Boasting trees that date back more than 800 years, MacMillan Provincial Park, commonly known as Cathedral Grove, offers one of Vancouver Island’s most impressive displays of West Coast old growth forest. Straddling the Alberni Highway between Port Alberni and Coombs, the park also offers one of the most accessible such forests on the island. Despite its strong tourist draw, however, this forest could easily have been wiped off the map. Its preservation is due in part to locals who petitioned for its conservation, and to one forester who heeded their call.
With some trees stretching as wide as 9 metres, the park is home to abundant wildlife and constitutes an internationally important specimen of old growth Douglas fir trees. Housing big leaf maple, western hemlock, and of course, Douglas fir, the forest is also home to numerous animals, such as deer, owls, black bears, elk, and cougars.
MacMilan Park’s majestic epithet “Cathedral Grove” is said to stem from a description made by the Governor General Viscount Willingdon in 1928. At this time, the park was part of the land owned by the Victoria Lumbering and Manufacturing Company was and therefore on track to becoming timber, like much of the forest that initially surrounded it. As early as 1929, The Associated Boards of Trade of Vancouver Island, a group of citizens who petitioned for the forest’s protection, began to call for the government to protect the land in perpetuity. It took 15 more years of public appeal before this land was protected, and this conservation was only granted thanks to one forester, H.R. MacMillan, who in 1944 donated 136 hectares to be protected and used for public enjoyment. Three years later, this land was deemed a Class A provincial park.
Unfortunately, the park suffered considerable damage in 1997, when a severe wind storm brought down numerous old growth trees. Restoration efforts have since taken place, however, and many of the fallen trees now act as nurseries for younger trees, providing them with shelter and nutrients. Cathedral Grove continues to be an impressive sight, and in 2007 it was nominated on CBC as one of the Seven Wonders of Canada.