Galiano Island: From Island Paradise to Trail Paradise

Story and photos by Craig Romano

Named not for the Italian liqueur Galliano, but after the Spanish explorer Dionisio Alcalá Galiano, who explored this area in 1792; Galiano Island is never-the-less a very sweet place – especially for hiking.

Galiano is one of British Columbia’s Gulf Islands, an archipelago which includes Washington’s San Juan Islands, located in the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver Island and BC’s Lower Mainland. Why Gulf? Credit George Vancouver when he mapped the area in 1792, originally referring to the Strait of Georgia as the Gulf of Georgia.

Second largest of the Gulf Islands, and with a population of just under 1300, Galiano remains a fairly wild and undeveloped place. Referred to by its residents as the “Gem of the Gulf Islands,” its highest summits, biggest lake, oldest trees, and miles of stunning coastline are all protected within several parks and preserves. And traversing these natural areas are miles of trails. Lots of trails! The network continues to grow, too; for many folks on Galiano are intent on transforming their island paradise into a hiker’s paradise.

“The Galiano Island Parks and Recreation Commission (GIPRC), a volunteer group responsible to the Capital Regional District (which administers the Gulf Islands) has a mandate to develop trails on Galiano,” states Paul LeBlond, President of the Galiano Trails Society. “In 2007, the GIPRC held public consultations and hired a consultant to develop a trail network plan for the entire island,” he adds. While the trail system is currently disjointed, it is expansive. On my recent three day trip to the island I managed to hike over 40 miles; covering ground on both the island’s southern and northern tips, its ridges and peaks, and up and down its eastern and western shores.

Like their San Juan counterparts, each Gulf Island has its own flavor, culture, and independent bent. Sure, Galiano is sprinkled with the usual island mix of artists, writers, hippies, retirees, the well-to-do, mainstream dropouts, eccentrics and eclectics. But it’s Galiano’s physical attributes and a protracted conflict over the island’s land use that defines this island and its islanders.

Seventeen miles long and only one to three and a half miles wide, this thickly forested and ridged island is the driest of the Gulf Islands, thanks to the Olympic and Vancouver Island rain shadows. While occupied by people from the Penelakut First Nations for thousands of years, lack of abundant groundwater coupled with shallow soils meant limitations to farming and development for settlers. For much of the last century, nearly half of the island was owned by forestry giant MacMillan Bloedel. But in 1989 the company began divesting its island properties, setting the stage for the current land controversy.

Private individuals were allowed to buy several hundred five-acre parcels from the timber company for home lots, while the company established several thousand acres of parkland and community forest. But the Gulf Islands Trust (a government agency administering land use much like the Columbia River Gorge Commission), perhaps fearing a repeat of the monstrous 1,200-lot Magic Lakes subdivision on nearby Pender Island – which in essence prompted the trust to be established – rejected the plan. But not before a sizeable number of folks bought parcels and were subsequently denied permission to build on them, setting the stage for litigation and appeals, resulting in an island divided between proponents of development and preservation.
Never-the-less, over twenty years later, in spite of land and access being in limbo and some private property owners leery to grant easements, public land is being acquired, easements are being granted, and trails are being built on the island. “During the last local election, both ‘sides’ were buzzing about trails,” says Jesse Keefer, owner of the Bodega Ridge Lodge and Cabins, and son of island trail visionary Bowie Keefer. “I think community support is strong for trails,” he says.

But why wait for that to happen, when there are currently miles of trail in place to satisfy all walks of hikers? Right off the BC Ferry Terminal in Sturdies Bay you can almost immediately begin hiking by following the Studies Bay Trail, which runs 1.2 miles parallel to Sturdies Bay Road to the Galiano Club’s South Community Hall.

Founded in 1924, the Galiano Club is an active community organization that created 320-acre Bluffs Park, one of the gems of the island. A good trail diverts from the Sturdies Bay Trail, traveling 1.2 miles through the heart of this park consisting of magnificent towering ancient cedars and Douglas firs. And while the forests of the park are breathtaking, it’s the park’s namesake that will really captivate you. Mosey along grassy bluffs towering 400 feet above Active Pass, peering out to Mayne Island’s Helen Point and down Swanson Channel to Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula.

You can hike a half mile along the bluffs beneath big snags harboring eagles; or as I recently found out, continue for another adventurous mile or so into the newly acquired Matthews Point Regional Park Preserve protecting more lofty bluffs. The trail system here however is rough and unmarked, so I have a better suggestion. Consider returning to the Ferry Terminal via the pastoral Bluff and Burrill Roads, taking a short side trip to Bellhouse Provincial Park.

