Port Renfrew BC: Guide to Vancouver Island’s Wild West Coast

The wild frontier of southern Vancouver Island, British Columbia and, to a certain extent, Canada, Port Renfrew is located on the pretty little inlet of Port San Juan on the far west coast. With fabulous beaches, impressive mountains/hills and plenty of ancient rain forest and some of Canada’s biggest trees – Douglas firs, cedars and spruces, just to name a few – Port Renfrew is sometimes called the “Jewel of the West Coast”. It definitely earns the title “Tall Tree Capital of Canada”. You will definitely have a long list of things to do in Port Renfew during your stay.

Of course, locals just call it “Renny”, all 144 of them, and even though it’s very small it is far enough from any other city to have everything it needs to sustain itself – school, general store, restaurants, hotels, library, post office, a pay phone (yes an actual working pay phone booth) and a pub. The pub should probably come earlier in that list, now that I look at it. Either way, the point is, there is no reason you shouldn’t spend some time in Port Renfrew exploring the natural surroundings in a leisurely fashion rather than just rushing in and out. Of course, if you’re pressed for time, it is close enough to Victoria to see most of the highlights in one long day, so you have the choice.

Check out: The Ultimate Vancouver Island Road Trip Itinerary

Is Port Renfrew Worth Visiting?

Yes, you should absolutely visit Port Refrew and its many unique things to do in the area if you make it out to Vancouver Island (or live on the island and have just never got around to visiting the west coast yet). As I mentioned, it can be visited as a day trip or can make a perfect weekend getaway. Of course, there is more than enough to see to keep you busy even longer than that.

And, do you think we’d bother writing this if it wasn’t? Mind you, I once wrote a 2,000-word fake screenplay that featured a lot of stuff about Indian cows and posted that on this site, so I suppose it is fair to ask that question.

Port Renfrew Map

10 Things to do Around Port Renfrew

Marvel at the Tall Trees

Yes, the whole “Tall Tree Capital of Canada” was probably a bit of a giveaway for this one. Although the logging industry has taken a staggering toll on the forests of Vancouver Island – the Douglas firs, in particular – there are still some very impressive sections of old growth forest.

Avatar Grove is the main success story of the Ancient Forest Alliance, a non-profit formed in 2010 to help conserve the area’s forests. This particular spot is one of the more beautiful in the region, featuring a pair of superb short hikes, one of which ends at “Canada’s Gnarliest Tree”. I’m not exactly sure how to measure gnarliness, but having seen the tree in question, it seems like a pretty plausible claim.

Sign for Canada's Gnarliest Tree with a tree behind with big bulges near Port Renfrew BC

Not far from there along some truly nasty roads you can find Big Lonely Doug, an enormous Douglas fir that stands 70-metres tall in a nice valley, surrounded by much, much shorter second-growth forest. It looks sort of like an NBA player quietly ignoring a large group of totally unfamous children. Amazingly, though, Big Doug is actually just the 2nd largest Douglas fir in British Columbia. The Red Creek Fir is even taller and can also be seen in the same area, if you are up for even more driving on even worse “roads”. However, because its neighbours are of a more comparable height, it doesn’t quite share the same wow factor. Although maybe don’t tell him I said that. He’s huge.

Of course, size isn’t everything, or so they say, a sentiment proven by the wonderful “bonsai tree” of Fairy Lake. It is quite small, and not really a bonsai tree, but it really looks like one and it just happens to be growing out of a dead log out in the middle of a lake. Which makes for some very cool reflections and puts it just far enough out of reach to make you want it even more. You can get great photos right from the road or get up nice and close if you have a canoe or kayak (or it’s summer and you can handle a 50-metre swim). The lake itself is pretty beautiful, as well, and it has a fairly appealing campground, if that’s your thing.

Explore the Tide Pools at Botanical Beach

Located just a few kilometres outside of Port Renfrew on a scenic point, the tide pools at Botanical Beach are simply amazing. There is a short loop hike that passes by both Botany Bay and Botanical Beach. Despite the name, Botany Bay is more about the interesting scenery (an islet and jagged rock formations), while the beach has the best tide pools. You want to make sure you visit around low tide for the best pools, when you will also be able to walk between the two spots out on the rocks. Always watch your footing since the rocks can get slippery, don’t step on anything that isn’t a rock and keep an eye out for rogue waves that can swoop in unexpectedly.

Find the ‘Hidden’ Waterfall at Sombrio Beach

Waterfall at Sombrio Beach

Sombrio Beach is about 20 minutes east of Port Renfrew towards Victoria but is a definite must-see. The beach itself is gorgeous (split into East and West Sombrio), with great views and atmospheric piles of driftwood along its rocky expanse. It is also one of the best surf spots in the area. But our favourite part was the “Hidden Waterfall”, which can be found a few hundred metres east down the beach from where you emerge on East Sombrio. It is hidden in the sense that you can’t see it from the beach, not that you are somehow not supposed to find it or not allowed to visit it. The waterfall does have spiritual significance to the Pacheedaht First Nation so you should take even more care than normal to be respectful, but visitors are common. After walking for about 10 minutes, you follow the second creek you see up into the trees and the narrow, green slot canyon and steep waterfall will be immediately noticeable. Great from every angle.

