The far west coast of Vancouver Island is truly a different world, completely unique from the already notable wilderness and nature found throughout this fantastic island. The area around Port Renfrew is popular for camping and is known as the “Tall Trees Capital of Canada” thanks to its tremendous old growth forest. Although logging has taken a toll, there are still many incredible sections of forest to explore and enjoy. Possibly the best is Avatar Grove, a 50-hectare section of old growth forest with lush, atmospheric hiking and “Canada’s Gnarliest Tree”.
Not far from there you can also visit Big Lonely Doug, the second-tallest Douglas fir remaining on the island (at a stunning 70 metres!).
The Ancient Forest Alliance
Founded in 2010, the Ancient Forest Alliance is a non-profit organization that seeks to protect the old growth forests of British Columbia, 99% of which have already been lost to the logging industry. The plan is to establish a scientific plan for sustainable second-growth forests that works for both the logging industry and First Nations people while conserving these historic trees.
Old growth forest stores over twice as much atmospheric carbon than second-growth plantations, making it instrumental in the struggle against climate change, and it is also important for tourism, clean waterways, the salmon industry and various cultural First Nations uses.
In conjunction with the Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce, the AFA engaged in a focused two-year public awareness campaign that culminated in the protection and preservation of Avatar Grove in 2012. Their end goal is to eventually have it made into a provincial park.
Avatar Grove – Port Renfrew
Although it would make a great story if the famous James Cameron movie was named after the giant, fascinating trees of this Avatar Grove, in fact the opposite is true. That doesn’t reduce the similarities, though. Just don’t expect to see any blue people on your hike (blue hair maybe, although that is a bit of a moving fashion target).
Located on traditional indigenous land of the Pacheedaht First Nation, the original name for the area was “T’l’oqwxwat”. Try saying that quickly three times in a row. Or even slowly just once.
This beautiful forest full of gorgeous moss-covered trees, rippling creeks, small waterfalls and lush ferns boasts hundreds of giant trees with trunks as wide as 5 metres across, some of them up to 1,000 years old. Several trails have been cleared and maintained, featuring boardwalks and wooden stairs, slowly turning this into a popular hiking destination.
The more integral Avatar Grove can become to the tourism industry, the better chance it has of being conserved for the enjoyment of future generations. Most people have heard about Cathedral Grove but Avatar Grove is equally impressive and the experience is a little less manicured.
There is a trailhead sign with the Avatar Grove map not far from the small parking area on Gordon River Road (really just parking on the side of the road – not a real parking lot), with the upper trail heading up on one side and the lower trail going down on the other.
Upper Avatar Grove Hike
500m round-trip / 15 min / 80m elevation gain
Both the upper and lower Avatar loops are pretty short, but if you only have time for one (or maybe you simply can’t wait to see Lonely Doug) I’d go with the upper because it has – drum roll – Canada’s Gnarliest Tree! Sure, it’s just a name, and a pretty subjective one at that, but although we aren’t sure exactly how to measure “gnarly” or rank it against competitors throughout the country, we can assure you that the one in Avatar Grove is most certainly one very gnarly tree.
A massive 3-metre-wide red cedar, it looks sort of like a giant came along and stepped on it during its formative years, creating twisted limbs and weird bulbous parts that never really recovered (much like my feet after years of soccer).
Of course, although that one tree stands out, there are plenty more somewhat gnarly trees in the Avatar forest as well, and hiking through the shaded undergrowth of these ancient monsters whose canopies almost completely block out the sun is an experience to remember.
Also, keep your eyes and ears peeled for occasional wildlife – black bears, deer, elk and even cougars and wolves have been spotted in the area. If you do happen to see one of the more dangerous of these, no need to worry, just make a bit of noise (don’t act aggressively, though), slowly back away and never, ever attempt to feed the animals.
The trail isn’t difficult but there are roots, rocks, fallen logs, some muddy sections and a few steep spots, although boardwalks have been added in the most troublesome areas. Just pay attention to your feet and don’t try anything unnecessary (you never know which rock or log will suddenly be slippery).
Lower Avatar Grove Hike
650m loop / 15 min / 25m elevation gain
While the upper trail immediately starts climbing up into the grove, the lower trail starts downhill. There is actually a large viewing platform just off the road at the trailhead. Viewing what, exactly?
The forest, I guess. Which is, of course, nice, it is just hard to tell what you see from the platform that you don’t see from, oh, every other spot along the trail. It seems like a nice gesture, though. Anyway, the lower grove and trail offers very similar surroundings to the upper grove, even featuring a number of pretty gnarly trees of its own (just not the “gnarliest”).
The absolute longest it should take to complete both trails would be an hour, and that includes quite a bit of sightseeing and tree gawking time. Also, as enticing and comfortable as parts of the forest can seem, there is no camping allowed anywhere in Avatar Grove.
How to get to Avatar Grove – Driving Directions
From Victoria, you follow Highway 14 (Sooke Road) for roughly 2 hours to Port Renfrew. Then, Avatar Grove is located about 10 kilometres farther north on some pretty slow roads, you should allow for another 20-30 minutes.
Coming from the east, just before arriving in Port Renfrew, head north on Deering Road across the San Juan River Bridge, then after 3 kilometres head west on Pacific Marine Road for 5 kilometres, take a left onto Gordon River Road and follow it for 2 kilometres to reach the trailhead.
