The Great Trail (formerly the Trans Canada Trail) connects three oceans and more than 15,000 communities and covers 24,000 kilometres of trail that runs along coastlines and mountains, through prairie, forests and cities. The trail has no official beginning or end but KM 0 markers can be found in Cape Spear, Nfld., Victoria, B.C., Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., and Windsor, Ont. Twenty-six per cent of the trail follows paddle-friendly waterways, most of it is accessible to cyclists, and cross-country skiing and snowmobiling are permitted on portions in winter. Although not all of its sections are complete, 91 per cent is now open.
“It tells the story of Canada,” says Deborah Apps, The Great Trail president and CEO. “It offers people access to our magnificent landscapes, and it traces the paths of indigenous people, explorers and settlers. On the trail, you can appreciate the vastness of our open spaces and experience the uniqueness of our diverse urban landscape.”
The trail is comprised of 432 individual sections, owned and managed by local organizations. Here are three of those sections to explore, whether you want to bike, hike or paddle.
Cycling: Kettle Valley Rail Trail (KVR)
Kelowna to Penticton, B.C.
Popular with cyclists and hikers, the Kettle Valley Railway (KVR) section of The Great Trail runs 400 km from Midway, B.C., to the Coquihalla Highway, and one of its finest (and downhill!) sections runs 70 km from Myra Canyon to the city of Penticton.
The KVR was built just after the turn of the 20th century to link the Kootenays and their mineral riches to the Canadian Pacific Railway’s main line. The section through Myra Canyon is a staggering feat of engineering, accomplished by the railway’s then-chief engineer, Andrew McCulloch. Since the canyon is so steep and deep, he chose to hug its edge, using just over 8 km of track, 18 trestle bridges and two tunnels to surmount an obstacle only one kilometre wide. The biggest trestle is more than 200 metres long and 55 m high; the longest tunnel is more than 100 m. Many of the trestles were destroyed by a wildfire in 2003, and while they have since been rebuilt, they haven’t carried a train since 1973.
From Myra Canyon, the wide, mostly gravel trail winds to Chute Lake, ringed with evergreen trees and overlooked by the rustic Chute Lake Resort (local cyclists say it serves the best house-made apple pie around). In the summer, trail-users can break up their trip with a night at one of the resort’s cabins or at the campground.
Coasting downhill, cyclists glimpse Okanagan Lake far below through the fir and pines that gradually thin as the trail gently switchbacks down to the lake. Along one of these switchbacks lies Rock Ovens Park. Its “ovens” are little more than depressions in the ground covered by a pile of unhewn stones, but this is where bread was baked to feed workers during construction of the railway.
As the trail loses elevation, the air warms and sagebrush appears on the arid slopes. The trail skirts sun-kissed wineries and orchards along Naramata Bench. Hillside Winery makes a perfect stop to watch the golden, late-afternoon sun glint off Okanagan Lake with a glass of Pinot Noir in hand.
Or, just a few hundred metres down Naramata Road, try Maple Leaf Spirits, a distillery that uses local fruits in its award-winning liqueurs. For the non-alcoholic thirst, the Trail Store offers ambrosia apple slushies made with apples picked on-site.
The trail then heads into the heart of Penticton, at the very south end of the lake. Dip your toes in the lake, then stop by the S.S. Sicamous, an early 20th century steamship. No longer functional, it sits on the beach and serves as a museum of Okanagan Lake’s history. Its upper decks are fully restored and it also features two large models of the KVR, complete with running trains.
Paddling: Chief Whitecap Waterway and Meewasin Trail
Wanuskewin Heritage Park, Saskatoon, Sask.
The clouds blaze in the fiery shades of an orange-and-red Prairie sunset, and the heady scent of sage, baked by the hot summer sun, wafts on the breeze as campers lounge on the South Saskatchewan’s riverbank after a long, leisurely paddle on the Chief Whitecap Waterway. The river laps gently at the sandy beach, mourning doves coo in a distant tree and far-off coyotes begin a raucous chorus.
