CANADA’S BEST COASTAL HIKING TRAILS
By Robin Esrock
If you’re reading this, you’re likely familiar with the escape, tranquillity, and personal triumph that accompanies a multi-day wilderness hike. You already know it’s an adventure that requires a certain level of fitness, a love for the outdoors, and an aptitude for logistics. It can be a challenging pastime, yet each day’s hike offers ample rewards: a stellar view after a hefty ascent; an invigorating dip beneath a waterfall; a chance encounter with wildlife; or a moment of transcendent natural beauty. Coastal hiking packs these rewards closer together, and with far more frequency. It promises stunning views and magical moments that just don’t quit. With an experienced guide to set up camp, assist with cooking, or shuttle you ahead to the best trails, a week-long wilderness hike becomes far more manageable. As we explore five of the best coastal hiking excursions in Canada, I invite you to consider the possibilities.
WEST COAST TRAIL (British Columbia)
Let’s take our first steps towards coastal hiking bliss with the brightest jewel in Canada’s backcountry crown: the legendary West Coast Trail. Attracting hikers from across the country and around the world, this 75-kilometre (47mi) coastal trek on the west coast of Vancouver Island follows a rugged trail initially used by the region’s First Nations, and later by shipwreck survivors of vessels that succumbed to the Graveyard of the Pacific. This is not the trail to break in new hiking boots. You’ll be crossing ravines and canyons, carrying your packs up and down wooden ladders, trudging through dense forest and across slippery marshes and streams. Weather can just as easily wrap you in sunshine as howling winds or sheets of rain. Nonetheless, there’s plenty of reasons why the West Coast Trail sits on so many hiking bucket lists. For starters, the pristine Pacific coastal beauty can and frequently does stop you in your tracks. You’ll encounter waterfalls and towering old-growth forests, tidal pools teeming with glowing anemones, large starfish, and other marine life. Bald eagles soar overhead while whales and sea lions play off the shoreline. Cable car crossings, suspension bridges and cliffs, coves and creeks keep the terrain interesting so that each day brings its own unique challenge. A friendly camaraderie exists on the trail, as everyone you meet along the way shares the same trials and joys. The beach and creekside campsites are well established, and the driftwood plentiful for warming beach fires and nourishing meals. Great Canadian Trails' backpacking trip on the West Coast Trail includes certified guides, a mid-way food drop to lighten your backpack, top of the line equipment, and pre-packaged meals. Your guides know the tidal crossing schedule, the best camp spots, the places you’ll want to take it easy, and the best places to stop and smell the ferns. The West Coast Trail is no walk in the park, but it’s never been more achievable for anyone attracted to Canada’s most revered coastal hike.
THE EAST COAST TRAIL (Newfoundland and Labrador)
On the other side of the country is the Atlantic, and an altogether different coastal hiking adventure. Pummeled by weather systems blowing in from the wild Atlantic, the forests here smaller, shorter, and less dense. The coastline is also rockier, the cliffs taller, the shrubs thicker, and the bays more dramatic. Located along the shores of the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland, the full East Coast Trail is made up of 26 different wilderness paths that are stitched together to create a route stretching over 300 kilometres (186mi) long. Each summer, the cliff edge provides a fantastic vantage point to spot migrating whales, colonies of puffins, roaming moose and most dramatically of all – delicately carved icebergs. Compared to the West Coast, think less beach sand, and more sea stacks; substitute tidal pools for fjords and rocky arches. With a rich history of cod fishing that stretches back centuries, you’ll also encounter Newfoundland’s famed coastal communities, with colourful clapboard houses that recall another era. Hiking across emerald fields with unobstructed views of the endless horizon, these are trails that deliver on every promise of Atlantic Canada – especially when you’re shuttled ahead to highlight sections and conclude each night in the comfort of a B&B or local guesthouse. No dehydrated camp chow on this trek, but you will dine on fresh chowder, lobster, mussels, and other Atlantic seafood delights. The East Coast Trail is coastal hiking at its best, infusing spectacular nature, outdoor exercise, history, food, and culture in a multi-day itinerary that ticks off every box.
