Last updated May 7, 2020
When you stand among the ancient, gigantic Douglas firs at Cathedral Grove, you’ll be awestruck by the sheer beauty of the 800-year-old forest. It’s like a magical fairyland. The trees reach for the sky and are taller than you’ll ever imagine. As you walk in their shadows, the golden rays of the sun trickle through the branches. Their bark is strong, thick from hundreds of years of growth and it’s amazing to think of what these trees have seen in their lifetime.
Cathedral Grove is located in MacMillan Provincial Park on Vancouver Island. Here, you’ll have easy access to some of the largest Douglas fir trees in BC.
History of Cathedral Grove
MacMillan Provincial Park was established as a Provincial Park in February 1947. It was created to protect the endangered, old-growth Douglas fir forest and allow the hundreds of thousands of annual visitors to safely enjoy the towering trees.
However, thousands of years before Cathedral Grove became a Provincial Park, the Hupacasath First Nations enjoyed a deep spiritual connection with the area.
About 350 years ago, a devastating wildfire raged through Cathedral Grove. In 1997 a giant windstorm swept through the area and wiped out many trees. While lots of the trees today are about 300 years old, there are still survivors from these natural disasters that are an astounding 800+ years old! It’s truly humbling to stand amongst these giants.
Cathedral Grove is a small park with a delicate ecosystem. It’s easily impacted by the hundreds of thousands of people that visit every year. Make sure to stay on the trail and not climb on any of the trees. When you practice good trail etiquette, you’re helping protect the beautiful forest!
Visiting Cathedral Grove
Cathedral Grove is located on Highway 4, just outside of Port Alberni. It’s located literally off the side of the highway and, because it’s so easy to access, it’s a very popular tourist stop. Even with all the people, Cathedral Grove is totally worth the stop.
The highway runs between Cathedral Grove and the small stretch of road often becomes a bottleneck. The highway is single lane and narrow, with wide shoulders and large ditches. Although there’s limited parking at the trailhead, the large shoulders provide plenty of parking on the side of the highway. We had no trouble finding parking a couple hundred feet from the trailhead. Be very careful when you’re crossing the highway.
There are outhouses and clearly marked maps at both trailheads. On the northern side of the highway is the Old Growth Trail and on the southern side are the Big Tree and Living Forest Trails.
Old Growth Trail
We visited in the middle of summer and, as we expected, there were a lot of people. Despite the endless cars, when we entered the forest we found ourselves in a quiet sanctuary. The Old Growth Trail is made of two smaller loops, the Hollow Tree Trail and the Tree of Life Trail. The entire loop is just under one kilometer and is mostly dirt with very little elevation change. About halfway through the loop, there’s a trail to Cameron Lake.
Cameron Lake is a beautiful lake and is a great place to go swimming or fishing. Rumour has it that a giant “something” lurks at the bottom of Cameron Lake. Looks like the Okanagan isn’t the only place with a giant swimming animal lurking in its depths!
Despite being across the highway from the Living Forest and Big Tree Trails, the Old Growth Trail offers a surprisingly different experience from those trails. The devastation of the 1997 windstorm is very evident on these trails. There are many fallen trees with smaller trees taking root beneath. Even today, over twenty years later, the forest is clearly still recovering.
The Living Forest + Big Tree Trails
The Living Forest Trail is basically a big loop and the Big Tree Trail cuts through the middle. They’re about a kilometer long and are an easy, comfortable walk. The main trails are wheelchair accessible as well.
Gorgeous boardwalks led us through the thick, green forest. Lichen clung to the branches and hung like a protective blanket over the forest. Small trees grew from the fallen giants and nursed like a suckling baby. Moss infiltrated the boardwalk, eating away at the edges and claiming it for its own. The trail was flat and we enjoyed the easy walk. We wished the trees could share their stories.
The Big Tree Trail brought us the to the largest Douglas fir tree in the park. The Big Tree is over 800 years old, 9 meters around, and 72 meters tall. That’s taller than the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The Big Tree was a whopping 300 years old when Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas over 500 years ago!
We stood, awestruck, at its base as people stood for a picture with the famed giant. The sheer size of the tree is overwhelming! It’s probably the closest to the Redwoods I’ve ever experienced without actually being in the Redwoods.
Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park is an old growth forest on Vancouver Island. It’s about an hour from Nanaimo and two hours from Victoria or Tofino. It’s one of the most accessible old-growth forests in BC and is very popular. You should definitely check it out!
The trees are very old and some have root disease that causes them to fall without notice. Always be aware of this when you’re visiting and keep off the trails if it’s windy. Smoking is prohibited, but I feel like I shouldn’t have to say that. It’s an old forest.
Pets are allowed in the park but must be on a leash at all times. Always pick up after them and dispose of it properly.
And as always, ENJOY!