Escape the Crowds: Three Incredible Canadian Trails You Can Thru-Hike

Over the past decade, the number of people hiking long-distance trails in the U.S. has surged. Between 2013 and 2017, the number of PCT permits issued has more than tripled. The AT has seen similar growth (155 percent increase in NOBO thru-hikers between 2010 and 2017). There seems to be no end in sight to the increasing popularity of long-distance hiking trails in the U.S. The permit system can only do so much to limit crowds on trail and it is becoming more and more difficult to get a permit to fit your plans. Will there be a point where hikers begin to look elsewhere for thru-hiking?

Although the Canadian thru-hiking community is not as prevalent as in the U.S., your friendly northern neighbors boast our own long-distance trails. The Bruce Trail in Ontario follows the Niagara Escarpment across the province. There is an extension of the Appalachian Trail that continues up through the Canadian Maritime provinces (and even extends into Europe). In the Canadian West, the Great Divide Trail follows the Rockies along the Alberta/B.C. provincial border. As the long-distance trails in the U.S. become increasingly crowded, perhaps these Canadian trails will be where adventurers will turn next for nature and solitude.

Great Divide Trail (GDT)

Photo: Dan Durston

One of the more rugged and challenging trails on this list, the GDT runs through the beautiful Canadian Rockies. There is an official GDT app, which is affiliated with Guthooks. The GDT has had a lot of development over the last few years, so the GDTA puts out annual updates to the trail. Maps of the GDT can be viewed or purchased here.

Location: Along the Alberta/British Columbia border (Rocky Mountains)

Length: 1,200 km (746 mi)

Altitude:

Lowest: 1,055 m (3,461 ft) at Old Fort Point trailhead
Highest: 2,590 m (8,500 ft)

Season: June to September

Difficulty: High. The trail is rugged, not always well-marked, and requires some navigation skills

Getting There: The Southern Terminus of the GDT is in Waterton Townsite. There are two places to end the GDT at the northern end, either Mt. Robson (the Original Northern Terminus) or Kakwa Trailhead (the Extended Northern Terminus).

Resupply: There are only four stores along the trail where you can resupply (Waterton townsite, Blairmore, Banff, and Jasper), so sending resupply packages are essential to hiking the GDT. Here is a list of resupply locations on trail. Some are on trail, others as far as 29 km away. You can get fuel canisters at Waterton, Banff, Jasper, and the Blairemont hardware store.

Camping

You are required to book campsites in the national parks along the GDT, and camping backcountry in provincial parks requires a reservation. It is very important to book your stay in advance, especially in Jasper and Banff National Parks, which book up very early.

The International Appalachian Trail (IAT)

Have you summited Katahdin and want a little more AT? Well, I am happy to tell you that you can! The Appalachian Trail has an international extension that goes into the Canadian Maritime provinces. In fact, when the last supercontinent (known as Pangaea) broke up, the Appalachian mountain ranges were spread across four continents, so there are sections of the International Appalachian Trail in Europe and northern Africa.

Map courtesy of IAT-SIA

Location: Canada, Maritime Provinces (New Brunswick, Quebec, Newfoundland, and Labrador)

Distance:
650 kilometers (404 miles)

Altitude:
Lowest: Sea level at Cap Gaspé
Highest: 1,605m (5,267 ft) at ‎Mt. Katahdin

Season: May to September

Getting There: The IAT starts right where the AT ends at Mt. Katahdin, and the Northern Terminus of the Canadian IAT is in Gaspé provincial park.

Resupply: There are towns with small grocery stores along the IAT, and you can mail yourself packages. Specific information about the Quebec portion of the IAT can be found in this article.

Camping: The Canadian portion of the IAT has three kinds of camping facilities: camping platforms, shelters (closed or three-walled), and cabins. 

The Bruce Trail

The Bruce Trail is incredibly beautiful. It starts near the U.S. border by Niagara Falls and traces the Niagara escarpment across southwestern Ontario to the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula. The northern part of the trail follows the edge of Georgian Bay, an iconic Canadian sight where deep forest meets rocky, cold beaches, and clear blue water. There are sections of the trail that pass through farmland, cottage country, provincial, and national parks. It is maintained by the Bruce Trail Conservancy and volunteers from local clubs. There is no permit required to hike the Bruce Trail. Maps of the Bruce Trail can be viewed or purchased here.

