Standing Under the Giants of Cathedral Grove
MacMillan Provincial Park is home to Cathedral Grove, a forest of ancient Western Red Cedar and Douglas Fir
Colossal, majestic, towering, astonishing… these are all words used to describe the Cathedral Grove forest experience. Until you’re actually close-up, it is hard to imagine just how big these trees actually are. Some of them are as old as 800 years, reach up to 80m in height and 9m in circumference. It is not difficult to imagine why this natural wonder received the name “Cathedral Grove”, with it’s vast natural canopy seemingly stretching up to “the heavens”.
Over 500,000 visitors a year frequent the park to breathe in the fresh forest air and get up close to these ancient wonders. The park’s popularity doesn’t stop there, famed director George Lucus shot scenes for Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi here, using the larger-than-life trees as the backdrop for the Ewoks home planet of Endor. More recently Jurassic World: Dominion (2022) also found the park the ideal setting for some prehistoric action!
Historically the park and the surrounding lands have been stewarded by local First Nations. The K’ómoks, Tseshaht, and Te’mexw have long used the forest as source of raw materials for shelter, transportation, clothing and tools. In more recent times European settlers began logging in the area but the forest has always been a popular place for tourists and nature lovers. Many attempted to petition the government, unsuccessfully, to preserve and protect the land. Finally, in 1944, forester H.R MacMillan donated 136 hectares and the site was formally dedicated as a Class A Provincial Park in 1947. (source)
MacMillan Provincial Park greets visitors approaching the Alberni Valley from the east along Highway 4. You will immediately be able to tell you have arrived by the sudden change in the size of the trees that line the highway’s roadside.
Heading east on Highway 4 from Port Alberni for 16km, you will arrive in about 20 minutes by car. There is limited parking along both sides of the highway and do take note that you may not cross the highway to park. If you are travelling from Port Alberni, you must park to the south (right-hand side) of the road. Avoiding peak times and seasons will definitely improve your chances of finding a place to park. Cathedral Grove receives the most visitors during the summer months (generally, June – August), if you would like to avoid the crowds it is best to visit during the shoulder season months of May or September. For safety reasons, the park trails should not to be used during windy days, in case of falling trees or branches.
A Walk Through the Forest
Due to Highway 4 passing through the centre of the park, there are two sides to visit. You can walk through each side in about 20 – 30 minutes but we recommend taking your time and really enjoy the natural beauty and quiet solitude that only a forest like Cathedral Grove can provide. There are interpretive signs placed along the trails that are definitely worth a stop to read. If you are really looking to commune with nature, perhaps venture to try out some shinrin-yoku (or “forest bathing“) while you’re there.
However long you decide to stay, be rest assured the walking paths are well maintained and are considered an easy hike, with mostly a flat terrain of packed gravel and boardwalk. Be sure not to venture past the marked trails as you don’t want to disturb the natural ecosystem.
The two most popular trails of the park are located on the south side of Highway 4. There is the “Big Tree Trail” which, as you may have already guessed, features the parks largest tree, a Douglas Fir that stands at 80m tall and boasts a trunk diameter of 9m. The “Living Forest” trail also showcases some of the largest trees in the park, with interpretive signs outlining the intricate nature of the forest lifecycle.
Safety First: To experience both sides of the park (and we think you should) you will need to cross Highway 4. The speed limit through the park is reduced to 50km/hr and drivers will often stop for pedestrians to cross but it is still a good idea to take all precautions to safely cross. Before you start, be sure to wait for a clear amount of space from both east and westbound traffic.
Although the north side of the park is less popular, it is still worth experiencing. The “Old Growth Trail” consists of two loops that take you past the Cameron River as well as offer a side-trip to Cameron lake, should you desire. Also of note on this trail is the chance to view an “upturned” old-growth tree. The root system that these ancient trees have is an absolute marvel to see.
MacMillan Provincial Park
Location: 452 Alberni Hwy (map)
Contact: (250) 474-1336 | Website
Hours: Open all-year-round