Canada has some serious bragging rights. As the world’s second-largest country, Canada has the longest coastline, the most lakes, the most polar bears, and even the most maple syrup on earth. The country is also home to another record-breaker that should be on every traveler’s radar: The Great Trail.
The Great Trail is a cross-Canada system of greenways, waterways, and roadways that connects the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans. At more than 15,000 miles, it’s officially the longest recreational, multi-use trail network in the world.
1. It’s Open To Everyone
There’s absolutely no cost or admission associated with the Great Trail. It’s open for everyone, and that includes travelers. Don’t worry, absolutely no one expects you to hike the length of it! The goal of the Great Trail isn’t to encourage people to undertake some kind of extreme sporting challenge to traverse the country but rather to enjoy deeper connections on a local level. Chances are, no matter where you’re vacationing in Canada, you’re never that far from a section of the trail and even an hour or two of hiking or cycling is a great way to experience its beauty.
Lindsay Davies from Niagara told me, “I’ve experienced multiple sections of The Great Trail, but none have been as stunning as the section near Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories. You can hear the rumble of the rapids from town while following the trail. Mesmerized by the brilliant sunset, one can’t help but feel truly connected to nature ... though the Rapids of the Drowned serve as a reminder of how we need to respect Mother Nature’s beauty!”
Stephanie Mayo of Innisfil echoed this sentiment. She told me, “My local section is called the Thornton-Cookstown. I love hiking this section of the Great Trail for so many reasons: because it proves you can always find a slice of nature to escape to close to home; the varying terrain -- from farmer's fields to charming bridges over winding rivers; and because at either end sit two of Simcoe County's charming small towns. And nothing beats hiking it in the fall when the trees that cover the trail create a carpet of colorful leaves to walk upon.”
2. Conditions Vary
The Great Trail is not one endless path but actually a cross-country network of more than 400 different community trails. To say that conditions may vary is an understatement! In many cases, the area where you’ll be walking or biking was once a rail line. Former rail lines were donated by the Canada Pacific Railway and the Canadian National Railway to be refurbished as walking trails.
However, not all sections of the trail are so quiet and isolated. Only about 32 percent of the Great Trail consists of off-road trails like the old rail lines. Some sections of the Trail (more than 3,700 miles worth) are actually waterways, which is great for canoeing but not so helpful for long-distance trekkers or cyclists. As well, a significant portion of the Great Trail -- more than 5,300 miles -- is made up of active roadways. These can range from genteel country roads to much busier routes. Critics of the Trail argue, quite convincingly, that these highways were never meant to accommodate hikers and cyclists, nor was the trail ever envisioned as such.
For this reason, it’s imperative that would-be adventurers read up on what their planned route actually entails. You could find yourself on a narrow dirt path, a quiet groomed trail that welcomes horseback riders and cross-country skiers, or something much busier that also hosts snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, or even a highly trafficked road.
3. Understand Different Names
If you ask most Canadians if they’ve heard of the Great Trail, you’ll probably be met with confused looks. That’s because it was known as the Trans Canada Trail until 2016. Given that the idea for the Trail first began in 1992, just after Canada celebrated the 125th anniversary of confederation, the old name has been in use for some time. Making matters a bit more confusing is the fact that the name of the non-profit group which spearheads fundraising for future trail-related projects is still called the Trans Canada Trail or TCT.
The name game can get further complicated when you consider the fact that the Great Trail is operated at a local level in each jurisdiction it passes through. Remember, it’s a network of hundreds of community trails. As such, guidebooks and residents are likely to use the local name. In and around Halifax, Nova Scotia, for instance, you’ll find the Shearwater Flyer Trail, Forest Hills Trail System, Salt Marsh Trail, Atlantic View Trail, Blueberry Run Trail, Gaetz Brook Greenway, and the Musquodoboit Trailway. If you’re making trail-related inquiries, don’t despair if different names keep popping up.
4. “Mile Zero” Is In A Pretty Cool Place
The Great Trail’s “Mile Zero” is located in Cape Spear, Newfoundland. The most easterly point in North America, Cape Spear offers incredible views of the Atlantic Ocean, is a fine spot for bird watching, and history buffs will enjoy seeing the remains of old gun batteries, part of Canada’s coastal defense system during World War II. It’s hard to think of a more memorable place to embark on a journey.
5. Plenty Of Tourist Attractions Are Connected
Back in 2013, a small honorary section of the Great Trail was established around Rideau Hall (home of Canada’s Governor-General) and 24 Sussex Drive (the Prime Minister’s residence) in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city. Since then, this part of the Trail has been fully integrated, going from honorary status to a fully fledged component of the route through Ontario. While this may be the best example of how the Trail goes through many of Canada’s tourist attractions, it’s far from the only one. As it makes its way across Canada, the Great Trail touches many landmarks and attractions that visitors will love.
For instance, the Great Trail is connected to New Brunswick’s Fundy Trail Parkway, home to the world’s highest tides. It also connects with Saskatchewan’s Good Spirit Lake Provincial Park Trail, home to sand dunes that are five stories high. And in the aptly named community of Trail, British Columbia, the Great Trail crosses one of the longest pedestrian suspension bridges in the world (1,000 feet, for those curious).
Lauren Yakiwchuk from Mississauga knows firsthand how the Great Trail can introduce someone to new tourism attractions. As she told me, “I'm very fortunate to have the Great Trail in my own backyard, and I walk there almost daily! In Port Credit (part of Mississauga), the Great Trail is part of the Waterfront Trail that runs right along the edge of Lake Ontario. When you're visiting the tourist area of Port Credit with its many shops, restaurants, and cafes, you can easily pop down to the Great Trail for a stroll. It also meanders through the Brueckner Rhododendron Gardens in town, so you can go for a walk and admire all of the beautiful flowers, too.”
6. More Changes Are Coming
On August 26, 2017, Canada celebrated as the last sections of the Great Trail were connected. But that doesn’t mean that work has stopped. The TCT is planning to make segments of the Trail more accessible, repair and maintain some sections, and add new loops and spurs to the existing route in order to include more areas. Replacing interim sections of the trail that are presently roadways with safer greenways is another priority. Hopefully, the Trail will continue to grow and improve for all travelers and residents alike.
Great Trail Pro Tip
In case you’re feeling ambitious, the journey from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Victoria, British Columbia would take two years, two months, and one week along the Great Trail, assuming you’re traveling about 18.5 miles a day. And you won’t be alone in this feat! A few adventurous women, including Sarah Jackson, Mel Vogel (joined mid-adventure by an unexpected companion, Malo the dog), filmmaker Diane Whelan, and Sonja Richmond (together with her partner Sean Morton) have logged tens of thousands of miles and many many years crisscrossing the country. No matter where you go, you’ll be following in fine footsteps.