#explorethevispine : Running The Alberni Inlet Trail
Thank you for joining me on the #explorethevispine challenge! This year I will be running ultra sections of the Vancouver Island Spine Trail as a way to raise awareness, support and resources for VISTA, the amazing team behind this truly visionary, 700km trail. Be sure to check out the #explorethevispine page on this blog to find out more and to learn how you can join me in supporting this great cause.
My second adventure run on the Vancouver Island Spine Trail turned out to be a spectacular surprise. WOW! Just WOW! I officially have a new favourite trail. Yup. I have been on a few trails in a few places over the years and I am blown away that one of the most beautiful trails in the world exists right in my backyard...and I didn't even know it was there!
With snow still covering our Island ranges, I needed to choose another low-elevation section of the Spine Trail and I had my eye on the Port Alberni section. I had recently heard about the Alberni Inlet Trail and thought it would be fun to connect the dots from the Inlet to the foot of the Beauforts for my next leg. Heading from South to North Island, the Spine Trail will travel overland from the west shores of Lake Cowichan at the Nitnat River to the Alberni Inlet on a section known as the Tuck Lake Trail. This trail sounds beautiful and I am looking forward to exploring it later in the season, once the snow melts and the VISTA team has had a chance to clear the trail of recent logging and winter windfall.
I was in need of some local beta to determine the best way of connecting these two areas, as I wasn't sure which trails were currently accessible (windfall, logging, etc). A few emails later and I had the pleasure of connecting with two local Port Alberni ultrarunners and all around fantastic people, Jackie Windh and Dave Gilbert. Jackie and Dave write a blog and Jackie is (among many things) an adventure writer and author of the Running Ultramarathons blog as well. They travel around the world running all sorts of adventure Ultras and have many wild tales to share. They also know the Port Alberni trail networks like the back of their hand. Jackie and Dave were an invaluable resource in my research and planning to run this leg of the Spine Trail. Through our email conversations I learned that the 'Runners Trail' and 'Alberni Inlet Trail - Stage 3' sections of the Spine Trail are in need of some trail work and are not accessible at the present time. VISTA will be clearing and improving this section, along with a few others, this summer and they are currently recruiting volunteers. If you are interested in being part of the trail building team, please contact VISTA's volunteer co-ordinator Caroline Williams, for more info and to get involved...they need you.
Leg #2 Port Alberni Inlet to the Log Train Trail
Run Time: 4 hours 30mins. On trail time: 5 hours 30mins
*See individual leg descriptions below fore more detail
For this leg, I was lucky to have my friend Roanne along for most of the run and we squeezed in the adventure on our way down to Victoria for a weekend workshop. Nice to get a long run in before being locked in a classroom all weekend! We parked our car at the start of the Alberni Inlet Trail Stage 1, the trailhead closest to Port Alberni town on Ship Creek Road, and met up with Dave who then shuttled us out to the furthermost point on Stage 2 of the trail at Franklyn Creek. As mentioned, Stage 3 is currently not really accessible and Jackie and Dave recommended that we avoid it for the time being.
Alberni Inlet Trail Stage 2
Elevation Gain: The total for Stage 1 and Stage 2 combined was 1200m fyi. (not 400m as the maps would like you to believe).
Run and Photos Time: 1 hour 10mins
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Terrain: Undulating single track with some short technical sections requiring scrambling over rock. Mostly easy, flowy beautiful singletrack.
Surface: Dirt, rock.
Users: Hikers, runners.
Highlights: Beautiful coastal forest, inlet views, rocky bluffs, wildflowers, waterfalls, coves, rivers, bridges, wildlife.
Access: North end China Creek Park. South end Franklyn River Road - Detailed directions found here.
What an absolutely beautiful trail! Very few people on Vancouver Island know about this trail network and ever fewer tend to make it out to this Stage of the Alberni Inlet Trail. The extra drive and shuttling required to make this route a point ot point makes it a bit more challening to access...but...it is worth it. There is nothing quite like running a point to point route, and this leg of the Alberni Inlet trail was absolutely breathtaking. With little elevation gain, this leg of the trail was on mostly flat terrain but had a few small ups and downs and twists and turns to keep things interesting. No major climbs.