This last stretch is unpaved and a bit rough but is still fine for 2WD vehicles, just go slowly to avoid leaving any car parts behind. You can park along the side of the road.
Keep in mind that cell service is intermittent (and often imaginary) so it is a good idea to download Google maps ahead of time so you can follow them offline.
Big Lonely Doug
It’s hard to say whether Canada’s Gnarliest Tree or Big Lonely Doug is the most famous British Columbia tree, but the fact that both can be visited in the same afternoon means that at least you don’t have to choose between them.
While Captain Gnarly is pretty fascinating and takes a great photo, Big Lonely Doug may be more important, serving as something of a figurehead for the struggle to protect BC’s old growth forests. This enormous Douglas fir stands alone in the expansive Gordon River Valley, surrounded by recently clear-cut forest, a symbol of what has already been lost.
As sad as that is, however, it does provide a pretty stark contrast to the rest of the young trees around it, making its ridiculous size much more obvious.
As the story goes, in 2011, logger Dennis Cronin was surveying the area for a logging company and, apparently in awe of Doug’s impressive girth, wrapped a (very long) ribbon around it with the words “Leave Tree” on it. Somehow this actually worked, despite the fact estimates suggest it would have been worth more than $50,000 as timber.
Then, in 2014, activist T.J. Watt noticed the shocking isolation of this giant Douglas fir and came up with the name “Big Lonely Doug”. And now, here we are, with people like me talking about it as a symbol of Canadian nature conservation while gently mocking it at the same time. The information age is truly, glorious, isn’t it?
Facts & Figures:
At 70 metres tall, Doug is roughly the height of a 21-story building.
It has a circumference of 12 metres, which is far higher than any diving board I have ever jumped from.
The average width of the branches at the top is 18 metres, which is pretty wide, I’d say.
Judging by the rings in the nearby stumps, scientists estimate Big Lonely Doug is around 1,000 years old (although on a nice, sunny day he doesn’t look a day over 950).
Despite all this, Doug is actually just the second largest Douglas fir tree in the world. The largest is the Red Creek Fir, which is located just one valley over but can only be reached via a rough, difficult road followed by a 15-minute hike (and doesn’t look quite as impressive, anyway, as it is still surrounded by its giant peers).
The best photos of Big Lonely Doug are actually from the road, although it is possible to follow a steep trail a couple minutes down the hill for a closer look. Conservationists ask that you refrain from walking on Doug’s root system and tread lightly around the base of the tree to protect against erosion.
Back up on the road, there is an arrow spray-painted on a rock on the other side of the road pointing you toward Doug’s “Ugly Sister” (who, rumour has it, actually prefers to be called “Karen”).
She looked fine to us.
How to get to Big Lonely Doug
Big Lonely Doug is only a few kilometres farther up the same road as Avatar Grove, although this last portion gets rougher and rockier as you go. Most cars should be fine up until the Gordon River bridge (which provides excellent views as well) but after that it is pretty rugged and you will need extra clearance and possibly 4WD if the road is muddy. The other option is to walk the last 1.5 kilometres from the bridge.
When we were there a group of activists from Old Growth Blockade had set up a blockade right before the bridge to stop loggers from getting past. However, they were very friendly and happy to let us in because the more awareness they can generate through tourism the better chance they have of shutting down any further destruction of the forest. Their old bus looked pretty pimpin’, too.
Finally, while it isn’t necessarily relevant here, this still feels like a good excuse to share my all-time favourite Far Side cartoon:
Other Things to See Around Avatar Grove
If you find your interest in giant trees growing into a full obsession, there are several others in the area, including the Red Creek Fir, the San Juan Spruce and the Harris Creek Spruce. At the other end of the spectrum, you’ll find the fascinating little “bonsai tree” on Fairy Lake. No, it’s not a real bonsai tree, but it sure looks like one and it takes a great photo.
Port Renfrew Map
Just outside of Port Renfrew, you’ll find Botanical Beach and its collection of impressively photogenic tide pools which are full of fascinating marine creatures. Also, San Juan Harbour boasts a pair of excellent surf breaks where the rivers meet the sea just northwest of Port Renfrew.
They are at their best during southwest swells but consider yourself warned, even with a good wetsuit the water can get pretty frigid from, oh, January to December.
There is also a long string of terrific beaches between Port Renfrew and Victoria, including surfer favourite Sombrio Beach with its spectacular hidden waterfall, isolated Mystic Beach and its impressive beach waterfall, Sandcut Beach and its similar (but smaller) beach waterfall, plus popular China Beach and family-friendly French Beach.
Meanwhile, the Jordan River is a big surfing area that is worth a stop to watch the action and Shirley Delicious is a wonderful little café with snacks and desserts to hold you over until you make it back to Victoria, which also has some excellent beaches to explore.
Vancouver Island’s majestic old-growth forest is truly wonderful to experience. Even though depressingly little of it remains, visiting the sections that still exist (in a careful and respectful manner) helps to raise awareness for the struggle to save these magnificent trees from being chopped down to end up as custom armoires or expensive video game stands. If you have already made it as far as Port Renfrew, definitely go the extra distance to get a look at these extraordinary forests.
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