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Nearer to Nature in British Columbia

Island parks that blend forest and tidelands

July 21, 1996|KRISTIN JACKSON | Jackson is a reporter and editor for The Seattle Times Travel section

BOTANICAL BEACH PROVINCIAL PARK, Canada — I was the only sour note in nature's symphony. The ocean waves thundered on the beach, sounding just like surf should. The wind moaned around the moss-draped cedars. But I spoiled it, screeching out songs as I walked along the forest path a stone's throw from the sea.

Why was I singing so noisily? Because I had just found a large, steaming pile of bear excrement right in the middle of the trail in British Columbia's Botanical Beach Provincial Park. I almost stepped in the huckleberry-studded mound, so fresh that I knew the bear must be close by. So I belted out a song to steer the creature clear.

Thankfully, the bear and I never met (and most park visitors won't see any sign of black bears). But the near encounter made me appreciate that Botanical Beach truly is a wilderness park.

Botanical Beach is a blend of forest, beach and tidelands on southwest Vancouver Island, near the small community of Port Renfrew and where the Strait of Juan de Fuca opens into the wild Pacific.

Gentle forest trails, wave-sculpted rocks and rich tide pools make Botanical Beach an excellent destination in its own right. The park also is the starting point for the new Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, a 29-mile hiking trail that opened in late April. The trail offers walkers empty coastal beauty within an hour- or two-hour drive of Victoria, depending on which trail head is used. Stroll for a mile or two--or hike and camp for several days.

But this southwest stretch of Vancouver Island--from Victoria 65 miles west to Port Renfrew--is not just for die-hard hikers or beach-walkers; it's also for those who like country drives, seaside camping or watching the waves from the comfort of a B&B or cabin.

From Seattle or Vancouver, B.C., it's easy to explore the area in a couple of days; hop one of the many ferries to Victoria, B.C., and take off from there.

The route gets most interesting once Victoria's suburbs dwindle at Sooke, about 20 miles west of the city. For the next 45 miles, to the end of the two-lane Highway 14 at Port Renfrew, there's just the occasional scattering of houses; miles of second-growth forest (and some logging clear-cuts that seem to stretch for miles); empty beaches and sweeping views over the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the peaks of Washington's Olympic Peninsula, 15 miles across the water. The road occasionally dips to the shore, but mostly meanders across rolling hills, alternating between thick forest and open stretches.

Here are some suggestions on what to see along the route, traveling west from Sooke. Allow about two hours to drive straight through from Victoria to Botanical Beach since the last third of the road is narrow, winding and slow. But it's easy to spend a whole day along the route with stops for beach walks and lunch.

In several visits to the area, I've usually zipped through Sooke (about a half-hour drive from downtown Victoria, depending on traffic) in my eagerness to get to the beaches. But those interested in the pioneer and logging history of the area could stop at the small Sooke Regional Museum right on the highway. There's also a visitor-information center next to the museum, good for stocking up on brochures.

Either Sooke or Victoria could be used as an overnight base for exploring the coast, although I prefer to stay farther west for quicker access to the beaches. Do check on your gas in Sooke since the next place to fill up is at Port Renfrew.

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If you're camping in a tent or RV, make a beeline for French Beach Provincial Park, about 12 miles west of Sooke on the shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the only public campground along Highway 14. There are 69 pleasant campsites set amid deep forest. Day-trippers can picnic on the beach and walk the short forest trails.

Just west of French Beach is Point No Point, a cluster of overnight rental cabins on 40 acres of forested, waterfront land. It also has a small restaurant that serves afternoon tea, always welcome after walking the windy beaches. Visitors can walk down trails from Point No Point's restaurant to its sandy beaches and rocky headlands.

River Jordan is the only "town" between Sooke and Port Renfrew. It's at one of the few places where Highway 14 touches the waterfront. But blink and you'll miss it--just a dozen homes, a drive-in cafe and a little restaurant about seven miles west of French Beach.

This is timber country, and logging (plus small-scale tourism) is what keeps the local economy ticking. Behind the River Jordan restaurant there's a block-long log-sorting yard, where house-high piles of freshly cut trees await shipment.

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