The Ultimate Hiking and Outdoor Guide: Strathcona Provincial Park
Updated: Sep 25
Looking for the best hiking, camping, and other outdoor activities in Strathcona Provincial Park? This blog post will break down the best trails, along with information on where to go, when to go, how to get there, and how to make the most of your adventure.
Located in the heart of the island, British Columbia's oldest provincial park is a must-see destination on Vancouver Island. With over 250,000 hectares of rugged mountains, snow-capped peaks, shallow rivers, impressive waterfalls, stunning lakes, and an abundance of wildlife, Strathcona Provincial Park is home to some of the best hikes on Vancouver Island! However, due to its vast distances and wilderness, this place is often overlooked in Canada. Let this blog inspire you to plan a trip to Strathcona Provincial Park!
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When to visit Strathcona Provincial Park?
Just like any other place on Vancouver Island (and Canada in general), this park is affected by seasons. While the summers are comfortably warm but short, the winters are fairly cold, snowy (at higher elevations) and long. Snowfalls on the mountain slopes and most trails are common from November through March. Certain spots in the park are not even snow-free before July! Generally, the best season to explore is from the beginning of June to the end of September. During this time of the year, it is also less likely to rain. However, rain showers remain unpredictable throughout the year.
Before heading out, it is important to check the weather and conditions. The BC Parks website has information on the conditions of the trails, roads, and campsites.
Where to go in Strathcona Provincial Park?
Strathcona Park consists of two main areas that are accessible and open to visitors: the Buttle Lake area and Forbidden Plateau. This means that the rest of the park is a largely unexplored and unspoiled wilderness region with limited accessibility. However, the two visitor-friendly areas are extremely scenic and have so much to offer in terms of outdoor activities that you don't have to look any further!
The Buttle Lake area
Nestled in an impressive valley to the west of Campbell River, the Buttle Lake area is a little deeper into the Park. The surrounding mountains, lakes, wildlife, and waterfalls can be easily explored: from short waterfall walks and stand-up paddling on Buttle Lake to multi-day hiking excursions deep into the alpine region.
The Forbidden Plateau
The Forbidden Plateau area is to the west of Comox and comprised of alpine meadows, lush forests, and pristine lakes surrounded by jagged mountains. The region is home to some of the most beautiful hikes and the only ski resort on Vancouver Island, Mt. Washington. To truly see and explore the magnificent landscapes, however, you will need to hike and possibly camp.
The Best Hikes in Strathcona Provincial Park
1. Landslide Lake - the best hike on Vancouver Island!
Length: 21km officially (our total was closer to 28km, including going to the lake above Landslide lake)
Elevation gain: 1,027m
Hours: 12 hours (including tons of breaks)
Difficulty: hard because of the trail conditions (roots, rocks, etc)
Camping: Yes, at 6km or 9km (we prefer 9km next to the river)
With its teal color, Landslide Lake is probably the most impressive lake in all of Strathcona Provincial Park and on Vancouver Island! In order to get there, you will need to hike the Elk River Trail. This trail is by far the most popular destination in the park, so don't expect to have the trail all to yourself. For the most part, the trail follows the scenic Elk River which takes you through the Valley. While the trail to the second campsite (km 9) makes a moderate hike with a gradual incline, the last 2 kilometers to Landslide Lake become very steep and slippery at times. It is worth the climb though when you finally reach the beautiful Landslide Lake, nestled between the snowy peaks of Mount Colonel Foster. If you are feeling more adventurous, hike up to the upper lake (follow the less-maintained trail to the left side of the lake).
Due to its length, I would recommend doing the hike in two days. There are two backcountry campsites along the trail, one at km 6 and the other (nicer) one at km 9. A camping spot costs $10 per person per night, and the campsites include toilets and food caches (no water tap available). Even though the trail is said to be 21 km total (out and back), my iPhone 'Health App' measured the trek as 28 km. We are in relatively good shape and it took us a total of 12 hours (including lunch and picture breaks as well as hiking up to the second lake above Landslide Lake). Nonetheless, I have heard of people who did the hike in one full, long day.
Insider Tip: If you decide to do the hike in two or three days, drop off your gear and set up your tent at one of the campsites. Then hike up to Landslide Lake and the second lake with a small backpack. Don't forget to bring your camera, warm clothing, lunch, and snacks.
