The closure of a popular section of the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail until late June will be devastating for the area's tourism business, tour operators and area politicians say.
A 26-kilometre section of the trail between Mystic Beach and East Sombrio Beach has been closed since February for repairs and maintenance, which are taking longer than expected.
The trail was originally set to open at the end of April, but according to B.C. Parks, it will be closed until June 30.
Ryan Chamberlain, president of the Sooke to Port Renfrew Tourism Association, said the trail closure is "horrible" news for hotel operators, guide outfits and area businesses, which have already been hurt by the federal government's new restrictions on chinook fishing.
"This is another hit to our local tourism economy by shutting down that trail during peak season," Chamberlain said. "All these issues at the same time are devastating the work that citizens have been doing to diversify our local tourism economies."
The closure came as a surprise to Chamberlain, as well as to Mike Hicks, Juan de Fuca's electoral area director for the Capital Regional District.
When told about the closure stretching into June, Hicks said: "Are you kidding me? We need to be firing on all cylinders in tourism and this is no fun if we're getting our fisheries smashed and now this as well."
It's poor planning from B.C. Parks that the maintenance will run into the summer, Hicks said.
The Juan de Fuca trail attracts visitors from around the world, Chamberlain said, as it's less strenuous than the West Coast Trail and does not have to be booked in advance.
Both Chamberlain and Hicks are concerned about travellers who have already planned their vacations around hiking the trail.
"People have made plans a year in advance to come out, and it's a big deal [that it's closed]," Hicks said.
In the hiking community, the trail is akin to Butchart Gardens as a prime tourist destination, he said.
"This is a world-class hiking trail," he said. "It's absolutely essential that it remain open for our tourism."
The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, which oversees B.C. Parks, said improvements on the trail include removal or replacement of stairs, boardwalks and bridges at 24 sites.
Hikers are advised of the closure through the B.C. Parks and Discover Camping websites, as well as signs posted at all major trailheads, including China Beach, Mystic Beach, Sombrio Beach, Parkinson Creek and Botanical Beach.
The initial reopening date of April 30 has been pushed back because of problems replacing a critical stair section located in an exposed cliff area south of Sombrio Beach, around the trail's 21-kilometre mark, the ministry said in a statement. The stairs are in an area where no detour is available and there are no stable footings to build a safe structure.
As a result, an engineered rock-anchored boardwalk and stairs must be built. Between design, fabrication, construction and inspection, the ministry estimates that will take until the end of June.
The Mystic Beach to East Sombrio section of the trail is popular with school groups, including Maria Montessori Academy in Saanich.
Christina Hofmann, the private school's outdoor-education teacher, said she expected the trail to be open in time for the Grade 9 and 10 class trip in mid-June, but she now says she'll be looking for a backup plan.
The northern half of the trail, from Sombrio to Botantical Beach, is an option, but it doesn't provide the same challenge and students will have to camp in the forest instead of the beach, she said.
The trail is an important stepping stone to more rigorous multi-day hikes on the West Coast Trail and Cape Scott, Hofmann said, but it's still close enough to the highway to get help for a student who is struggling or injured.
Hofmann acknowledges the trail was badly in need of a facelift, saying many teachers were in touch with B.C. Parks last year to raise concerns about sections that had become unsafe.
"Last year, there were some complaints, saying we don't feel safe bringing our students there," she said.
While she's happy improvements are finally being done, Hofmann wishes the work could have been completed before school field trips.
Rosemary Jorna, a director with the Juan de Fuca Community Trails Society, said the society has had long-standing concerns about the state of the trail, which has become quite treacherous in sections due to overuse and a lack of maintenance after major storms, including a destructive windstorm in December.
"It's had years of neglect and years of far more use than it was built to take. It really needs a lot of work," she said. "As a province, we haven't put enough money into park maintenance."
Jorna said she's not surprised to hear restoration of the 26-kilometre stretch is going to take longer than expected because the trail is in such a poor state. The closure will likely rankle hiking enthusiasts, but Jorna said it's necessary for the long-term sustainability of a beloved trail.
"I think there will be a legitimate outcry because people can't use the park, but that will show how overused that trail is."
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