The Carmanah Valley an Ancient Rainforest on Vancouver Island

by Dr. Robert Berdan
May 28, 2011


Hiker in the Carmanah Valley by Robert Berdan ©

In 2009 I purchased a photography book by Canadian Photographer Graham Osborne called "Rainforest" and his pictures inspired me to visit and photograph the rainforest on the West Coast of Canada. I was concerned that if I didn't do it soon, I might never get a chance and that's a reality that still exists. Over the years I have made a total of six trips to the West Coast starting in1999. I worked my way around the Island and eventually up the coast into the Great Bear Rainforest aboard the Mothership III. Of all the forests I visited, the Carmanah Valley was the most beautiful. Some of the giant trees are over 1000 years old and reach heights of over 300 feet. Today the park contains 16, 450 hectares of protected land. Getting there is easy if you take a tour or go with someone experienced that knows the area. The park is a wilderness area, there are no facilities nearby or medical services so be prepared. The park offers pit toilets, a ranger cabin and walk in tent sites. From Parksville it will take you about 2.5 hour drive over logging roads many of which are poorly marked. A GPS might be helpful, but many logging roads don't show up on GPS maps so give yourself lots of time and only travel during daylight hours. Beware of logging trucks that have the right of way. To be safe go on a Sunday if you plan to drive yourself. Frankly, I recommend going with a guide or take the Pacific Rainforest tour from Parksville - I did this three times and my guide Gary Murdock was extremely helpful and the cost reasonable.

Giant Sitka Spruce in the Carmanah Valley by Robert Berdan ©

Giant Sitka Spruce trees in the Carmanha Valley on Vancouver Island.

Map showing location of the Carmanah Valley on Vancouver Island

The Carmanah Walbran Creek Provincial Park is located on the West Coast of Vancouver Island and is accessible by
logging roads. There is a park cabin and parking lot and a limited number of tent sites.

Most of the ancient trees on Vancouver Island are being cut with the exception of a few small parcels. It is sad especially when our news media and government condemns other countries for cutting down tropical rainforests, yet in British Columbia we still clear cut our oldest trees. I am not against cutting trees for wood, but I do believe we could preserve more of the Ancient forest on the West Coast. As I travelled aboard the Mothership III up into the Great Bear Rainforest the evidence of destruction of the ancients forests is everywhere including remote inlets where few travellers get to see, but teaming in life with wolves, whales and grizzly bears. One Park I visited on Vancouver Island called Parkinson's Creek was according to my guide book a must see stop, I arrived with my father to see only clear cut and stumps (see below). We could only imagine how beautiful it might have been and vowed to never to return to this area. In the parking lot was a sign with various obscenities scratched on it and the Park message read " Clear Cut Habitat for Sun Loving Animals". My father and I complained at one of the Park offices and also left an angry message in the visitor box, but were told by park staff -" we all need paper". I understand that jobs in the forest industry pay much better than the service industry, but it's also much more dangerous and once gone - so will be the high paying jobs. I believe it's possible to selectively log and preserve the integrity of much of the Ancient rainforests - how many pictures of clear cuts do photographers have to show before we stop?

Clearcut forest on Vancouver Island.

On left: Parkinson Creek Park with sign "Clear cut habitat for sun loving animals". We didn't see any sun loving
animals or any animals for that matter. Right: typical BC clear cut forest.

Trail leading into the Carmanah Valley by Robert Berdan ©

Trail heading from the parking lot down into the Carmanah Valley - it's like going back in time as you descend into the valley.

I realize wood is a valuable commodity and the word renewable resource keeps coming up - but anyone that visits a young forest after it was clear cut can see this is just a smoke screen - once the Ancient forests are gone, we will never see them again. Call me a "tree hugger" if you like, but there is nothing that sparks my anger more then witnessing the destruction of our ancient rainforests in Canada. Selective logging is the new phrase I hear and maybe it is better, it will certainly be easier on the Salmon which have dwindled significantly in years in part because of clear cutting the valleys. The main point I want to make is that if you want to see these ancient trees - don't wait too long. If you find that you are moved as much as I was after visting them, get involved in petitions and make your voice known - see links below.

The Three Sisters in the Carmanah Valley by Robert Berdan ©

My father standing among "The Three Sisters" a trio of three giant Spruce trees near the end of the grove (3.8 Km).

