I should also mention that the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail (JDFT) and the North Coast Trail (NCT) are still fairly fresh in my head as I just finished them a few weeks ago, whereas the West Coast Trail (WCT) is a bit foggier as I did it a few years ago.
For the purposes of this post, I will be including the Cape Scott Trail as part of the NCT, simply because almost everyone who hikes the NCT will need to hike it and it constitutes a full day of hiking.
My intention in this post is not to pick a favourite or least favourite hike of the three, since I don't know that I could honestly do that. They are all different experiences, and they are all worth doing. I would be prepared to do any of the three again.
The JDFT is the shortest of the three trails at 47 km. It is the trail that requires the least amount of time to complete. I think it is fair to say it takes 3 to 5 days to complete. I did it in 3 days without having to be all that time conscious.
The WCT is the longest of the trails at 75 km. I would say that 5 to 7 days is a reasonable time frame to complete the trail. I did it in 5 days which was pretty tough.
The NCT is technically the shortest at 43.1 km, but factoring in the Cape Scott Trail it becomes around 58.1 km. I would actually say it is the trail that takes the most time to complete. I would say 6 to 8 days is a decent time frame to complete the hike. I did it in 6 days with a day off in the middle.
I think anyone who has hiked the WCT can add 1 day onto their hiking time if they were looking at hiking the NCT.
This should probably be the most straight forward section since it is generally agreed that the NCT is the hardest of the three and the JDFT is the easiest. However, I'm not sure that I entirely agree with that. The gap in difficulty between the trails, while present, isn't as big as I thought it would be.
The JDFT is the easiest, largely due to the short length. The trail is mostly easy to follow, there are no ladders present on it, no cable cars, the boardwalks are in excellent condition, and the trail is fairly well cleared with the least tree roots to climb over. There are still challenges in a few extremely muddy sections, some slippery stairs, a couple of muddy ropes (which are in worse condition than the NCT ropes) and a very physically demanding stretch from Bear Beach to Sombrio Beach. In my opinion, Bear to Sombrio is more physically difficult than any section on the WCT or NCT. That's not to say the other trails don't have more dangerous or technically difficult sections, but the Bear to Sombrio stretch is the stretch of trail that wore me out the most.
The WCT has the same muddy sections and tree roots as the other two trails. The section from Pachena Bay to Camper Bay is not really that difficult, fairly comparable to most of the JDFT. The trail does have a lot of ladders to go up and down, but I think their difficulty is a little overstated. There are also 5 cable cars on the trail, though some of them are pretty easy to skip. I think that the section from Camper Bay to Thrasher Cove is what gives the WCT its reputation as being an incredibly difficult trail. In my opinion, this stretch of trail is the most overall difficult section out of the three trails. It isn't as physically draining as Bear to Sombrio on the JDFT, but it has what feels like a minefield of fallen trees to go over and under. When things are wet and slippery, this section is not just tough, but also really dangerous.
The WCT is also the trail where you have to be the most aware of tide levels. This can make things more difficult, as missing a low tide can mean either a long wait or a dangerous wade.
I think the NCT as a whole is harder than the WCT, but I don't think it has a section as difficult as Camper to Thrasher. The mud in Cape Scott Park is very well documented, and can make it impossible to travel faster than 1 km/h. I think, like the ladders on the WCT, the difficulty of the ropes on the NCT are a bit overstated. The ropes are in excellent condition, and I don't believe gloves are necessary to use them. The boardwalks on the NCT are probably in the best shape if I was comparing boardwalks across the three trails. I also think the cable cars on the NCT are a bit easier than the WCT, but then again, there are only 2 of them.
The JDFT has lots of camping at all of the beaches. I can imagine that in the summer it could be difficult to find a campsite, or at least a solitary campsite. There are a few places you could stealth camp on the trail, but it would mostly be limited to the designated campsites. The outhouses at the campsites are stocked with toilet paper and hand sanitizer which is an added bonus.
The WCT has the most potential for stealth camping. Even when I hiked it at a fairly busy time of year, I spent a couple of nights on beaches that I more or less had to myself. The composting outhouses at the campsites are a nice touch.
Camping on the NCT is limited almost entirely to the designated camping areas. The tent pads at the campsites are extremely well constructed and are handy for keeping sand off of your tent. The outhouses are stocked with toilet paper.
