Esquimalt Lagoon: Fascinating Bird Sanctuary and Driftwood Sculpture Beach

Esquimalt Lagoon (pronounced ‘Ess-KWI-malt) is potentially the most fascinating of the many great natural attractions in and around Victoria. It’s got views, it’s got trails, it’s got big trees, it’s near a real, live castle, it’s definitely got birds (so many birds) and, yeah, in case you were wondering, it does have a giant driftwood sculpture of a menacing creature that might be a demon, might be a previously unknown lagoon monster, or might just be a very poorly done likeness of the sculptor’s sugar-addled cousin. We can’t be sure. But it’s pretty cool to look at.

There are also a fort and lighthouse just around the corner. Anyway, considering this great recreational area is close to pretty much everything, it is one of the easier and more rewarding destinations to visit in the greater Victoria area on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

The lagoon is protected from the ocean by the narrow 2-kilometre-long Coburg Peninsula. A small tidal channel at the north end connects the lagoon to the sea. Even though the spit is only about 50 metres across it has a road (Ocean Boulevard), some parking spots, a thin beach covered in photogenic driftwood and small grassy trail running alongside the lagoon.

The views across the Juan de Fuca Strait are amazing, and on clear days you can see the snowy peaks of the Olympic Mountains in Washington state. In summer the lagoon fills with excited visitors walking, enjoying the beach, gawking at the birds, swimming, kayaking and even scuba diving.

Check out: The Ultimate Vancouver Island Road Trip Itinerary

Esquimalt Lagoon National Migratory Bird Sanctuary

This huge lagoon is very shallow (average depth less than 3 metres) and almost entirely enclosed, just connected to the ocean by a tiny channel. Considered an estuary because it features a combination of freshwater from streams and salt water from the tidal channel, apparently, birds just can’t get enough of it.

There are many scientific and ornithological reasons for this that are beyond my areas of expertise (my areas of expertise being basically just hiking backpacks and professional soccer players that I hate).

The Esquimalt Lagoon Bird Sanctuary serves as a perfect nursery for young birds because it is relatively protected and full of juvenile fish for them to feed on, such as trout, salmon and herring. As the tide comes and goes, a couple different islets and sandbars appear, usually filled with lounging birds, and the ducks often congregate near the bridge hoping to be fed (big believers in the mantra “never pass up a free meal”).

It is also one of just seven Migratory Bird Sanctuaries in BC, essentially serving as the Motel 6 of the South-North America Pacific Flyway (but with a better breakfast buffet). Many species stick around from October to May because of the mild winters on Vancouver Island, so the variety is stunning.

From majestic bald eagles to elegant blue herons to jittery sandpipers, plus a few hundred more types, Esquimalt Lagoon is one of the premier “twitcher” destinations in Canada. Some of the other popular types (usually many variations within each group): gulls, terns, plovers, oystercatchers, kingfishers, vultures, robins, ravens, quail and doves.

During one of our visits it took us a minute to believe what we were seeing (and only confirmed by research later) – a gull flying past dropped the shell it was carrying, came down, picked it back up, flew up a ways, then dropped it again. Our first thought was, “wow, what a useless bird, can’t believe it’s made it this far in life”.

Then we slowly realized it was doing this on purpose to crack open the mussel and gain access to all the juicy, disgusting innards. Pretty clever, which is more than I can say for my bird knowledge, clearly.

Esquimalt Lagoon Beach

This thin, rather scraggly, beach runs the entire 2-kilometre length of the Coburg Peninsula. It isn’t really what you’d call a lounging or sunbathing beach (although people certainly use it that way) but it is great for walking and beachcombing, with fascinating clusters of driftwood all the way along.

Obviously, there are also plenty of birds to watch, or you can just enjoy the view of the distant mountains and keep an eye on the military and cruise ships passing by to and from Ogden Point.

Even though it doesn’t fit the mold of your typical summer sunning beach, all its unique aspects still qualify Esquimalt as one of the best beaches in Victoria along with Willows Beach, Gyro Beach, Witty’s Lagoon Beach and Gonzales Beach.

Esquimalt Lagoon Sculptures

Now, we already mentioned the one particularly menacing driftwood sculpture, but there are actually dozens lining Esquimalt Lagoon Beach, which are worth an hour of your time on their own. They are the creations of Paul Lewis, a local artist, who began putting together sculptures using wood, shells and rocks scavenged from the beach, then displaying them there for the public to enjoy.

Most depict different bird species (his very first was an uncanny version of a bald eagle) and these unique attractions are yet another reason the lagoon is one of the best photo spots around Victoria.

Esquimalt Lagoon Food Trucks

Throwing in a little festive flair, in the summer months the lagoon hosts Beach Food Fridays and Saturdays featuring a handful of popular food trucks from fish and chips to mac and cheese and even risotto. And if the notoriously fickle Vancouver Island weather cooperates, there might even be live music right on Ocean Boulevard.

Hatley Castle

A National Historic Site, the magnificent Hatley Castle is one of just two remaining castles in Victoria, and it boasts a commanding location overlooking Esquimalt Lagoon, the Juan de Fuca Strait and Olympic Mountains in the distance. It is surrounded by beautiful gardens, even more old growth forest and just happens to be the castle featured in the X-Men movies (Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters) and Deadpool (mocking Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters), among others.

