Alberni Inlet Trail
In 1912, one could take a daily passenger train from Kissinger Station at the west end of Cowichan Lake to Victoria along the Canadian Northern Pacific Railway (CNPR). The rails never made it any farther. By 1913 the CNPR grade, without rails, was built west to the Alberni Inlet (aka Alberni Canal), up the Inlet to and past the mouth of the Franklin River to Underwood Cove (almost to China Creek). Construction was abandoned at the outbreak of WWI. Later, rails were laid for a logging railway between the mouth of the Franklin River (Camp A) and several Camp B sites, the last being the Franklin River Camp on Coleman Creek. This rail was removed in the late 1950’s and the original CNPR grade abandoned and left to grow in. Now in many places the hiker walks across a beautiful moss-covered trail between pioneering trees.
The Alberni Inlet Trail is extremely well built and marked with evacuation points and GPS coordinates on the posted and online maps. Other than roads to the marina/campground at China Creek and to the sawmill at Franklin River, all other nearby roads are private and subject to closure.
The Alberni Inlet Trail section of the VIT is divided into three stages. Most of stages 2 and 3 are right on the old CNPR rail grade. This makes for a wide and virtually flat grade. Stages 1 and 2 are regional trails administered by the Alberni Clayoquot Regional District (ACRD). The Alberni Valley Outdoor Club (AVOC) and friends were instrumental in completing the Alberni Inlet Trail and continue to regularly maintain and keep the trail in excellent condition. Unlike stages 1 and 2, the official opening of Stage 3 awaits a land use agreement between the ACRD and Mosaic Forest Management.
The 3 stages are arranged from south to north – i.e. assume a south to north hiking direction.
Stage 3 runs between the Runners Trail and the mouth of the Franklin River.
Stage 3 commences at the end of Headquarters Rd where a private road heads down to Headquarters Bay. The trail continues straight ahead on a flat, moss covered old rail grade. About 370 m along is the first of eight collapsed old timber railway trestles: this first one formerly spanned Chesnucknuw Creek. The precipitous gully sidewalls force a substantial trail diversion upstream to a temporary bridge crossing of Chesnucknuw. Getting back downstream to the rail-grade on the north side is via a narrow trail across steep, rocky slopes including a section of trail bridging. From here north is a succession of flat, mostly mossy rail grade interspersed with another seven similar creek/gully crossings, each with steep, narrow trail down to creek crossings. Most are easily crossed but Hiwatchas Creek and second creek 1.5 km to the north can be dangerous to cross at high flows. Larger cobbles and boulders are often treacherous for rock-hopping when wet.
Side trails lead steeply down to both Formby Beach and Isobel’s Beach. At high creek flows, these trails and the intervening section of beach can be used to more safely/easily wade across a low-gradient section of Hiwatchas Creek – right on the beach at lower tides or via a shoreline trail at higher tides.
Remnants of the trestles illustrate some impressive timber construction undertaken by skilled workers at a time of substantial manual labor and limited powered equipment. At one time, over 500 men were employed along the CNPR grade. Near the viewpoint overlooking the Franklin Forest Products sawmill at the mouth of Franklin River can be seen several lengths of old railroad track steel with cast-in dates in the 1880s as well as the English manufacturer’s identity. These rails would have been used during railroad logging, but may well have come from the original CPR line as logging companies often used retired steel from the CPR and CNR (much lighter rail used during CNPR construction can be seen along stage 2).
Franklin River demarcates the north end of Stage 3. Since the last remnant of the bridge that spanned the Franklin River collapsed in 2019, the river must be waded. This is doable at low water, although this can be tricky because of slippery, algae-coated stones and cobbles. Single track approach trails provide access to the ford, with a section of logging road on the south side. On the north side the steep trail flanking the river terminates at Bell’s Road just across from a Stage 2 trailhead and sign kiosk. If not wadable due to high water, a long (28 km) circuitous detour via Hawthorne Main past Lizard Pond, along Bamfield Main (the Franklin River Rd is often very dusty) and Bell’s Road, is required.
The 9.8 km of Stage 2 lies between Franklin River and China Creek.
