Cathedral Grove Rainforest

Following the Path

We woke, got ready quickly, and headed out for an early start. It takes about an hour to get from Nanaimo to MacMillan Provincial Park, the home of Cathedral Grove – one of my favourite places on the planet.

Cathedral Grove is a temperate rainforest. Located in the middle of Vancouver Island, the ancient old growth Douglas Fir forest is full of giant (horrible!) slugs, a rich variety of birds, black bears, elk and cougars – and most overwhelmingly – it smells fantastic.

You can get a bit of perspective on the height of the ‘younger trees’ that surround the parking lot, from the photo below.


I first discovered Cathedral Grove in the early 1990’s while living in Victoria. I immediately fell in love with the lush ancient rainforest – I couldn’t believe we had one in Canada!

BC has an enviable natural variety, desert regions, coastal and mountain regions, flat lands, tundra in the north and of course this tiny section of rainforest.

Cathedral Trail

It has a number of walking/hiking options – longer and shorter loop paths. The shorter loops are wheelchair accessible.

At one time people tramped through the forest aimlessly (including my 20 year old self – while aspiring to get a photo hugging a giant 800 year old tree – shame on me), flattening and killing flora and fauna important to the delicate rainforest eco system.

Following the Path

In the 1920’s and 30’s the grove was a very popular tourist spot, and unprotected. It took more than 25 years of steady public pressure for the Government to step up and attain the lands.

Oddly enough the grove is named after logging industrialist H.R. MacMillan, who after much pressure, finally relented and allowed some of his land to be donated to the public good. From Wikipedia;

H.R. MacMillan, who had served as first Chief Forester of British Columbia and became a well-known forester and logging industrialist as head of the H.R. MacMillan Export Company (later MacMillan Bloedel), after years of refusing to consider the public demands, in 1944 donated the 136 hectares of his company’s timber holdings “for the perpetual enjoyment of the public in recognition of the unique stand of trees.”

Fortunately now they have built up the paths, many fenced, all clear on where you are and are not supposed to tread.

Forest Ferns

And while I understand the value of capturing the moment, it is more important that the ancient forest be preserved – and some beautiful photos can be captured from (and of!) the path.

There was a period of time in the late 1990’s and early to mid 2000’s that the rainforest was dangerously dry.

Lush and Green Cathedral Grove

On repeat visits I saw the moss dried to a crisp and ready to turn to dust at a minor touch or slight breeze. There was no dew – no moisture. Though still beautiful, it was hardly a ‘rainforest’, and I worried about its future.

I am ecstatic to report that the grove was all but sopping wet on our visit – and it had not rained on the island in some days.

Two Dogs in Cathedral Grove

The moss was vibrant green and atop everything, dewy new life was sprouting – in my non arbour/botanist opinion, the grove was very much alive and appeared to be very healthy.

It made me wish I had a better camera!

Mossy Cathedral Grove

Also interesting is that there is evidence of ‘culturally modified trees’ dating as far back as AD 1137. You can read more about that at Wikipedia.

There is a permanent protest happening in the grove (though you wouldn’t know it – we didn’t see any signs of it). There is much controversy about the proposed development of a new parking lot, and so a group has stationed themselves on continuous rotation, in a tree-top platform.

Fallen Tree

The current lot, which straddles the highway, is indeed dangerous as it is said to be, but the proposed change involves a 1.5 km hike to grove access, and destruction of hectares of precious local elk feeding grounds.

It has also been recognized that many people would not be able to manage the 1.5 km hike. Not just some members of elderly and disabled communities, but others as well – some pregnant women and small children for example.

And so for many reasons, the controversy continues.

Giant Tree

The tree pictured above was more than 300 years old when Christopher Columbus came to Canada. It is impossible to get a true perspective on the height of this and other ‘grandfather’ trees in MacMillan Park, but the one above is significantly taller than the Leaning Tower of Pizza at 76 meters tall (and 9 meters wide!).

