Following in the footsteps of legendary trails like the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, Canada has decided to create their own long distance hiking path. Marketed as the longest hiking trail in the world, The Great Trail stretches from the Pacific to the Atlantic and even the Arctic Ocean. As long distance backpacking increases in popularity, Canada has an amazing opportunity to draw in tourists and to help their own people discover the beauty in their backyard. Unfortunately, the central planners of the trail have forgotten how amazing their country is and instead have built a sub par trail. The Great Trail is only bad because it could be so much greater.
What Makes a Desirable Long Distance Hike
Not all trails are created equally. Simply tacking the word “trail” after a couple words will not automatically draw hikers. What makes hiking appealing to backpackers and adventurers is the difficulty and the rewards associated with a particular landscape. A desirable trail should be complementary to the awe-inspiring scenery it takes the hiker through. The trail is a medium, used to connect with the land and one’s own inner self.
The Appalachian Trail is named after the mountain range it straddles. At over 2,000 miles long, it is the best hike to explore the Eastern United States. Historical and world famous, even the name makes it clear what kind of hiking to expect.
The Pacific Crest Trail, running along the spine of California, Oregon, and Washington, the PCT stays true to its name. The tallest mountains in the lower 48 beckon adventurers by the thousands and the popularity of the PCT is growing every year.
Both trails are exemplary long distance trails. They are the gold standard as to what the Great Trail needs to live up to. A successful hiking trail draws people into the landscape it is built through. People should be excited to complete it and terrified of the tribulations they will have to subject themselves to. A hiking trail, by design, is created by local people, by those who have fallen in love with the land. It is a means of sharing an experience with fellow hikers and it represents a challenge and a victory waiting to be won.
These are the tenants the Great Trail needs to be built on. Unfortunately, the philosophy behind creating a hiking trail seems to have been lost by whichever politician decided to throw money at the idea. Lacking large wilderness areas, sidestepping mountain ranges, and ignoring most of the Northern landscapes, the trail is more of a network of dirt roads than it is a hiking trail.
A Breakdown by Province
Although it is called The Great Trail, it is better to describe it as a pedestrian path/canoe route/biking trail as opposed to a backpacking trail. I do not want to sound too negative, I am very much inspired by the water routes. The paddling trails offer the more excitement and wilderness immersion than any other aspect of the trail.
Another large part of the trail is focused around bicycles and those people who enjoy long distance biking. Nothing wrong with biking, but it does mean the trail will be built on flatter ground as opposed to hiking trails. The route follows valleys and winds through towns as opposed to ridgelines and wilderness areas. Hikers and backpackers are drawn to the landscapes where riding a bike could be impossible. And this is where the Great Trail falls short of expectations. The actual walking and backpacking trails are less exciting than some other trails that actually exist in Canada. The overall goal of creating an all inclusive trail ends up diluting the overall experiences for all forms of recreation and reduces the trail’s potential.
The official interactive trail map is extremely reader friendly and allows for topographic level detail. The marketing behind the trail is also top notch. The user experience is engaging and fun to read. But just because you can make a slick website, doesn’t mean the actual outdoors experience is anything to brag about. Clicking around on the map and researching where the trail leads gave me a better picture of the overall path. I broke down the trail by each province, listing what I liked and the many shortcomings the trail possesses.
Starting on Vancouver Island, the trail cuts East. Not a singular path, but a myriad of different trails that already exist. Many of the trails follow old railroad lines, similar to the United States’ Rails to Trails movement. By default, the trail is quite tame and does not venture into deep wilderness areas or extreme mountainous areas. It even foregoes the famous West Coast Trail.
There is a marine trail that connects Vancouver Island with the mainland and any paddle addicts might be eager to give it a go. I am quite infatuated with the paddling aspect of any long distance trails and incorporating them into The Great Trail is a terrific idea. But, I can understand the limitations it puts on backpackers who are strictly interested in terrestrial trails.
The trail does curve back through Northern British Columbia, following the Alaska Highway. It’s a gravel road and the trail simply follows it for miles. It’s unfortunate and lazy because there is so much amazing scenery in Northern British Columbia. The Great Trail organization needs to take full advantage of the landscapes available to them and not fall short by relying on a simple road instead of a real trail. This part, in particular, makes it seem like the Canadian government was more interested in the marketing aspect than actually creating a legendary hiking trail.
Turning North, the trail follows the spine of the Rocky Mountains. I am disappointed that it does not follow the Great Divide Trail for its entirety. The Great Trail cuts East and away from the Canadian Rockies, leaving Banff and Jasper National Parks off the path. These parks offer some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet and it seems a shame they are left off The Great Trail.
Although I am sore about cutting out the Rocky Mountains, the Athabasca River does make it as part of the trail. Again, this is not a hiking trail but a paddling one. The river flows north and forms the Eastern border of Wood Buffalo National Park.
This is an enormous reserve that makes Yellowstone look small in comparison. The continent’s largest herd of Wood Buffalo are found here and the Black Bears reach legendary size. The river eventually dumps into the Great Slave Lake which is a wonder of the world in itself. I am intrigued with this section and I am happy to see the inclusion of the river.
There is no “trail”, simply gravel roads to walk along. Another cop out for the “Great Trail” organization. With so much open space, it is very plausible that a walking path through the wilderness could have been made. I don’t want to sound like a broken record but the trail skips what is perhaps the most important park in Canada, Ivvavik National Park. This protected area borders ANWR and protects the largest caribou migration in the world. What a shame that the organizers could not make this part of their “Great Trail”.
