San Josef Bay: Vancouver Island’s Most Beautiful Beach

When the guidebook described San Josef Bay as “the most beautiful beach on the Island” I knew we had to include it in our explorations of the north end of Vancouver Island.

Tucked into the west coast of Vancouver Island just south of Cape Scott the beach at San Josef Bay is as remote as it is beautiful. We depart from Port Hardy, the northern-most town on Vancouver Island. The road to Holberg and Cape Scott Provincial Park is reasonable-to-rough gravel with active logging trucks. It takes us about two hours to drive the forty miles.

We are surprised to arrive at a busy parking lot at road end in Cape Scott Provincial Park. In addition to San Josef Bay this is also the trail-head for two more ambitious trips:  multi-day backpacks to Cape Scott and the more challenging North Coast Trail.

The trail to San Josef Bay is less than two miles long. It’s a wide, mostly flat, gravel-surfaced path and can be navigated with a child’s stroller. The easy trail compensates for having to haul our water since none is available at the beach. We saw one family pile their gear in a child’s wagon, others pulled wheeled coolers.

The trail through the lush west coast rainforest has its own beauty. We pass through garden-like coastal bog vegetation and amazing convoluted formations of old-growth spruce and hemlock.

The beach does not disappoint! Green forested hills hug the relatively sheltered bay with its vast expanse of white sand and clear water. We marvel that such a beautiful beach is still so pristine! More than a mile long, the beach is split by a rocky headland that is impassible at high-tide. A rough trail provides an alternative return.

The headland dividing the beach lends mystery and complexity. The second beach cannot be seen until we pass a small islet and round the corner.  In the gap between the islet and the rocky shore stand amazing sea stacks topped with stunted trees. Seeing them in the morning mist we feel like we are in a Chinese landscape painting. Shallow sea-caves are carved into the rocky bluff, their overhanging arches festooned with maidenhair ferns waving gently in the faint breeze.

There are a few other campers at the beach and most, like us, tuck their tents into the forest edge for protection from wind. Back in the trees are two outhouses and food lockers, as the area is known to be visited by both wolves and bears. However we don’t even see footprints.

We timed our trip for low-tides, and hit the jackpot with two days of glorious sunshine and a full-moon too! My husband explores the flora and fauna of the inter-tidal zone while I roam the beach reveling in such unspoiled beauty. Sometimes I just stare and think about other beaches that might have once looked like this. Birch Bay in Whatcom County, and Qualicum Beach on the east side of Vancouver Island, come to mind. Will the beach stay so untouched? Will the wolves survive? I need to treasure the memory of this fabulous beach and bay.

From the north end of the beach a trail leads up Mt. St. Patrick. It is described as a three and a half mile return trip and, like most Vancouver Island coastal trails, is muddy with twisted roots.

The slow meandering San Josef River flows into the south end of the bay. It can be accessed near the trailhead parking lot and is used by hard-core kayakers to get to the bay and the open west coast.  I meet a man on the beach with a paddleboard who is about to return to the trailhead via the river. We too pack up and leave. There are no tourist mementos to buy. All we take home are photos and beautiful memories.

Visiting San Josef Bay

From the U.S. take the B.C. ferry from Tsawwassen to Duke Point near Nanaimo. From there, with a lunch stop, it is about a five hour drive to Port Hardy on Highway 19. The trailhead in Cape Scott Provincial Park is approximately 64 kilometers west of Port Hardy on a combination of public highways and private, active logging roads. Follow Holberg Rd, NE 60 Rd and San Josef Main/San Joseph Rd to the trailhead parking lot on Cape Scott Park Rd. The guide book: Seaside Walks on Vancouver Island by Theo Dombrowski (Rocky Mountain Books)

Annie Prevost has used her writing and photography skills in the corporate world and as a freelancer. Locally her photos have appeared in WECU and Washington Native Plant Society calendars and she has exhibited at Allied Arts in Bellingham. She delights in exploring the remote corners of Vancouver Island, her birthplace.


One comment

  1. WOW I grew up on the island and have never been father north than Port Hardly; as we called it in the 80’s. More surprisingly that I’ve never heard of this beach which seems to be from descriptions an amazingly beautiful untouched area of Mother Earth. MUST add to my bucket list. Would like to find more info on possible resorts, B&B and/or Camping spots/grounds. Any suggestions as to were to look and find this? Thank you
    Sharon P

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