The trailhead at Franklyn creek (south end) boasts a great set of maps and the signage along the entire route was fantastic. Some serious work has gone into creating and improving this trail! We were so appreciative of the consistent signage and it correlated with the map quite well, which is so helpful in new terrain. There are even emergency location/marshal station markers along the trail at beach access points. The route begins on an old logging road and climbs uphill for about half a km through a clearcut before dropping into the singletrack on the leftside. That is when the beauty begins!
The trail travels through mixed coastal forest of mature second growth hemlocks, douglas firs and cedars draped in 'Old Mans Beard' and surrounded by a lush floor of sword ferns. Within a few minutes you get your first glimpse of the Inlet and the action of a working ocean- with logging operations bustling about along the shores. The trail follows part of the CNPR grade and it makes for a very enjoyable run or walk in the woods. Early morning sunlight comes streaming through the branches to the east. The sounds of industry and activity come from the Inlet to the west. All the while the trail rolls northward towards Alberni town, past dancing waterfalls, over wild creeks, into tiny coves and through gorgeous sun drenched meadows filled with spring wildflowers. Gorgeous!
The trail was constantly suprising us with it's changing ecosystems. In a matter of minutes it switches from cool, lush fern gulleys to hot, dry rocky bluffs home to red twisted arbutus groves. The variety and beauty took us by suprise and we had trouble running for more than a kilometre before being forced to stop and take out our cameras...again. And again...and again! Don't plan on setting any records on this trail because you will need to stop over and over to take it all in.
Near the north end of this Stage, you reach 'Underwood Cove' and the trail pops out on a logging road - continue straight until you reach the dead-end at the mouth of the Cove and look for the trail on the right side, where it will take you back into the lush forest. There is an old concrete culvert here in the forest...note the date! More magical forest and that beautiful morning light made us happy to be playing in the woods in the early hours of the day- but I doubt there is a bad time of day to explore this area.
The Stage 1 trail finishes at the China Creek Regional Park parking area so it is possible to leave a car here if you are keen to explore one Stage at a time.
Alberni Inlet Trail Stage 1
Run & Photos Time: 2 hours 30 mins
Difficulty: Moderate with some steep climbs
Terrain: Undulating single track with some technical sections requiring scrambling over rock or using a rope. A couple of good climbs including one big trek up 300metres to 'The Lookout'- well worth the climb! Mostly undulating beautiful singletrack.
Surface: Dirt, rock.
Users: Hikers, runners.
Highlights: Big 'lookout view', beautiful coastal forest, inlet views, rocky bluffs, wildflowers, waterfalls, coves, rivers, bridges, wildlife.
Access: North end Ship Road. South end China Creek Park - Detailed directions found here.
Stage 1: Once the world finds out about this trail, it won't be a secret for long! Most of this trail travels through working forest, with only three very short sections of logging road. It really is point to point, single track heaven. This Stage has more elevation change than Stage 2, but the views are always worth the climbs.
The Stage 1 trail (continuing from south to north) begins by touring through the lush forest of China Creek regional park. Wow! Dropping down to the Creek is a magical journey through more fantastic coastal forest, waist deep ferns and an explosion of green life. The spring show is spectacular on this trail! Soon the trail arrives at China Creek and crosses a bridge over to the other side. What a beautiful river. Deep pools of aqua marine water, and easy access to perfect swimming holes, make this a must 'dip' spot on a hot summer day. I can't wait to go back and cool off in these pools this summer!
The trail crosses a private logging road (use caution on these crossings!) and then leads you up it's first real climb of about 200metres into the sunny bluffs. Port Alberni is the hot spot of Van Isle and you can bet these rocky outcroppings get absolutely baking hot in the summer. The bluffs were already quite dry and some parts of the trail were even dusty at the end of April with our hot spring weather. Wildflowers were still in full bloom, however, and we came across many different types of flowers, including minature orchids, along the trail. I don't know all of their names- other than the amazing and quite rare 'Chocolate Lillies'- but they made us smile just the same. Butterflies, hummingbirds and wild honeysuckle hanging from the trees..we found pieces of paradise everywhere we turned.
