Pacific Rim National Park:
South Beach Trail
by Sean McCarroll, Tofino
South Beach trail begins just behind the Wickaninnish Interpretive Centre and restaurant at the southern end of Long Beach. The trail, which only takes about 15 minutes one-way, empties out onto a small sandy beach regarded by many as one of the finest storm-watching beaches in Pacific Rim National Park. At South Beach large waves constantly tumble through narrow rock walls and pound the shore with a rumbling that can be felt underneath your feet further up the beach.
The Wickaninnish Interpretive Centre, at the beginning of the trail, is well worth stopping into before heading out to the many secluded beaches lining the trail only minutes further south. Originally it was the site of a hotel that operated for several decades before the advent of the Park. Today the centre is home to a museum, restaurant, and theatre. There are several displays on aboriginal life, including a large canoe carved by a 90-year-old elder. There is also a whale display with videos, bones, and sculptures; educational movies every 30 minutes, and wildlife displays upstairs. Also upstairs is a great nook that offers an impressive view over the ocean and the chance to catch a glimpse of passing whales and sea lions resting on the rocks.
The trail itself is quite easy. It starts just behind the centre on a paved path that leads to a number of small beaches and then winds through a shoreline forest of weathered sitka spruce. For the first several hundred metres along the paved section of the path there are a few ocean viewing benches for people to relax and take in the scenery.
Further along the trail, which eventually turns into a wide dirt path, there are small side trails that lead to the small sand or cobble beaches. The first one you will come across is Lismer Beach where the Group of Seven painter Arthur Lismer spent hours enthralled with the natural beauty of the area.
Continuing south there is a small ramp ascent and you continue on a wooden boardwalk. From here you should be able to hear the sounds of waves crashing in the distance. You will come to a fork in the road. The left branch is the beginning of the Nuu-chah-nulth trail that leads to Florencia Bay. It's about 2.5 kilometres to the beach at Florencia Bay and it is well worth the trip. Staying to the right, however, will take you to South Beach; one of the best beaches in the park for watching massive waves and winter storms.
The trail is lined with thick, fragrant walls of salal and salmonberry. In past years the trail has been periodically closed when bears come to feed in the area. The bears aren't causing a problem, they are merely there to eat the berries and move on. The trail can remain closed until a bear has finished feeding and moved on; this can take anywhere from a couple hours to a couple weeks.
Just after the fork in the trail you will begin to descend to the beach. It takes about five minutes and as you walk the sounds of the pounding waves will get louder and louder. The beach is very steep and covered in very fine pebbles that produce a sound like chimes as waves crash on the shore and then retreat back into the ocean.
Even on days when the swell is relatively mild on other beaches, the waves here are funneled between narrow rock walls and are rarely less than 5 or 10 feet high. Storm watchers need to be wary of the headlands on both sides, and keep a safe distance away from the rocks as rogue waves are not uncommon. In 1998, three visitors drowned near South Beach after they were washed from the rocks.
If the waves are large during your visit be extremely careful and respectful of the power of the ocean. Storm waves can reach high up on the beach without any warning and catch many visitors unaware. On the rocky outcroppings to the right the waves pass through a double sea-arch and through surge channels known as "the edge of the silver thunder."
Despite the dangers it is still possible to watch the waves and get some great photos safely. Stay a smart distance back and never turn your back on the ocean.
Sean McCarroll is a travel writer from Nova Scotia.
Sean McCarroll writes about the South Beach Trail in Pacific Rim National Park on the West Coast of Vancouver Island.