Strathcona Provincial Park

Well, after my 8 post series on the Sunshine Coast Trail, I needed a little break, but now it’s time to catch up on the week I spent in Strathcona Provincial Park immediately after.

It’s unreal how many provincial parks we have in BC. Me and Brandon were all booked to hike the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park in early September, but then 3 days before the trip we got an email from Parks Canada asking us not to come because of the wildfires. Technically our trail wasn’t closed, but the entire town of Jasper was without power and Parks Canada was encouraging people to cancel, so we listened and made other plans.

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We floated around a lot of ideas for where to go instead, but we had so little time in which to execute the trip that a lot of them were quickly ruled out. Brandon suggested Strathcona Provincial Park, which has been on his bucket list for a long time, and it sounded like the perfect place to do a mix of front and backcountry camping with limited preparations. It was the second week of September, so fortunately the crowds were gone and we didn’t have to worry about reservations. We hoped on the ferry on Sunday morning to spend a week exploring the park!

First off, Strathcona Provincial Park is huge! There are other large provincial parks nearby, like Garibaldi, but Strathcona is largely accessible by car, so it gave us a lot of National Park vibes as we were driving through, though you can tell it receives much less funding than a National Park. It’s not so far from Vancouver that you couldn’t visit over a long weekend, but the size definitely warrants a longer trip. What makes it tricky is that it has multiple entrances and they are all very far away from each other. For example, there are some great trails that can be accessed through Mount Washington and Courtney, but we opted to skip these to focus on the core park area, which is closer to Gold River and a bit of a further drive.

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The core area of the park is centralized around Buttle Lake, which extends from tip to toe of the park. There are tons of backcountry campsites, but only 2 frontcountry campgrounds, both located on the lake. The Buttle Lake Campground is at the top of the lake, while the Ralph River Campground is down closer to the bottom. We opted to start at Buttle Lake and spent our first night exploring around the lake. It was a bit smoky when we arrived and the water level of the lake was really low. We went for a walk from our campsite and were able to walk right on to Rainbow Island due to the low water level. There’s a marine backcountry site located on Rainbow Island and I’m now keen to return to Buttle Lake with my kayak because there are several marine sites located along the opposite shore of the lake that would be fun to explore!

Since there’s so much to do, we only spent one night at Buttle Lake before making an overnight trek up to Landslide Lake, which is one of Vancouver Islands most popular backcountry hikes! Landslide Lake is a 20km trek on the northwest side of the park that is best done over 1-2 nights. We opted for 1 night and day hiked from the campsite up to Landslide and Foster Lakes. There’s a lot to talk about between those 2 lakes, so I’m going to write a whole separate post about that hike!

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After we finished the Landslide Lake hike, we decided to make a quick stop into Gold River to get lunch. It’s a tiny little town, but it has a lot of great eco tourism! It’s the launching spot if you’re doing the Nootka Trail, as well as if you’re doing any paddling around the coast. It has fishing and some great little tourist attractions if you’re just there for the day. We stopped into a little cafe for lunch and our waitress gave us a hot tip to check out the Heber River, which has the most beautiful little swimming hole! The water is vibrant blue and super clear, but boy is it cold! We both went for a dip, but it was a quick one!

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After our swim we got another hot tip when we were stocking up at the liquor store about an easily accessible cave system. About 20 mins west of Gold River, there’s a small Rec Site called Upana Caves. It’s a network of caves with 4 that are easily accessible after only 10 minutes of walking – just make sure to bring your headlamp! I’m a bit of a chicken when it comes to caving, but Brandon convinced me to go into a few and we ended up spending an hour crawling around. Our favourite was the last cave in the system, Resurgence Cave, which has a little river flowing through it and is pretty scenic. A bit of a different activity for us, but well worth the detour!