Probably one of the greatest rivers in the world, the Mackenzie River is the largest undammed river in North America. Flowing North to the Arctic, this massive river is a trip in itself. The Mackenzie is already a trip of a lifetime but logistically, connecting it to other trails doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Once a paddler gets to the river delta, the only way south is to follow gravel roads. I can’t fathom very many people are interested in making this paddle trip part of a larger road walk.
Almost completely made up of gravel roads, I see very little opportunity for hiking on this section. During the winter months you could potentially snowmobile or cross country ski the trail but the lack of creativity is on full display. For such a beautiful province with so much open space, simply connecting gravel roads together and slapping a trail name on it only detracts from a potentially epic section.
Similar to Saskatchewan, the trail stays on municipal gravel roads for most of the time. If a bicycle is your preferred method of transportation, this relatively flat province could be your next vacation.
But the trail misses the most epic parts of the province. Churchill, a small city on the Hudson Bay, is the #1 location to see Polar Bears. Leaving this destination off the Great Trail is mind-blowingly silly. And what’s more, to completely ignore the entire Hudson Bay does a disservice to the Canadian people. As a backpacker, I am biased towards vast wilderness areas but these far reaches of Canada deserve to be recognized in any Great Trail. I am once again disappointed in the trail planners and their willful ignorance of Northern Manitoba.
Ontario is home to some of the most beautiful forest in the world. The Boreal Forest stretches on endlessly and offers countless lakes and rivers to fish and swim in. I am happy to see that the Western half of the trail is strictly a canoe trail. I think this is the best way to get a taste of Ontario and the wilderness it has to offer. The trail does wind around the Northern shores of Lake Superior. If you have never been, it is a gorgeous lake and one I think everyone in the world needs to experience.
After Lake Superior, the trail becomes a terrestrial one and stays in urban areas. Following the border of the United States, the trail quickly becomes a woodland/ suburban tour of Canada’s populous regions. As Canada’s “Great Trail” I understand the desire to show off the cultural aspects of the country but as an outdoorsman, it does not excite me. The trail even side steps Algonquin Provincial Park, one of the jewels of Ontario.
It is obvious the trail planners wanted to keep the Capital city of Ottawa as a focal feature but in doing so, they miss out on northern Ontario’s remote and rugged beauty.
The lakes and rivers of Northern Québec harbor some of the finest trout fishing on the planet. Entire water bodies are full of nothing but Brook Trout. Arctic Char can be found in abundance and the northern forests are full of wildlife. Have you heard of the Manicouagan Reservoir? It is a flooded meteor crater that can easily be seen on any satellite image.
But the trail never ventures more than 100 miles north of the US border. And for a trail so hell-bent on offering paddling routes, there is not one section of the trail in Quebec that allows for canoeing. This is the province that helped establish a French colony in the New World. It harbors a culture founded on canoes – but the Great Trail completely ignores this.
Following old rail lines and biking trails, the majority of the trails that make up this section are low key. Lacking any large wilderness areas, the views of the Atlantic Ocean make up for the poor trail planning. There is a section of Saint John River that could be a fun trip.
Meandering through small towns, following biking trails and country roads, the great trail shows off Canada’s East Coast. At one time, this area was home to a thriving economy based on the Cod fishery. The Eastern Provinces fed the world for hundreds of years with record setting catches. Now, with the fishery’s collapse, the small villages offer a glimpse of life as it used to be. The trail limps along through the countryside and offers no better experiences than any Sunday drive could offer.
Newfoundland and Labrador
A ferry connects Newfoundland to Nova Scotia. The majority of the trail follows an old rail line across the island. Connecting to the rail line is The East Coast Trail as it marches down the Atlantic coast. An impressive trail, it offers some spectacular scenery and hiking. I am impressed with these sections of the Great Trail, Newfoundland is well represented.
Southern Baffin Island
Completely isolated from the rest of the trail, this brief trail offers a brief but extreme section of hiking. It is a shame the far Northern reaches of Canada do not have more trails
The Great Trail Can Be Better
You are a gigantic country. Located on the North American continent, your low population density and geographic extremes makes you one of the most beautiful countries on Earth. With towering mountains, iceberg filled oceans, waterfalls, prairies, dense forests, and Tundra, few other places can rival your diversity and beauty.
The Great Trail offers only a small glimpse into the possibility of what a Trans-Canada trail could be. As a country, do not let this trail be your society’s “best” long distance hiking trail. Do not settle for a lackluster route when you have the opportunity to make a trail that can be the premier hiking route for the World. The Great Trail could unite your country’s most epic landscapes and show off your most awe-inspiring regions.
The Great Trail has been created by a centralized bureaucracy, more interested in launching a marketing campaign than actually creating a stellar product. Spend your tax dollars on actually cutting a brand new trail. Spend your time organizing trail heads through your most spectacular lands. Connect your parks and geographic wonders with hiking trails, cut through the untamed wilderness and construct a legendary walking path. If you build it, people will flock from all corners of the globe.
Canada, you are better than this. Your people deserve better than this. Do not let the idea of building The Great Trail die alongside some faceless government agency’s pathetic attempt at creating a hiking trail. There is so much more out there! Your expansive northern reaches and vast wilderness areas deserve to be included in such an endeavor. Do not fall into the temptation to make claims that your work is done. Quite the opposite. What you have created is only the tip of the iceberg. The Great Trail can be so much more.