Snag Lake is a good alternative to some of the more popular hikes on Vancouver Island and a doable stop on the way out to the west coast if you’re trying for a late afternoon road opening. With an early start, it is possible to complete this hike in 5 or 6 hours. Parking is in a large gravel area just off of Highway 4, about 1 km on the western side of Sutton Pass. The total length of the trail is just over 15 km return.
Most of this hike is on deactivated logging roads. From the main parking area, the first hour of the hike follows an old logging road that is in fairly good shape. The first section is passable by mountain bike, quad or, with some caution, possibly 4×4 truck. The area is used frequently by off-road vehicles and there were a couple of RVs with quads parked in the main gravel clearing. In addition, there was also evidence that people had camped at the end of the passable road near a small waterfall on the Kennedy River. At this point, the trail takes the less travelled logging road.
There are a few roads that may side track you from the main path and you may have to back track. When the main road begins to turn towards the Kennedy River continue straight onto a slightly overgrown logging road. This will take you to an old bridge that crosses the Kennedy River. The bridge gives you good views up and down the Kennedy River.
The second section of the hike is a bit more work. The trail continues to follow a deactivated logging road but is more overgrown, passing through red alder, thimbleberry and salmonberry. While it isn’t true “bushwhacking,” there is more effort required and a few fallen trees that block the road. Elevation gain is steady but gradual. There are several spots where the trail dips into creek beds. While some of these were dry at this time of year, others had shallow running water. Wolf scat was common in this part of the Snag Lake trail.
The overgrown logging road ends at a huge waterfall that descends in a series of drops over smooth granite. At low flows, it is fairly easy to climb up the slope to get a view across the valley towards the rock slide that blocked the Kennedy River and created Snag (or Spire) Lake. However, in mid-summer the water flow was low. In the spring, this waterfall would be dramatic and probably challenging to cross.
Trail to Snag Lake View Point
The last 20 minute section of the trail is overgrown and passes through thick bracken fern before emerging onto an open view point. A rough shelter here marks the beginning of the Witness Trail. The trail was originally constructed back in 1993 as part of the “War in the Woods”. The northern part of trail, which includes the Snag Lake section, was maintained in 2009. Beyond the info shelter and map, the trail is overgrown but well flagged.
From the viewpoint, the catastrophic rockslide that blocked the Kennedy River in the 1970s is clearly visible. The Kennedy River flooded the valley behind the massive pile of rocks, creating Snag Lake. The lake is around 500m wide and 2km long. Dead trees fill the lake in a surreal memorial to this dramatic event. Huge boulders line the edges of the outlet of the lake. With a bit more time, it would be worth following the old Witness Trail down towards the lake level to get a better views of the impact of the flooding of the valley.
A Worthwhile Destination
Snag Lake is an interesting hiking destination. While the trail is overgrown in places, the effort required to reach the lake is moderate. The elevation gain is gradual, with a bit more effort required in the last section. In addition, the final view of the lake is good. As a side trip on the way to the west coast destinations of Tofino and Ucluelet, this less frequently travelled trail is well worth considering. Consider this as a more active alternative stop than the traditional Kennedy River cascades.
The map below shows Snag Lake and the main parking area off of Highway 4. For more information, directions and trail information refer to AllTrails. In addition, this short video gives a good overview of the terrain and the trail conditions in the early spring. As always, make sure to pack the 10 essentials and leave a trip plan.