THE BRUCE PENINSULA (Ontario)
Here’s a fact: Canada has the world’s longest coastline, measuring a staggering 243,042 kilometres (151,019mi). That’s more than the coastlines of the United States, Russia and China combined. You’re not just limited to coastlines to the east and west, the coastline of the Arctic Ocean, or the 52,455 islands that sit within Canadian national borders. The Great Lakes may be freshwater, but they’re larger than several seas. This easily qualifies the Bruce Trail on the Niagara Escarpment – Canada’s oldest and longest footpath – for our list of Canada’s best coastal hikes. Unlike the rugged and craggy coasts of the Pacific or the Atlantic, the 890-kilometre (550mi) Bruce Trail offers an altogether different environment; a UNESCO World Biosphere with turquoise bays, shimmering meadows, glacial potholes, mossy boulders, rocky flowerpots and cascading falls. It would take about a month to hike the entire Bruce Trail, although the most striking scenery is undoubtedly found in the section between Wiarton and Tobermory. This is where Great Canadian Trails have focused their self-guided itineraries on the Bruce Trail, packing the absolute highlights. Since your bags are shuttled ahead to cozy guesthouses and inns, you’re hiking light, giving you more time to appreciate the lookouts over Georgian Bay, Lion’s Head, Isthmus Bay, the arches, grottos, nature reserves and national parks. The peninsula has over 300 bird species, dozens of ferns and orchids, sea caves and sandy beaches. Sure, Canada has the world’s longest coastline, but if you’re looking for an easily accessible coastal hike that offers the best scenic hits, you can walk very far, but you don’t have to look much further, then the Bruce Trail.
FUNDY ISLAND TRAILS (New Brunswick)
By now we’ve established that the best coastal hikes are very much grounded in the uniqueness of their environment. It doesn’t get more unique than the Bay of Fundy, renowned as one of the seven natural wonders of North America. Located halfway between the equator and the North Pole, the world’s highest tides flush seawater in and out of the bay, creating a remarkable geological landscape served by fishing villages, old world lighthouses, and plenty of coastal hiking trails. These provide an active outdoor adventure for walkers of all stripes, scanning the seas for whales, porpoises, seals, and all manner of birds. Once again, Great Canadian Trails have curated a regional Greatest Hits with their self-guided Fundy Island Trails itinerary. This includes hikes around the lovely island and Maritime community of Grand Manan, and two nights in the pleasant seaside town of St-Andrews-by-the-Sea. While natural history here extends back millennia (the Bay of Fundy is rich with fossils of multiple eons), the 18th century very much left its mark when tens of thousands of loyalists fled north during the American Revolution. Their legacy can be found in place names and high teas, and very much along the city of Saint John’s Loyalist Trail. As you stroll among the historical vistas, feasting on seafood and perhaps opting to join a whale-watching or kayaking tour, this is as relaxing a multi-day coastal trek as one can get. That being said, there are a few rugged sections on the trails in Grand Manan to ensure your lobster is well earned, and thoroughly devoured.
NORTH COAST TRAIL (British Columbia)
Say goodbye to Maritime seafood and easy afternoon strolls. We return to Vancouver Island for an epic trail ideal for experienced hikers in search of a challenge. A recent addition to British Columbia’s world-class coastal hikes, the North Coast Trail is located in Cape Scott Provincial Park and runs 43 kilometres (27mi) from Shushartie Bay to the Cape Scott Trailhead. There are cable car crossings, boardwalks, ropes, bridges and stairs, adding spice to your traverse across rocky headlands, endless sandy beaches, and dense forests of Stika spruce and old-growth Western Red Cedar. Still, somewhat under the radar, the North Coast Trail is more isolated and less trafficked than the West Coast Trail, which makes a professionally guided excursion even more appreciated. While you can expect more solitude in this remote region of the island, you’re far from alone. Gray whales, humpbacks and orcas are known to gather close to the curved sandy shores of the bights, and it is common to see black bears and even wolves. There’s human history too, in the form of abandoned First Nation settlements, and artifacts abandoned by the ill-fated attempts of Danish settlers. Pristine wilderness comes with a price: the weather can be erratic, and you’re advised to be prepared for strong winds, rain, and fog. The landscape can shift with the tides, but this is what makes backcountry hiking such an alluring adventure. You never quite know what to expect, or what you’re going to get. There is one guarantee, however: this is a jaw-droppingly beautiful part of the world, and with Great Canadian Trails, you’ll be in the safest of hands.
Robin Esrock is the bestselling author of The Great Canadian Bucket List