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Once we headed back into the park, we went on a bit of a tourist circuit of the easily accessible trails. There’s a ton of waterfalls in the park, most of which are located right off the highway. We stopped into Lady Falls, Lupin Falls, and Lower and Upper Myra Falls. Lower Myra Falls is definitely the shining gem of the park, so if you can’t get to them all, make sure you visit that one. You can swim in the falls, though it’s very cold. If you’re more adventurous, you can climb down from the falls to the bottom end of Myra Lake, which is a much nicer place to swim. Brandon and I had a proper bath here since we were in the park for a full week and neither of the campgrounds have showers.

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Since Lower Myra Falls is located at the bottom of the park, we opted to stay at the Ralph River Campground for 2 nights. Some of the sites appear to be “lakefront” which had us excited, but because the water level was so low, it was much more of a swamp then we were anticipating. We lugged all our gear out to the “beach” one night to cook, which was still nice, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a good place for swimming! In our case it started raining on us in the middle of our meal, but we were troopers and stuck it out anyways.

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The very end of the park is interesting because there’s actually an active mine right in the park! So a small part of the park is designated as “Strathcona-Westin Provincial Park”, which is basically just the extents of the mine. From what I understand, the mine already existed when they formed the park, so they let it continue operating. You actually have to drive right through it to get to some of the trailheads, including for Upper Myra Falls, so it’s an interesting experience!

We decided to finish the trip with a second overnight hike up to Bedwell Lake. It’s also a very popular hike and our plan was to do both Bedwell and Cream Lakes. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t really co-operate with us for this hike. It was really nice when we started, but it got foggier and foggier the closer we got to the lake. After talking to some other people, it sounds like most of the park was clear that day, but a bunch of clouds got hung up in our area and unfortunately, we couldn’t see a thing. But I’m also going to do a full post about Bedwell Lakes, because it was still an eventful trip, even with the odd weather.

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We had planned to do one more hike in the park via Courtney on the way home, called Century Sam, but we got notice on the way to Courtney that the gate to the trailhead was closed. The road to the trail is on private property, so you are at the mercy of the property owners if you choose to visit that trail. There is no service anywhere in Strathcona Park, so be prepared for that when you visit.

The salmon were just starting to run when we were leaving the park, so we stopped along the river on our way out to watch people fishing and then hightailed it to the ferry when we heard Century Sam was closed. We ended up having a bit of a wait for the ferry, but were able to make it home the same night. So overall, I really liked Strathcona and I don’t think it’s a place I would likely have planned to visit without such an opportunity. That said, I left the park with even more trails on my bucket list then when I entered!

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Kayaking the Abel Tasman

It was a long drive to Abel Tasman after our stressful day on the glacier, but we split the driving between us and finally pulled into our accommodations around 9pm. We did some rearranging of our packs to make sure all our gear was in waterproof bags and then hit the sack to catch up on sleep for the next busy day ahead of us.

Abel Tasman National Park is well known for its gorgeous golden sand beaches, which you can visit either on foot, by kayak, or by water taxi. When I’d initially started researching Abel Tasman, I’d intended for us to just chill out in some kind of beach lodge for 3 days, but there’s actually no roads in the park, so we decided to make a pretty forgiving (read, slow) itinerary to see the park by kayak. Kayaking has been our newest hobby in Vancouver, so we were excited to try it out in New Zealand.

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You can kayak the park either on a guided tour or you can self-explore in rented kayaks. We’ve gotten pretty comfortable on the water and it’s a lot cheaper to rent, so we opted for the self-guided option. We rented from Abel Tasman Kayaks and they run a pretty smooth operation, starting with 2 hours of classroom/on water kayak training before letting you embark on your own. Then they loaded us into a water taxi with our kayak and shuttled us up to the end of the park so that we could spend the next 3 days kayaking back to base at our leisure.

We always rent single kayaks in BC and we weren’t too impressed when they forced us to rent a double kayak for “safety” reasons. I was pretty skeptical because everything I’ve learned about kayaking in Canada has reinforced that it’s a lot easier to rescue someone when you have two boats. But ATK insisted that because of the wind in the area, its safer in one kayak – after having now completed the trip, I’ve decided I agree with them. Our kayak was called the “Packhorse Express” and with good reason. It was a BIG kayak. A lot wider than I was used to and extremely heavy. We struggled to lift it with 2 people even when it was empty, but more on that later!

