We get a lot of questions this time of year from people interested in visiting the North Island, and particularly Cape Scott Park. Some are unsure if it is safe to make the journey on the two hours of logging roads. Others want to know what to expect when visiting the park during winter months, and if it is worth the trouble. It definitely is!
It is safe to say visiting Cape Scott Park during the winter will be a new experience. Weather is cooler, the seas are stormier, and there are fewer people than ever taking in its charm. If you come prepared, and take the following precautions, visiting Cape Scott in winter is rewarding and entirely do-able. If you catch a stretch of sunshine, you might just have an entire beach to yourself to take in one of our famous sunsets while staying cozy by the campfire.
Here’s what to know:
Western Forest Products maintains the roads that connect Port Hardy to Holberg to the trailhead parking lot by San Josef Bay. Roads are open during the winter and because of the constant hauling, are usually well graded. During the hours of 6 am to 6 pm, beware of the large logging trucks that use the roads year-round. The area does get more precipitation in winter, which means road conditions can be wet, but rarely- if ever icy. You can check up to date road conditions on Western Forest Product’s website and Twitter.
We’ve met a few puzzled campers over the years that have hiked into Nels Bight, spent a few nights camped on the beach, and then encountered flooding up to their waist at the Hansen Lagoon trying to hike out. What’s the cause? It’s actually not pooling from excess precipitation. It is the large tides that accompany our winter season on the North Island. It is not unusual to see flooding at Hansen’s Lagoon (around kilometer 15 on the Cape Scott Trail) that will come up to the tip of the bridges and stretch out to the edges of the forest. It can get up to waist deep, which makes for difficult travel, especially if unprepared. Check out local tide charts before heading out and be sure to time your passage of the Hansen’s Lagoon area with low tide times.
The condition of the San Josef Bay trail stays relatively the same year round. It is a graded gravel pathway roughly 2.5 kilometers in length, which allows rainwater to runoff with ease.
The Cape Scott Trail can be a bit trickier, but is still passable during winter months. It is usually muddier than in summer, so bring gaiters, a change of socks and fresh pants if heading out to Nels Bight. Sections of the trail can flood during rain events, but finding a way around is all part of the fun, right? Be ready for a bit of mud, some puddles and a good sense of humor on the slippery boardwalks. We haven’t seen anyone turn around yet because of it, but we do want visitors to come prepared for the unexpected.
During the off-season, our staff still regularly visit the park but do not collect fees from September 30th– May 1st. Therefore, it is essential to pack in everything you need and arm yourself with the knowledge required to deal with the unpredictability of recreating in the backcountry. Keep in mind that with limited staff in the park during the winter, trails are not regularly maintained at this time, so you are likely to encounter windfall.
If you do find yourself in need of a last resort assistance, the Coast Guard operates a staffed lighthouse at Cape Scott. There are emergency shelters at Nels Bight and Cape Sutil, which can be used if required but may also be occupied by Parks staff.
The North Coast Trail
Wow- if you are thinking of doing the North Coast Trail right now, we’re impressed with your enthusiasm, but you might want to save it for summer time. Our friends at the North Coast Trail Shuttle operate their water taxi from May-September, because that is the optimal time to safely traverse the challenging trail. The NCT can be very wet and very isolated this time of year. Once spring rolls around the path has time to dry out a bit and we can get in there to do infrastructure repairs, and remove windfall to make your trip more enjoyable. Plan to visit when staff are actively maintaining the area and you can coordinate pick ups and drop offs during the May- September season.
If you are dead set on tackling the North Coast Trail during the off-season the most important thing to keeping morale high and staying happy on winter coastal hikes is being able to start a fire! Our Pro tips are:
- Make sure you have a lighter. And a backup pack of waterproof matches, you don’t want to be without a fire on the cold, wet winter days.
- Bring a firestarter – sticks made of wax and woodchips can usually be bought from outdoor stores. There are homemade options too.
- Most important-use Cedar for your fire. With a bit of coaxing, Cedar will burn even when its wet. So learn how to identify this species and use it to keep you warm.
Alright, it is not all grim and wet- there are many reasons why winter is a wonderful time to visit Cape Scott. January usually sees some longer breaks in the clouds, which make for stunning sunsets over the beaches. We see far fewer visitors during the winter months, so if it is solitude you seek, you should be planning your next visit soon before May rolls around!
Plus, we couldn’t finish off this article without mentioning the surf! Winter brings consistent large swells from the North that provides both fun-sized and eek-sized waves for keen surfers to enjoy. San Josef Bay, Nels Bight, and our neighbours at Grant Bay and Raft Cove are all popular beaches to visit. We couldn’t tell you all of them but there are a few more you’ll have to get out here to discover…