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Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park

Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park is a protected area that’s located on the western coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. The park is situated to the west of the community of Port Renfrew and to the east of Nitinat Lake. It contains the last old growth forest on the south end of Vancouver Island. Carmanah Mountain is the only named peak in the park and it has an elevation of 1,060 m (3,478 ft) and a prominence of 742 m (2,434 ft).

Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, British Columbia

Geography

Located on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park covers 164.5 square kilometers (63.5 square miles) of land, and it protects one of the last old growth forests on the southern end of the island.

The park was established in 1990 to preserve the lower Carmanah Valley. It was later expanded to include the entire watershed of Carmanah, Logan, and Cullite creeks and most of the Walbran Creek watershed.

The access to the park is rugged and requires significant travel on logging roads where logging trucks always have the right of way. Visitors should ensure they have proper directions and an adequate vehicle before visiting the ancient forests of Carmanah Walbran.

The communities nearest the park that offer quality access points are Port Renfrew, Port Alberni, Cowichan Lake, and Duncan. All access roads in the area lead to the Caycuse River Bridge, where the final 30 km (18 mi) to the park is on Rosander Main.

In conjunction with the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and Juan de Fuca Provincial Park, the Carmanah Walbran Park protects a stretch of ancient forest along the west coast of Vancouver Island. Carmanah Mountain is the only named peak in the park, it has an elevation of 1,060 m (3,478 ft) and a prominence of 742 m (2,434 ft).

Geology

The majority of Vancouver Island is underlain with a thick basaltic slab that formed from volcanic eruptions about 230 million years ago. This slab is built upon older layers of Paleozoic sedimentary and igneous rocks and the whole land mass is part of the Wrangellia terrane.

Most of Vancouver Island formed from the Wrangellia terrane, which is what’s left from when crustal fragments collided with and accreted to mainland North America about 140 million years ago. During the collision, the terrane buckled to form mountains and other parts crumbled and eroded into the sea. However, between 55 and 42 million years ago, two smaller terranes collided with the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, British Columbia

The two terranes that accreted to Vancouver Island during the Eocene are the Crescent terrane, which forms the underlying rocks around Sooke and Colwood, and the Pacific Rim terrane. The Pacific Rim terrane is the underlying rock in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park as well as in the coastal area from Tofino to Port Renfrew.

The Pacific Rim terrane is characteristically metamorphosed igneous rocks mixed with layers of marine sediments. In Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, there is evidence that a layer of limestone underlays the park with significant karst formations below the forest. While the karst is not visible in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park as it is in other locations, the minerals in the creeks and the acidity of the water tells of their journey through karst caves and cracks.

Ecology

Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park is one the last old growth forests on the southern half of Vancouver Island. It is considered a Pacific temperate rainforest and it features trees that are nearly 100 m (328 ft) tall. Giant red cedars have been growing in the region for over 1,000 years, and the Douglas fir, western Hemlock, and Sitka spruce in the park have grown undisturbed for hundreds of years.

The Carmanah Giant, which is a Sitka Spruce that was last measured at 95.8 m (314 ft) tall, is over 400 years old and is Canada’s tallest tree. When walking through an ancient forest such as this you can feel the weight of time and history pressing in around you. Also, the massive trees are a sight to behold in person, because no photograph can give justice to the enormity of such a tree.

Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, British Columbia

The coastal fringe forest that extends from the Pacific Rim National Park is dominated with Sitka spruce that have adapted to withstand the salts of the ocean spray. The understory of the fringe forest is leatherleaf, polypody fern, and evergreen huckleberry.

The forest composition changes as one moves further away from the coast and the salty sea spray. Further inland, western hemlock, coastal Douglas fir, western red cedar, as well as Sitka spruce grow in abundance and in massive proportions. Douglas fir thrive on dry areas, and the cedar are shade tolerant, which lets them grow between the other trees until they reach the canopy.

