A huge, seemingly bottomless fissure in the earth, a fairy circle, sweeping views of the Salish Sea and peek-a-boo views of Mt. Benson: this is an outdoor experience not to be missed. Commonly known to locals as The Abyss, Extension Ridge – a 4.5km section of The Great Trail (formerly known as the Trans Canada Trail) – is a stunning hidden gem in Nanaimo and a favourite playground for mountain bikers, hikers and dog walkers alike.
A Brief History Of The Abyss
The trail is not only rich in curious points of interest and picturesque views but history too! According to local sources, the trail was used in the 1930s as a walking and horseback trail for residents of Nanaimo and Harewood to commute to the coal mine in Extension.
In the 80’s, Dick Jung and other mountain biking pioneers in Nanaimo started using the trail to hone their skills. In Dick’s words, “It was one of the few true singletrack trails we just rode it without ever ‘developing’ or grooming it. If a tree fell across the trail, you either learned to ride over the log, or you carried your bike over it. Rocky sections were attempted up and down. A few sections were ‘cleaned’ less than a dozen times by only a handful of riders… The spirit of The Abyss was a trail that helped to solidify friendships… when I think back to the trail, it’s never about how challenging it was – it’s always about the great time my friends and I had riding together. I hope it’s the same today for those who ride it.”
In the late 1990s, a volunteer committee based out of Nanaimo chose to incorporate the popular trail into the Trans Canada Trail (now Great Trail) which is a unique system of greenways, waterways, and roadways that stretches across Canada. (https://thegreattrail.ca/), and maintained by the Regional District of Nanaimo.
How to get there and what to expect
From downtown Nanaimo, make your way up Harewood Mines Road and park on the left-hand side of the road, underneath the powerlines. You will see blue and white signage posts with an arrow to lead you down a short section of a rocky, forestry access road. About 50 metres down the road, you will see a set of stairs on your right: follow the signs to make your way up the stairs and continue to turn right at all the forks in the path.
The trail is wide, well-maintained, and signed, but due to exposed tree roots and steeper rocky sections, it’s not suitable for strollers. Your 1km climb will reward you with a view of the namesake feature along this trail: The Abyss—a large crack running right down and through the earth, stretching out to the left and right. At 50cm wide, the crack is just large enough to fall into, so a heads up to keep dogs and kids close at hand. There doesn’t seem to be consensus on how the fissure came to be; best guesses are that is a result of an earthquake or from the ground collapsing into old mine tunnels. Regardless, it is a neat place to spend some time checking it out!
Continuing along the trail for another few kilometres, you’ll come to another fork in the trail. You can take either direction, but the option to the left will prove less steep and challenging. As you meander along the trail, you will be provided with peek a boo view of Mount Benson to the right, through the branches of arbutus trees. After approximately 1km you will come up to a clearing on your left, with two conveniently placed seats carved out of stumps. It’s a perfect place to have a snack and soak up the views of the Salish Sea. On a clear day, you can see across to the mainland, and if you are lucky you might even get a view of Mt. Baker to the south.
For the next km, you will follow the trail through the trees, if you are exploring the trail on a bike there are lots of options for fun rock rolls and playful descents. Again, after approximately 1 km, you will pop out at what is affectionately called the ‘Fairy Circle’. Local lore dictates that you must go around the circle three times in a counter-clockwise direction to ensure good luck.
Once you have successfully circumnavigated the Fairy Circle three times, stay right to continue along the trail and take in the stunning ridgeline views of Extension on your right. In a little less than a kilometre, you will come across a bench and a beautiful lookout where you can sit and drink in the view of rolling hills and surrounding mountains.
The last section is short and sweet. If you are travelling via mountain bike, drop your seat and enjoy the ride, it is all downhill from here! A fun, flowy descent will pop you out off of the ridge to a logging road.
To return to your parking spot along Harewood Mines Road, just turn around and take the trail back. There are always new things to see and appreciate when travelling in the opposite direction.
Know Before You Go
If you are unfamiliar with the area, it is recommended to download the Trailforks app which can be used offline to show you where you are in real-time. Remember that this region provides valuable habitat to wild animals. Please be bear aware, keep dogs under control, and leave no trace.
The Abyss is beautiful no matter the season… whether your visit is punctuated by sunshine shimmering between the leaves or our rainy coast’s ‘liquid sunshine’ making the moss glow. Rain or shine, the trail is worth the visit.