Another view point, another wildflower meadow, another babbling brook another photo shoot...we spent half of our time taking photos it seems!
At a narrow point on the Inlet (Stamp Narrows), the trail pops out at 'Lone Tree Point' a lovely spot beside a lighthouse marker. We stopped to take a photo, of course, and hit the deck when a massive young eagle nearly grazed the tops of our heads en route to his fishing hole. Swooping down right in front of us with talons out to reach for his catch. A-Mazing. Again. Geez, this trail doesn't know when to quit. Love it!
After Lone Tree Point, the trail passes an old abandoned Boy Scout camp before reaching it's only real 'choice' in the route. Head left and continue along the Inlet and a moderately steep, but longer, climb, by-passing 'the lookout'. Head right and go directly up the guts to the top. We originally had planned to follow the more gradual route and skip 'the lookout' as the steep route includes extra logging road and we thought the ocean side trail would be more beautiful. BUT, our new friends Jackie and Dave pretty much told us that we HAD to go up to the lookout so we went with local knowledge of course. This climb was about 300metres and took us around 15 mintues of steady trekking to get to the very top. This is one spot where the map is inacurate- so be sure to follow these instructions instead of the map if you want to get to the actual lookout! At the top of the steep climb, you will reach a loggin road (T)- turn right here. A few metres down the road, you will see a sign and a trail on the left that heads uphill. This is the way to the lookout! Worth the extra few minutes of climbing...wow just wow! Once on top, you will receive a panoramic view of the Inlet, Port Alberni town and the giants of Strathcona Park including the Comox Glacier and Red Pillar.
A lovely spot for a day hike from the north trailhead at Ships Creek Road, our new friends Jackie and Dave often head out the lookout for a short run or even dinner with a view. What a special place. I can't wait to go back...and I plan to enjoy many sunrises and sunsets here!
From the lookout, head back down to the closest logging road, just below and continue on as per the map, north on this logging road. Stay on this main logging road, passing spurs on either side and look for the trail entrance on the left side, after a moderate climb. After a few moments, the trail reconnects with the other route (the more gradual option) and then continues onward towards Alberni. One more short logging road section (after a big wooden bridge) and the route heads back into the single track on the left side. This final stretch of trail offers brand new views of the town of Port Alberni, far far below. Looking down, you can see how much elevation you are about to lose in a very short period of time (or gain if you are coming up the other way:). For downhill lovers, this final stretch of Stage 1 is a dream- down down down on hikers switchbacks the trail flows on and on forever it seems. So fun! Maybe not so fun from the other direction hahaha! But the climb up to the look out would definitely be worth it either way. Once you reach the flats, the trail suddenly pops out at the Ships Creek Road trailhead and hopefully your car or a friend is waiting there for you.
Port Alberni Community Trail
Distance: 10kms from Ship Creek Road to the Log Train Trail entrance on Mozart road
Our car was waiting for us, but I had a few more miles to go. I was excited to find out how the trail connected from Stage 1 to the Log Train Trail and to explore Port Alberni's urban trail network. It did not disappoint.
When travelling northward, cross Ships Creek Road and head into the signed trailhead directly ahead, about 75metres from the parking lot. Once you head into the singletrack turn RIGHT at the first fork (I went left, it heads into a neighbourhood fyi) and go UP a nice big hill. Soon you will reach another fork - turn LEFT and stay on the main trail for more UPhill. From here the trails are quite well marked! Look for signs to 'Argyle St Trailhead' and eventually even 'Log Train Trail'. The trail climbs up a bit further before flowing down the other side, on a wide double track dirt trail (old road) passing side trails that head into various neighbourhoods. It is an awesome urban trail network that connects many areas of the town! When you can see the Rugby fields on your left, be sure to stay LEFT- there is no sign indicating this so keep your eyes peeled and stay close to the fields to avoid going off track. The trail wraps around the Rugby field and clubhouse and then crosses Argyle St (another great trailmap kiosk here) before connecting to another section of this great trail network through town. Behind some homes, the trail drops into a lovely shaded ravine- Dry Creek Ravine Park- crossing a bridge and heading back up the other side under the cover of a gorgeous Maple tree forest. I can only imagine how lovely it is there in the fall!