The southern trailhead of Stage 2, with a sign kiosk that includes trail maps, is located on the high side of Bell’s Road on the final hill heading down to the Franklin Forest Products sawmill – a valued supporter of the VIT by way of periodic donations of lumber for trail work. Heading north, stage 2 skirts around the sawmill property. It starts with a section of logging road, visible from the trailhead, that you follow for 0.7 km to a single-track trail on the left. The initial section in a cutblock/plantation, which can be obscured by bracken fern, takes you to a timber edge seriously impacted by windfall, then down into more sheltered, dense forest and over a small creek. Part of the route becomes steep and rocky, with a length of chain providing some assistance to hikers.
Soon after crossing the creek, the trail drops down onto the old CNPR rail grade. Close below, on a lower spur can be found some steel rails from earlier railroad logging days. The trail route follows the old rail-grade for the next 5 km to where the grading work was terminated as WWI loomed. There are two short side trails down to small beaches on Alberni Inlet – Nina’s Beach (pronounced Nine_eh, named after a Katimavik volunteer from the Atlantic region) and Koda’s Beach. Nina’s side trail is just north of the Katimavik Creek bridge. North of the bridge, lush sword-ferns characterize the richer marine soils that extend to Underwood Cove. In some sections the trail is atop the cutslope, and the actual rail-grade is below in a substantial rock-cut. At the end of the rail-grade is a large concrete culvert with a visible 1913 date cast in the concrete, with a nearby interpretive sign re CNPR history.
To the north, the trail narrows to become single-track, somewhat inland past a side trail to Underwood Point, as far as Underwood Cove where there are fish-holding pens, apparently used to transition fish from hatchery freshwaters to saline marine waters. Past the head of the Cove, the trail rises sharply across steep, rocky terrain with open arbutus woodland, providing good views over the Inlet. Soon after a break to gentler terrain and slopes, the route picks up a logging road through a cutblock and plantations that leads to the north-end trailhead of Stage 2.
Stage 2 of the Inlet Trail has quite a few water sources with four bridged creeks and a couple of smaller un-bridged creeks, as well as several small waterfalls over the near-vertical rock-cuts blasted out during rail-grade excavation work. There is a camping spot at 134-Mile Creek, which is marked by a signpost on the trail.
Stage 1 of the Alberni Inlet Trail links a trailhead (with the usual kiosk of signs with maps) just off the China Creek Marina Road to the outskirts of Port Alberni – a distance of 14 km. It is predominantly single-track trail apart from short road sections.
Both the north and south portions are inland, with the central portion running close behind the shoreline of Alberni Inlet. For a map and a description oriented from north to south (opposite to below) , see the Alberni Inlet Trail Stage 1 brochure.pdf
From the trailhead, about 100 m after crossing over the China Creek Road, a side trail leads down to a commercial campground and marina near the mouth of the creek – services include potable water, showers and coin laundry – see https://campchinacreek.com. From the trail junction, the route heads inland, NE to a 2-span aluminum bridge over scenic China Creek. In spring some beautiful displays of pink fawn lilies can be seen along China Creek. After crossing China Creek and an industrial road, the trail steeply climbs the shoulder of Mt. Hankin (locally known as Copper Mtn.) before descending to Apple Beach and continuing along the Inlet past Lone Tree Point and Scout Beach, so-called because of its earlier Boy Scouts camp. Nearby an optional side trail climbs steeply up to a high viewpoint on Mt. Hankin that provides expansive views up, over and down the Inlet. If you choose to take on this steep climb, a logging road can be taken to hook up with the main trail north of Follinsbee Creek, to avoid going back down to sea-level.
Otherwise continue north from Scout Beach to just across Follinsbee Creek and turn sharply right/east to climb steadily upslope alongside Follinsbee until slopes moderate. From this point trail with gentler grades plus a short section of road (it’s downhill past the road) takes you to the trailhead on Ship Creek Road – here too as at the other trailheads, is a 3-panel sign kiosk including good trail maps. From the high point can be seen a panorama from the City of Port Alberni over to the Beauforts and around to Mt. Arrowsmith.
Port Alberni is logical re-supply point with a full range of services. These can be accessed via Ship Point Road, or easily from several points on the Port Alberni By-pass Trail, described next.