The year-round humid and mild climate produces ideal conditions for the development of extensive epiphyte communities. Epiphytes are organisms that grow on surfaces and derive their nutrients from the air, rain, water, or surrounding debris. These plants are not parasitic, as they use other plants for structural support, and do not take nutrients directly from the host plant.

Epiphytes add significantly to the biodiversity of the park. Some examples of temperate epiphytes that are found in the park are mosses, liverworts, lichens, and algae; however, tropical epiphytes are also in the park. Ferns, orchids, and bromeliads are epiphytes that can be found in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park.

Cacti are also an epiphyte; however, there are no cacti in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park. Epiphytes are sometimes called “air plants” and they can make for good house plants because of their ability to take in nourishment from their surroundings.

The old-growth forests of Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park have trees of many different species and ages, which is only possible when the forest has remained undisturbed for hundreds of years. As trees die and fall over, they are replaced by younger trees that have been growing beneath the canopy.

The dead and dying trees recycle their nutrients back into the environment to feed the next generation of plants. When a tree falls, moss is usually the first organism to move in, which helps the tree to retain moisture. Microorganisms quickly follow and begin their process of softening the wood.

Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, British Columbia

Bark beetles move in and introduce fungal spores and bacteria, and the ants invade as do mites, termites, sow bugs, centipedes, and salamanders. Black bears and raccoons use their claws to dig into the tree for food, and if the tree is still standing, woodpeckers hunt for the insects and inadvertently create cavities for nesting sites for other birds, bats, and small mammals.

Squirrels, mice, voles, martens, raccoons, black-tailed deer, wolves, cougars, and black bears all inhabit the park. Some of the bird species that you may spot are the hair and pileated woodpecker, northern flicker, red-breasted sapsucker, winter wren, varied thrush, pygmy owl and the marbled murrelet.

Carmanah Creek and Walbran Creek are also both home to many fish species. The lower reaches of each stream have coho and chinook salmon, steelhead, trout, sea-run cutthroat and sculpins, while small cutthroat trout inhabit the upper reaches of each stream.

Human History

While no archaeological sites have been discovered in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park to date, the area is in the traditional territory of the Ditidaht, who have called the region home since time immemorial. Fortunately, the Carmanah Walbran wilderness has remained undisturbed for thousands of years due, in part, to the work of avid outdoorsman Randy Stoltmann.

Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, British Columbia

In 1988, Randy and a friend were hiking the west coast of Vancouver Island in search of the “legendary giants” that were described in logging reports of the region. Upon discovering the giant and ancient trees in the Carmanah watershed, he set out to prevent the area from being logged. His efforts over the next couple years brought attention to the rare and ancient trees that were scheduled for logging.

Carmanah Pacific Provincial Park was established in 1990 and it protected the lower Carmanah Creek watershed from development and logging. In 1991, the rest of the Carmanah watershed and part of the Walbran Creek watershed were added to the park, giving it a total area of 163 square kilometers (63 square miles). Subsequently, it was renamed Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park.

Trails and Attractions

Most of Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park is a trailless wilderness as it was designated with the intent to preserve the integrity of the ancient forest. However, there are some developed trails that lead to some spectacular sites in the park. The following are the main trails and attractions in and around the park.

Randy Stoltmann Commemorative Grove

For his efforts to protect the giant trees of Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, after his accidental death in a mountaineering accident in 1994, the provincial government honored Stoltmann by establishing the Randy Stoltmann Commemorative Grove.

The trail to the grove begins about 2.5 km (1.5 mi) down the Carmanah Valley Trail and is the terminus of the Downstream Trail. Previously called Heaven Grove, the impressive stand of Sitka spruce reaches 75–89 m (246–292 ft) in height as they compete for sunlight in the canopy. Within the grove, a kiosk presents information on Stoltmann and the park.

Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, British Columbia

Carmanah Valley Trail

The Carmanah Valley Trail leads up Carmanah creek for about 11 km (6.5 mi) passing several attractions and backcountry campsites. The following the main stops along the trail and some information about each:

  • Coast Tower: This is an casual 1.2 km (0.75 mi) hike on a gravel trail to the Coast Tower, which is a massive Sitka spruce at the base of the trail leading into the Carmanah Valley. This is the first big spruce you’ll encounter coming into the valley and there is a viewing platform
  • Three Sisters: Located about 1.3 km (.78 mi) from the trailhead, the Three Sisters are massive Sitka spruces with an elevated viewing platform. Camping is permitted on the sandbar and there is a pit toilet at this location. The boardwalk trail ends at the Three Sisters.
  • Grunt’s Grove: A 4 km (2.4 mi) upstream from the trailhead is a majestic grove of Sitka with an adjacent sandbar to camp on. From here, you’ll be able to see the grand trees as well as seedlings starting their life on the sandbar, which is where spruce trees typically start their life.
  • Paradise Pool: Located 5.5 km (3.3 mi) upstream of the trailhead is Paradise Pool. The trails are overgrown, unmaintained, creek crossings may be required; however, you’ll be graced with the tranquility of the ancient forest reflecting from this small crystal-clear pool.
  • August Creek: Situated 7.5 km (4.5 mi) upstream of the trailhead is the largest creek that flows into Carmanah Creek. The final backcountry camping opportunities are available on the sandbar at the confluence of Carmanah and August Creeks. The trail past here is undeveloped and unmaintained.

Towns and Accommodations

The ancient forests that are protected in the Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park are the last of the old growth forest on the southern end of Vancouver Island, and while the surrounding region has been logged for centuries, there are only logging roads available for access to the park. The following are some of the places from which to stage a trip to see the Carmanah giants.

Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, British Columbia

Port Renfrew

Located on the southern shore of Port San Juan, the community of Port Renfrew is the closest community to Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park; however, there is no direct route around Port San Juan and into the park from the community.

Port Renfrew is popular for the beaches that surround it. This includes Botanical Beach, with its incredible tidal pools and interesting rock formations, and Sombrio Beach, with its sandy beaches, great surf, and hidden waterfall.

From Port Renfrew, there are marine and wilderness excursions for fishing, hunting, whale watching, and hiking. Accessible from Port Renfrew are several hikes on the south side of Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park. From the logging roads you can access The Harriet Nahanee Memorial Trail, Anderson Lake Trail, and the Castle Grove and Castle Giant Trail, and see the ancient forest of the Walbran Valley.

Port Renfrew, British Columbia

Duncan

Located in the Cowichan Valley Regional District, Duncan is found along Highway 1, between Victoria and Nanaimo. The city has one of the largest totem pole collections in the world and it is located some 120 km (72 mi) away from Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park.

Duncan, Canada

Some of the top hikes to check out while in Duncan are the Maple Mountain Coastal Trail, the Mount Tzouhalem Viewpoint Trail, and the Stocking Creek Waterfall Trail. The Chemainus Lake Loop and Stoney Hill Trail are also worth hiking.

Victoria

The capital of British Columbia, Victoria is home to the provincial legislature. It boasts a long and storied history of the Coast Salish, who have traditionally inhabited this land, as well as a sizable history of British Colonialism. Victoria is known as the “Garden City” and the historic downtown is maintained in a beautiful, colonial style that complements the many historic buildings that are still present in the city today.

Victoria is located some 184 km (110 mi) from Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park. However, while the drive to the park is worthwhile to see the ancient forest, there are many other hiking areas closer to town, too. These include Mount Work Regional Park, Gowlland Tod Provincial Park, and Goldstream Provincial Park, all of which surround the Saanich Inlet and have beautiful trails with excellent viewpoints that are worth checking out.

Additionally, the city’s Butchart Gardens are over 100 years old and were started by the wife of a local quarry owner when she had a desire and vision to turn the stripped quarries into a beautiful garden. The gardens are a National Historic Site of Canada and they feature over 900 plant species for visitors to admire.

Victoria, British Columbia

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