Strathcona Provincial Park is a rugged mountain wilderness of over 250,000 hectares that dominates central Vancouver Island. Created in 1911, Strathcona is the oldest provincial park in BC and the largest on Vancouver Island. The triangular shaped park practically spans the entire width of Vancouver Island, in that it borders on Herbert Inlet off Clayoquot Sound on the Pacific Coast, and extends eastwards to within 13 kilometres of the sea near Comox.
Mountain Peaks, some eternally mantled with snow, dominate the park while lakes and alpine tarns dot a landscape laced with rivers, creeks and streams. In the valley and lower regions of the park stand forests that were already old in 1778 when Captain James Cook of the Royal Navy landed at Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
Della Falls, the highest waterfall in Canada with an overall drop of 440 metres in three cascades, is located in the southern section of the park. Fed by glaciers and alpine streams, the crystal clear waters of Della Lake spill over the edge of a rocky cliff and cascade into the valley of Drinkwater Creek. Nearly eight times higher than Niagara Falls and amongst the top ten highest falls in the world, Della Falls are only seen by the few adventurers who undertake the arduous hike through Strathcona Provincial Park.
Many pretty little lakes dot the Forbidden Plateau area, providing good fly fishing for rainbow trout during summer. The Forbidden Plateau region of Strathcona has the origin of its name in Indian legend. The plateau was believed to be inhabited by evil spirits who consumed women and children who dared to venture into the area.
The reward for those who venture onto Forbidden Plateau today is an area of subalpine beauty. Views of glaciers, mountains and verdant forests stretching eastward to the Strait of Georgia are visual highlights. A prominent site from summits in the park is the Golden Hinde, the highest point on Vancouver Island at an elevation of 2,200 metres. The Golden Hinde stands almost in the centre of Strathcona Park, at the head of the Wolf River to the west of Buttle Lake.
The park extends from sea level to above 1,800 metre in elevation, and therefore supports a great variety of forest and plant life. Douglas-fir, western red cedar, grand fir, amabilis fir and western hemlock of the coast forest cover much of the valleys and lower mountain slopes, giving way to subalpine fir, mountain hemlock and creeping juniper in the subalpine areas. Through summer months the park offers a spectacular floral display in various areas. Found at varying heights are heather, lupine, monkey flowers and violets, as well as Indian paintbrush, phlox and moss campion.
Vancouver Island’s separation from mainland British Columbia by Johnstone Strait and Georgia Strait has resulted in many mammal species common to other parts of the province not been found on the island. Chipmunks, porcupines, coyotes, foxes and grizzly bears are absent, while species such as the wolf, Roosevelt elk, the Vancouver Island marmot and the coastal black-tail deer are different from their mainland relatives. Strathcona has a large deer and elk population, with year-round viewings of Roosevelt Elk possible, while wolves and cougars, though present, are not frequently seen.
Strathcona Park also supports a rather varied population of birds, including the chestnut-backed chickadee, red-breasted nuthatch, the winter wren, and the kinglet. The Steller’s jay, which is the provincial bird of British Columbia, the gray jay, and the band-tailed pigeon are also likely to be encountered when hiking through Strathcona Park. The park also protects blue grouse, ruffed grouse and the unique Vancouver Island white-ptarmigan.
Buttle Lake, named for Commander John Buttle who explored the area in the 1860s, is the major body of water in the park. Buttle, and the many other lakes and waterways in the park can provide good fishing in season for cutthroat trout, rainbow trout and Dolly Varden.
Summer in Strathcona Provincial Park is usually pleasantly warm while winters are fairly mild, with the exception of the higher levels where heavy snowfalls are quite common. From November through March, snowfalls are general on the mountain slopes and alpine plateaus. Snow remains all year on the mountain peaks and may linger into July in the higher elevations. Summer evenings, as elsewhere in the coastal areas of British Columbia, can be cool and rain can be expected at any time of the year.