The battle to protect Ancient forests is ongoing. One individual that has played an important role in helping to protect two areas on the West Coast, The Carmanah Valley and the Wallbran Creek area is Randy Stoltman. Randy wrote a book called "Hiking in the Ancient Forests" which describes various regions, the trails and locations of some of the biggest trees. Before you jump into your jeep and head out these remote forests that you can only access by driving on logging roads, you better bring a GPS and beware that you may encounter logging trucks and they have the right of way. My advice is to go with a tour group, one that I recommend is the Pacific Forest Adventure tours in Parksville, Vancouver Island. The tour operators have a special vehicle to travel on remote and bumpy logging roads and aradio to determine if any logging trucks are headed their way. (See link s below).

Photographer on the Carmanah Valley trail by Robert Berdan ©

Note all the photos on this page were taken with a Nikon F5 film camera, 20-35 mm zoom lens using Velvia slide
film set to ISO 40. Because the forest can be quite dark I used a tripod and also bracketed some of my exposures.


  • Be prepared for rain - bring an umbrella, rain clothing and if possible use a water proof camera bag or bring some plastic garbage bags you can put your camera bag inside. (e.g. see Lowe pro Drystone 200 waterproof camera bag).
  • Bring rubber boots or tall hiking boots - the trails can get muddy after rainfall.
  • Bring a tripod - it can get very dark near the floor of the rainforest and this will permit long exposures
  • The best light is on an overcast day. On sunny days try HDR imaging to deal with the high contrast lighting.
  • Black bears are common so bring bear spray or hike in groups and make noise.
  • The best lens to bring in my opinion is a wide angle zoom (e.g. 12-24 or 20-35 mm) and a macro lens for close ups
  • When shooting people a fill flash can be very helpful under the canopy.
  • If you want to shoot video - use a DSLR camera - tape based video cameras are sensitive too high humidity and rain
  • Bring lens paper or cleaning cloth to wipe moisture off the lens due to condensation or rain.
  • If you drive, go with a full tank and check your spare tire - there are no services and your cell phone won't work
  • To shoot in light rain, bring an umbrella with clamp to attach it to your tripod (see below).
  • If you can find a stream or creek, use a tripod and use a slow exposure to capture impression of moving water
  • Best time of year to go - June to September, but check parks web sites before you go.

Umbrella attached to tripod

Setup to shoot in the rain includes an umbrella attached to the tripod using a clamp and the camera covered in
a commercial rain protector though plastic bags attached with rubber bands work just a well.

Hiker in the Carmanah Valley trail by Robert Berdan ©

Including a person in your photos can help give a sense of the size of the trees. The Grove contains the
largest known Sitka Spruce at 96 m (315) feet tall.

If you travel with another group that are not photographers you will almost certainly have the problem that they want to just walk at a steady pace. Most photographers will want to stop frequently to take pictures. I wanted to stop and photograph about every 100 meters and soon fell behind. Give your self the whole day or at least several hours to explore and take photographs. It is also a good idea to include a person in some of your photographs for scale, alternatively use your self timer and get in the pictures yourself. Consider wearning brightly coloured clothing such as red, yellow, or bright blue, but avoid green.

Trail cut through old snag on the Carmanah valley by Robert Berdan ©

The Carmanah Trail in places is made up of a wooden walkway and in this location the trail was cut through an old snag.

Trail bottom - Carmanah Valley by Robert Berdan ©

Gary Murdock, a guide from Pacific Rainforest Adventure Tours and my father in a red hat stops to admire the ancient forest.
The forest floor is a mossy carpet dotted with giant sword ferns.

Long exposure of stream in the Rainforest by Robert Berdan ©

Stream and small waterfall near Pemberton, BC showing the effect of a slow camera exposure. Camera on
tripod using Velvia ISO 40 slide film and a 20-35 mm zoom lens at F22 with polarizing filte, exposure about 4 sec.

You can get to Vancouver Island by flying or by Ferry. I enjoy taking the Ferry from Horse Shoe Bay to Nanaimo and then driving up the east Coast of Vancouver island to Parksville where I arranged a tour with the Pacific Rainforest Tour Group. If you plan to drive yourself be prepared and aware that the roads into the lower Carmanah valley are very rough. If you can't get to the Carmanah Valley, you can always visit Cathedral Groove (Also called MacMillan Provincial Park). MacMillan Park is located on central Vancouver Island, 25 km west of Qualicum Beach and 16 km east of Port Alberni on Hwy #4, which runs right through the park. RB

Links & Additional Resources




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