Given that they essentially run into each other, the JDFT and WCT have very comparable scenery. The JDFT has quite a few interesting rock formations and cliffs present at its beaches, but they aren't as dramatic and rugged as the ones on the WCT. There are some amazing and colourful tidal pools at Botanical Beach, and Sombrio Beach is as picturesque of a cobble beach as you could find. The forest you hike through has some areas that feel like old-growth, but a lot of it feels like secondary forest, recovering from logging. As a result, you see more deciduous trees than on the WCT or NCT.
The wildlife on the JDFT is more habituated than on the other trails. This is a little scary, and there have been incidents of bear and cougar attacks in the area.
Of the three trails, it feels like the JDFT stays within view of the ocean the most, which is a big bonus. You are constantly accompanied by the sound of pounding surf. On the other hand, you are often close enough to the highway to hear traffic. In addition to many views of the ocean, the trail also grants many views of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.
The WCT has the most dramatic rock formations of the trails. As it is the longest trail, it also has the most variety in scenery. Most of the forest you hike though is old growth, but there are still a couple of areas that you can tell are in recovery. Wildlife viewing is a bit restricted, as the heavy usage of the trail tends to scare some of the animals off.
One feature that is a bit unique to the WCT is the shipwreck debris you find on it. It is nicknamed the "Graveyard of the Pacific" for a reason after all. While it is a bit morbid, it is still interesting to see the old ship parts and donkey engines scattered all over the place.
The NCT doesn't have the same rocky terrain as the other two trails, but it makes up for it with some of the most picturesque and pristine sand beaches imaginable. Nissen Bight particularly is a real treat. The trail also boasts untouched old-growth forests. These ancient forests have a mystical quality to them, and definitely add to the unique experience of the NCT.
Given how isolated the NCT is, the wildlife here is abundant, and is truly wild. There are bears, cougars, and wolves in the area. To be able to observe these animals in their natural habitat is amazing. I wasn't granted the good fortune of seeing any on my trip, but I know it is the trail with the most potential for wildlife encounters.
The JDFT is the least expensive trail to hike out of the three. It is also the easiest to plan. There are many entrance and exit points on the trail, and since the whole thing is along the same highway, a 2 car set up would be really easy to do. Even without a second vehicle (or a first vehicle in my case) the West Coast Trail Express allows for pretty easy access to the various trailheads. I should mention that the China Beach parking lot is infamous for vandalism, and I would not ever leave my vehicle there. Outside of the standard camping fees, there is nothing else in the park that you have to pay for. Water is abundant on the trail. I rarely carried more than 500 mL with me on the trail.
The WCT can be a logistical nightmare, just because you need a trail permit (which is expensive) and they restrict how many hikers can start each day. Accessing the northern terminus requires driving on some very rough logging roads. These roads also slow the shuttle bus down (sometimes by as much as 2 hours). Water is mostly not a problem on the trail, but there are a couple of stretches where it is hard to come by.
There are two places on the trail where you can purchase food and beverages, though it is pretty expensive. The trail also has only one place where you can get off of it (and it isn't the most convenient location), so if you decide to hike the WCT, you pretty much have to hike the whole thing.
Unless you are planning on doing an in-and-out hike of the NCT from the parking lot, you have to get either a boat or a float plane to drop you off at Shushartie Bay. This can be a bit pricey, especially if you can't pick a time when other people are going (so the costs get split). The trail is extremely isolated, with no places you could get off of it. If you start at Shushartie Bay, you have no choice but to hike all the way through.
The NCT is isolated enough that if you got injured, it could take days before you were found. For this reason, it is not necessarily the best trail to hike alone (though I hiked it solo).
Outside of the camping fees, there are no fees for permits or anything else. Water can be a challenge on the trail. There are a couple of places where you have to more or less hike for a full day before you get to another water source.
The JDFT is perfect for day hikes and short trips. Given the number of access points on it, hiking it does not require committing to doing the whole thing. Because of this, as well as the easier nature of the trail, I think it is ideal for novice hikers. I also think it serves as excellent preparation for some of the harder hikes on the island. It may not be as spectacular as the other two hikes, but it is definitely worth doing.
The WCT is an amazing experience, and deserves its status as one of the most famous hikes in the world. The downside to its fame is that it is a really overcrowded trail, so people who are put off by crowds probably won't enjoy it. Busyness of the trail aside, it is a true challenge and offers some spectacular scenery. I don't think a person has to be an expert hiker to do the trail, though I think some experience is a good idea.
The NCT is a unique experience unlike anything I have ever done. It is a true wilderness adventure. It is very grueling and challenging, but it is well worth the difficulty. I think anyone considering the NCT should definitely have the WCT on their resume, or at least another difficult island hike.