Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island is an association of neighbourhoods spread out along the seashore, river estuary, and Highway 14. Most of Port Renfrew's residents live in the Beach Camp area, which was once a logging rail yard. This site was converted into a timber company townsite after the logging railroad was rendered obsolete by truck logging.
Prior to this and for hundreds of years, the Pacheedaht First Nations lived here and travelled up and down the west coast and throughout the San Juan Valley. Evidence of their use of this area and possibly other First Nation's use, is confirmed by the presence of archaeological sites. The first residents of this area used the various waterways as a method for travelling to other First Nation territories. One of the first contacts between the local First Nations people and Europeans occurred on July 13, 1798, when the crew from the British ship, HMS Iphigenia engaged the local residents in a dispute. Pioneering European settlers began to move into the Port Renfrew area after the founding of Fort Victoria in 1859. References to Port San Juan began to show up in the 1850s, and more so in the 1860s and '70s, as some gold was found in the local rivers and creeks. This promoted the construction of a road from Sooke to Port Renfrew, which was finally constructed in the 1950s. Prior to 1950, a series of waterway routes, logging roads and trails connecting Port Renfrew to Cowichan Lake, was the only land base route out from Port Renfrew. Direct access to Port Renfrew by water started on a regular basis around the 1890s and continued through to the 1950s. The water route was considered dangerous - a large number of shipwrecks have been recorded in the vicinity of San Juan Harbour. As time passed, other economic activities such as logging and fishing, and to a lesser extent farming, were recognized and became prominent in the San Juan Valley. Logging eventually became the mainstay of economic activity.
It is not known exactly where the name Port Renfrew came from, although it is thought locally that it comes from the Prince of Wales, Baron of Renfrew, who visited Canada in 1860. Many of the familiar names for street names and land formations originate from the early pioneers.
Port Renfrew is located at the end of the scenic West Coast Road (Highway 14), in southwest Vancouver Island, 70 km (44 mi) northwest of Sooke and 110 km (68 mi) northwest of Victoria.
The Botanical Beach parking lot is the western terminus of the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, located at Kilometer 47. This parking lot provides access to nearby Botany Bay and Botanical Beach itself. Botanical Beach affords visitors with access to uniquely rich tide pools and shoreline trails with fantastic geological features. The extensive variety of marine flora and fauna in this colourful intertidal zone includes red, purple, and orange starfish and sea urchins, white gooseneck barnacles, blue mussels and green sea anemones and sea cucumbers. Coralline algae, periwinkles, chitons, and sea stars can also be seen at Botanical Beach. The region is so biologically significant that the University of Minnesota installed the first marine research station in the Pacific Northwest at Botanical Beach in 1901. Since then, the area has been used for research by a number of universities in BC and Washington.
Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park is a luxuriously forested sanctuary that is without a doubt one of the most remarkable wild places on Vancouver Island. The park is home to the world's tallest sitka, the Carmanah Giant, at 95 m (315 ft) and some of the world's largest spruce trees, some living for 800 years or more. The park is also home to ancient, gnarled cedars - estimated to be well over 1,000 years old - clinging to the side hills. The park offers protection to diverse forest ecosystems, including a large Sitka spruce ecosystem that represents 2% of BC's remaining old-growth forest. Access to the park is 20 km north of Port Renfrew.
China Beach is a spectacular spot for family outings and day trips, 35 km west of Sooke and 36 km east of Port Renfrew. The 15-20 minute hike (each way) through the mature forest of Sitka spruce, Douglas fir and Western red cedar leads visitors to the great rolling breakers of a tumultuous sea. The fine sand beach is ideal for picnicking, sandcastle building, wading and relaxing. Take a short walk to the western end of the beach to the waterfall or wander at length to the east. It is possible to walk along the beach between China Beach and Second Beach. In the spring and fall, look for the magnificent grey whale offshore as it travels along its migratory route. As many as 17,000 of these mammoth creatures travel down the coast throughout the migration period; some, in fact, spend the summer off the shores of Vancouver Island.
Juan de Fuca Provincial Park offers scenic beauty, spectacular hiking, marine and wildlife viewing, and roaring surf in its course along the Pacific coastline of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. There are four main areas to the park: the China Beach Campground, the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, the China Beach day-use area, and Botanical Beach. A major feature of this park, the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, follows 47 kilometers of wilderness stretching along the western shoreline of the southern Island. There are four trailheads to the Juan de Fuca Trail at Juan de Fuca East (China Beach), Sombrio Beach, Parkinson Creek, and Botanical Beach. Although most of the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail is designed for strenuous day or multi-day hiking/camping in this rugged and isolated area, some easy to moderate day hiking opportunities to the beach or along the trail are available starting from the trailheads. Juan de Fuca Provincial Park offers ample opportunity to view larger marine mammals as well, including Grey and killer whales, which can often be spotted feeding just off the points. The best time to see Grey whales is during their migration from the Mexican coast to Alaska in March and April. Seals and sea lions can also often be seen playing offshore.
Port Renfrew is the southern trailhead of the West Coast Trail, which lies within the southern boundaries of Pacific Rim National Park, and runs for almost 77 km (48 mi) along the west side of Vancouver Island between Port Renfrew and Bamfield in the north. If you're planning to begin from Port Renfrew, you must make arrangements to be transported across Port San Juan to the trailhead at the mouth of Gordon River. The northern terminus of the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail is also located near Port Renfrew. The trail leads for almost 47 kilometres (30 miles) along the southwestern coast of Vancouver Island, from Botanical Beach Provincial Park to China Beach Provincial Park. Intended to be an alternative to the increasingly popular West Coast Trail, the easiest section of the trail is near its northern terminus at Botanical Beach. There are also trails at Sombrio Beach and Parkinson Creek.
Port Renfrew offers world-class salt water fishing for salmon, halibut, crab, ling cod, red snapper, and a variety of bottom fish. Nearby Swiftsure Bank is considered by many to be BC's best kept secret. The area's rivers and lakes also offer abundant fresh water fishing for trout, bass, and steelhead.
Port Renfrew is located in San Juan Harbour, home to two surf breaks, both breaking at the river-mouths along the beaches to the north-west of town. When the big south-west swells arrive, these can deliver some excellent waves. While not common, windsurfing can also be done in the Harbour - summer is consistently windy in the afternoons. The San Juan and Gordon Rivers offer miles and miles of kayaking and canoeing, including some white water kayaking for the adventurous.
Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce
Sooke Region Tourism Association
Background Photo Credit: Destination British Columbia