This is *the* mountain in Nanaimo. At over a kilometer in height, it can be seen from most points in the city. It's almost entirely undeveloped aside from periodic logging operations - it's such a massive area that you can hike/bike/motor to find undisturbed solitude at any time of year.
Mt Benson's shape is recognizable, even iconic to enthusiasts like myself. When you approach Nanaimo from the south (e.g., Ladysmith), the mountain's ridgeline is sharply conical, seen on-end. But from Central/North Nanaimo the mountain sprawls along half the sky - a long wall of forest-carpeted bluffs! The photo below shows something in-between: the view from downtown Nanaimo.
Hiking Mt Benson
The views from the top are phenomenal: You can see one third of the Salish Sea, across to Vancouver and its mountain ranges, north to Texada Island and south to Duncan. Or you can turn around and look inland, across the wilderness toward Port Alberni and Bamfield, and the open Pacific (I once thought I could see a piece of the open Pacific out west, between some peaks). Here is a photo showing the view from the BACK side of Mt Benson (click the photo to see a larger version).
There are several routes to the summit, but the quickest and most straightforward begins at Witchcraft Lake (see the map below). There is a network of trails all over the mountain, and no rock climbing is required to reach the top. The peak has a couple wide areas, not steep - it's quite safe. It's a great place to hang around after a long climb.
Just below the north side of the summit, around the old trail that comes from the Westwood Lake area, there is an area with old growth trees and sparse undergrowth, truly sub-alpine and wonderful. It's an interesting area, quiet and mysterious - very much worth visiting.
Witchcraft Lake Trailhead
Below is a map showing how to get to the main trailhead and parking lot for the shortest route to the summit.
Mt Benson History Notes
I've heard the mountain may have been called "Wakesiah" by the local First Nation, which would explain why the name was given to the old outermost street of Nanaimo (at the very foot of the mountain where VIU is now). The mountain was re-named by the settlers in honour of Alfred Benson, the resourceful and adventurous Hudson's Bay Company doctor who was stationed here in the 1850s and 60s.
There have been various logging operations on the mountain at least as far back as 1908 when the New Ladysmith Lumber Company operated a mill in East Wellington (near where Mountain View Elementary is now) and ran steam locomotives all over the lower north side of the mountain; I have walked the old railway grades and found neat artifacts like this section of track from the narrow-gauge railway above Westwood Lake.
There was a horrific plane crash on the lower slope of the mountain in 1951, killing all 23 people on board. The mountain had been ravaged by fire the previous summer and was largely bare; the wreck of the plane and the scars from its crash/fire could be seen from vantages throughout Nanaimo for many years after. There are still a few pieces of the wreck, most notably the landing gear, near the trail which climbs from Witchcraft Lake.
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