2. Bedwell & Cream Lake
Length: 24km officially (our total was closer to 26km)
Hours: 10 hours (including many breaks)
Difficulty: Hard (especially the first part to Bedwell lake)
Camping: Yes, at Baby Bedwell or Bedwell lake (also possible at Cream Lake!)
Another one of our favorite hikes in Strathcona Park is the hike to Bedwell Lake and Cream Lake. It is a backcountry and (multi-)day hiking destination in the Buttle Lake area. The trail winds through some old-growth forest, climbing over 500m in elevation. Before reaching Bedwell Lake, you will pass by Baby Bedwell Lake at km 4. This tiny lake has a campsite which overlooks the lake with Mt. Tom Taylor in the backdrop. From here, you continue along the east side of the lake for another 2 km until you arrive at Bedwell Lake (km 6). There is also a campsite at this lake, which is the ideal stop if you are heading to Cream Lake on the next day. Hiking the additional 6km to Cream Lake (km 12) is an absolute must as it has gorgeous views and passes incredible alpine wilderness.
The hike to Bedwell Lake took us approximately 2-3 hours, while the hike to Cream Lake took us an additional 2-3 hours. Even though we did this as a day hike with a total of 10.5 hours (including many breaks!), we do recommend to hike for two days when including Cream Lake. The campsites at Baby Bedwell and Bedwell lake are amazing as you can sleep right next to the lake! Camping fees total $10 per person per night, including toilet facilities and bear caches.
Watch the video below for impressions of the trail to Bedwell Lake and Cream Lake!
3. Crest Mountain
Hours: 6-7 hours
Difficulty: Hard (very steep!)
If you are searching for spectacular mountain vistas and a challenging steep trail, then the Crest Mountain trail in the Buttle Lake area is for you. Crest Mountain is perfect for a day hike, taking about 6-7 hours total. The majority of the hike goes through an old-growth forest on a steep hill with an elevation change of approximately 1,270 meters. It is physically demanding even though the trail is "only" 5 km to the summit (one-way). When you finally reach the summit, you will be rewarded with a small lake and breathtaking views of Kings Peak and Elkhorn Mountain.
4. Mount Albert Edward - The best hike on the Forbidden Plateau
Hours: 12-16hours (2 or 3 days required)
Difficulty: Hard (summit hike)
Camping: Yes, best at Circlet Lake
The most popular hike on the Forbidden Plateau is the scenic Mount Albert Edward trail. Peaking at 2,093m (6,867 feet), this mountain is the sixth highest on Vancouver Island. With 1000m elevation and 32 km total distance, this trail is best done in 2 or 3 days with a base camp at Circlet Lake. The draw of this hike is the variety of landscapes and wildlife you'll encounter. From the lush green Paradise Meadows to the dark Circlet Lake, to the old-growth forest, and the alpine meadows filled with wildflowers, this is a hike that will blow you away! Hiking up to Circlet Lake is relatively easy, taking about 3 to 4 hours. From the lake to the summit will take an additional 3 to 4 hours, which is why it is recommended to camp at Circlet Lake (km 10). There are also alternative campsites along the trail, one at Lake Helen McKenzie (around km 3) and another one at Kwai Lake (about 7km). Each campsite has toilet facilities, platforms for tents, outhouses, and food caches. The camping fee is CAD$10 per person per night.
5. Century Sam Lake Hike
Century Sam Lake is anther beautiful day-hike and is located in the Comox Valley (which is neither on the Forbidden Plateau nor the Buttle Lake area). In the last year, this trail has gained immense popularity and thus you will never find yourself alone on this trail! The out-and-back trail is 8.7km total, which means you can spend plenty of time at the lake itself. The road to the trailhead is often closed in the summer for logging and requires a 4WD with good ground clearance. If you can't get to the trailhead, there is the possibility to walk up the road. Bear in mind that this adds an additional 4km to the hike. Besides the lake itself, the main attraction is the ice cave which you can get into! It's a unique sight.
Insider tip: Check with the landowners to determine accessibility (sometimes the gate is closed). Another good source of information is the group 'Hike Vancouver Island' on Facebook.
