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Hiking the Juan de Fuca Trail with kids

When I hiked the West Coast Trail last fall, Sunshine said she wanted to hike it too. I said that’s a great goal—but you need to hike some easier trails first. When the opportunity came up to hike the Juan de Fuca Trail on Vancouver Island with a group of friends, I jumped on it. At the end of June, eleven tweens hiked thirty kilometers from Sombrio Beach to Mystic Beach with nine parents. Here’s the ups and downs (and lessons learned!) of that trip.

Hiking the Juan de Fuca Trail with kids.

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Preparing for the Juan de Fuca Trail

Our trip was organized by Mr. D, whose very first overnight hike was the Juan de Fuca Trail some fourteen years ago. Now, he’s a veteran of over a hundred hikes around BC and regularly organizes large group hikes. This trip was classed as an “alphas” hike, for beginner hikers or those with a little bit of experience. The youngest boy was eight, the oldest thirteen, but most of the kids were about ten.

Mr. D sent out numerous emails coordinating plans with us parents. He planned the itinerary and the suppers, so all I had to pack was our breakfast, lunch and snacks for the three days of hiking. I planned instant oatmeal for breakfast, naan bread with Babybel cheese and pepperoni sticks for lunch, and trail mix and dried fruit for snacks.

We’d already picked up two small ladies’ packs on sale and secondhand for Sunshine and Lily, in anticipation of some hiking this summer. Any other gear I had from my West Coast Trail hike last year or my pre-baby hiking days. Sunshine and Lily carried their sleeping bags, Thermarests, clothes, and water. I had my two-man backpacking tent, stove, water filter, our food, and my own sleeping bag, etc.

On Canada Day, Sunshine, Lily and I packed our backpacks and caught the ferry across to Vancouver Island. A friend of mine picked us up, took us our for dinner, and let us crash at her place for the night before starting our hike. That gave us an earlier start to hiking on our first day.

Day 1: Sombrio Beach to Chin Beach (8 km)

Thursday morning found us up early to meet Mrs. W and her daughter, the other mother-daughter pair on the hike. They gave us a ride to 17 Mile House, where we met the rest of our group. In three vehicles, we headed for Sombrio Beach, dropping one vehicle at Mystic Beach (for our return) on the way past. Just past noon, we’d all registered at the trail head, shouldered our packs, and were heading down the trail towards the beach.

Hikers heading down the trail toward Sombrio Beach.

At the beach, we found a space to eat lunch together. Mr. D had some opening remarks, welcoming us all to the Juan de Fuca Trail (especially those of us on our first hike with him). He also led us in the “hiker’s vow,” about being a good sport and putting up with annoying hiking companions. Then we said a prayer, shouldered our packs again, and set off down the beach. The boys were soon way ahead, while the girls and parents straggled along after them.

Sombrio Beach (with a few eager hikers)

Our first day was 8 km—a good warm-up day that gave us time to coordinate vehicles and get to the trailhead. We soon left the beach and followed the trail through the forest around a bay, past the top of a waterfall, with views back at Sombrio Beach as we marched. The trail was just wide enough for us to hike single-file, with the salal bushes sometimes as tall on either side of us as our packs.

Waterfall near Sombrio Beach.

Trail markers along the Juan de Fuca Trail count down the km as we hiked. Sombrio Beach is at about Kilometer 29. The first kilometer seemed to take forever… but a few kilometers after that, I got used to the pace and the trail and began to expect the km markers just before we hiked up to them. It was nice to have these signs to orient ourselves to the distance we’d done and had yet to do each day.

Juan de Fuca Trail sign: 11 km to go to get to Chin Beach for the first night on the trail.

For the first day, I didn’t see much of Sunshine and Lily. They got ahead with their friends (talking the whole time, I suspect) and I ended up near the back of the group, helping some less confident hikers. Mrs. W’s daughter began to go slower, getting tired of the constant ups and downs of the trail, picking her way over the mudholes. We stopped for a break in one uphill section, and then we reached the part of the trail Mr. D had described as “the cream.”

Day 1 on the Juan de Fuca Trail.

After the ups and downs, mud holes, and narrow trail, we hit a section that was long and flat and wide. We could walk two-by-two again and not worry about tripping over rocks and roots. This was, apparently, an old rail grade, long since unused, but now the perfect hiker break on the Juan de Fuca Trail. It was the fastest kilometer we hiked on the first day and it was awesome.

Suspension bridge on the Juan de Fuca Trail.