Location: Southwestern Ontario

Distance: 885 km (550 miles)

Altitude: Highest is Algonquin Arch 450 m (1,476 ft) 

Getting There: Access to the Bruce Trail is easy as it passes through heavily populated areas. The Southern Terminus is near Queenston, Ontario, and the Northern Terminus is in Tobermory, Ontario.

Season: The trail is rocky as you climb  and descend the escarpment, which would be treacherous to hike in the winter. However, the summer in southwestern Ontario is very temperate. Hiking between May and early October is comfortable.

Resupply: There aren’t as many dedicated trail angels as the long-distance trails in the U.S., but when I’ve hiked there everyone is really friendly. The locals are happy to offer a hand to hikers, and most of the roads around the trail are busy so it’s easy to catch a hitch if you need one. The trail passes through many small towns, so it is easy to resupply there. There is one longer section up north where you have to hike 82 kilometers between towns, but you can mail packages to Mountain Trout camp (45 kilometers south of the Northern Terminus). The owners are really friendly and helpful to hikers.

Camping: In addition to paid campgrounds (fees vary), there are some free “overnight rest areas” for hikers. I brought a hammock tent on the Bruce Trail and had no difficulty finding good places to hang it.

There are many other long Canadian trails not listed in this article, including the Newfoundland T’Railway Provincial Park, the Kettle Valley Rail Trail, and the Confederation Trail.

The Great Trail (previously called the Trans-Canada Trail) was finished last year and crosses the entire country (though it includes waterways in its measure). Spanning 24,134 kilometers (14,996 miles), it is not so much a thru-hiking trail as a series of interconnected trails and waterways throughout Canada.

The increase in popularity is putting a burden on the American thru-hiking trails and community, but far be it for me to try to discourage people from seeking the wilderness through hiking trails. I would love to see people come to these lesser-traveled trails and build up those communities. There are many different reasons to hike long-distance trails. The freedom. The nature. The solitude. The company. All of these reasons hold true on these Canadian long-distance trails.

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Comments 4

  • Trash Panda : May 21st

    My understanding is that the Bruce Trail can’t really be thruhiked due to camping restrictions. Even their website was upfront about it the last time I checked. I’d be happy to hear that I’m wrong about it since it is currently very near me!

    I’m interested in the Sunshine Coast as a shorter and more viable thru someday. It would be great to see Canada really get its own thruhiking culture going.

    Reply
    • Samantha Olthof : May 21st

      You are correct that the BTC suggests thru-hikers will need to use B&B’s, hotels, and motels since the available campsites may be spaced too far apart. It also depends on how far you hike in a day.

      One time on the Bruce trail I was having bad knee pain so I wasn’t going to make it to the campsite I’d planned to go to. I asked a local cottager if I could hang my hammock in their front yard and they were happy to let me crash there. She even invited me in for a cup of tea.

      Reply
  • Mark 'Traillium' Whitcombe : May 21st

    I’ll agree with both of you. The Bruce Trail Conservancy does not want us to ‘thruhike’, by which I mean they do not want us camping along the way. I understand that strong opinion, given that I’m a Land Steward (an ecological steward) of one of the jewel properties the BTC actually own. The BTC only owns about one third of the 790 kilometres. Another third belongs to various governmental agencies, none of whom allow camping on their properties either. The final third belongs to private landowners, many of whom enthusiastically support the Bruce Trail, but some of whom only begrudgingly allow hikers across their land. (Imagine a beef farmer, for instance, being concerned with yahoos chasing their cattle. Or imagine an owner concerned about grass or forest fires, neglected by careless hikers, sweeping across their land. (These disasters have actually happened recently.) Another major issue for the BTC concerns maintenance and cleaning along the trail, including caring for potential campsites and toilets. There is a large number of people such as me who volunteer to maintain all the existing aspects of the Bruce Trail. But not enough to maintain a thruhiking trail.
    Along the whole 790 kilometres, there are fewer than ten places to officially camp. Most of them have no facilities and are just open spots with no amenities or conveniences.
    For these reasons, I actually object to including the Bruce Trail in this compendium of Canadian trails to thruhike.
    That said, I did personally thruhike the Bruce Trail in 2016, taking 45 days (including two zeros). I had a wonderful time “Tracing Spring Northwards” — an absolutely amazing immersion in the forests and fields I have lived in, taught in, and studied for six and half decades. Afterwards, I then decided to donate considerable time and effort to give back to the BTC by becoming a Land Steward.
    (There are some clues here you might like to search on …)

    Reply
  • Lisa : Aug 18th

    The Fundy Footpath in New Brunswick is also quite nice!

    Reply

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