“Sometimes I wish I were good with words… but not just good, exceptionally good, so maybe I would be able to express my feelings and describe the beauty of what’s in front of me right now. I’ve always thought of the term “breathtaking” as quite hyperbolic, but looking at this sky, at this ocean, you really feel your breath stuck in between your lungs, right beside your heart. And maybe that’s where it should be after all.”
This is what I recorded in my travel diary, while walking from Queen Charlotte towards Skidegate on the “highway” that runs along the ocean. Haida Gwaii is a group of islands in British Columbia, Canada, unknown to a lot of Canadians and to the world. It’s a community with a rich heritage and an amazingly preserved culture.
Reconnecting with nature and your inner self
Haida Gwaii is the perfect spot for people who want to reconnect with nature, silence, art, ancient legends and their inner self. It’s a place where you get the chance to disconnect from the “real” world. I’ve never heard of retreats over here, but I think it would be the perfect spot for small groups of like-minded people who want to benefit from each other’s presence and engage in powerful and meaningful conversation.
What to see/What to do
Hiking, kayaking, clam picking, paddleboarding, biking, totem pole hunting, there’s a lot to see and do in Haida Gwaii, even during the low season.
If you are equipped for snow-packed mountain hikes, check out the Sleeping Beauty Trail: apparently the view from up there is marvelous. I wasn’t, but I was able to do my fair share of scenic hikes nevertheless.
When you enter the forest surrounding Spirit Lake, with its web of different trails, it feels like being in a scene from Bambi. The trees still tipped with snow, the silent half-frozen lake, the mystic atmosphere, the droplets rolling down the trees onto your head… you can almost feel Bambi’s soundtrack accompanying your footsteps. Quite surreal.
Completing the whole circuit of (mostly flat) trails doesn’t take more than 2 hours. Spirit Lake is accessible from the parking lot right beside the sign “Skidegate”, on the right if you’re coming from the north of the island.
Have you ever had lunch in a shipwrecked boat? I have and it’s quite an experience! The Pasuta Shipwreck trail is partially a forest trail and partially a beach trail. It’s fairly easy, unless you happen to be there on a windy day. Walking for kilometers on the beach with that kind of wind can turn out to be quite challenging.
After the forest part, you get to the beach and start walking along the river. On the other bank there are camps, trailers and small houses of Haida people who actually live there. As you keep going, with giant eagles soaring in the skies above you, the river becomes bigger until eventually flows into the sea. And there, there’s this big imposing ship, stranded on the beach. Make sure to get there with a low tide! In fact, that part of the beach becomes inaccessible with the high tide and the ship itself gets partially submerged.
The parking lot is on the left (if coming from the north of the island), a few kilometers after the town of Tlell.
Golden Spruce Trail
The Golden Spruce trail is another easy one, that cuts through the forest to get to the river. The big attraction is (or was) the Golden Spruce, a huge white/golden tree sacred to the Haida because of its rare colour. Until the day a western logger decided to cut it down in sign of protest against the lumber companies exploiting the territory. Now the only thing left is the tip of the tree.
I was lucky enough to get a tour with the former mayor of the village where this all happened and hearing all the insights from him was indeed a powerful experience. He then took us to a few different sites inside the forest, sharing his deep knowledge of the Haida heritage and culture. He now owns the only grocery store in Port Clemens, so you’ll find him there.
The Golden Spruce trail is about 6 km east of Port Clemens, on the right, along a deserted gravel road that has a the-Walking-Dead-like vibe to it.
If beaches are your jam, don’t miss the scenic Tow Hill, at the north-eastern tip of the island, and Balance Rock in Skidegate, a huge rock balancing on its tip. For kayaking and paddleboarding, rent the equipment at the surf shop in Massett or book an excursion with them. If you’re there during the low season, make sure to call first, as sometimes they just take random days off despite what is written on their website.
The Northwestern First Nations deeply fascinate me. I find really admirable the resilience of these people who so meaningfully work towards the preservation of their own culture, despite the continuous attempts of obliteration. You can sense the pride of the Haida people in their arts and crafts.
The totem poles and art shops in Old Massett and Skidegate are worth a visit. Explore these quiet villages on foot and feel all the ancient power that comes from their artifacts. Visit the Haida Gwaii Museum as well, in order to get a wider and more complete perspective. It’s not very big, but it’s well organized and informative, the view on the bay is wonderful and the gift shop is a little treasure. I haven’t tried the food served at the restaurant inside, but locals told me it’s really good.
Finally, the best way to really immerse yourself in the Haida culture, is to book a tour to Gwaii Haanas, a UNESCO site full of uncontaminated natural landscapes. It’s a marine reserve accessible only by boat or by air, where only the Watchmen are allowed to live (during the summer, as it’s not advisable to go in winter due to the strong currents). Unfortunately I got there too early during the season, but a trip to Gwaii Haanas is at the top of my bucket list for the future.
Where to work – My café of choice
Queen B’s is a lovely, quaint and artsy coffee place in Queen Charlotte. Drinks and baked goods are excellent and the WiFi is reliable. It has tables and cozy spaces for groups, as well as single chairs facing the harbour for people who wish to work with a view. The patio outside is perfect to enjoy the sun on warm days and have a chat with friends. It’s a staple place for the community: you can find high school kids doing homework, mothers with kids, elderly gossiping while sipping their coffee. It’s a colorful and positive place to be productive and get some work done. Highly recommended.
Where to stay
There are quite a few luxury places all around the island: nice cabins nestled in nature with wonderful views on the ocean. If budget is not a problem, definitely pick one of those on the northern coast.
Queen Charlotte has the most options with different ranges of price. Some may not be as poetic as the luxury ones, but they are still cozy and with good views.
For backpackers, the cheapest option on the island is the hostel in Port Clemens. For 25$ a night, you’ll have a nice bed, a friendly host (and guide if you’re up for some kayaking), a cool house with foosball and pool tables, fully equipped kitchen to cook your dinners, reliable WiFi, a pirate-themed counter to do some work and a huge backyard with a great view (recommended for sunset watching).
How to get there
By plane: from Vancouver to Massett or Sandspit with Pacific Coastal Airlines or Air Canada (1h)
By ferry: from Prince Rupert or Port Hardy to Skidegate (6-7 hours)
There’s no public transportation on Haida Gwaii. You can rent a vehicle at the airport or you can hitchhike, it’s totally safe and super-fun. You don’t even need to stick your thumb out! Locals love picking up travelers and telling them stories about the island. Definitely an experience worth trying, even for the extra-shy people like me 😉
I hope I convinced you to consider a trip off the beaten path! Go and Explore and let me know how you liked it!
For more Canadian destinations, take a look here 😉