As well as being an important historic site and shameless Hollywood extra, it is also forms part of the Royal Roads University.  

Coastal Douglas Fir Trees

In the forests around the lagoon you can find some of the oldest and largest coastal Douglas fir trees on the island. The “Magna Carta Tree”, in particular, near Bee Creek, is believed to be 800 years old and has a diameter of almost 2 metres.

To put that in perspective, you could lay Tom Hanks down next to the tree and his toes wouldn’t even reach the end. There are also many other species, including cedar, Garry oak, hemlock, arbutus and Sitka spruce.

Charlie’s Trail

Hikers (or even nonchalant amblers) should not miss the short walk along Charlie’s Trail. Running through impressive stands of all these previously mentioned trees, it follows pleasant Colwood Creek past a number of pretty little waterfalls on an easy forest trail. Keep in mind, the trail is downhill all the way from the parking area above Hatley Castle to the lagoon so infrequent hikers will certainly notice the climb back up, but it’s definitely worth it for the pleasant ambience and splendid creek views.

From the bottom of the trail you can follow another trail to the east along the inner edge of the lagoon, enjoying great views from a completely different perspective. While it leads all the way to the Ocean Road, the best viewpoint can be found about 5 minutes before reaching the eastern side of the lagoon.

Fort Rodd Hill and Fisgard Lighthouse

Picture-perfect Fisgard Lighthouse, just to the east, can be seen from Esquimalt Lagoon beach. It is part of the Fort Rodd Hill complex and is recognized as a Canadian National Historic Site. The entrance is just up back up Ocean Road a few hundred metres and the entrance fee is $8/person (although it is covered by the Parks Canada Discover Pass if you have one of those).

The fort is pretty interesting in its own right but we thought the lighthouse was great, situated out on the end of a tiny, rocky peninsula. Inside the lighthouse is a small museum and some slightly different views (although when we were there you couldn’t go all the way to the top). Oh, by the way, it is still in use, although it has been automated since 1929 so don’t expect to run into a stereotypical crusty old lighthouse keeper. Unless you happen to be travelling with one.

Witty’s Lagoon

The second important estuary in the area, Witty’s Lagoon is only about a 10-minute drive west from Esquimalt and, in addition to the expected quota of bird species, also features picturesque Sitting Lady Falls, spectacular Tower Point with its resident group of harbour seals and, occasionally, fun-loving packs of young skimboarders plying their trade in the ideal conditions of the lagoon.

Quick Answers to Common Esquimalt Lagoon Questions

Can you Camp at the Esquimalt Lagoon?

Nope, sorry to be the bearer of bad news. You are not even allowed to park along the waterfront at night – specifically from one hour after sunset to sunrise.

Are dogs allowed at Esquimalt Lagoon?

Yes, but they must be kept on leashes, and if you could keep them from eating any of the local birds, well, that would be great as well.

Can you swim at Esquimalt Lagoon?

Absolutely, assuming you have the personal fortitude to brave that cold water. In fairness, it isn’t all that bad in summer but if you’re planning to go for a recreational dip in winter you should probably have a really good reason (i.e. catching a great wave or saving a drowning celebrity).

Are there bathrooms at Esquimalt Lagoon?

Yes, there is a set of public bathrooms at the far southwest end of the peninsula/beach and a pair of port-a-potties about halfway down.

Where is Esquimalt Lagoon?

The lagoon is in Colwood, BC, a city on the southern coast of Vancouver Island just outside Victoria. In fact, it is only about 7 kilometres from downtown Victoria, roughly 15 minutes by car. Parking is available all along Coburg Peninsula, or there are a couple of parking lots near Hatley Castle if you don’t mind walking a bit.

South Vancouver Island Coast Map

Things to Do Near Esquimalt Lagoon

The charming city of Sooke is about a 30-minute drive west from Esquimalt Lagoon. While the town itself is worth a wander, you should also venture up to see the Sooke Potholes. This interesting set of rapids, pools and small waterfalls on the Sooke River are at their most scenic in the summer when the river is lower because in the rainy season the water gets up so high that the “potholes” actually disappear, although they are still worth seeing any time of year.

Nearby Mary Vine Creek waterfall, on the other hand, is at its roaring, frothing best after a big rain and is one of the best things to do near Sooke. There are a lot of scenic hiking trails in East Sooke Park, and East Sooke Coast Trail has been included in several “Best day hikes in BC” lists.

Mount Work Regional Park has great mountain biking, a relatively easy summit hike and three good fishing lakes.

Victoria is one of Canada’s most beautiful cities, has a great wharf area, many historic buildings, nice parks and a surprising selection of outstanding beaches.

Conclusion

Esquimalt Lagoon is yet another of the many fantastic natural gems that can be found in the immediate vicinity of Victoria, one of Canada’s best cities for outdoor pursuits. Bird-lovers, beach-lovers and art-lovers all have good reason to check out this little slice of coastal joy. And if you just want to re-create the scene where Deadpool lies on the front steps of Hatley Castle, well, that can be fun, too.

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