The Lovely Janet Guide to Sombrio Beach

This wonderful, rugged beach on the southwestern coast of Vancouver Island is located along the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail in the similarly named Juan de Fuca Provincial Park and is a popular place for camping and day trippers. Despite having a name which rather uninvitingly translates to either sombre (Spanish) or dingy (Portuguese), Sombrio Beach is actually quite a nice place. With sand and waves and everything.

Despite the exotic name, Sombrio Beach has never served as the colonial capital of any conquering colonial empires. It has, however, served as the temporary home of Russ, a surfer from northern Ontario who decided to just hang around for a few months after the plates ran out on his VW van. Between the Sombrio Beach waterfall, surfing and camping, there is something for everyone.

Check out: The Ultimate Vancouver Island Road Trip Itinerary

Why Go to Sombrio Beach

Surrounded by forest and featuring multiple waterfalls and great surfing, it is one of the highlights of the Juan de Fuca west coast. The distance from Victoria and rough access road off the highway helps keep some of the potential visitors away (notably, those who drive BMW 5 Series or 10-speed bicycles).

Known as one of the most iconic surf spots in Canada, if you are vague enough when you tell people you went to Sombrio Beach BC they might just assume you went surfing. Plus, it is a great place to camp that feels very wild while still being just a short drive from places that sell antibiotics.

Sombrio Beach Map

When to Go

Like everywhere in Canada, summers in Sombrio Beach are hot, short and festive. The beach will definitely be its most crowded in July and August but that is also the only time the weather makes walking around nearly naked seem like a reasonable choice. Plus, there’s really nothing on TV that time of year.

Winter brings colder weather and big surfing waves. In the greater context of Canada, however, “colder” is pretty relative, as Sombrio’s mild climate provides January temperatures still well above 0. Not sunbathing weather, exactly, but the surfers are still willing to change on the beach in winter, they just seem a lot more frantic while they do it.

People surfing on small waves in front of a rocky beach

Spring and fall are not as hot as summer or as cold as winter, and there are fewer kids around. However, the surfing in fall is comparable to winter while in spring the waves are a cut below. Fall it is, then.

Orientation

The beach is located about a 2-hour drive west from Victoria and about 20 minutes east of Port Renfrew. The parking area is at the end of a rough 2-kilometre dirt road.

There is trail info on a board at the Sombrio Beach trailhead near the parking lot and the trail to the beach is nice and smooth, steadily descending for about 250 metres to a fork where it splits to East or West Sombrio. From there it is about 500 metres to either one, also gradually downhill the whole way.

Woman walking down wide gravel path with tall trees on both sides

For some reason, you will almost certainly see surfers jogging either up or down this trail at all times, suggesting that it is possible that their days follow a much tighter schedule than we give them credit for. Probably not, though.

Some descriptions recommend you watch for woodpeckers along the trail but if you forget, well, they’re just woodpeckers.

All dogs need to be kept on a leash, although some dog owners believe an exception can be made as long as you say “don’t worry, he’s friendly”.

History of Sombrio Beach

Sombrio Beach is located on the traditional land of the Pacheedaht First Nations people. The name means “Children of the Sea Foam”, which would seem like more logical inhabitants than the “Children of Skin-Tight Neoprene and Recreational Cannabis Use” that frequent the beach today.

However, between the 1960’s and 1990’s, Sombrio drew a growing community of surfers, squatters and “social misfits” who arrived with a diverse set of beliefs. Some wanted to return to a natural life, live off the land and reduce their environmental footprint. Others were simply trying to avoid their exes and former weed dealers looking to collect.

In 1994, Sombrio was brought under the protection of the Juan de Fuca Provincial Park, pushing the few remaining Paachedaht residents into a nearby reserve. In 1997, local squatters were also cleared out, a controversial move that was the subject of a 2006 documentary. How this was morally different from those squatters showing up and claiming First Nations land remains unclear. “That’s different, though” said someone, almost certainly.

Today, Sombrio Beach is known for its very nice driftwood.

Sights and Activities

East Sombrio

The more popular of the two sections, although not for any of the political reasons you’re thinking. It just happens to have the best surf breaks and access to both the waterfalls, which are among the best on Vancouver Island. The beach itself is a mix of rocky and sandy and there are lots of large downed trees and driftwood to photograph, sit on or comically balance on while someone takes a video that never turns out quite as amusing as you hoped.