This portion of The Great Trail follows the South Saskatchewan River from the Gardiner Dam, 100 km south of Saskatoon, right into the city, where it continues overland as the Meewasin Trail. A designated Heritage River, it was an important route for indigenous people and later for fur traders and passenger steamboats.
With a number of river access points, canoeists, kayakers and paddleboarders can choose their own adventure—a lazy half-day float into Saskatoon from Poplar Bluffs or a full-day paddle, either from the Gardiner Dam to the town of Outlook, or from the Fred Heal canoe launch into Saskatoon. The self-sufficient can paddle three or four days from the dam, camping beside the river.
Paddlers may be treated to the sight of nesting bank swallows, pelicans, deer, coyotes and plenty of wildflowers. “You see things at a different pace when you are on the water,” says trail development manager Kristen Gabora. “Water has its own path that it has etched over time and you are following that natural path—it’s unique.”
A short distance upstream from Saskatoon, the popular Berry Barn is located on the riverbank where thirsty paddlers can enjoy saskatoon berry lemonade or other sweet saskatoon berry treats.
Paddlers are advised to check the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency website for information on water levels, as occasional water releases from the dam can drastically change paddling conditions. CanoeSki in Saskatoon offers single or multi-day trips for all levels of canoeists who wish to explore the river, as well as canoe rentals with shuttle.
Fittingly, “meewasin” is Cree for beautiful. Hugging the South Saskatchewan, the shady, tree-lined paths of the urban trail that bears the name feel distant from the city, though it’s just blocks from downtown Saskatoon. River Landing is a popular gathering place along the trail. Featuring a splash park, it’s often the site of live entertainment in summer.
The Meewasin Trail continues north of town, connecting the city to Wanuskewin Heritage Park, where visitors can see a medicine wheel and buffalo jumps, hunt for arrowheads, learn about indigenous culture and even watch students from the University of Saskatchewan participating in Canada’s longest-running archaeological dig, which began in 1982. The centre offers a variety of programs and indigenous art exhibitions, not to mention fresh-baked bannock in the restaurant.
Hiking: Fundy Footpath
Fundy, New Brunswick
Unlike the other trail segments mentioned here that pass through towns or cities, hikers on New Brunswick’s Fundy Footpath will be rewarded for their perseverance with more than 40 km of remote wilderness. The trail winds through foggy, old-growth Acadian forest and along rugged, windswept beaches where lucky hikers may glimpse moose, seals or even black bears. Campers at Goose River get a first-hand look at Bay of Fundy’s record tides as they sweep up-river in a daily transformation of the coastal landscape.
The trail, which was built and is maintained by volunteers, runs from Big Salmon River to Goose River. Although there are no mountains here, constantly descending and ascending steep, mossy gullies means that, by trail’s end, hikers have climbed a total of 3,000 m—a satisfying accomplishment. It is not a trail recommended for novices—campsites are primitive and at times the trail is 20 km from the nearest human habitation. The trail association recommends hikers allow four to five days to hike it.
Red Rock Adventure of St. Martins offers hiker shuttles and tours on the Fundy Footpath and hikers can also park at various entry points.
Along this trail, hikers will appreciate the microclimate created where the frequent fog and mist from the bay contact the steep, rugged rock bluffs thrusting up from the ocean. Red spruce tower overhead and there are waterfalls tumbling into pools ringed by lush mosses and ferns. A dramatic glacier erratic nicknamed the Dragon’s Tooth juts up near the trail. Rocky beaches are home to myriad creatures, including crustaceans and barnacles. Shorebirds migrate through the bay in the thousands, while seaweed and colourful lichens thrive in the salty air.
“It’s wild. You get that sense of being in the wild,” says Alonzo Leger, a major contributor to the trail’s creation and past-president of the Fundy Hiking Trails Association. “It’s a superb way to clear your head; 40 km of wild trail, uniquely on the bay and part of the Appalachian foothills.”
[This story appears in the July 2017 issue of WestJet Magazine]