Other outdoor activities in Strathcona Provincial Park
1. Explore the Waterfalls
Strathcona Provincial Park is home to hundreds of waterfalls, including the Della Falls which is one of the highest ones in Canada. Even though some of them are hard to get to (the Della Falls requires multiple hiking days), others are within short walking distance. In the Buttle Lake area, the Lady Falls, Lupin Falls, Karst Creek Falls, and Myra Falls are among the most impressive and accessible ones. The stunning Lady Falls is accessed via a short 900-meter walk through the rainforest, as are the Lupin Falls and Karst Creek Falls, both smaller hidden waterfalls. If you only have the chance to visit one, go to Myra Falls. The Lower Myra Falls is a beautiful waterfall with crystal clear pools that are great (yet cold!) for swimming. A short 1 km hike up takes you to this cascading waterfall, while offering amazing views of Buttle Lake. If you want to make a day trip, combine the Lower Myra Falls with a hike to the Upper Myra Falls. This 7.2 km trail is perfect for a leisurely day hike.
2. Camp and Relax at Buttle Lake
The 23 kilometers (14 miles) long Buttle Lake is one of the most popular places to visit in Strathcona Provincial Park. With a well-kept sandy beach, two front country campsites (Buttle Lake and Ralph River) right on the lakeshore, and many recreational activities to choose from, Buttle Lake is perfect for a weekend getaway with family or friends. Go fishing and catch fresh rainbow trout, go climbing at Crest Creek Crags which offers more than 150 climbing routes for all skill levels, go swimming or sunbathing on the beach, or go kayaking or paddle-boarding on the lake. If you are looking for something more luxurious, stay at the charming Strathcona Park Lodge, which organizes a variety of tours and activities as well as rents kayaks and paddleboards.
3. Go skiing at Mount Washington
Even during the wintertime, Strathcona Provincial Park has a lot to offer! Mt. Washington is the must-visit place in the winter with unlimited skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing. The Paradise Meadows area transforms into a mecca for the winter sports enthusiasts. Cross country skiing and snowshoeing trails are well-maintained by the Mount Washington Alpine Resort. A ski pass for the 2019-20 season costs $99 per adult, with ski lifts operating daily between 9 AM and 3:30 PM. It is possible to rent your skis, snowboards, and other winter equipment at the resort. The winter sports season generally runs from early December to April.
Note: During the summer months the resort is open for mountain biking, alpine hiking, scenic chairlift rides, mini-golf, disc golf, and a bungee trampoline.
4. Wildlife: spot black bears on Vancouver Island!
Strathcona Provincial Park is one of the best places on Vancouver Island to view wildlife. Being on an island means that there are unique species to be found here. The park is home to the Roosevelt elk, Vancouver Island wolf, a significant number of deer, black bears, and cougars. While cougars and wolves are rarely seen, there is a great chance that you will encounter a black bear. The black bears are usually relatively friendly because of their frequent contact with humans. Famous hotspots for bear sightings in Strathcona Park include the Gold River, creeks along the Gold River, and the estuary (where the river meets the ocean) past the town of Gold River. When we were visiting Strathcona Provincial Park, we spotted a black bear along a creek near the town. Bears are likely to be spotted from May to October as that time of the year they are not hibernating. The bear's population on Vancouver Island is said to be around 7,000, which is said to be the densest in the world. As such, if you search carefully, you will find one!
Insider tip: Ask the locals where recent bear sightings have been! Bears do travel, so they are only around one area for a little while.
How to get to Strathcona Provincial Park?
Strathcona Provincial Park can be accessed through both Courteney/Comox and Campbell River depending on which area you are going to. The Buttle Lake area is deeper into the park, meaning that the travel time is longer when coming from the south of the island. Buttle Lake is accessed via Highway 28 to the north of Campbell River, and connects with Gold River. The Forbidden Plateau can be accessed via both Courteney/Comox and Campbell River, making it a shorter drive. Most of the hiking trails depart near the Paradise Meadows trailhead at Mount Washington. Just follow the signs on Highway 19 to Mount Washington Ski Resort. If you are coming from the Mainland, take a ferry to either Comox or Nanaimo. Ferries from the Mainland to Vancouver Island run daily and regularly. Consult the ferry schedule on the BC Ferries website.
Estimated driving time to the Buttle Lake area:
from Victoria: 4 hours
from Nanaimo: 2 hours 30 mins
from Courteney/Comox: 1 hour 30 mins
Estimated driving time to the Forbidden Plateau:
from Victoria: 3 hours
from Nanaimo: 1hour 30 mins
from Courteney/Comox: 30 mins
Ready? Set? Go!
Did this blog post inspire you to explore this beautiful destination on Vancouver Island?
If you have been there yourself and have any further suggestions, comment below.
Don't forget to check out our Vancouver Island Travel Guide for more beautiful destinations on the island