Soon after the cream, we hit the suspension bridge—a feature of either dread or anticipation, depending on your hiking preferences. Lily (who dislikes heights) said it was “terrible” but proceeded to run across it multiple times. We sat at one end of the bridge waiting for a couple slower hikers to catch up with us, so the girls had lots of time to play on the bridge. I enjoyed the view from the centre of the bridge:

View of a river out to the ocean.

After the suspension bridge (and snacks and water), the trail continued over rocks and logs through the forest. There were several new bridges built all the way down the coast, and evidence that trail crews had also been along to clear the debris of winter storms. There were still a lot of muddy sections, and some older bridges built from fallen logs to balance our way across.

Hikers on a log bridge.

Finally, we reached the beach for the last half kilometer of our day. After the up and down trail through the forest, it was nice to climb down to the beach and have a flat (if rocky) walk across to our campsite. Of course, the boys and a few dads were already staked out there, with a fire lit for us. The girls soon dropped their packs and were climbing a massive rock at the edge of the incoming waves. (Apparently hiking 8 km wasn’t tiring enough to keep them from some bouldering!)

Kids bouldering at Chin Beach.

While the girls played, I scoped out the beach and found a flat area just big enough for our two-man tent, right next to another tent. A huge log sprawled between us and the tide, so I was pretty sure we’d be okay even at high tide. I then set up my water filter to refill our water bottles, although a couple of the boys soon showed up, asked how to use the filter, and took over watching it for me.

Two-man Eureka backpacking tent on Chin Beach.

Supper was hot dogs followed by s’mores, thanks to a couple dads who’d parked on the road and hiked the 3 km down to Chin Beach to join us for the rest of the hike, and brought supper with them. The Juan de Fuca Trail is much less remote than the West Coast Trail, running between the highway and the ocean from Port Renfrew towards Sooke. This accessibility makes it popular for dayhikers and also makes it easy to hike shorter sections of it, as we did. It also let some of our group come and go for various reasons, such as the dads who were unable to get Thursday off and joined us late.

Day 2: Chin Beach to Bear Beach (12 km)

When I stepped out of our tent on Friday morning, I said, “Holy cow, it’s a whole new beach!!!” The tide that had come in past the girls’ climbing rock the night before was now way out, revealing a rock shelf that was abundant with ocean life. The girls went out to explore and soon came back, excitedly telling me about the creatures they’d found and begging me to bring the camera. Grabbing my Nikon, I set out after them.

Low tide on Chin Beach.

We had to step carefully across the rocks to avoid crushing mussels, barnacles, and other creatures on the rocks. As we got out further on the tide shelf, we saw more and more chitons, sea urchins, anenomes, and even a few sea stars. I’ve never seen so many chitons in one place. We first encountered these prehistoric-looking sea animals when Sunshine was in preschool; ever since then, I peer in every tide pool I find for them. I saw several on the West Coast Trail, but usually one here and another there. On Chin Beach, the chitons were almost as numerous as the sea urchins.

Sea creatures on Chin Beach.

Mr. D boiled huge pots of water for all of us to make our instant oatmeal, as well as a big pot of coffee for the parents. After breakfast, we packed up our tents and gear and were ready to start hiking at 9 am, after a group prayer. Mrs. D, Mrs. W and her daughter headed up the side trail to the road to drive to Bear Beach and rejoin us; the previous day had convinced them they weren’t ready for the 12 km day the rest of us were going to face.

Day 2 on the Juan de Fuca trail: hiking across Chin Beach.

The day started with a steep ascent off the beach via a set of brand-new stairs (which smelled great and got our heart rates up). After that, it was more the usual Juan de Fuca Trail: mud holes to go around, salal bushes crowding the trail, up one ridge and down the other side to cross a stream (sometimes with a bridge and sometimes without) and then ascend the next ridge. Along the way, we saw some wildlife:

Slugs and centipedes on Vancouver Island.

The Juan de Fuca Trail continued to present us with new challenges that day. From log bridges to walk carefully across (one dad explained to his daughter that her ballet training would come in handy here—good balance and strong legs are required for hiking too!) to the ever-present mud holes to a rope to help us cross one rocky ravine, the trail certainly wasn’t dull. Often, we stood in line, waiting our turn to cross the obstacle ahead of us.

10-year-old Lily uses a rope to navigate a rocky ravine.

A light rain had started just after we’d begun hiking for the day. I’d put my gaiters on for the day and made sure the girls had their pack covers on, but we hiked in our shirt-sleeves for the morning as the rain continued on and off. A few kilometers before we reached the bridge where we planned to stop for lunch, Lily went up past her ankle in mud. She’d been marching along, despite the difficult terrain, until then, but landing in that mud hole devastated her.

Mud on the Juan de Fuca Trail.

