“Have you hiked the West Coast Trail?”
It’s a question we often hear, and it always annoys us because the implication is that it’s Canada’s premier backpack trip, which it definitely is not.
It’s revealing that we don’t hear this question from experienced hikers. They know the WCT isn’t stellar, so it doesn’t spring to mind during conversation. The people who eagerly ask about our WCT experience do so primarily so they can tell us about theirs. That’s usually because the WCT is the only backpack trip they’ve ever completed. They chose it because a coastal trail strikes them as exotic and because this one’s been overhyped.
Once they learn we’re not WCT fans, they seem relieved they don’t have to rave about it. They admit it didn’t live up to its billing. “Too crowded, too muddy, too much clearcut forest visible just beyond the narrow margin of mature trees,” they say. “And having to hike the WCT as a one-way through trip,” they add “is an expensive hassle.”
From now on, after our inquisitors admit the WCT was an accomplishment they’re proud of but wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as they’d hoped, we’ll ask if they’ve heard about the East Coast Trail.
If they haven’t, and they’re curious about it, here’s what what we’ll say…
The 260-km ECT is in Newfoundland, along the Atlantic Ocean, north and south of St. John’s. Yesterday was our fourth consecutive day on the trail, and we think it’s vastly superior to the WCT.
The Newfoundland coast is more dramatic than Vancouver Island’s because it’s more consistently vertical. Beaches? They’re rare here. But the plummeting cliffs, towering sea stacks, open headlands, and rocky terraces appear to go on forever. And the trail is always surprisingly close to the edge. Often a single seaward step would land you in the frigid water if you’re not vigilant. It makes for exhilarating hiking.
Yesterday, on the 23-km section between Shoal’s Bay Road and Bay Bulls (our favourite so far), we hiked past a blowhole called “The Spout” that erupted in a 15-m geyser every two minutes. Later, we watched a submarine-sized whale cruise by. In between, we feasted on blueberries.
These weren’t the begrudging, pluck-one-here, pluck-one-there blueberry patches we’re accustomed to in the west. This was a cornucopian profusion of berries in which every casual grasp resulted in a full palm: eight to twelve luscious, purple orbs. “Picking” doesn’t even describe it. We were milking these bushes.
And during that entire, glorious day we encountered no other hikers on “our” section of the ECT. We had it all to ourselves on glorious, September Sunday.
Much of the ECT is in stunted, boreal forest granting frequent views of arches, pinnacles, sheer fissures, deep caverns, and countless waterfalls leaping from land to sea. But long stretches of the ECT cross rolling swaths of “tuckamore”- a melange of tightly-knit, ankle-to-knee-high coastal vegetation allowing you to see to the entire horizon. The 11-km section from Petty Harbour to Cape Spear (North America’s easternmost point) is mostly tuckamore, which gave us the odd but pleasing sensation we where traversing alpine/maritime meadows.
The ECT is extremely varied. The section from Shoal’s Bay Road to Bay Bulls is wild, lonely, rugged. From Petty Harbour to Cape Spear, the trail is less remote, more tame. Near St. John’s, the ECT is downright urban, comprising elaborate catwalks and staircases. One of these sections begins at the harbour city’s north end, in the historic neighbourhood called “the Battery” and climbs to the top of Signal Hill. Another ascends generally north from Quidi Vidi (a tiny bay). Both are invigorating, very scenic, and can be appreciated in a one-hour, out-and-back hike.
Notice we haven’t said anything about “backpacking.” That’s because we’ve been dayhiking the ECT-an option you don’t have on the WCT.
You can backpack the ECT, if you’d prefer. We’ve passed beautiful campsites with spacious tent platforms hidden in the forest. But it’s possible to dayhike the entire ECT, spending each night at a seaside inn or B&B. Or you can stay several nights in the same lodging and pay your host to shuttle you to and from whichever section of the ECT you choose to hike each day.
The ECT is to coastal scenery what the Canadian Rockies are to mountain scenery. Though very different than New Zealand’s world-famous Abel Tasman Track (north coast of the South Island), the ECT is equally rewarding. If you’re an avid hiker, the ECT should rank high on your life list.