Smuggler Cove is my favourite short hike on the Sunshine Coast. It’s easy, it’s scenic, and it’s a nature lover’s dream.
I was reminded how gorgeous this provincial park is when my partner and I went for a spontaneous visit on a mild, Saturday afternoon in January. After weeks of rain, we wanted to make the most out of this promising sunshine. With its exposed coastline and sweeping seaside vistas, Smuggler Cove felt like perfect destination to soak up the winter sun. Plus, the forest there is truly sublime.
Getting to Smuggler Cove
Getting to Smuggler Cove is simple as long as you have a car. It’s a 20-minute drive north of Sechelt along Highway 101. It takes 45 minutes to drive there from the Langdale ferry terminal. As a provincial park, the turnoff is well-signed, although the parking lot is tiny and it fills up fast on weekends.
Into the rainforest wetland
Smuggler Cove’s main dirt trail begins at the parking lot, and it leads you immediately into the deep, dark rainforest. The trail, however, quickly opens up to a wetland and a series of boardwalk bridges. These lengthy boardwalks traverse several ponds that were apparently created by beavers. These flooded forest wetlands are now home to a diversity of birds and aquatic creatures, including the beavers who are still very much active.
Past the boardwalks, the trail can be muddy and flooded with large puddles, especially in the winter months. Our Blundstones handled it well, though I admit they’re not my first choice for hiking. To be fair, we didn’t know we’d be coming here until after we were on the road. Grippy waterproof hiking boots (that you can submerge in a few inches of water) are best in winter. In the summer, running shoes are totally fine.
Through Coastal Douglas fir groves
Once you navigate the puddles on the other side of the boadwalks, the forest begins to change. It’s subtle. The damp Coastal Western Hemlock rainforest transitions into the drier Coastal Douglas fir ecosystem. The air gets more fragrant with saltwater. You catch glimpses of the coves between the trees. And the Douglas fir, salal, and arbutus begin to dominate.
While the hike up to this point is easy, you need to be able-bodied and nimble on your feet to continue. From this point on, the trail narrows and begins to climb up and down stairs (without railings), uneven rock faces, and over slippery surfaces. If you’re fit and have good balance, you shouldn’t have a problem. And even then, a pair of hiking poles can be helpful to navigate the tricky bits. Or the loving hand of your companion.
Noticing the macro world
Some hikers only care about the panoramic view at the end of a hike, but to me, the forest is just as interesting. It’s easy to rush past it all, but the forest at Smuggler Cove is fascinating. Look down. Notice the cute little licorice fern fronds growing out of the mossy boulders. Pay attention to the different species of moss growing in one place. Look at the different types of lichens hanging off the trees.
There are so many little worlds within worlds in the forest here. If you’re a nature lover, as I am, it’s truly quite enchanting. But you have to stop and mindfully notice it before these details reveal themselves.
Another thing I like about the forest is signage BC Parks and the local nature societies have placed throughout the park. They’ll teach you about the different trees, mosses, birdlife, lichens, and even the history of the park’s name. I love this stuff. As the daughter of a (retired) science teacher, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Into the old growth
I may look down a lot and snap photos of lichens, but I also look up. The old growth Douglas firs here are particularly mesmerizing. No photo will ever properly convey their enormity.
Arrival along the waterfront
It’s at the half hour mark, approximately, where you near the end of the trail, except it doesn’t end, it becomes a short loop You can go left or right. We go left. This begins the circular waterfront circuit arond the tiny rocky peninsula at the end of the park. It’s a tiny area of the park, and may only take 10 minutes to walk, but this is where the scenery kicks into high gear. Don’t rush this.
Having been mostly covered by the forest canopy up until this point, we took a few minutes to sit and enjoy the sunshine. It was hard to believe it was January in Canada. I’d later learn that day broke January heat records.
Continuing through the forest
Continuing on our journey around the peninsula, we admired our favourite arbutus tree with its gnarled trunk hugging the ground.
We continued through the forest, where the salal grows tall and the grooved bark of the Douglas fir reveal fire scars from a different century.
Entering lichen paradise
There is a small path that veers away from the main trail that we like to take. It climbs up a forested rock face and opens up to scraggly shore pines and the Salish Sea.
It’s a special path and has been used by many and we take great care to stay on this path. One step off can ruin these extremely fragile carpets of moss and reindeer lichen, which give this section of the park a fairytale-like ambiance. It’s as if you’ve stepped into a fantasy scene. Pictures don’t do it justice.
I’m so mindful at how ecologically-sensitive this area is. I hope people take its fragility as seriously as I do. It’s not a place for young children to let loose or for dogs to run off-leash, as tempting as it looks. This area is so rich in biodiversity but it can’t handle people trampling over it. We linger here gently from the path and admire its fragile beauty. Reindeer lichen. Trumpet lichen. Kinnikinnick. Mosses of all kinds.
Upon the Salish Sea
Steps away, the fuzzy carpet transitions to bare granite, which bluntly ends at the Salish Sea. Texada Island shows off a striking silhouette across the way. Lasqueti Island and Vancouver Island can be seen further beyond. This is without a doubt a real power spot.
I hop down across the rock face, carefully avoiding stepping on any vegetation, and I find myself at the end of the point. Powell River’s mountains can be seen further up the coast. I admire the striking shapes on Texada’s surface. I marvel at the sunshine and the mild saltwater air. It’s the second week of 2023. Life feels hopeful. Life is good.