If it’s outdoor adventure you’re craving, you’ll want to tackle The Great Trail that weaves its way across Canada. At 15,000 miles, it’s the longest recreational trail network in the entire world.
Not only does it span all of Canada — the world’s second-largest country after Russia — the trail passes through every one of the 13 Canadian provinces and territories, linking some 15,000 communities. Best of all, this trail is open to many types of exploration: Hiking, horseback riding, cycling, or paddling in summer and fall; or in winter and spring, cross-country skiing, dogsledding, or snowmobiling.
Without doubt, this trail is one for the bucket list. If you need another reason, Canada is aiming to fully complete the network — begun 25 years ago by thousands of Canadians and partner organizations — in 2017, in honor of the nation’s 150th birthday. Here are 13 highlights along the way, from east to west. Download the app and load your backpack.
Much of the Great Trail is repurposed rail lines, including Newfoundland and Labrador’s 542-mile T’Railway Trail. This section is particularly interesting because you get a look into the 1800s railway era, passing old stations, converted railway cars, relic trains, and 132 restored trestles. It follows the former Channel Port aux Basques to St. John’s line through forest, cities, and sleepy fishing villages. Expect gorgeous mountain and ocean vistas.
Celtic Shores Coast Trail
From Port Hastings to Inverness, the flat, easygoing 56-mile Celtic Shores Coast Trail winds through Nova Scotia’s spectacular Cape Breton Island and is best for long-distance hikers and off-road cyclists. The trail combines stunning wilderness and beaches with Celtic culture and music only 3 hours outside of Halifax.
Prince Edward Island
See all of rural Prince Edward Island from top to bottom via the easy 277-mile Confederation Trail, which runs from Tignish to Elmira, rolling past farmland, quiet seaside villages, pretty bays, and charming cities. Wrap in some foodie touring, wetland area birding, geocaching, golf, and a tour of Canada’s birthplace, Charlottetown, too.
Fundy Trail Parkway
Take in the world’s highest tides from New Brunswick’s Fundy Trail Parkway. The sweeping views to Nova Scotia from the Bay of Fundy are beautiful from the steep, winding, six-mile trail. Pause to try paddling, a boat tour, or beach walk on the fossil-rich red sands. Also along the cliffside-then-inland route is a huge waterfall and long, sandy beach frequented by sunbathing seals.
You’ll already want to see Quebec’s quaint Eastern Townships — a collection of brick Loyalist-era villages, lakes, graceful inns, and maple and birch that turn golden and crimson in fall — and the 24-mile La Monteregiade is the leisurely way to do it. Pedal from Montregie to the Townships, or from Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu to Granby, past cornfields, woods, hills, and leafy parks, stopping to sample local cheeses and honey. If you ski the trail in spring, look for sugar shacks offering hearty traditional meals and maple taffy.
The first section of the trail completed in Ontario, the 16-mile Caledon Trailway cuts through a favorite area of velvety green hills, creeks meandering through valleys, fragrant lilacs, and cute little villages lined with Victorians and top-notch B&Bs. The route runs from Terra Cotta to Palgrave on an old rail bed. Make time to explore up-and-coming Hamilton, a former steel town, and the trail’s first pavilion in Caledon East with lush gardens nearby, ideal for picnicking.
Take a day hike through the 22 miles of the Centennial Trail in popular Whiteshell Provincial Park. Though you don’t have to go too far in to get a wonderful sense of the Manitoba wilderness, thanks to thick boreal forest, mossy Tolkien-esque bogs, falls, ponds, and craggy, high granite ridges. Come prepared because the trail is steep and rocky in places. It’s lovely in summer or winter.
Adventurer? Then you have to try Nunavut’s Itijjagiaq Trail, meaning “over the land” in Inuktitut. On the Arctic’s southern Baffin Island, it follows the traditional Inuit route without markers: The intrepid must use GPS and follow the season’s topography, pausing for a break at nine warming huts positioned at stops between expansive valleys and plateaus. The printed guidebook is a must. The trail begins on Frobischer Bay near Iqaluit and extends 110 miles to Glasgow Bay at Kimmirut. Zipping across the white expanse on a snowmobile in winter, or kayaking in summer like the native hunters, is a thrill.
Good Spirit Lake Provincial Park Trail
The Great Trail winds all through Good Spirit Lake Provincial Park known for its sand dunes — some as tall as five stories high — outstanding fishing, and idyllic lake beaches, rated among Canada’s best. Hike the 11 miles starting at the Recreation Hall. Skiing and snowmobiling are just as fun as walking it come winter. Look out for foxes, coyotes, elk, moose, and deer, and expect to see plenty of water birds.
Mackenzie River Trail
Step into a real-life history lesson paddling the Mackenzie River Trail. Winding 1,031 miles through the wilderness, this waterway was used by Aboriginal people for generations, and was later explored by Alexander Mackenzie in 1789, followed by fur traders, European adventurers, and missionaries. Experienced paddlers love this route — the longest portion of the Great Trail — because there are no portages and very little whitewater. You might spot grizzlies or even belugas. Study this guide, an essential, before you go.
Banff Legacy Trail
Alberta’s Banff-Canmore corridor surrounded by the towering Canadian Rockies is nothing short of jaw-droppingly gorgeous — fans rave about the stunning views. And that’s where you'll find the route of the 14-mile paved Banff Legacy Trail, ideal on foot or bike. Stop for a picnic or to read the educational markers on the trail from Banff Park East Gate to Bow Valley Parkway, open mid-April to mid-October. Look for wildlife, especially big horn sheep, moose, elk, and bears. End the day relaxing in the lively mountain town of Banff.
For the tough only: The Yukon’s Dempster Highway is legendary. This rough gravel road extends from the Klondike Gold Fields through Aboriginal lands all the way to the Northwest Territories and Arctic Circle — the only road to do so. The highway is known for its unadulterated wilderness; grizzly, caribou, and wolf-filled forest; and vast tundra. Start in Gold Rush boomtown Dawson City and trek, cycle, or snowmobile the 286-mile trail — it is remote, with few services, and that’s the allure.
Kettle Valley Rail Trail
The most impressive of British Columbia’s Trail offerings, the 249-mile Kettle Valley Rail Trail is a historic route on the 1915 railway once used to move silver ore from mountains to coast. What’s amazing is the engineering used to bring the train through the mountains and over the river gorges. Look closely at the numerous trestles and delve into the cool tunnels. The route goes from Brookemere to Midway, but the most amazing section is the seven-and-a-half-mile Kelowna-Myra Canyon cliff-hanger — a national historic site — with canyon views from 18 gorge-spanning trestles. Hike or horseback ride in warmer months; Nordic ski and snowmobile in the winter.
Start planning your Canadian adventure at The Great Trail website.