West Sombrio

The western section is quieter and rockier and the western trail is somewhat muddier but it does feature a small suspension bridge. If you’re thinking that West Sombrio Beach is truly a beach of contrasts, well, you’d be right on the money.

Join the Sombrio Beach Surfing Scene

The ocean with trees in the background and Botanical Beach surfing surfer on one of the waves

Sombrio Beach is one of the premier surfing destinations in Canada. There are breaks to suit everyone from beginners to experts, and especially those who love wiping out into disgusting, but soft, forests of kelp. There are lots of huge rocks, occasionally wild waves and underwater reefs to watch for so it pays to check out the Sombrio Beach Surf Forecast and Surf Report beforehand to research the breaks and tides.

The water temperature varies from “freezing” to “not terrible”, depending on the season, so don’t forget your full wet suit, hoodies and booties. The three main breaks are known as “1st Peak”, “2nd Peak” and “Chickens”. That last one sort of comes off a little judgy.

Find the Hidden Sombrio Beach Waterfall

The Sombrio Beach waterfall with undulating cliffs on both sides of the narrow canyon

If you walk for about 10 minutes east along East Sombrio you will eventually come to a small creek emptying into the ocean. This is nothing, ignore it. A couple minutes after that, though, you’ll find another small creek emptying into the ocean. Follow this one up into the trees, stepping from rock to rock to keep your feet dry.

Despite the grand name, almost immediately you will both see and hear the “Hidden Waterfall” crashing down loudly at the back of the narrow and intensely green gorge straight ahead. Bear in mind, while it is perfectly fine to visit it, this site is considered sacred by the indigenous people of the region so treat it with respect (i.e. no nude selfies or peeing in dark corners).

Keep in mind, the tide will need to be under 3 metres if you want to get around the rocky headland to reach the waterfall without walking in the water. If you want to see just how far you need to walk to get there, the Sombrio Beach Hidden Waterfall is clearly marked on Google Maps (yet further mockery of its name). There is a bonus Sombrio Beach waterfall further down the beach that isn’t hidden at all.

Light a Campfire

Sombrio Beach is one of the few beaches in the area that allow fires directly on the beach (Mystic Beach is another), making it popular with people hoping to get rid of large piles of old newspapers. All fires should be made below the high tide line so the embers will be washed away by the waves and you should consider bringing your own firewood to conserve resources on the beach.

Watch Wildlife

Whale watching is a possibility from the beach. Grey whales are often spotted in March and April as they migrate up to Alaska, sometimes even coming close to shore to feed on the kelp reefs. Killer whales appear occasionally, usually just to mess with the surfers, although sometimes they also bring their kids to see the waterfall. 

Nobody has ever reported seeing a penguin on Sombrio Beach but, hey, you never know.

Hike All or Part of the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail

Woman standing at the top of the second Sombrio Beach waterfall that lands in the ocean

This famous long-distance trail runs for 50 kilometres from China Beach to Botanical Beach (or vice versa) and is one of the best hiking trails on Vancouver Island. It is rough, muddy and full of roots, so obviously people love it. If you follow it for about 15 minutes east of the Hidden Waterfall you will come to “Second Waterfall”.

You can usually make your way right to the edge of the cliff where it drops into the bay, although the best photo spot is actually along the trail about 5 minutes before the falls themselves. At low tide you can walk to the bottom of the falls but be very aware of the tide as this is not somewhere you want to get caught when the tide comes back in.

Search the Tide Pools

Sombrio Beach has several tide pool areas, one of the best being right where the Hidden Waterfall empties into the ocean. At low tide you may find them full of fascinating marine life such as urchins, clams or even little fish. Most of them are just full of water, though.

Sombrio Beach Camping

Orange tent by driftwood in front of large trees on the Sombrio Beach camping

Now that all the Sombrio Beach squatters and their shacks have been removed, you no longer have the option of getting wrecked and passing out on the rotting bench seat of a 1964 Oldsmobile. Sombrio Beach camping, though, is legendary, and probably cleaner. There are three designated Sombrio Beach campground areas – East, Main and West – that are open year-round. All have several cleared dirt patches and on West Sombrio there are even a few luxurious wooden platforms.

Pit toilets are located by the parking lot and where both trails meet up with the beach. The sauna is just to the right. Only kidding, there is no sauna, although you are perfectly welcome to sit around nearly naked sweating profusely. It’s known as July. There is also no potable water (stream water can be treated and/or boiled) and very little, if any, cell service.

