On one of my most recent visits to Haida Gwaii I met a grey-haired tourist. I was walking back from the grocery store and she was grinning from ear-to-ear with classic ‘just arrived in Haida Gwaii’ enthusiasm.
“I just want to walk everywhere!” she said, and I knew exactly what she meant.
I had the same urge on my first visit nearly 10 years earlier — it feels like every step has the potential for new discovery. Walk the islands and you might stumble upon a centuries-old half-built Haida canoe in the depths of the forest, a glass ball from a Japanese fishing net in the middle of the beach, or a sparkling crystal high in the mountains.
Non-resident leisure travel to Haida Gwaii isn’t currently permitted, but that means it’s the perfect time to daydream and plan your next adventure. Or plan what not to do.
East Beach Trail
With an insatiable urge to walk during my first visit, I planned a solo hike. Haida Gwaii has epic mountain traverses in the backcountry, but most require serious navigational skills and survival experience. I was attracted to the East Beach Trail because it’s much easier to navigate (70 kilometres along the beach, with well-marked forest trails at either end), and cabins along the way meant I didn’t have to carry a tent (I should have carried a tent).
It was an unforgettable experience. I wouldn’t recommend it.
Day 1: Tlell to Cape Ball
I had water purification tablets to safely refill my water bottle in streams and a hatchet to make kindling out of driftwood. But it took me about half an hour to find the trailhead (look for the Tlell River Day Use Area right next to the bridge).
Trailhead found, I followed the ambling forest trail until it hit the ocean, then headed north to the Pesuta shipwreak. The old log barge rises from the sand like a breaching whale and is a great destination for a day-hike. The trickling Mayer River was easy to cross, and I reached the Cape Ball shelter just after lunch. Volunteers have added a door and metal roof since I spent the night in 2012, but the rustic cabin still has a sand floor.
Day 2: Cape Ball to Oeanda
It’s crucial to schedule your departure with a receding tide so you have enough time to cross under kilometres of cliffs. Get trapped at high tide and the ocean may sweep you away. I awoke before sunrise, but the raging Cape Ball River slowed my departure. A local told me later that I should’ve looked for a log bridge upstream, but instead I held my backpack over my head, stepped into icy white-capped water and shuffled across with my heart in my throat.
Eagles, ravens and deer tracked my progress from high on the cliffs, but otherwise it was just step after step on the sand. The beach may have been easy, but distant landmarks took hours to reach and I developed a sharp pain in my ankle from the slant of the shore. By noon on Day Two even the sound of the ocean was annoying.
By dusk I’d crossed many streams but I couldn’t tell if any of them were Eagle Creek, the halfway point on my map. Still kilometres from the evening’s destination, luck brought me a hunting cabin decorated with skulls and a no-trespassing sign. I chopped and stacked driftwood in thanks for the shelter, and fell into uneasy sleep.
Day 3: Oeanda to Cape Fife
Good rain gear is essential on Haida Gwaii, and on Day 3 I put mine to use. Storms usually blow from the south, which is why everyone recommends hiking East Beach the same way. But even with the 80 km/h winds at my back, conditions were tough. Sand whipped across my face when I stopped to bandage a blister. Locals often drive the beach in ATVs and before my hike I’d hoped they’d stay away. I wanted a remote, physical challenge. Now I begged for a ride, but no one was driving in the storm.
The cedar longhouse-style cabin at Cape Fife made a welcome reprieve, and I stayed long enough to light a fire and make tea. I was curious about the colliding waters at Rose Spit, but after 70 kilometres on the beach I opted for the 10 km forest trail to the finish line. It’s a rich, healthy forest, and even a few downed trees across the trail couldn’t hold me back.
Should I hike the East Beach Trail?
There are lots of worthy day trips at either end of the East Beach trail: the Pesuta Shipwreck, Rose Spit, and the Tow Hill Blow Hole are all worth exploring. Hike to them all! Just drive the highway in between.