The Buttle Lake and Forbidden Plateau areas have some visitor-orientated developments, but the rest of the park is largely undeveloped and appeals to people seeking wilderness surroundings. To see and enjoy much of the scenic splendour of Strathcona requires well-prepared hiking or backpacking into the alpine regions. The park offers various types of water activities, cross-country skiing, wildlife viewing and excellent wilderness camping, hiking and fishing adventures in the alpine wilderness. The multitude of lakes and rivers in Strathcona attract kayakers and anglers wanting to get away from it all to regain their senses in the remote tranquility offered by the likes of Buttle Lake, Megin River and Megin Lake.
Hiking and Backpacking in Strathcona Provincial Park
The rugged wilderness areas, glaciers, snowfields and mountains of Strathcona Provincial Park require that hikers who wish to venture off maintained trails and away from developed areas be entirely self-sufficient, properly equipped and suitably experienced.
Backpacking routes in Strathcona Park are not posted with trail signs, or defined in any way, and routes therefore require orienteering by hiking groups. All trails in Strathcona are closed to mountain bikes and horses. Visitors should be aware that Strathcona Park is bear and cougar country. These wild animals are potentially dangerous, and may be encountered at any time. Prudent hikers will exercise due caution and follow the Bear Safety and Cougar Safety guides published by BC Parks.
As the opportunity for backcountry hiking in Strathcona is endless, we have described two of the recommended hikes. Hikers wishing to challenge the trails of Strathcona should use Hiking Trails lll as their travelling companion. This guide describes approximately 40 trails and routes in Strathcona, providing excellent route maps.
The Della Falls Trail leads Hikers from the head of Great Central Lake to the base of the highest falls in Canada, a 440-metre cascade from Della Lake into the valley of Drinkwater Creek. The trail starts at the campground at the northwestern tip of Great Central Lake and follows an old logging path carved out earlier this century, crossing timber bridges and travelling through second-growth and old-growth forest.
This 16 km trail takes about 7 hours each way (from the trailhead) and is suitable for intermediate level hikers. For Great Central Lake, drive 13 km west of Port Alberni on Highway 4 and, instead of turning towards Sproat Lake, continue on Great Central Lake Road for 8 Km. It takes 20 minutes to the Ark Resort, where you can park for a small fee and take a boat to the Della Falls Trailhead. Allow 3 days for a round trip if using a powerboat, and six days by canoe.
The Comox Glacier Trail is a steep trail and alpine route suitable for advanced hikers and mountaineers only. This is a three day hike (9 km) in reasonable weather for strong hikers: one day to the frog pond campsite about 1.5 km along the ridge, a second day to travel light up to the glacier and back to the camp, and a third day to pack out. The route is rough and in places the rock steps can be quite intimidating. Good backpacking gear, maps, a compass, ice axe, ropes and a stove are all essential.
Road access to this area is by very poor logging roads for about 38 km from Courtenay. Local conditions can be checked before embarking on the trip by calling BC Parks or TimberWest. A 4×4 vehicle is essential. Strathcona Provincial Park was created in 1911 and is the original park in the provincial system, which now numbers over 450 protected sites. At the time, the 544,000 acres (200,000 hectares) seemed like a fabulous amount of land to set aside. It still does, especially to those who like to hike in the middle of the rugged, heavily glaciated Vancouver Island Mountains. The park was created for those who seek adventure in remote wilderness surroundings. It may be easier to reach the trailheads, but the routes still remain as challenging as ever. To really experience the beauty of this park, come prepared to explore the backcountry.
Trailheads are situated at 3 locations in the park, including those at Great Central Lake for the Della Falls Trail. Hiking routes also originate in the Forbidden Plateau region to the summit of Mount Becher (moderate; 6 miles/10 km return) and to McKenzie Meadows (strenuous; 22 miles/35 km return). Other trails in Forbidden Plateau begin from the Paradise Meadows trailhead on Mount Washington. Forbidden Plateau is located 14 miles (23 km) west of Hwy 19 in Courtenay, via well-marked Mount Washington and Piercy Roads.