The park is tiny – only five acres and its circling trail a mere .6 mile long. But, “the trail is one of the most scenic little paths in the Gulf Islands,” claims Charles Kahn, author of “Hiking the Gulf Islands of British Columbia.” I concur. The park contains some of the largest madronas (arbutus in Canada) I’ve ever seen. Gaze across Active Pass with its flotilla of ferries and pleasure craft to Mayne Island’s Georgina Point Lighthouse. And then stare across the sparkling waters of the Strait of Georgia to Mount Baker hovering in the distance.

If it’s a workout you desire and a view that’ll knock your smelly hiking socks off, venture to Mount Galiano, just north of Bluffs Park. A couple of excellent trails wind two miles up this 1,000-plus foot peak – the highest point on the island – to one of the finest views in all of the Gulf Islands. From windswept grassy ledges framed with elegant Garry oaks, literally look out across a sea of peaks. Gaze south to Mayne Island’s Mount Parke, Saturna Island’s Mount Warburton Pike, and Orcas Island’s Mount Constitution; west to Salt Spring Island’s Bruce Peak, Mount Sullivan, and Baynes Peaks, the highest summits in the Gulf Islands; and all against a dramatic mural of snowy and craggy Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island summits.

What’s missing however is the view east. But, you can get that from hiking the Community Forest Trails. From this formerly logged and burned area – not exactly pristine forest, but folks from the Galiano Club and Galiano Conservancy are busy restoring it—you can take in sweeping views east across the Strait of Georgia to Vancouver, Point Roberts, Boundary Bay and a whole slew of cloud-piercing Howe Sound and North Cascades peaks.

There is also coastal access from the Community Forest, as well as along nearly the entire island, a stark contrast from many of the other Gulf and San Juan Islands. “The GIPRC has opened many Shore Access Trails throughout the island over the past few years,” says LeBlond. Currently over 20 are in place leading to isolated surf-pounded sandstone shelves, quiet coves, and shorebird sanctuaries. Most of these trails are short, from just a few hundred feet to a half mile, but Galiano does have longer coastal trails.

Montague Harbour Provincial Park, which also offers nice car and walk-in campsites has one of the finest shoreline trails in the Gulf Islands. An absolute must-hike is the park’s 1.5 mile loop around Gray Peninsula. The maritime views are stunning – so too are the colossal madronas. But it’s the silver strands of beaches that will really sweep you away. Formed from First Nations’ middens several millennia old, the agents of erosion have crafted exceptionally fine beaches from the discarded shells.
On Galiano’s opposite shoreline you’ll find the Pebble Beach Reserve and a wilder coast. Here a wonderful loop trail traverses towering timber to a rocky beach on the Strait of Georgia, where the surf continuously pounds, beaching old-growth logs and carving steep shelves in the sandstone shoreline. You can spend all day hiking in this preserve, taking side trips to the Great Beaver Swamp and to Laughlin Lake, the largest body of water on the island. This wet area is quite a contrast from the southern part of the island where trailhead signs warn that smoking is prohibited in fear of the forests going up in flames.
Just north of Laughlin Lake is Bodega Ridge Provincial Park, offering one of the finest ridgeline hikes in the Gulf Islands. Walk 1.5 miles along this 800-foot high ridge, taking in stunning views of Trincomali Channel twinkling below, punctuated with reefs and finger islands; and out to Vancouver Island’s endless emerald ridges and mountains. Watch raptors ride thermals above the ridge’s abrupt and overhanging ledges and marvel at clusters of manzanita gracing the way.

And rounding out some of the trail treasures to be found on Galiano Island is Dionisio Point Provincial Park at the island’s northern tip. A gift to the province in 1991 from MacMillan Bloedel, this 300-acre park has over five miles of trails including a breathtaking one mile-plus path along one of the most dramatic sections of coastline in the Gulf Islands. Here, as on Gabriola Island to the north, the shoreline is adorned with massive honeycombed rocks, sculpted sandstone shelves, and ledges created by wind and waves. There are also ancient middens on Dioisio Point – big trees, eagle colonies, and inviting campsites, too. But unfortunately there is currently no public land access to the park. You must either arrive by water (which can be tricky) or get permission from one of the adjacent landowners to hike overland to the park.

“Once the land use issues on the island get settled,” says Keefer, “I imagine there will be a trail from Sturdies Bay all the way to Dionisio Park. I would love to think that people could walk off of the ferry and walk all the way to the end of the island while making stops at various accommodations, campsites and beaches.” That would indeed be an amazing attribute, and one solidly making this island paradise a trail paradise!

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