History underfoot at Union Bay’s Washer Creek

Family and dog on Coal Hills Trail, Union Bay, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

The Coal Hills Trail is a perfect location for a family walk

On a recent cold, clear day we decamped to a rather obscure walking trail that found us, literally, walking on history. We had passed the parking area for the Washer Creek coal hill trails near Union Bay hundreds of times without ever having the time to stop, but a trip to pick up our regular bread order from Just Like Mom’s Bakery, also in Union Bay, afforded us the opportunity to explore this most interesting site.

Looking south from the Coal Hills trail near Union Bay, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Looking south from the peninsula

The village of Union Bay was once a bustling coal port, with high grade coal from Cumberland being shipped by rail to the waterfront where it was washed, processed and loaded onto sea-going ships for delivery all over the world. The slim peninsula that stretches into the water across from the heart of the village is the most prominent vestige of the shipping port, although a wander along that pathway and back along the easternmost edge towards Comox offers up other residue as well.

Railway tie plate artifact at Coal Hill trail near Union Bay, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Remnants of the colliery abound, including this railway tie plate

Known locally as the Union Bay Coal Hills, the trail network is a popular destination for families and dog walkers. There is a variety of walking options, all relatively easy and flat. Pretty vistas abound in all directions and, as mentioned earlier, the trails and beachfront are riddled with remnants of the yesteryear that saw Union Bay develop beginning in 1887. Several wharf pilings continue to dot the waterscape – the last signs that a 600-foot long pier once jutted out in to Baynes Sound to accommodate the ocean-going vessels. Many of the masted ships were so large that they had to be escorted up Baynes Sound between Vancouver Island and Denman Island by tug boats.

Wooden pipe on beachfront at Coal Hill trail near Union Bay, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

An old wooden pipe, found along the beach front

In its heyday the peninsula was host to coking ovens, a railway that delivered the coal, machine shops and a coal washer (hence the change of name from Hart Creek to the more commonly -known Washer Creek),

View to Comox from Coal Hill trail, Union Bay, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

The view to the north, towards Comox, with some of the old wharf pilings in the forefront

Keep trekking back from the southern point of the peninsula towards the north and you will find bits of old railway grade, wooden pipes, broken bricks and a host of other industrial bits and pieces that speak to the past of the area. Walk even further along and you will end up at the 13 hectare (32 acre) coal hills, comprised of the offal from the coal washing process. This area is privately owned and posted by a development company that, since 2010, has been proposing a 3,000 home sustainable development with a 27-hole golf course, marina, hotels, capping of the coal hills and all the other bits and pieces that seem to go along with high-end developments these days. To date there appears to have been no movement on this, but for anyone interested in the history and remains of this vital area it would be worthwhile to visit sooner rather than later.

old rail bed at Coal Hill trail, Union Bay, Vanocuver Island, British Columbia

It’s a level, pretty easy walk, thanks to the old rail bed route

In any event, visitors to the Washer Creek area tend to hike up the coal hills, posted as private or not, to enjoy the spectacular views of big sky, water and mountains to the north. The slopes are gentle and an easy climb for pretty much anyone. All-told we spent just over an hour exploring the area, but your adventure can easily be made shorter or longer depending on the route you take.

Driftwood at Coal Hill trail, Union Bay, Vancouver Island, British ColumbiaFinding the Washer Creek trails is simple – just a little north of the village of Union Bay on the east side of Highway 19A there is a graveled parking area. You can pull in there and access the trails and pathways very easily.

GPS co-ordinates are:

Lat. 49.587447 Long.-124.887204

N 49 35.247 W 124 53.232


About Shirley

More years ago than I like to remember, I completed the Journalism program at Vancouver Community College and launched straight into a career as a newspaper reporter (thanks to my journalism professor Nick Russell and an opening at the venerable daily Alberni Valley Times.) My work as a news reporter/feature writer/columnist and ultimately, newspaper and magazine editor, took me to many interesting places and introduced me to hundreds of interesting characters over the years. I loved every minute of it, but burnout caught up with me while I was trying to juggle the simultaneous editing of five trade magazines, and for 27 years I abandoned my keyboard (on a professional basis, at least) and followed my heart in a variety of other careers. In 2010 I returned to the journalistic fold, thanks to the encouragement (nay – nagging!) of my husband. I feel no regret – only great joy to be back at the keyboard, and to be spending time interviewing interesting folks and discovering great places.
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