The fall salmon run, when salmon return to the stream of their birth to spawn a new generation, is one of nature’s most fascinating spectacles. Salmon who have migrated to the ocean return to the upper reaches of inland rivers to spawn on gravel beds. The run marks both the beginning and the end of the salmon life cycle.
I didn’t fully appreciate the wonder of this natural phenomenon until I witnessed it myself on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, along Canada’s West Coast.
Here’s how to have a great experience.
1. Head To Goldstream Provincial Park
I saw the salmon run at Goldstream Provincial Park. The Goldstream River runs through the park and meets the sea. It is one of the richest spawning streams on Vancouver Island. Its close proximity to the city of Victoria and easy accessibility make it a popular spot for viewing the run. Thousands of chum salmon return to the Goldstream River each year. Smaller numbers of Chinook and coho salmon also spawn here.
Salmon have traveled the Goldstream River for thousands of years. Goldstream Provincial Park is located on the traditional fishing grounds of the First Nations. The Saanich people called the river Selekta. The name Goldstream comes from gold-mining attempts in the late 1800s that proved unsuccessful. Goldstream Provincial Park was formed in 1958.
An interpretive trail and observation platforms provide viewing opportunities. Sunglasses with polarizing lenses are recommended to cut down on glare from the water. You are likely to see some salmon working their way upstream and others digging their redds, or nests, in the gravel.
The female chum salmon turns on her side and thrashes her tail along the stream bottom to dig the nest. She releases about 400 eggs into the nest to be simultaneously fertilized by milt from the male. She then makes other nests upstream. The gravel excavated during the digging of the upstream nests covers and protects the eggs in the downstream nests. She will lay about 3,000 eggs total. Both the male and the female will die within 10 days of entering the stream. The dead salmon carcasses you’ll see in the river and along the gravel banks contribute to the ecosystem by providing food for birds, mammals, and fish.
Goldstream Provincial Park lies 10 miles northwest of Victoria amidst an old-growth temperate rainforest. Take the Trans-Canada Highway to get there. The entrance to the day-use area is at the junction of the highway and Finlayson Arm Road. There is a small parking lot.
The paths to the visitor center and viewing area are firm, wide, and mostly even. The surface is compressed, crushed gravel with a couple of sections of boardwalk. For more accessibility information, see this page.
2. Time Your Visit Properly
The eggs that are buried during the autumn salmon run begin to hatch in February. By April, the salmon have become strong enough to wriggle up between the rocks. Chum salmon soon head out to sea, but coho salmon may linger in the river for a year to 18 months before migrating to the ocean. Some Chinook salmon head to the ocean within weeks of hatching, while others stay in the river for up to two years.
After several years at sea, the salmon all return to the place of their birth to spawn the next generation. Chum and coho salmon return to spawn at three to four years of age. Chinook salmon spend more than five years in the ocean before returning.
Although the exact dates of the salmon run vary from year to year, the return of the salmon to Goldstream typically begins in mid-October and continues through early December. Weekend afternoons bring the most visitors. You will have better viewing opportunities if you avoid those peak times.
3. Take Time To Read The Signs
Signs posted along the path contain information that will enhance your visit. You’ll learn about the dynamics of the river as well as the cradle-to-grave life cycle of the chum salmon. Other signs feature drawings of native fishing implements, depictions of a traditional smokehouse, and the Saanich salmon legend.
4. Keep An Eye Out For Bald Eagles
You’ll see a variety of birds feeding on the salmon carcasses, but don’t forget to look up as well as down. You may spot a bald eagle soaring by. The closure of the Goldstream River estuary, the area where the freshwater of the river meets the saltwater of the sea, to the public, including boaters, has resulted in a resurgence of wildlife. Bald eagles, once rarely seen, now abound during the salmon run and nest during the summer. Bring your binoculars.
You’re likely to see more eagles toward the end of the salmon run as they come in to feed on the salmon carcasses. The best time to view eagle feeding behavior is during low tide, which is usually in the morning during the winter.
5. Remember That The Salmon Come First
Goldstream Provincial Park lists guidelines to help prevent the disruption of salmon spawning by visitors eager to see the spectacle. They advise leaving your dog at home, but if you must bring it, keep it on a leash and out of the water. Avoid wearing brightly colored clothing, especially reds, purples, and pinks, which salmon can see very well. Approach the river quietly. See this page for more information.
6. Head To The Freeman King Visitor Centre
Displays and exhibits at the Freeman King Visitor Centre provide more details about salmon and the salmon life cycle. They also showcase the flora and other wildlife in the park. The interactive displays present information in a way that is fun for both children and adults.
Be sure to check the board listing salmon numbers. The salmon are counted manually by volunteers walking the trail. They count the live and dead salmon separately so as not to double count. The board lists separate counts for each of the three species of salmon that spawn in Goldstream. Check with the staff to confirm whether the counts shown are daily or cumulative for the season. On a visit I made in mid-November, counts for chum salmon had already reached more than 20,000 for the season.
7. Don’t Forget The Park’s Other Offerings
Goldstream Provincial Park offers plenty of things to see and do beyond the salmon run.
There are numerous trails ranging from easy wheelchair-accessible walks to strenuous hikes. Paths take you through forests of 600-year-old Douglas fir trees, western red cedars, western yews, and black cottonwoods. You’ll also find groves of arbutuses — broad-leaved evergreens with reddish bark found exclusively on Vancouver Island and on the southwestern coast of British Columbia — and Garry oaks, the only native oak trees in Canada west of Manitoba. The trees next to the river are covered in moss.
Goldstream Provincial Park is also home to waterfalls, including one named Niagara Falls, which is almost as tall as its namesake. Adventurous hikers can climb a steep and rugged trail to the top of Mount Finlayson, one of the highest points in the greater Victoria area. Be sure to check conditions before starting your hike. During the rainy season, parts of some trails may be closed due to flooding.
There is an open picnic spot beside the parking lot. Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy it at the tables surrounded by the majestic trees of Goldstream Provincial Park.
8. Check Out The Salmon Run From Another Location
Although Goldstream Provincial Park is a prime spot for viewing the salmon run, it is not the only spot on Vancouver Island where you can experience this natural wonder. Other places you can visit include Stamp River Provincial Park and the Quinsam Hatchery near the Campbell River.
Spots in other parts of British Columbia where you can view the Pacific salmon run include Tsutswecw Provincial Park (Roderick Haig-Brown), where the Adams River has one of the largest sockeye salmon runs in North America; the Capilano River Hatchery in North Vancouver; and Thacker Regional Park in Hope.
Check here for a list of salmon spawning spots around Puget Sound in King County in Washington and here for a list of salmon-viewing locations in Alaska. Note that the dates of the salmon run vary from location to location. Check the details before you visit.
Wherever you view the salmon run, it is an amazing part of nature’s cycle to witness. Bring your camera.