Mr. D took her backpack for her. We had no way to clean her shoes (and her dislike for socks didn’t help at that particular stage in the hike) so she just continued on. Later, another dad took her pack for a bit. I felt bad that they were awkwardly carting her load along with theirs, but I was too tired to take it myself. We’d planned to meet the boys and a couple of the other dads, who’d hiked ahead once again, at a bridge for lunch. Mr. D said it was at km 15, and we were counting down the kilometers until then. Just before we reached km 14 (hoping we were on the last up and down), he said, “Wait. Maybe it’s at km 14.”

Somehow we made it that extra kilometer to the bridge, only to find no boys. We were past halfway in our long day (7 km down, 5 km to go) and likely they’d waited there for a bit, but our group was going slow. Lily wasn’t the only tired hiker; a friend of hers was the smallest girl on the hike and had been going quite slow all day, despite frequent loving encouragement from her dad. We found a flat section under some trees to eat our lunch, but it began raining harder right then.

Skull Rock on the Juan de Fuca Trail

Soon, we were all ready to put our packs back on (at least they keep us warm!). Two of the dads took Lily’s clothes, mattress and water so all she had was her sleeping bag. She was ready to get going, so she and I started out, while Sunshine hung back waiting for her friend. We’d gone only 5 minutes down the trail when I heard a yell behind us. I thought, “That’s Sunshine.” When she yelled again, I knew something was wrong. I told Lily, “Wait here” and I headed back down the trail as fast as I could with a full pack.

Sunshine was in tears when I reached her. A wasp had stung her on the ankle. Mr. D had gotten there in time to kick the wasp off her sock, but the pain of the bite left her crying for the next hour. None of my kids have had wasp stings before, so I didn’t know what to do. Mrs. D is a nurse, but she was unfortunately on the side trail for that day, and the boys had the first aid kit. I dug out my small first aid kit and applied some Cicadermine Cream to her sting; it was the only sort of ointment I had. I also discovered an Advil bottle in my first aid kit, so after reading the label and consulting with Mr. D, I gave her one.

Sunshine and Lily hiking with plastic ponchos over their packs.

We continued forward, up the next ridge through tall straight trees, their branches and needles carpeting the forest floor around us so thickly that few other plants grew. On the switchbacks, Sunshine would look down at the last people in our group passing below us and call out, “Hello down there!” I wasn’t sure it was very encouraging to those below us but it distracted her from her wasp sting.

We watched for trail markers and looked forward to the last kilometer of the day, which was a beach hike. And finally, we were crossing a shallow rushing stream (without a bridge—it washed some of the mud from our boots) and stepping down onto the rocky beach.

Young hikers crossing a shallow stream.

Down the beach, we could see the tan cliff that marked our campground and destination. Grey smoke drifted out towards the ocean from there, and we knew the rest of our group was likely there, relaxing around a warm fire. We spread out across the beach, stepping from boulder to boulder. Both Lily and Sunshine began to move faster here as the novelty of some new scenery gave them a last burst of energy.

Boulder hopping on Bear Beach.

We passed other hikers who’d already pitched their tents in the trees above the high tide. The West Coast Trail and Juan de Fuca Trail are both camp wherever you can; a flat spot and a good source of water are all that you need. While there were designated camping areas with food caches, these filled up quite quickly. When we reached the Bear Beach campground, we found out Mrs. D had gotten back there fairly early in the afternoon and saved campsites for the rest of us. It was a relief to set up my tent on a nice flat, dirt space instead of on the rocky beach as I had the previous night.

Bear Beach

Sunshine had soon poured out her wasp woes to Mrs. D, who found some Benadryl cream in the first aid kit and applied it to her sting. She said the sting might itch for a few days, but that was the last I heard of the wasp sting until we got home for Sunshine to brag of her encounter to Daddy and her sisters. The girls soon had their shoes off and were splashing through the water (of both the ocean and the river) with their friends. I left them to play while I set up our tent.

Supper was once again supplied by the amazing Mr. D. We had the option of either Ramen Plus (instant noodles with dried vegetables and little sausages in it) or Cheesy Baco Spuds (dressed up instant mashed potatoes). The latter was cooked in a huge pot over the fire and then left to sit while the Ramen Plus boiled over Mr. D’s MSR stove. Soon, we were lining up with our bowls for hot soup, which went well into tired, empty stomachs.

Other hikers were attempting to dry their boots around the fire, so I grabbed the girls’ extremely muddy shoes and took them down to the ocean to wash. I had to scrub Lily’s shoes because the mud was packed into the soles. Back at the fire, I watched them carefully, making sure they didn’t get “toasty” as other shoes had. Then, when it began to rain at 8 pm, I told the girls were were just heading for the tent. We piled our shoes under the vestibule and were soon asleep.