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Our shuttle dropped us a Onetahuti Beach, which is a gorgeous golden sand beach that stretches in a long half moon around the coast. It was noon by the time we landed on the beach and got our kayak packed, so we just had our lunch right there before setting out. Like I said, we planned for easy paddling days, so we decided to kayak up the coast in the opposite direction for a little while to visit Shag Harbour (Cormorants are known as Shags in NZ and NL people!). We’d heard it was really nice during high tide because you can paddle back into this river/tidal lagoon, which was really neat. It was a bit of a slow paddle up because we had a bit of a headwind, but it just made for a quicker paddle back down after! We stopped at another beach to go for a swim and then visited the Tonga Arches before paddling around the headland to Mosquito Bay, our campsite for the night.

Despite its name, Mosquito bay didn’t have any mosquitoes. It was still close to high tide when we landed, which was good because the beach is very shallow and there is a huge difference between the length of the beach at either tide and we didn’t want to have to carry our kayak up to high tide. The Heaphy Track, which is another of NZ’s Great Walks, runs along the coastline through the park as well, so a lot of the beaches and campsites are shared with hikers. But we picked Mosquito Bay because the track doesn’t run by the beach and you can only access it by boat, so we figured it would be less crowded.

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That was a good idea in theory, but it was also still summer holidays for the locals and we discovered that a popular activity is beaching your boat on the shore at high tide and then camping in it overnight. So there was a whole line of tiny sailboats that had sailed into the tidal lagoon and were now beached up on the shore. But it was a beautiful campsite and the water was really warm, so I had a great swim. After some really questionable weather on the Milford Track and Fox Glacier, Abel Tasman rewarded us with sunny, hot days!

The weka’s were a lot more rampant in the Abel Tasman though and were real pests around the campsites. Seth loved it of course, but they were constantly pecking around waiting for you to let down your guard so they could swipe your food. We actually misplaced one of our little ziploc garbage bags on the second night and all we can figure is that a weka climbed into our tent vestibule overnight and swiped it out of our bag (just a reusable shopping bag). We felt really bad about it and searched the woods all around the campsite to see if we could find any garbage, but there was no sign of it.

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We had a lazy evening at Mosquito Beach and I convinced Seth to sleep with the fly off the tent so that we could watch the stars overnight. I don’t think Seth really did any stargazing, but I had a great time and I did see a ton of stars and the milky way. It was interesting sleeping conditions though, probably because it was so warm, and I woke up with a layer of dew right over my sleeping bag, which has never happened to me in BC mountains when I sleep with the fly off.

Day 2 was my favourite day of the trip. We had a lazy start, but unfortunately this time we did have to drag the kayaks all the way down the beach to put out at a much lower tide. High tide is really better in the Abel Tasman because you can access the tidal lagoons when the tide is up, so we had a lazy paddle to Bark Bay and Sandfly Beach and did a little exploring on the beaches since we couldn’t get into the lagoons.

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We had a little setback when we tried to go to one of the islands to look for seals, it was just too windy out there and after a lot of splashing around we gave up and navigated back to the shore. We had lunch in Frenchman’s Bay and then kayaked over to Torrent Bay, which was one of my favourite beaches. Torrent Beach juts right out into the bay with a massive tidal lagoon behind it. I think the lagoon always has some water in it, but how far back into the lagoon you can go is dictated by how high the tide is. 2 hours before and after high tide is the best time, so we decided to go for a swim on the lagoon side of Torrent Beach to kill some time. The water was so warm and as someone who loves swimming, I was so content swimming around in the bay.