Somewhat gentler, these trails range from a short loop through Paradise Meadows (easy; about 3 miles/4.5 km return) to an extended 5-mile (8-km) loop around Lake Helen McKenzie and Battleship Lake. Much lengthier exploring is possible using Lake Helen Mackenzie and Kwai Lake as a base. The Helen McKenzie-Kwai Lake-Croteau Lake Loop (moderate; 5 miles/8 km return) leads to a series of subalpine lakes in the beautiful alpine amphitheatre of Forbidden Plateau. Farther afield, the Circlet Lake Trail (strenuous; 12 miles/19 km return) leads from Lake Helen McKenzie past Hairtrigger Lake to a wilderness campsite at Circlet Lake. Stunning views of the rugged nearby mountain peaks, as well as the unending string of Coast Mountains to the east on the Lower Mainland, reward hikers for their efforts. Die-hard enthusiasts can hike still farther from Circlet Lake to Moat and Amphitheatre Lakes, eventually reaching the summit of Mount Albert Edward.
More than a dozen more hikes and walks originate from the Buttle Lake area of the park. Trailheads are found at both the north and south ends of the 9-mile (15-km) lake, as well as additional trails that lead off elsewhere around the lake. From the park entrance on Hwy 28, the Elk River Trail (moderate; 13.5 miles/22 km return) leads through the Elk River Valley to aptly named Landslide Lake. Careful of your footing here and on the Crest Mountain Trail (moderate; 6 miles/10 km return), which climbs to a variety of scenic viewpoints farther west. The Crest Mountain trailhead is located on the north side of Hwy 28, about 15 miles (24.5 km) west of Buttle Narrows Bridge.
One of the park’s gentler hikes begins at the south end of Buttle Lake and leads to Upper Myra Falls (moderate; 4 miles/6 km return). Don’t be fooled by the seemingly short distance. The lower part of this trail crosses a steep hill with sections of loose rock. A series of shorter hikes and walks leads from Hwy 28 to viewpoints at Lady Falls, Elk River, and Lupin Falls. A fascinating look at weathering appears along the Karst Creek Trail (easy; 2.5 miles/4 km return), which begins beside the picnic area on the east side of Buttle Lake. The Wild Ginger and Shepard Creek walking trails originate in the Ralph River Campground.
The hiking opportunities in Strathcona Provincial Park far exceed our capacity here to describe them all. We have provided a short description for each of the following trails:
Hiking Trails in Strathcona Provincial Park
Bedwell Lake Trail
Della Falls Trail
Elk River Trail
Kwai Loop Trail
Landslide Lake Trail
Lupin Falls Nature Walk
Mount Albert Edward Trail
Paradise Meadows Loop
Camping in Strathcona Provincial Park
Strathcona Provincial Park is open all year round, providing camping facilities at Buttle Lake and Ralph River, as well as five marine backcountry camping areas, on Buttle Lake and Upper Campbell Lake. An extensive system of hiking trails, two boat launching ramps on Buttle Lake, picnic grounds and an adventure playground are also provided.
Strathcona Provincial Park can be approached by several different sides; however, its headquarters and campgrounds are reached via Highway 28, about 28 miles west of Campbell River and Highway 19. Ralph River Campground requires a 15.5 mile drive south from Highway 28 along the east shore of Buttle Lake; you’ll find the well-marked turnoff from Highway 28 on the east side of the bridge that spans Buttle Narrows, where Buttle Lake merges with Upper Campbell Lake. An old-growth Douglas fir forest shelters the peaceful setting of the campsites at Ralph River. Buttle Lake Campground is farther west, and just a short distance south of Highway 28 at the junction of Upper Campbell and Buttle Lakes in a pleasantly forested, riverside location. There’s good swimming, in season, at both campgrounds.