My husband is around 6’3 – and he looks tiny in front of it!

The Runaways in the Grove

Did I already mention that it smells like heaven in the grove?

It is easy to get lost in a dreamy rainforest-y haze while meandering the well lined paths, but if you are ever visiting the park and the wind picks up – get the hell out – QUICK.

Wet Mossy Branches

People have died and been seriously injured in the park.

For the forest it isn’t so bad, part of the natural cycle. The fallen act as nurse trees and their absence from the skyline leaves slivers of light for new growth under the canopy to grab on to.

But if you are in the way – and with OLD sometimes rickety trees that you cannot see the tops of – you are in serious danger of being crushed.

Windy Days

As the sign says;

…They will fall without notice. Leave the park on windy days.

Demonstration of just that is visible everywhere. Giant trees laying on the forest bed crisscrossing each other wildly.

Wind Fall

Cathedral Grove is on my list of places people should make an effort to visit during their lifetime.

Nothing brings you closer to ‘the great creator’, whoever or whatever you might think that is, than breathing in some deep breaths of thick, supreme quality, heavenly air while standing in an ancient rainforest grove of (somewhat) undisturbed, behemoth trees.

Lush and Green Cathedral Grove

Overwhelming nature, to say the least.


Trails on either side of Hwy #4 lead visitors through the mighty stands of this old-growth coastal forest. On the south side you will find the largest Douglas firs – one measuring more than 9 metres in circumference. On the northern side of the road you will find groves of ancient Western red cedar. Trails are well marked and maintained; some are wheelchair accessible. Loop trails lead through the old-growth forest and a raised viewing platform on the south side of the park offers a unique perspective of the surroundings.

If I haven’t convinced you yet, do an internet search and look at some professional photos!

Looking Way Up

If you do make it out, remember not to smoke near the grove – not even in the parking lot (you will see the signs).

The area is priceless, and to imagine it being destroyed by fire from a discarded cigarette is just too tragic.

In Pairs

We needed to get back to the ferry by nightfall and still wanted to make it to Long Beach and Tofino, in the Pacific Rim National Park area. A 3.5 hour drive one way from Nanaimo – that  is without stopping to look at rainforests, beaches and quaint towns – and without pausing to eat.

It was going to take us more than 7 hours round trip for sure, and we had barely that many left. A ridiculously tight schedule when we had a ferry to catch at around 6pm. But compulsive as we are, we were determined!

Many additional photos in the slideshow.

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Follow this trip by heading to the ‘Vancouver Island‘ section. Many more photos at the Habitual Runaway on Facebook.


22 responses to “Cathedral Grove Rainforest

  1. Hi Ana, Thanks for your post on Cathedral Grove. It was mid afternoon on a cold stormy winter day when We visited the grove – the weather and the time made for a gloomy stop. For all that, it was still impressive and very atmospheric – and very green. Your description brought back warm(!) memories. Chris G


    • I can imagine – the grove is dark on sunny days & the air usually very dense without a storm. It evokes emotion for sure – even gloom! I hope you get a chance to make another trip – hopefully on a beautiful day! 😉


  2. Now on the “must go to places” list. Thank you for focusing on the conservation part of this story and how important it is to preserve and protect places like this


    • The ones living in the trees in the grove? No – I didn’t even see any sign of the protestors, though I know they are there – but we didn’t do all of the trails either. We chose two to hike.

      Apparently they are very quiet and very eco-friendly, so they aren’t doing much damage to the forest (if any) & they are leaving no trace of themselves.


        • Oh – HA! Sorry about that! 😛

          YES I have seen the slugs many times – they are yellow with black polka dots and some I saw were almost as long as my foot…very unusual! But as for bears and cougars – none on this trip – though we have seen bears elsewhere on the Island. 🙂


    • I have to agree with you about the parking. Though it is true that you have to be very careful stopping and when crossing the road, I think it is best left as it is. And isn’t it gorgeous? I love it there. =D


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