If you haven’t heard of The Great Trail, the world’s longest recreational hiking, cycling, and paddling trail, snaking from one end of Canada to the other, don’t feel too bad. Completed only in August 2017, it doesn’t have decades of tales and legends that older, more storied trails like the AT or PCT do. But oh boy, look at the map of where this puppy goes. From Newfoundland in the east, skirting the Great Lakes, crossing the Canadian Rockies, shooting up to the Yukon, dipping back into British Columbia, the trail is—are you sitting down?—nearly 15,000 miles long. And that is a breathtaking variety of wilderness to pass through. I want to thru-hike-bike-paddle this thing so badly.
Of course it’s not exactly one trail, but connects, as you’d imagine, hundreds of smaller, regional trails throughout Canada.
The Great Trail was first envisioned back in 1992 during Canada’s 125th birthday celebration. Much of the work done to build sections of the trail has been overseen by the Trans Canada Trail organization and performed by volunteers (the trail was originally referred to as the “Trans Canada Trail”). In a remarkably short time, when considering the sheer amount of land, trail networks, private property owners, government authorities, and who knows what else to coordinate with, 432 separate trail sections were effectively, and in some cases, physically, connected. It took tens of millions of dollars raised from both government and private sources to fund maintenance and signage and the paperwork it took to bring the idea to fruition.
It’s not all about hiking, or cycling, for that matter. A full 26 percent of the trail crosses or is directly composed of water, requiring a boat of some kind to traverse. Nordic skiing is allowed on lots of the trail, as is horseback riding, and, in some sections, snowmobiles. But, hey, it’s 15,000 miles. Breaking that up with different modes of transportation sounds pretty good to me.
While much of the trail is in remote wilderness, plenty of it is not, with compromises made to link all the sections. As many as 80 percent of all Canadians live within a 30-minute drive of the trail. A third of The Great Trail is backcountry and dirt trails, but a full 5,300 miles are on pavement. One stretch, between Edmonton and Calgary, runs on the shoulder of a highway. There are plenty of critics who decry the pavement sections as anathema to the true spirit of the Great Trail. Though when considered as a multi-use trail which is best completed with foot, pedal, and paddle, there’s still plenty to love about a track that covers so much ground.
There are sections on Newfoundland where you can spend days bikepacking along tree-lined trails that were once railways. In the far northwest, canoeing into the Beaufort Sea is an option. There are miles and miles of hiking trails that pass along the rugged north shore of Lake Superior. The highest sections of the trail cross 7,000-foot passes in Alberta.
Much of the trail shows off Canadian history by passing through old gold mining towns and near historic sites.
“The roots of our trails start with our First Nations, the Indigenous trail routes. Then you have the route of the voyagers with the fur traders, the Hudson’s Bay Company. And then you get the railway, the Trans-Canada Highway, so they are all iterations of the same thing,” said Paul LaBarge, one of the founders of the Trans Canada Trail group.
The trail’s founders hope that more use of the trail will eventually result in communities building more greenways to eventually remove the pavement linkages.
But if you wanted to see most of the great sites Canada has to offer, this would be a terrific way to do it.
Map courtesy of The Great Trail