Go Beach Hunting

Yes, I’m aware the last 2 entries were also beaches. But they are very specific beaches deserving of their own mention (in our very subjective opinion). These other beaches are good, too, they just don’t stand out quite as much.

commands a scenic 2 kilometres on a nice, scenic bay just outside of town between the two mouths of the San Juan and Gordon rivers. Part of the First Nations Reserve, it is sandy, full of interesting piles of driftwood and is a popular camping spot.

Large pieces of driftwood on the long Pacheedaht beach one of the things to do in Port Refrew
Pacheedaht Beach

Parkinson Creek is also quite close to Port Renfrew and what it lacks in sandy sunbathing spots it makes up for with more great tide pools (at low tide, of course).

Victoria has several great beaches, plus there are a whole bunch of terrific beaches on the way back. Mystic Beach requires a rough 4 km (total there and back) hike but has a superb beach waterfall. China Beach is reached from the same parking lot and is another popular surfing, camping and picnic spot, while Sandcut Beach is far less busy and has a small beach waterfall of its own, while French Beach is popular with families thanks to its playground and nice picnic area.

Hike for Hours or Days

The Pacific Rim National Park starts just across the bay from Port Renfrew and runs up the coast, across the water to include a section between Ucluelet and Tofino, then continuing farther up to encompass a number of islands and wild coastline. The Port Renfrew entrance is also the start of the world-famous West Coast Trail, considered one of the toughest short treks around. This epic backpacking adventure is around 85 km long (75 km officially, but no one believes that is right) and, depending on all sorts of factors including fitness, pace and weather, can take anywhere from 5 to 10 days, although most people plan for a week. You need to be completely self-sufficient and prepared for any kind of weather (who are we kidding, it’s rain, be prepared for a lot of rain). Of course, it is also possible to check out a just a portion of it on a day hike out and back from Port Renfrew, going as far as you are comfortable with.

But that’s not all! On the other side of Port Renfrew, Botanical Beach is the start (or end) of the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail (the other end is at Mystic Beach). Let’s call it “West Coast Trail Lite”. This one is only about 50 km long, usually is done in 3-4 days, the terrain isn’t nearly as rugged and, even though the two trails are fairly close to each other, they have different microclimates and supposedly the Juan de Fuca gets a lot less rain. It is also less remote, as several beaches along the trail (including Sombrio Beach) can be accessed from the road. This allows you to start or end wherever you want, or just day hike certain sections. And, while the Juan de Fuca may not have the brag factor of the West Coast Trail, make no mistake, this is a gorgeous trail with outstanding beaches and terrific views all the way along.

Woman walking on trail with tall tree on each side on way to Sombrio beach one of the things to do in Port Renfrew BC
Trail to Sombrio Beach

There are also several shorter trails in the area, including the Botanical Beach to Botany Bay loop and from individual trailheads to Sombrio Beach, Parkinson Creek, Mystic Beach, China Beach and Sandcut Beach. There is also a short loop trail at Fairy Lake and the two loop trails at Avatar Grove.

Catch a Wave

There is a lot of great surfing in the Port Renfrew area, including right off Pacheedaht Beach. In the winter, this exposed beach break receives nice, consistent northeasters that combine with good swells from the west. When it all comes together, there are both lefts and rights without the crowds you often see at Sombrio Beach or Jordan River, although there are some dangerous rip currents so don’t get complacent.

Rocky beach with Jordan River surfing in the waves
Surfers at Jordan River

We already mentioned how popular Sombrio Beach is with the surfing crowd, but the real big-time waves can be found at Jordan River. This is where the locals come to enjoy difficult but exhilarating conditions. Just bear in mind, they don’t always take kindly to outsiders getting in the way, so tread lightly.

Find a Remote Lake for Windsurfing

It may not be super-convenient, but lovely Nitinat Lake is a surprising top windsurfing destination. It isn’t far from Port Renfrew as the crow flies (assuming the crow in question doesn’t get distracted by some trash or some tasty dead animal) but to get there you have to drive inland first, then up and around – it’ll take about 2 hours or so to cover the rough 100 kilometres on local logging roads.

The payoff, though, is that Nitinat Lake enjoys completely unique and absolutely perfect windsurfing conditions. Since the lake opens onto the ocean it acts as a vacuum, sucking cool coastal air down the chute to provide amazing, consistent thermal winds. Throw in the picturesque old growth forest surroundings and the whole thing starts to feel like something created in a Hollywood studio. You know, if Hollywood studios made movies about windsurfing.

Go for a Paddle

The calm waters of the San Juan River Estuary Ecological Reserve are ideal for canoeing and kayaking, with scenic ponds and rivers and a very gentle current. The area is teeming with wildlife, including Roosevelt Elk, deer, black bears and loads of energetic river otters. There are also hundreds of different bird species on display, so don’t get too excited about the first ones you see. Fairy Lake is connected to the estuary and is an outstanding paddling area in its own right (and your big chance to get up close and personal with a fake bonsai actual midget fir tree).