2 hours before high tide we started to make our way in to the bay and landed our kayaks at the end. ATK had recommended checking out part of the Heaphy Track and hiking up to a little swimming hole called Cleopatra’s Pool. Unfortunately, we got the wrong landing point for the trail, so our walk was a few kms longer then it had to be, but it was neat to explore another one of the great walks. Between backpackers and hikers, there were a lot of people on the beach. There’s a big hut at nearby Anchorage Beach, so I think the trail draws a lot of day traffic from there. The pool was pretty nice – colder than the ocean, but not as cold as the glacial rivers. There were several little waterfalls, so we explored around a bit before heading back to our kayaks.

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It was around 4pm when we finished, so we decided it was time to make our way to our next campsite at Te Pukatea Bay while we still had the high tide working for us. Te Pukatea Bay is located just on the other side of the headland, separating it from Anchorage. It’s only about a 10-15 minute walk between them, but a bit more of a challenging paddle going around the headland. We had a headwind and it was windy, but still manageable. I was happy when we finally pulled up to the beach though.

Te Pukatea Bay ended up being my favourite beach! There were no boats or yachts along the beach and surprisingly few people camping there. It seems the facilities at Anchorage draw most of the crowds. We went for our third and final swim of the day and then took it easy and enjoyed the views. We went on a short walk around sunset and found a lookout gazing out towards anchorage and were rewarded with the most gorgeous pink sunset! Then on our way back to the campsite, we finally found the elusive morepork, a little owl that Seth had been trying to see since the start of the trip. They have a distinctive call and we’d heard them several times, but one almost dived bombed Seth’s head and we finally got a good look at it sitting in the tree at dusk – it was very cute!

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Our last day was a bit of a challenge. Keeping with the theme of the rest of the trip, Abel Tasman was experiencing “abnormal summer weather”. The first section after Te Pukatea Beach is known as the “Mad Mile”, so we knew it was going to be a rough paddle, but figured at least our arms would be fresh after a day of rest.

It was really windy and by far the hardest part of the trip. At first it seemed manageable and we were feeling pretty good about ourselves, but the further we went around the headland, the less it seemed we were moving forward. We had a headwind coming at us from the front, but there was also a swell on – so we had to keep away from the shelter of the land because the swell kept crashing against the rocks. So we had the wind against us in front and a side swell to battle at the same time. I think I may be prone to anxiety because I had a bit of a freak-out in the middle of the paddle because I felt we were going nowhere and the waves made me really nervous. But Seth was super calm; he knew we were making progress and that we just had to push through.

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That one mile is why I changed my mind about the double kayak. Single kayaks seems to be the way to go in BC, but our Packhorse Express was definitely made for big waves and at no point during the paddle did I feel at any risk of tipping the boat. I’ll also appreciated being in the same boat as Seth in that moment because he is a stronger paddler than me and I think we would have become separated if we’d been in two boats, which would definitely have stressed me out a lot more.

But we finally made it to the next beach and hauled the kayak up on shore for a well deserved break. It was still windy, but the paddling was easier so we had a nice time exploring a few more beaches on the way back. We decided to aim for Appletree Beach for lunch, which is the last stopping point before you head back to the rental. The map told us that they run water taxis from Appletree Beach because sometimes the wind gets too strong going back and to wait there if you didn’t think you could make it around the headland.

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I think we could have gone all the way back, but the weather got noticeably windier the closer we got to Appletree Beach and we had a hard time landing the kayak on the beach. I decided it was time to call it quits and figured we could just wait for a water taxi while we ate our lunch. We got super lucky though and ATK went by in their boat just after we landed on the beach (we were still bailing the water out of the kayak from our awkward landing). I flagged them down right away and he didn’t hesitate in loading our boat on board and bringing us straight to the end. He said it was not good conditions at all and I think he was pretty much just running around retrieving people.

We only skipped about an hour of paddling, but I definitely think it was worth it. We were thrilled to have a hot shower back at the base camp and eat our lunch there. It was a challenging last day, but overall I had so much fun kayaking around the Abel Tasman. It was hot, sunny, and had amazing views, which is really all you can ask for!