If you’ve spent any time driving around the Central Vancouver Island area, you’ve seen Mt. Arrowsmith looming on the horizon in any area north of Nanaimo. You can see it even if you’re in Campbell River. On the West side you can see it from Port Alberni and beyond– even if you don’t know its name, you can feel its presence. And conversely, on a clear day, if you make the short but strenuous hike up to ‘the Saddle’, the flat ridge below the actual peaks of Mt. Arrowsmith and Mt. Cokely, that view brings new meaning to the term ‘breathtaking’. It’s that good!
On a good day, standing at the Saddle facing East, you can see the 50 miles across the Salish Sea– all the way to the highrises at UBC and Vancouver’s West End. Turn around to the West and you can see Port Alberni and the start of the 40 mile long fjord that continues out to the wild open Pacific and Bamfield and Ucluelet.
As soon as the annual mammoth snow pack (usually between 15 and 20 feet) melts off it’s rocky hide (typically early to mid summer), all that’s required to get up near the top of Mt. Arrowsmith is to be in good enough shape to hike uphill for an hour or so (it’s about a mile and a half), a vehicle capable for a half hour of bumpy gravel logging roads, sturdy shoes or hiking boots and the mandatory ‘Boy Scout’ stuff (water, lunch, bug spray, compass/gps, extra layers in case the weather changes quickly, and hikers first aid kit). More serious hikers/climbers will continue past the Saddle to ascend to the actual peaks of Mt. Arrowsmith, but that’s a trip best left to the more experienced and prepared.
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Logging Road, parking and trail to The Saddle from Living Forest Oceanside Campground in Nanaimo
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My son, Patrick, our dog, Ben and I were wandering around the Saddle in between the mountain summits above us, drinking in the view in both directions when I saw this lady doing likewise. In conversation with her I found out she’d just arrived to her new life and job as newspaper editor in Port Alberni, seen in the background along with the famous Alberni Inlet. She was pretty happy to be a new resident in this Island paradise!
Mt. Arrowsmith is always looking over your shoulder like a big brother in these parts, it’s rugged features providing a calming presence as you go about your business. And for those who’ve been up its slopes, whenever you glance up at it from the lowlands below, you can’t help but be momentarily transported to the memories of your time spent up there.
The views start immediately when you leave your car. The first time I saw the little pull off parking area, it was 40 years ago. A few high school buddies and I bushwacked and stumbled our way up the hillside from Cathedral Grove, that famous ancient towering old growth forest below Mt. Arrowsmith, where we’d started 3 hours earlier. We only had a vague sense of where we were going, following creeks and good fortune. The grins that grew on our faces upon finding out we were on the right track when we came out on the road and parking area, was quickly tempered by realizing we could have driven our car to this point– but such are adventures in high school.
The lower stretches of the hour long hike up to the Saddle are in dense forest, so that when you reach the edge of the treeline and come out into the open, the contrast is dramatic.
I love hiking with Ben – this is a younger version when this was taken. There’s several little ponds on the route and when you finally stand on the far side of the Saddle on the other side, there’s a lovely lake below.
The trail levels out as you approach the area between the peaks known as the Saddle, and a glance over your shoulder rewards you with a view to the West of Port Alberni and the start of the Alberni Inlet. That 40 mile fjord is known as being one of the best places to catch salmon in the world. You can see the logging road where we parked far below.
This view from the Saddle shows the many peaks of Mt. Arrowsmith. Unless you have climbing gear and rock scrambling experience, the 15 minute hike across the Saddle ridge to the start of the steep ascent is as far as you can go. The panorama from here is just too expansive for a single camera shot- several pics have to be stitched together to get a fit even most of it in. On the East side, beyond and below this picture, is a picture postcard mountain lake- you’ll have to see it for yourself- I forgot to get a picture of it! When I first came up 40 years ago, there was the fuselage of an old DC-3 aircraft, leftover from a crash in the WWII era, just above the lake. It’s since been salvaged and removed, thankfully.
Turning to the North provides an ocean view over Qualicum, with Denman and Hornby Islands in the foreground and the Mainland mountains in the far distance. The ridge of Mt. Cokely carves up the foreground.
At At the bottom of the trail pictured, two folks are preparing for the climb to the top. If you hike beyond the Saddle, a close eye must be kept on the weather. Once on another trip, what started as a clear day turned to pea soup fog within minutes and with steep cliffs nearby in every direction but one, it’s not a place to get caught out. My lack of climbing experience, gear and fear of heights has kept me from trying the summit, but I would love to see the view- maybe someone will volunteer to piggyback me blindfolded…
After we went as far as we dared up toward the peaks — ok– as far as I dared (Patrick has since taken up rock climbing and climbs regularly in Brisbane, Australia, where he lives these days, and Ben’s mostly happy to just go wherever we’re going), we headed back to the Saddle to relax, eat some lunch and prepare to descend. Mt. Cokely’s peak and weather station gear is seen in the background, with the mainland just visible beyond, some 50 miles away.
I’d just turned 50 when son Patrick took this of Ben and I. Two years earlier, I’d had a serious heart attack (as though there’s ‘not serious’ ones?!!). At that time I had no idea I’d ever be able to return to a normal life, much less be able to do this hike. To have the opportunity to feast on this incredible beauty, and share it with my son and Ben, made for a very special day for me, one I will never forget. Afterwards, we joined the rest of the family in Port Alberni to celebrate my father in law’s 85th birthday. So glad to be alive on Vancouver Island!
Best view on Vancouver Island? You’ll have to hike it yourself to know, but if it’s not, you can see it from here, I’m sure.