The East Coast Trail. Tell people you are about to embark on this hike and you’ll most likely get inquisitive looks. Questions will follow such as: where is that? how long is it? and, is that like the West Coast trail?. Having now completed the trail I can tell you that this 312 km route on the far east side of Newfoundland is nothing short of spectacular. Over 14 days we learnt some valuable lessons for a thru-hike and came away with a huge appreciation for this special trail.
The East Coast Trail Is A Hidden Gem…..For Now
At 312 km long (and plans for developing even more), the East Coast trail is one of Canada’s longest developed hiking trails, winding its way along the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland.
The trail cuts through forests, lowland marshes, next to sea cliffs and windswept ocean hillsides. The destination each day isn’t to see a fleeting view of the sea. It doesn’t require a daily slog through woods to see one glimpse of a seastack or a lighthouse or a rising cape. Almost the whole hike is a view of the rolling ocean. Seastacks and lighthouses will come into view long before they are close by and we watched capes like Broyle Head rise before us with trepidation and then stay in our lingering sights days after we had left them behind. So to put it mildly, this hike is amazing.
And yet most days we could count on one hand the number of other hikers we saw; and if there were ever more than 1 or 2 they were usually part of a group. We exchanged hiking pleasantries and then they’d be one their way, and once again we’d have the whole trail to ourselves. In 14 days we saw only 5 small groups (3 people or less) of backpackers and there were 2 days of hiking when we didn’t run into one single hiker. And this was in September! Prime hiking season, beautiful, fairly dry weather, easily accessible trails, minimal bugs!. Most of the time we felt spoiled with having the trail all to ourselves.
And yet, and yet…there were rumblings. Stopping in small grocery stores along the way we’d hear about increasing numbers of Europeans coming to enjoy the trail. We’d bump into locals berry picking at trailheads stating they’d never seen the trail so busy as this past summer. And more blogs and articles seem to be cropping up with stories praising the East Coast Trail. Luckily for us the trail remained quiet and serene……but the hikers are coming.
There Is No “Easy” Trail With A 50 Pound Pack
The East Coast trail is comprised of 26 individual trails, most linked by small coastal towns. Each of these routes is given a rating of Easy, Moderate, Difficult and Strenuous, which means there is a trail for almost any type of hiker. As thru hikers we carried everything we needed for the full length of the trail, refueling with groceries in towns as needed. Weighing our bags before we boarded our flight to Newfoundland, our packs weighed approximately 20kg each, about 45lbs, before we added the necessary cheese, chocolate and granola bars along with 2 litres of water that we carried each day. Our backpacks were easily topping out around 50lbs and no trail felt “easy” with that much weight on our back. Everyday we were humbled by our hefty packs. The sun felt hotter, our legs more tired and our feet more raw. Guaranteed the conversation turned to investing in ultralight gear (or eating less chocolate) at least two times a day.
Hikers Cannot Live On Blueberries Alone
But if only we could (see above re: pack weight)! In early September the East Coast trail is flooded with wild blueberries. We picked handfuls of them almost everyday without ever leaving the trail. The most people we ever saw in one grouping was at the Spout Path southern trailhead-not hikers, berry pickers. Alas, thru hikers need more sustenance than berries and fortunately the East Coast trail is linked by numerous villages where we could stock up. Resupply research is important though as most towns will have a small convenience store at best with only five towns having an actual grocery store, most of them being off the trail.
A Stranger Is Just A Friend You Haven’t Met Yet
Newfoundlander’s are some of the friendliest people we’ve met. Humble, straight to the point and kind. Locals out for a stroll quietly pointing us towards the trail head; offers to replenish our water as we walked through a town; a woman throwing open the door of her cabin inviting us in for tea; convenience store owners offering hot water on chilly days; and our own special trail angel, Rosanne, who aided in the logistics of St. John’s. And then of course the offers for a lift, multiple times in multiple towns, a car slowing down, a friendly face poking out saying in that thick east coast accent “get in, i’ll give you a lift to the trailhead”. But as thru hikers, stubbornly wanting to hike every kilometre of the trail (which includes the town walks), we had to turn down the offer of a lift, much to the somewhat disbelief of the locals.
Direction Is In The Details
There are signs everywhere on the East Coast Trail. Directional signs showing the way forward, trailhead signs with distances, signs for almost every cove along the way. It’s almost impossible to get lost…but we did, briefly, one morning, after not noticing a particular directional sign. What we learnt: keep your head up, watch for signs and look for markers. And carry a map!
Some of the directional markers along the trail:
Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace (LNT); the backpackers ethical code of responsibility. The East Coast trail is an amazing route that will only become more popular as the word gets out. Everyone needs to do their part in keeping this area pristine. Sadly we saw many remnants of wild camping throughout the trail and leftover trash in established camp spots. On a particular rainy, foggy day we hiked the Sugarloaf portion of the trail. This part of the route skirts below the St. John’s landfill. Along the trail signs pop up about the importance of reducing plastic waste. And then, for approximately 1km of the trail, the forest is so littered with plastic bags (having blown in from the landfill) its overwhelming. Too sad to take a picture, it was a stark reminder of what is happening to our wilderness. We are always looking for ways to be better in the wild and tread lightly (any ideas are welcome in the comments!). Here are some of the ways we leave no trace:
- Dehydrate meals beforehand to reduce garbage waste
- Wash and reuse ziploc bags from dehydrated meals
- Carry one good water pump-no plastic bottles
- Carry out all used toilet paper in a dedicated ziploc bag if unable to burn it in a dedicated campfire
Research the Resources!
The East Coast trail is a mostly linear path straight up the east coast of the Avalon peninsula. As mentioned above, there are signs everywhere and at least one town to walk through almost everyday of the trail. Its hard to get lost and help is never too far away. But some of the most important parts of thru-hiking-fresh water sources, resupply stores, wild camping spots, trail closures- will only be found by digging a little into some important resources.
- The East Coast Trail Association: the main website for the trail. Here you can order maps, find descriptions of each portion of the trail, accommodations, shuttle info and more
- www.ectthruhike.com: This website is Amazing! It is the single best resource we found for thru-hiking the East Coast trail. Randy has put a crazy amount of work into this website and his passion for the trail shines through on all the details. Here you will find everything from fresh water sources to wild camping spots to resupply to distances between trails and so much more. The info on this website was invaluable to us, most notably the wild camping spots, maps through towns and the fresh water sources.
In the next post (to be published soon) we’ll have a short run down of the particulars of our trip-shuttles, maps, resources and more. Until then, happy trails!