Catch a Record Breaker – Port Renfrew Fishing

How have we gotten this far without talking about Port Renfrew fishing? Port Renfrew is famous for its salmon fishing, with local First Nations people living off fishing for thousands of years. The name Pacheedaht even translates to “Children of the Sea Foam”.

The Swiftsure Bank, located around 40 kilometres offshore, is one of the biggest feeding grounds for salmon stopping off for lunch on their way to spawn in many of the west coast’s most famous waterways, including the Fraser River, Columbia River, Puget Sound and local runs such as those at Nitinat Lake, Port San Juan and Sooke. Massive schools of baitfish at Swiftsure Bank draw in huge numbers of Chinook (Spring/King), Coho (Silver), Sockeye and Pink salmon, making it one of the top salmon fishing regions in the world. The season typically runs from July to October and sometimes in September you can even catch Coho right from the beach.

It is also an excellent place to fish for “chicken halibut”, which are lively and plentiful 20-50 pounders (10-25 kilos). Of course, in some of the quieter areas nearby you can also find the really big ones (the record is 240 pounds / 110 kg).

Heading inland, you can catch steelhead and trout in Harris Creek and the San Juan and Gordon rivers during the winter months.

Smelt fishing is another popular pastime, with people setting their nets just off the beach and patiently sitting back to await their haul.

Of course, if you are looking for something a little more proactive, you can opt for a fishing charter – McKenna Sportfishing and No Bananas Fishing Charters are both popular outfits that know the coast like the back of their hand(s). Another option is to stay at the Trailhead Resort fishing lodge for an immersive fishing adventure. 

No matter where or how you end up fishing, remember that you need a license. Make sure you buy your fishing license online ahead of time (you can’t buy them in Port Renfrew any more) and print a copy – you must have a printed copy with you at all times (while fishing, I mean, not when you are doing other things like reading or having a bath).

Finally, if you have your own boat you can launch it at the Port Renfrew Marina and the berths on a first come, first-served basis. You are also allowed to sleep on your boat, if it happens to be set up for that sort of thing.

Whale and Sea Lion Watching

There is always a chance of spotting whales or sea lions from any of the beaches, trails and viewpoints around Port Renfrew. March and April are the best times to see grey whales when they are passing by on their annual migration up to Alaska. Orcas can be spotted any time of year, preferably from a safe distance.

Of course, if you want to up your odds you should take a whale watching tour. Orca Spirit Adventures runs tours that go up the West Coast Trail coastline taking in Sea Lion Rock and Carmanah Point Light Station along the way.

Port Renfrew Accommodation

They are a suprising number of choices of Port Renfrew hotels and cabins considering the size.

With an incredible view and the sound of the waves to lull you to sleep, Wild Renfrew Seaside Cottages is a great choice for accommodation in Port Renfrew. It is close to the local pub and marina and also has a private beach to relax on.

Handsome Dan’s Cottages have that intriguing name, of course, as well as kitchens in all the cottages so you can make some of your own meals. It is pet-friendly and the fire pit is a great way to end the day.

Booking.com

Port Renfrew Camping

There are a few places you can camp in and around Port Renfrew. Pacheedaht Campground and Middle Beach Campground both are basic campgrounds with pleasant surroundings. Not far from there, Port Renfrew Marina and RV Park has 140 serviced and 30 non-serviced sites. Right in town, Port Renfrew RV Resort is another option with good facilities that is close to shops and restaurants, although it is closed in the winter. There are some basic sites out on idyllic Fairy Lake and if you really want the primitive beach camping experience, head to Sombrio Beach and just set up camp any place that suits your fancy. For more details:

Port Renfrew Camping: Choosing the Best Campground for Your

Where to Eat

There aren’t a lot of Port Renfrew BC restaurants to choose from but fortunately they will cover all your needs.

The Port Renfrew Pub has a great patio overlooking the water and is known for its craft beers and classic pub food like burgers and chicken fingers.

Tomi’s Home Cookin is small with a limited menu but is a great stop for breakfast or a latte on the deck.

Sign for Tomi's home cooking in Port Renfrew, BC

If you are looking for light meals with a west coast flavour then Coastal Kitchen is for you. The seafood chowder is definitely a good pick!

Where is Port Renfrew?

Port Renfrew is located at the far western end of Highway 14, and while the drive out may be a bit slower than you expect, it does feature some great scenery.

Victoria to Port Renfrew: 110 km (about 2 hours)

Sooke to Port Renfrew: 70 km (about 1 hour and 15 minutes)

There is also a more direct route from Lake Cowichan to Port Renfrew on Pacific Marine Road: 60 km (about 1 hour and 15 minutes)

From Nanaimo to Port Renfrew you come that way as well: 135 km (about 2 hours and 15 minutes)

Conclusion

Port Renfrew is the most remote wilderness outpost you will find within a 2-hour drive of a major city. This unlikely marriage of convenience and beautiful natural surroundings make it an essential stop on any Vancouver Island road trip or vacation. This list of what to do in Port Refrew should fill all your available time.

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Other useful articles you may want to check out:

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Road Tripping by the Numbers: A Pacific Northwest Road Trip

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