Grove, home to the gnarliest trees in Canada. This attraction is a little out of the way and the hike in is rough and steep, but the expedition is well worth it.

From Avatar Grove we meandered over hills, past pretty lakes and gorges and across many one-lane bridges towards Lake Cowichan. This portion of the Pacific Marine Circle Route is still an active logging road, so don’t be surprised to see fully-loaded logging trucks coming at you.

Fairy Lake, surrounded by flowers and bushes with dense trees in the foreground across the lake.

Fairy Lake, on the road between Port Renfrew and Lake Cowichan. Photo: Shirley Culpin

Anyone planning on driving this route should allow plenty of time to explore – if you don’t get out of your vehicle, you won’t see much other than trees and the occasional glimpse of water. Be aware that there are no service stations between Sooke and Lake Cowichan – a distance of 134 km (84 mi), although there is one marina in Port Renfrew that sells gasoline during the summer months. Many of the hikes into the best beaches are pretty rough going, so appropriate footwear is a good idea. For those who can’t stand the thought of not being ‘plugged in’ 24/7, be prepared for the fact that cell phone and cellular data services can be spotty in some areas.

All warnings aside though, we can’t wait to return – we already have another dozen ‘must sees’ on the list.