Campgrounds around Buttle Lake
Buttle Lake Campground (85 Campsites with facilities)
Titus Marine Campground (5 Wilderness campsites)
Wolf River Marine Campground (4 Wilderness campsites)
Marble Rock Marine Campground (4 Wilderness campsites)
Phillips Creek Marine Campground (4 Wilderness campsites)
Rainbow Island Marine Campground (4 Wilderness campsites)
Buttle Lake Campground offers an adventure playground, water, toilets, and firewood. Picnic grounds are located at several sites on and near Buttle Lake and a boat launch ramp is located on the eastern shore of the lake, opposite the campground.
Ralph River Campground
Ralph River Campground provides 75 Campsites, water, toilets, firewood and a boat launch nearby.
There are two southern entrances to Strathcona Park. One is via Great Central Lake that provides access to the Della Falls Trailhead. Paddlers can camp overnight at Scout Beach Recreation site on Great Central Lake on their way to and from the trailhead. The other access point is to Oshinow Lake in the extreme southeast corner of Strathcona Park. Access from Port Alberni is via Great Central Lake Road and Ash River Road. Oshinow Lake offers a rustic campsite and superb fishing for trophy-sized trout amongst stunning mountain scenery.
Backcountry users are only permitted to camp one kilometre from main roads or at designated sites, where provided. Strathcona provides numerous designated wilderness campsites along the Della Falls Trail, at Bedwell Lake, Phillips Ridge and the Elk River Trail. Lake Helen Mackenzie, Kwai Lake and Circlet Lake campsites are accessed primarily from the Paradise Meadows trailhead.
Fees are collected May 1 to September 30 at camping facilities in Buttle Lake campground, Ralph River campground and Driftwood Bay group campground. During the off-season, campers must be self-sufficient. There is a backcountry camping fee from June 15 to September 30. Picnic/day-use facilities are available at Elk Portal, Buttle Lake boat launch, Lupin Falls, Auger Point, Karst Creek, Lady Falls and Crest Lake. Paradise Meadows is a popular day-use area although no picnic tables are available. This area offers a variety of trails suitable for day hikes.
Backcountry skiing and boarding exist in the park. Developed ski facilities can be found at Mount Washington Alpine Resort, adjacent to the park. Mount Washington often boasts one of the highest snowfalls of any ski resort in North America. Ski rentals are available from Mount Washington or from various commercial outlets in the Comox Valley and Campbell River.
Cross-country skiing is a popular activity in Paradise Meadows during the winter. More than half of the Nordic trails set by Mount Washington are within Strathcona Park. Ski rentals are available from Mount Washington or from various commercial outlets in the Comox Valley and Campbell River.
Snowshoeing is popular in Paradise Meadows during the winter. Mount Washington sets some snowshoes trails for beginners; more adventurous visitors can snowshoe at any point in the park. Rentals are available from Mount Washington or from various commercial outlets in the Comox Valley and Campbell River.
Rock Climbing in Strathcona Provincial Park
Strathcona park is a rock climber’s dream, allowing climbers a chance to explore wilderness areas which have not been visited for decades. Over 150 climbing routes exist in Crest Creek Crags alone, and the Elkhorn, Colonel Foster and the Golden Hinde, the island’s highest peak at 2,200 metres, continue to challenge those looking for new lines to the top. Crest Creek Crags is accessed via Hwy 28 from Campbell River; approximately 11 km east of Gold River.
Strathcona Provincial Park is located on central Vancouver Island near the communities of Campbell River and the Comox Valley, which are the primary access points to the park. The main access to Strathcona Park is via Highway 28. The main access route to Forbidden Plateau from Courtenay and Campbell River is via the Paradise Meadows Trailhead at Mount Washington. Day users of Strathcona will be interested in two areas: Buttle Lake and the hiking opportunities afforded by Forbidden Plateau.
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