Now, the trail signs change to direct you to the "Log Train Trail' - very exciting! There is another tricky spot here that is not signed: Turn right when you reach a T-junction that looks like an old railway grade/road and it will take you to the Estevan/17th street trailhead. If you accidently go left (like me) you will just pop out on the same road and need to turn right, where you will find the trailhead a few metres down the way, so no worries if you pop out on the road early.
I was stoked to see both Roanne and our new local friends Jackie and Dave waiting to greet me at this trailhead! I spent 20 minutes chatting with the gang, getting in a short visit (as we would be leaving town immediately after the run) and picking up some beta for the final leg to the LTT. It was smokin hot and I wanted to get on with the run, so I pulled myself away and eased my legs back into running after a very long pit stop- hard to do! On the Log Train Trail- hurray! Although the LTT map starts counting kms further up ahead, the section of trail from Estevan is in-fact, part of the LTT as well. Flat railway grade, with lovely pieces of single track that wind away from the grade, made this section a nice easy way to stretch out the legs. The trail crosses Rogers Creek (look for a bridge just to the left to keep your feet dry!) just before reaching Highway 4. Crossing the highway carefully (use caution here!), I continued northward on Maebelle Road for my only real section of road on this entire arun! Just 1.5km of road on this half day adventure crossing through Alberni town- what a great community trail network!
Alberni Valley Log Train Trail
8kms to McLean Sawmill National Historic Site and foot of the Beaufort range, from the Mozart Road trailhead ( I timexed after 3kms boohoo!).
I made my way into the Equestrian trail by turning left at the end of Maebelle Road onto Mozart Road and entering the trail on the right side (could have just gone straight into the trail at the end of Maebelle Road but the Equestrian trail was a nice singletrack addition) and after about one kilometre or so, I found myself on the LTT as I remember it. In previous years I have coached many summer trail running clinics for my ELM athletes, training to race in the Log Train Trail Half Marathon. Although this race no longer exists, I have years of great memories full of runs and laughter and celebrations on this trail. The wide, flat railgrade trail travels through working forest and horse country, with many signs of industry and quadzilla adventures along the way.
The LTT travels 21kms from the Mozart trailhead to Woolsey/Somers road and it is an awesome route for bikers, hikers and horse back riders alike. It crosses lovely rivers and travels through the McLean Sawmill National Historic Site. The Mill Site is the point where the Spine Trail will leave the Log Train Trail and head up up up into the Beaufort mountain range and north to the Village of Cumberland. I am SO looking forward to exploring this back country section of the Spine Trail, once it is completed. For this current leg, however, I pulled the pin at km 3 on the LTT as we had run out of time and we had to get on the road to Victoria. 37kms and 4.5hours of running time/5.5hours of adventure time, we had run through a beautifully diverse range of terrain and I was so happy to have connected the dots from the Alberni Inlet to the LTT!
There is a real goldmine of trails waiting in Port Alberni. I believe I only just scratched the surface of what this beautiful area has to offer. In fact, this new 'Valley of Trails' website confirms my suspicion.
As for the Spine Trail route from the Inlet to the LTT, I encourage you to get out and explore part or all of this section if you can! You can tackle it in short pieces or make one big adventure out of it all. You can go for an out and back or set up a shuttle and point to point it. You can spend the day at China Creek Regional Park with the little ones, or take your family on a big climb up to 'the lookout' on the Stage 1 trail. You can ride your bike across town on the urban trails or ride your horse for miles on the Log Train Trail. There are so many ways to enjoy this great trail network and I hope that you will add this area to your own #explorethevispine challenge!
See you on the trail!