The mountains have long held an attraction for man. Being amongst them in a wilderness setting inspires awe. The perspectives from their flanks and summits offer new and inspiring views of familiar places, as well as a humbling perspective on our presence in contrast to the magnitude of our surroundings. While accessing such experiences under one’s own power multiplies the rewards significantly, the challenges of navigation in such settings are often an intimidating obstacle. While making things too easy impacts the sense of value achieved by one’s efforts, some routes offer superb compromises.
Within our area, the CPR Trail is an outstanding example of this. It was built in 1912 by the Canadian Pacific Railway as a pack-horse route to link its Cameron Lake resort with an overnight hut on the flanks of Mt. Cokely. Such investment clearly demonstrates that, even a hundred years ago, the beauty and accessibility of our area was recognised by both the public and by the nation’s most significant provider of tourism.
By some miracle, the route has survived the ravages of wildfires and logging (although evidence of both exists along the way). This makes the CPR Trail, also known as The Old Arrowsmith Trail, the oldest intact trail on Vancouver Island. Blasting and logging continue to impact the trail’s surroundings, to the extent that blasted rock literally sprays the trail in places and, at times, the trail will be closed above a certain point. In lieu of government stewardship, and in spite of public apathy, hard lobbying by a number of groups have been necessary to protect this historic route from succumbing to the destructive results of short term commercial interests.
Fortunately the route remains as a steep, but consistently graded, switchback trail that starts a short walk from Cameron Lake and rises more than a kilometre to a point just below the final approach to Mount Cokely. The surroundings are mostly majestic, second growth evergreens which, combined with the northern aspect of the grade, offer shade on hot days and an ideal environment for fungi. By following the gully through which McBey Creek flows, the ascent is unusually lacking in side trails. This, in conjunction with years of footfall, leaves little chance of summer hikers going astray. There are a couple of points where the trail splits but, on the outward leg, the rule is “if in doubt keep heading uphill!” with the reverse true on the descent. The only real options come at the short out and back detour for a look at McBey Falls, and when a signpost is reached offering the choice of forking left to the main viewpoint or right up McBey Creek. At this point your decision is which way to follow a loop which brings you back to the same spot in a few hours’ time. My preference is to take the left option and follow a clockwise route around the upper part of the trail.
In doing this, one has the option to assess the weather and one’s legs while enjoying the rewards of the viewpoint (clouds permitting!) and turning back early if wary about the condition of either. For most hikers capable of completing the whole route, the timing of this stop coordinates well with a substantial snack. The viewpoint itself is signed as an Eastwards detour from the route and offers an expansive panorama of Oceanside and beyond from a bare rocky outcrop. A full circuit takes the majority of hikers between 5 and 8 hours so prepare accordingly and don’t be afraid to turn back if in doubt of your ability.
On re-joining the trail, the gradient lessens as you make your way across the undulating shoulder which leads to the base of Mt. Cokely’s rocky knuckles. Flatter terrain has allowed the formation of some fascinating pools amongst the trees and marsh grasses. As the trail approaches its turnaround point it crosses the old Arrowsmith cross country ski area, and coloured trail markers can still be seen nailed high in the trees. This gives a clue to the fact that for much of the year hikers must come equipped with snowshoes and navigational expertise as any trail can easily be lost once covered with snow.
At its high point, the trail intersects the main gravel road that runs around the peaks of Arrowsmith and Cokely. Our route turns right and meets McBey Creek, whose course it follows downhill. Around an hour’s walk will bring you to a quaint, improvised picnic spot by the creek. This provides an ideal opportunity to replenish for the final couple of hours of descent. Before long, the switchbacks return as the hillside falls away more steeply and you will find yourself re-tracing the path of your outward journey back to the signpost at the foot of the trail.