Whilst backpacking around Canada earlier this year I met a local from Haida Gwaii.
Somewhere I’d heard nothing about. He went on to tell me that the Haida Gwaii islands had been dubbed the Galapagos of Canada for its abundance of wildlife, and that was it. I bought a ticket. Previously known as the Queen Charlotte Islands before the land was reclaimed by the Haida’s in 2010, the stunning archipelago of over 450 islands lies to the west of British Colombia’s coast. For those interested in exploring Haida Gwaii too, this place is accessed by plane and boat with flights departing Vancouver to Sandspit a few times a week, followed by a ferry to Graham, the most inhabited village in Haida Gwaii and one of only two villages with roads.
As soon as I set foot on the islands, I felt the magic that I’d heard so much about. With its vast array of wildlife, breathtaking scenery, off the beaten track vibe, colourful history and fascinating Haida culture you won’t regret a trip across oceans to this stunning corner of the earth. Perfect for anyone who craves exploring the lesser known parts of Canada’s British Columbia.
Exploring Haida Gwaii Culture
You absolutely can’t visit Haida Gwaii without delving into the history of the magnificent culture here. The best way to learn about the culture is from the locals. I found everyone super helpful, kind and keen to talk about the island’s colourful past. If you’re looking to learn more about the beautiful Haida culture, including the art that is so prevalent across the islands, then I can’t recommend the Haida Heritage Centre on the north island enough. It is a must visit and the perfect way to spend a morning or afternoon. The centre is run by local people and full to bursting with artefacts and interesting points about Haida Gwaii’s past.
The name Haida Gwaii loosely translates to ‘islands of beauty’ and was named by none other than the native Haidas themselves who have inhabited the islands for over 14,000 years. The Haida people are some of the most culturally rich, educated and developed groups of indigenous people to inhabit North America. Not to mention kind, welcoming and keen to educate visitors on their cultural values and colourful history.
Today, the southern islands are still filled with ancient villages and offer visitors the perfect opportunity to explore the island’s ancient culture, as well as the remains of the original long houses and some of the most beautiful totem poles in the world.
Haida Gwaii Wildlife
One of the main reasons I visited Haida Gwaii was for the wildlife. April is just coming into bear season. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any, I think we were too early. But I wasn’t disappointed. I saw countless seals, sealions and even whales. And, if you’re into birds there’s all kinds of bird watching to enjoy.
Haida Gwaii boasts a stunningly unique natural landscape combining lush forests, calm waters and jagged rocks making it the perfect home to an abundance of unmissable wildlife. Not referred to as the ‘Canadian Galapagos’ for nothing, you can expect to enjoy a real mixture of wildlife. Make sure you’re on the lookout for beavers, black tail deer, bald eagles, seals, grey and killer whales, sealions and of course, the black bear. Haida Gwaii’s black bears are the largest of its species in the world.
The breath-taking landscape of Haida Gwaii is an adventure seekers dream which made it the perfect spot for me to explore. From forest hiking to adrenaline filled water sports, the islands offer something for everyone. Haida Gwaii is home to two national parks. The Naikoon Provincial Park is nestled in the north on Graham island and Pure Lake Provincial Park in the south. I had the privilege of visiting both, and hiking in the Naikoon Provincial Park.
Boasting four main hiking trails, Naikoon Provincial Park is the epitome of dreamy hiking. Choose from short walks through lush forestry, to day long hikes like the East beach trail or a cultural day long hike to the Pesuta shipwreck. Whichever hike you choose, remember these islands are rustic and authentic, take your own snacks and drinking water, there are no facilities along the way.
The Pesuta shipwreck hike was my absolute favourite. It took us about 5 hours to do the round trip and was only moderately difficult with some up-hill walking. The trail is beautiful and runs alongside the river and the forest, eventually taking you to the old Pesuta shipwreck. A real historic gem.
The island waters of Haida Gwaii are bursting with sea life and the best way to get up close and personal is to get on the water. Whether you fancy a gentle row, a leisurely cruise or a mind-blowing kayaking trip, these islands offer it all and they’re super easy to book once your there. Either book a personal trip with a local, or browse an array tour packages. There are a few tourist information centres spotted around the islands, including one at the airport where you can request more information on packages and tours.
When to Visit Haida Gwaii
I visited Haida Gwaii in April and it was completely by accident! The islands were never on my itinerary but if they had been, I would have chosen to go further into the Spring or Summer. During April, we were lucky enough to get decent weather for hiking and a few great sunny days to get out on the water. Visiting during the summer months of June, July and August are popular for hiking and water sports. Warm, sunny, clear days mean spectacular views and perfect waters.
I’ve heard that Winters in Haida Gwaii can be tough, with plenty of rainfall and misty overhangs between islands that makes for a mystical, fairy-tale-like atmosphere. The locals tend to fish for their supplies through the summer and freeze and jar seafood to see them through the cold winter months. No matter what time of the year you choose to visit Haida Gwaii, the islands have something for everyone.
Haida Gwaii Travel Practicalities
When I tell people that I’ve visited Haida Gwaii they either say they’ve never heard of it, or they reel off recommendations and sing its praises. That’s because Haida Gwaii is indeed the remote and mystical world it appears and remote and mystical worlds don’t come without some travel difficulties.
It’s important to note that getting around exploring Haida Gwaii can be difficult due to the lack of public transportation. Taxis are available, but a rental car is highly recommended. We were lucky enough to stay with a local Haida who showed us around but I saw plenty of hire cars during my time on the islands. Although taxis can be hard to find, most guesthouses can provide access to them.
Home to more eagles than humans, guest houses and bed and breakfasts are only just starting to pop up on the island and absolutely must be booked well in advance, especially during peak summer seasons when Canadians head there to explore the beauty and escape stuffy city life.
With all this is mind, it might seem that Haida Gwaii is difficult to get to and hard to navigate on arrival. It’s not a backpacking spot for the faint hearted. These stunning islands require forward planning and organisation, particularly on the accommodation and transport fronts, both of which are easily booked on the internet.
Once you’re there taking in the pristine surroundings, learning from the Haida people of their bravery over the years and revelling in everything this corner of the world has to offer, you’ll realise it was worth crossing oceans for. I guarantee, with the right forward planning, exploring Haida Gwaii is an absolute dream!
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