There are bear boxes to store your food, which will keep your breakfast safe, although the same can’t be said for you. Bear experts recommend trying not to smell edible. On a related note, there are no showers.

In dry times there are occasional fire bans (signs posted at trailhead) but usually fires are allowed. It is best to bring your own firewood to conserve the integrity of the beach’s eclectic driftwood collection and because it is usually difficult to find anything dry enough to burn.

Sombrio camping fees are $10 per person per night ($5 for children under 16). You can’t reserve sites, but you can pay online or leave exact cash in the envelopes provided at the fee box by the parking lot. Rangers regularly patrol the beach checking permits and judging the tautness of tent lines, so don’t cut corners.

Always pack out all your trash (there are trash and recycling bins at the parking lot), and please don’t think that just because they are “organic” you can toss your orange peels all over the ground to eventually dry up and resemble discarded toenails.

Port Renfrew Camping: Choosing the Best Campground for You

Places to Eat

You can picnic anywhere you want on Sombrio Beach but if you have a fire, please follow all the rules discussed above and whatever you do, don’t let your marshmallows catch fire because that ruins them.

Fishing is allowed but remember that Grey whales are strictly catch-and-release.

How to Get to Sombrio Beach

It is about 100 km from Victoria to Sombrio Beach, which takes roughly 2 hours to drive because Highway 14 is scenic but slow. From downtown Victoria, take Douglas Street north and follow it as it turns into Highway #1, then take Exit #14 to Langford to the Veteran’s Memorial Parkway, take a right onto Sooke Road and stay on that for, say, a couple hours.

No matter how close your relationship is with the GPS on your phone, you’ll have to resort to some traditional directions to find Sombrio Beach. The highway turnoff shown on Google Maps is actually blocked off, so you need to continue on to the next dirt road on your left. While there is no sign at the actual turn, there is a sign on the highway telling you to turn in 400 metres, which is pretty accurate.

Continuing to the west, it is just 20 minutes to Port Renfrew, which no one is going to mistake for a major centre but if, for some reason, you are staying there, well, that’s how far it is.

The dirt road leading to the beach parking lot is only about 2 kilometres long, but rough, washed out and filled with potholes. At least the parking lot is big. It even has a bike rack. And, as always, you should never leave valuables in your vehicle overnight. Or dogs.

Around Sombrio Beach Vancouver Island

There are plenty of other highlights in the area you can combine with your Sombrio Beach visit. Just outside of Victoria is Witty’s Lagoon, with great views, a thriving bird community and Sitting Lady Falls, which wisely under promise with the name. Continuing farther west, there are lots of things to do around Sooke like the Sooke Potholes which may sound like something you can easily see on any Canadian road in spring, these ones are actually a series of interesting rapids, pools and small waterfalls on the Sooke River. Nearby Mary Vine Creek waterfall is also worth a look.

East Sooke Coast Trail is one of the best day hikes in British Columbia and there are many more good trails in East Sooke Park, as well, which are perfect for those who don’t consider it a real hike unless they’ve gotten at least a little bit lost.

After that you start hitting the beaches. French Beach is close to the parking area and perfect for families, Sandcut Beach has a cute little waterfall that isn’t the least bit hidden, China Beach is large and scenic and not nearly as political as you might assume, and Mystic Beach involves a tricky 4 km hike but has another great beach waterfall and, obviously, the best name. There are also several great beaches in and around Victoria.

Man standing on rock in front of waterfall on beach

In the midst of all these beaches, the Jordan River area is another big surf spot and Shirley Delicious has excellent snacks and desserts, just the thing once you’ve worked up an appetite watching all those surfers from the warmth of your car.

Around Port Renfrew there are several more highlights to add to the list, including the fantastic tide pools of Botanical Beach, the tiny bonsai tree on Fairy Lake, the atmospheric old growth forest at Avatar Grove (named after the movie, not the other way around) and Big Lonely Doug, the second-largest Douglas fir in BC.

Conclusion

With terrific surfing, wonderful scenery, two great waterfalls, contentious history and many excellent places to change out of your wetsuit only partially visible to other people, Sombrio Beach is considered by many to be the best beach on the south coast of Vancouver Island. So, whether you plan to settle in and camp or are just stopping in for a day trip, Sombrio is a must-see Vancouver Island road trip destination.

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