The Charlevoix Traverse Hiking Experience
By Leigh McAdam
Despite the fact that Canada has numerous long distance hiking trails, there are very few that offer a hut to hut experience, and even fewer where you can be out for a week at a time. Most hikes of any length in Canada require that you lug a tent, cooking gear, clothing and all your provisions. Not only does it take a lot of planning, but you end up carrying a backpack weighing somewhere between 30 and 45 pounds.
The 105 kilometre Charlevoix Traverse is an exception to almost every trail you’ll find in Canada. Not only do you hike a manageable distance every day, but you can sleep soundly at night in cozy, rustic huts. Even better you only need carry a day pack. Everything else – food, water, a sleeping bag and yes even wine is moved between huts daily via a shuttle service. And the huts come with a good supply of wood and a stove so there’s never a reason to be cold.
We have Eudore Fortinto thank for bringing the Charlevoix Traverse into existence. A true visionary and the driving force behind thetraverse, he managed along with the help of his friends to get the entire trail built in under a year, starting in the spring of 1977 and finishing in the winter of 1978. The trail system and huts are also available to cross-country skiers in the winter.
Our Charlevoix Traverse Experience
I did the Charlevoix Traverse with my husband, John and friend Judy over a week in early September. We flew in from western Canada, spent a night in Quebec City and then hopped on the Charlevoix Train for a two hour scenic ride along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River to reach Baie St. Paul.
By early afternoon on day one we were on the trail – or dirt road as the case would be. The first day was a snap. After just 4.2 km of easy hiking we were checking out our home for the night - Chalet L'Écureuil or Squirrel Hut. All the huts we stayed in were named for animals and birds of the area. As we still had lots of time before dark we decided to take advantage of one of the optional hiking trails in the area - the Sentier des Sommets (Trail of Summits). If it’s a clear day don’t miss your chance to hike to at least the first summit for some of the best views of the week. Pick handfuls of wild blueberries while you enjoy the sight of lumpy mountains in one direction and the St. Lawrence River in another.
Late the first afternoon we met our fellow cabin mates for the week. While we never hiked together, we thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie at the beginning and end of every day that forms quickly when you’re sharing experiences like this. In fact, our group of seven ended up having so much fun that by mid-week we were sharing happy hour together – with whatever anyone could contribute plus wine of course – and lots of laughter.
A rhythm developed over the next six days of the trip. The night before we’d have coffee ready to go so it was just a matter of the first person up lighting the propane burner. It always seemed that somebody in our group would handle breakfast, another lunch and one would help with sweeping up the hut before we left. Then we’d have a look at the route for the day and hit the trail, somewhere between 9 AM – 9:30 AM. Most days we finished by 3 PM, maybe a little later if we’d taken a long lunch or lots of breaks. This is one trail where we never felt rushed.
Day two, though just shy of 15 km, took us under five hours to hike. We discovered over the course of the week that even though the distances looked high on paper, with a couple of days in the 21 km range, on the trail it was a different thing. Kilometres flew by even on days with lots of elevation, mostly because the trail is easy to follow, well signed and nowhere near as muddy as some we‘ve done on the west coast or as rugged as you get in the Rocky Mountains. Largely you can look forward to pleasant forest walking – sometimes with grand views like you’re supposed to get on day three if the fog doesn’t roll in, or others with peek a boos views to distant gorges or hilltops. There are also some truly delightful woodsy sections that you wish would go on forever.
Our favourite hiking days were the first day with the optional hike, the third day to Owl Hut via a loop to the top of Mt Noye where views if it’s clear are grand and the fourth day to the fabulous Blueberry Hut overlooking the Malbaie River. That day offered lots of variety underfoot and a chance for a swim. The fifth day is also beautiful in the morning especially, with very pleasant hiking alongside the Malbaie River and then by a stream. The last couple of days were mostly in the woods. Certainly there were always things to see whether it be a porcupine, a screaming Canada Jay or a woodpecker, a wild variety of mosses and fungi or beautiful stands of trees but don’t expect too much in the way of views. However, in late September and early October these woods would burst into colour and dazzle you.
While there may be the occasional black bear in the woods, we didn’t see so much as bear scat. We saw plenty of dried old moose pellets but never a moose. We did catch a bit of the fall bird migration with numerous warblers spotted one day but generally the woods were quiet on our visit, save for a porcupine on the last day of the hike.
At 105km from start to finish, the Traversée de Charlevoix is one of the longest and most beautiful hiking trails in Quebec. Located in the mountainous hinterland of the Charlevoix region, at the heart of a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, this rugged trail offers outdoor enthusiasts a real challenge with a breathtaking backdrop of untouched landscapes. Keep an eye out for some rare caribou herds and take in the stunning views over the edge of an impact crater, created by a meteorite some 360 million years ago!
> View the detailed itinerary of the Charlevoix Traverse (7 days). Great Canadian Trails also offer a 4 days version.