Fairy Lake and its Mysterious Bonsai Tree

With a remote, protected location and a pretty fun name, Fairy Lake is a great place to stop off during a Vancouver Island road trip or while staying in nearby Port Renfrew. A BC Parks Recreation Site, the lake itself is tiny, really just a wide spot along the San Juan river, but it gets deep surprisingly fast (good for boating but keep a close eye on children). It is also calm and full of fish (but not fairies, unfortunately). Thanks to the very mild climate in this part of southwestern Vancouver Island, Fairy Lake is a great destination at any time of year, although campers and swimmers definitely enjoy themselves more in summer. However, it is also an excellent spot for hiking, mountain biking, paddleboarding, canoeing and kayaking any time of year.

Check out: The Ultimate Vancouver Island Road Trip Itinerary

Fairy Lake Bonsai Tree

A dwarf douglas fir tree on a stump on Fairy Lake Canada

An extremely unique feature of Fairy Lake that sets it apart from some of the other gorgeous little lakes in the area is the little, solo tree sticking up all by its lonesome in a small bay in the corner of the lake. Its weirdly twisted form resembles a Japanese bonsai tree and, on a calm day, you can enjoy both the oddity of the tree itself and a perfect reflection of it in the water. Of course, it isn’t really a bonsai tree, but a sunken Douglas fir with another tiny, dwarfed fir courageously growing up out of it. Everyone loves a spunky underdog story, which is why this crooked little straggler might just be the most photographed tree on Vancouver Island (honourable mention to nearby Big Lonely Doug and Victoria’s Lone Tree).

Another reason it is such a popular stop is that it requires literally no hiking to see it, as the tree is located just off-shore and is fully visible from the edge of Pacific Marine Road (although you could certainly swim, float or paddle in for a much closer look). The exact location can be found on Google Maps, although keep in mind that cell service is intermittent out here so make sure you download area maps ahead of time for offline use.

Can You Fish at Fairy Lake?

You betcha. In fact, after taking photos of the bonsai tree, fishing is the most popular Fairy Lake activity. While canoes, kayaks and electric-powered boats are all allowed on the lake (but no gas motors), you can also fish right from shore. Despite its small dimensions, Fairy Lake fishing offers up pike, carp, largemouth bass, trout (cutthroat and Dolly Varden), catfish, sunfish and black crappies. The best fishing times are May-June and September-October, although you can do alright any time of year. Don’t forget that a provincial fishing license is necessary everywhere in BC.

Fish Hatchery

The Port Renfrew salmon hatchery is located about 1.5 kilometres upriver from Fairy Lake. It is run by the San Juan Salmon Enhancement Society, with the goal of maintaining and growing the Chinook Salmon population. Which, rather ironically, is not the reason Fairy Lake is such a great place to fish (the salmon are released into the ocean, not the lake).

Each year they use a fish trap at the entrance to Fairy Lake to collect 1,000 Chinook salmon – the number they need to produce 1 million eggs while leaving roughly half the existing fish in the river to spawn naturally. This thousand is ideally broken down as 750 males and 250 females (coincidentally, the same gender ratio found in naturally spawning pubs around Victoria). The salmon live in net pens at the hatchery for a year before being released back into the sea.

Fairy Lake Trail

Sign for the Fairy Lake BC Recreation Trail

There are a number of short hiking trails that span out from road beside the lake, but the easiest and most obvious (two things we always value in a hiking trail) is the Fairy Nature Trail. It only takes half an hour to complete this loop (2 km) on a straightforward trail, yet you still get to enjoy some nice views and an atmospheric forest trail. You will want to have good shoes as the trail can get a bit rough and muddy.

Fairy Lake Campground

Fairy Lake Campground site with a fire pit, a picnic table and tall trees

A pleasant, basic group of 36 sites, the Fairy Lake Campground is a terrific spot to come for someplace a bit quieter and less commercial. The campground is RV-friendly and there is a nice, sandy beach close by. There are plenty of trees and some of the sites are very shaded and secluded (which is why they are also popular with mosquitoes at certain times of year – bring bug spray in summer).

The sites are first come, first served and cannot be booked online. You just show up, find a spot and pay the attendant when they come around so you can’t make Fairy Lake campground reservations. It is open from mid-May to mid-September each year, costs $15/site per night (+$2/night for waterfront spots) and you can purchase bundles of firewood for $7 each (although check the latest fire restrictions before lighting up).

There is a boat launch, picnic tables and pit toilets but no showers, potable water, sanidump or accessible facilities. Pets are allowed but trash is not – pack it back out!

For more camping options around Port Renfrew:

Port Renfrew Camping: Choosing the Best Campground for You

How to Get to Fairy Lake

Sign for Fairy Lake British Columbia Recreation Site on the narrow road with tall trees on each side

Port Renfrew, British Columbia is about a 2-hour drive west of Victoria and Fairy Lake is located just a 10-minute drive from Port Renfrew. From the San Juan River bridge on the edge of Port Renfrew, follow Deering road north for about 2.5 km, then take a right onto Pacific Marine Road (signs for Lake Cowichan) and you’ll reach the lake on your right after about 4.5 km.

Port Renfrew Map

Other Things to See Around Fairy Lake

The giant old-growth forest at Avatar Grove is a definite must-see on the list of things to do around Port Renfrew. Even though it was named after the movie, not the other way around, it does feature “Canada’s Gnarliest Tree”, so I’d say that pretty much evens things out. If you have a vehicle that can handle some rough “roads”, head up to see Big Lonely Doug, one of the largest Douglas firs left on the island (70 metres tall and wider than your car) standing conspicuously alone in a scenic valley, and the focus of ongoing efforts by conservationists to block excessive logging. And don’t forget about the “Ugly Sister”, just across the road.

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 be pretty frigid from January to December.

Cliff in background with round tide pools in front at the Botanical beach
Botanical Beach

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 several excellent beaches.

Conclusion

A small lake with calm water, phenomenal fishing and a cheap waterfront campground sounds pretty enticing. Throw in a bizarrely cool photo spot and a bevy of awesome nearby attractions and suddenly little Fairy Lake becomes hard to top. It definitely deserves to be added to your Port Renfrew trip itinerary.

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Other useful articles you may want to check out:

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Esquimalt Lagoon: Bird Sanctuary and Driftwood Sculpture Beach

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