Day 3: Bear Beach to Mystic Beach (8 km)

We woke up drier than we went to sleep, despite my concerns about leaking tents and where we put our clothes and my camera. Once again it was a glorious morning. Soon, a fire was burning and hot water was boiling for coffee and oatmeal. We filled our water bottles and took a leisurely start to the day. It was 10:30 before we were saying our group prayer and making our way across the logs over the river to start our hike.

Crossing the logs over the river at Bear Beach.

We saw a gorgeous waterfall on the beach and then once again climbed up off the beach and into the forest. Lily had put on her shoes in the morning and said, “Ow.” While I’d carefully watched the outside of her shoes to ensure they didn’t burn or melt by the fire, a plastic piece inside her heel had melted and curled inward. It now poked and pinched her heel. I couldn’t bend it, so I hoped that she could finish our last day with it. However, within a kilometer, she was starting to hike with her heel out of her shoe whenever possible.

Two hikers on the Juan de Fuca trail.

We marched along in a steady line. For a while, we tried to keep the girls in a group together, as they all seemed to hike better when they were chattering to each other (and not whining to us parents). As they got tired, however, the chatter stopped and then they started drifting back to hike with their parents. One dad or I would call breaks every hour or so. Slowly, Lily and I fell towards the back of the group with Mrs. W. As Lily continued to complain about her heel, I remembered that Sunshine had brought her water shoes. They weren’t great for hiking in, but they might be better than damaged runners.

At the next downhill section, I left Lily with Mrs. W and went ahead as fast as I could to find Sunshine. Her group had stopped for a break at a pretty viewpoint. I dropped my pack, grabbed the water shoe, and ran back to meet Lily and Mrs. W. As I dashed past another hiker taking a break, I said, “Maybe I could be a trail runner!” Over the last two days, we’d watched several trail runners pass us at various times, loping along the trail with light packs and long strides while we hunched over with heavy packs and heavier steps. Leaving my pack behind, I felt as light as a bird and soon reached Mrs. W and Lily.

Ocean views on the Juan de Fuca Trail.

We continued on. Lily chattered away to either Mrs. W or Mrs. D. I was glad we had a shorter day, for even I was tired. Mr. D had said that our first day was rated “moderate,” our second “difficult,” and our last “easy” but I didn’t really notice any huge terrain differences between the three days. The Juan de Fuca is definitely a strenuous trail, and we only hiked three days of it. I had debated whether it was a suitable first hiking trip for the girls, and decided that the hard work was balanced out by having a group of friends to hike it with.

Waterfall on the Juan de Fuca Trail.

Finally, we reached Mystic Beach for our late lunch (it was about 2 pm). The kids sat by the stream pumping water for the water bottles, and eating their snacks. Soon, the boys were challenging each other to climb a nearby boulder as fast as possible, while the girls worked at redirecting a stream down near the ocean waves. Sunshine sparkled on the water and I spread a few hoodies and socks out to get dry on the logs.

Lily plays in the sand and water at Mystic Beach.

Three of the dads headed up to the parking lot to go retrieve our vehicles from Sombrio Beach. The rest of us played on the beach until 4 pm, and then made the last 2 km hike to the parking lot. There, we got a picture with the km 0 sign (note Lily’s mismatched shoes) and then piled into the vehicles for the drive to Sooke for burgers. It had been a fun three days!

Bonnie and Lily at the 0 km marker on the Juan de Fuca Trail.

Tips for Hiking the Juan de Fuca Trail with kids

  • Hike with a group! More adults means more people to help spread around the weight (if necessary) and friends help motivate kids.
  • Take frequent breaks. I’d suggest stopped every km marker or every hour (although our group didn’t). Have a snack, admire the scenery, and enjoy your hike.
  • Pack as light as possible. Weight makes a huge difference, especially if you’re packing for your kids too. If you’re hiking with a group, you can share gear such as the stove and water filters. Check what your kids pack and make sure they aren’t taking extras that aren’t needed (like too many clothes).
  • Drink lots of water, and encourage the kids to do the same! I highly recommend Camelbacks for everyone. If you don’t have them, stop more often (see above) for water breaks. I like to take juice crystals to help kids drink more.
  • Prepare for all weather. The forecast was for sun for our trip, but our second day was pretty rainy and I was glad for our disposable ponchos, hats, and the girls’ pack covers. Nights also tend to get cool, so pack hoodies or sweaters for the evening.

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