We arrived on Prince Edward Island just two days after post-tropical storm Dorian swept through the Maritimes. In our first 12 km of trail we had to climb under, over, or around 109 downed trees on the trail. Even so, when we disembarked from the ferry and found the trailhead in Wood Islands, we could immediately tell we were in for a treat.
In this smallest of Canada's provinces the Great Trail follows the Confederation Trail, which is a 435 km shared use walking and cycling trail in summer and a snowmobile trail in winter. It is a rail trail with a gorgeous rolled stone dust bed, that never exceeds a 2% grade. The main trail begins in Tignish at kilometer 0 and extends to Elmira at kilometer 273, but there are branches that stretch out into the rest of the province as well. In addition to the main body of the Confederation Trail there are an assortment of beautiful Island Trails and sections throughout the province which are tied to the International Appalachian Trail.
We had originally intended to walk from the ferry in Wood Islands over to Charlottetown and then continue west towards Summerside and Tignish. However, the western portion of the island was hit hard by the storm, making the trail partially impassable in the west, and depriving the residents there of water and electricity when we arrived. So, we adjusted our plans and headed east instead.
If you are searching for a remote, rugged, wilderness trail where you can challenge yourself against nature and the elements, then the Confederation Trail is not a good choice. If you are looking for a relaxing, enjoyable outdoor adventure where you can experience nature, see lots of birds, learn about local history and culture, enjoy local food and beverages, and take in incredible landscapes, ….or are an avid cyclist who wants over 400 km of uninterrupted well maintained pathways then this trail should definitely be on your bucket list! Indeed from what we have seen thus far on our hike along The Great Trail the Confederation Trail section is perhaps the best maintained and welcoming pathway which can be easily accessed and enjoyed in Atlantic Canada.
In a nutshell, the Confederation Trail is a beautiful treed corridor that offers views of picturesque rolling hills, charming villages, and expansive seascapes, as well as opportunities to experience local culture, music, food, and Canadian heritage. There are benches located every few kilometers along the trail, as well as covered picnic shelters, and hundreds of interpretive signs to enjoy.
There are even a few bathrooms on the trail which are somehow kept cleaner than what we've experienced in some motels! The trail is maintained to an incredibly high standard, and there is no forced road walking or cycling, unless you choose to walk between the trail branches, or to avoid an obstacle course left behind by a storm.
Camping is neither encouraged nor prohibited along the trail, although there is talk of potentially establishing some platforms for campers by the picnic shelters in the near future. Regardless, there are a lot of campgrounds, B&B's, and Inns right on the trail, and we were able to camp most of the way across. The only potential drawback, is that we have heard that the streams and rivers were laden with fertilizer and pesticides, and that we shouldn't drink out of them. Once on the island we got mixed advice, with some people suggesting the water should be okay if we filtered it, and others indicating they wouldn't drink it. Either way, there weren't too many rivers and streams on the trail, so we ended up filling our water bottles at cafes, established campgrounds, or people's houses. This wasn't a problem, and we never found ourselves short of water.
In the end we walked 172 km of the Confederation Trail. We began in Wood Islands at the ferry and walked east to Murray River. The landscape on either side of the trail was largely forested, with the occasional river, pond, or marsh. We found a campground in the little community of Murray River, and enjoyed a fantastic breakfast and amazingly strong coffee at Fancy's Coffee Counter. The trail was still in rough shape, so from there we walked up highway 4 to Montague to pick up another branch of the trail, stopping at the beautiful Harvey Moore Wildlife Center on the way.
The charming and artistic harbour-side town of Montague had lots of restaurants and cafes, several local breweries, a museum, and an Inn that seemed popular with cyclists. This region also reminded us of many of the experiences which we enjoyed along both the GR65 in France and Camino de Santiago in Spain.
From there we walked west on the trail, through picturesque rolling hills that were checkered with forests and fields and dotted with red barns. The sweet smell of apples hung in the air above the trail, and the sound of grasshoppers accompanied us as we trekked. We stopped in Charlottetown for a few days to explore, meet with members of the Confederation Trail and the Island Nature Trust, and give a talk. This small city is very rich in history and culture, and offers music, theatre, art, museums, shopping, and a beautiful waterfront walk.
As we leave this beautiful and gentle island behind, the one thing that strikes us the most is that not only was there a perfect trail, gorgeous and varied scenery, and great local produce, but the people were outstandingly kind and generous. There is a very active community of outdoor receptionists and nature lovers across PEI, and the conservation ethic on the island is very strong. We were absolutely blown away by the thoughtfulness, generosity, and kindness that strangers repeatedly showed us.
As a wonderful aside, there is currently a community base groundswell of interest in a round the island route – reminiscent of the Camino de Santiago – which is being developed and tested this year. Given the potential for this type of trip around such an amazing island community we are certainly watching closely as this type of hike would also rate highly for us as a potential future trek.
We will miss PEI dearly, but I have a feeling we will find a way to return someday. For anyone interested in hiking or bicycling Canada, or in completing a portion of the Great Trail, we would definitely recommend the Confederation Trail on PEI without reservation!
Onto New Brunswick for the next 900+ km of our hike which will take us to famed pathways such as the Dobson Trail and Fundy Footpath!