Four Most Demanding Hiking Trails in Canada

Toronto Life
Chilkoot Trail by Kimberly Vardeman
Chilkoot Trail by Kimberly

Canadians love hiking. Who wouldn’t enjoy packing a backpack and getting lost in the pristine wilderness, away from all the hustle and bustle of everyday life for a while? In today’s post, you will find no easy trails for laid-back hikers. All of the routes introduced here are among the most difficult hiking challenges you could take in Canada. However, you can be sure that all the pain will be rewarded by the beautiful nature and spectacular views on trails that will leave you speechless. Check them out and remember that every single one of these treks could become the ultimate experience of your life. (In a good or bad sense… who knows?)

West Coast Trail

West Coast Trail by Paula Reedyk
West Coast Trail by Paula Reedyk

The West Coast Trail, situated on the southwestern edge of the Vancouver Island, is often cited as one of the most demanding yet beautiful trails in the world. This top-notch route stretches 77 kilometres from Port Renfrew to Bamfield, and hikers have to complete the trail virtually with no connection to civilization. The history of the West Coast Trail can be traced to its use by native peoples, but the modern-day trail was only built in 1907 as a rescue route. This part of the island coast used to be extremely dangerous for ships and became sadly known as a place full of shipwrecks (some can still be spotted along the coastline).

The biggest challenge of this amazing trail doesn’t come with elevation, as it mostly follows the sea level. What makes the West Coast Trail so strenuous is the rugged and varied terrain (at one point, hikers need to get through more than 200 feet of ladders to continue), plus visitors have to cope with long-distance walking. However, the pristine wilderness (it’s not unusual to meet black bears, wolves, cougars, or even seals and orcas on the trail) and spectacular views of the ocean that hikers experience on the trail are well worth all the effort. In addition to all of this, the uniqueness of the trail lies in the diversity of environments hikers pass through. Get ready to move from sandy beaches to bog areas or take a walk through some of the oldest forests with the tallest trees in Canada, full of streams and little caves hidden all around.

Most hikers manage to complete the route in six to eight days, but the overall time clearly depends on the level of fitness of each visitor. There are quite a few designated campsites lining the route and they often include special bear boxes for safe storage of food during the night and simple log outhouses or shelters. It’s very important to note that you have to start planning your trip in advance: Pacific Rim National Park is officially open only from May 1st until September 30th and there are strict quotas applied to avoid overcrowding and ensure maximum wilderness protection at the West Coast Trail. Everyone needs to obtain an access permit ($140 per person plus a $25 registration fee) and only 52 visitors per day are allowed to start the trail, with the schedule especially full during the summer. You can find a map and some additional information here.

Chilkoot Trail

Chilkoot Trail by Kimberly Vardeman2
Chilkoot Trail by Kimberly

If hiking alone is not your only goal when looking for your next trail, Chilkoot Trail will give you an amazing history lesson that will blow your mind. Hikers who come to Chilkoot Trail pass 53 kilometres from Dyea, Alaska through the Coast Mountains to Bennet in B.C. and virtually retrace the footsteps of our predecessors chasing their luck during the Klondike gold rush of the 1890s, as it served as the major route to the famed Yukon goldfields. The trail lost its significance as soon as 1899, when a railway was built in the area. Because of its heritage value, the trail was given a status of National Historic Site of Canada as well as U.S. National Historic Landmark.

The uniqueness of the Chilkoot Trail can be found in an astonishingly wide variety of terrain and scenery, as it winds through three main different segments: coastal rainforest, high alpine forest, and boreal forest — all supplemented by relics and remnants of the past scattered along the trail. Since the trail is a well known tourist attraction, there are many interpretative signs and the historical objects are well taken care of. Don’t forget to take a small side trip to Canyon City (an intriguing ghost town of a bustling tent city), look for old telegraph and tram wires that still line the trail, visit a wooden church in Bennet, and much more.

The trail is difficult to hike and usually takes three to five days to complete. Hikers have to use one of the many designated campgrounds and sleep either in their tents or use one of the little cabins maintained by the park services. The use of open fire is not allowed. The best months to hike are mid-July to mid-September, while planning your trip for winter is not recommended. You should take your time to create the schedule — especially because it can be quite difficult to get a hiking permit. Only 50 people a day are allowed in. Before you start, read some of the equipment recommendations, since the weather is especially notorious here and can change very rapidly. Overall, the trail is well managed with full-time maintenance (probably thanks to the competition between the U.S. and Canada), so if something goes wrong, you should be saved sooner or later, but try not to test it yourself… And one more little reminder: this is an international trail and crossing the border always means some extra regulations, so check them out to avoid unnecessary difficulties.

Fundy Foot Path

Fundy Hiking Trail by Martin Cathrae
Fundy Hiking Trail by Martin

The Fundy Foot Path is a challenging wilderness trail along New Brunswick’s side of Fundy shore from the Fundy Trail Parkway near Big Salmon River to Fundy National Park, near Alma. This strenuous, 41-kilometre path can be completed in about four days of hiking in one of the last remaining coastal wilderness territories between Florida and Labrador. The rough foggy shore offers stunning vistas and the area is among the best in the world for viewing marine life. It is also the breeding habitat for right whales.

Even though the trail is not long, visitors proceed slowly due to many descents and experience climbs up to 100 metres, since the trail follows the topography of the coastal area. The overall elevation change is up to 300 metres. The rugged terrain visitors have to cope with includes a dozen ravines and two tidal rivers that can only be crossed during low tide (you’d better plan your timing well…), steep cable steps, jagged cliffs, and mixed forests. A couple of unbridged creeks have to be waded, and extreme caution is necessary when passing the always-slippery rocks, especially while on high cliffs. The Bay of Fundy is famous for having the highest tides in the world (almost 48 feet), which makes tide schedule awareness even more important (the Fundy Trail Parkway Interpretive Centre offers a Fundy Foot Path map kit including tide charts).

Camping on the trail is permitted at one of the designated campsites along the trail, and there is lodging available with four rooms and a cabin near the west end of the trail. It is recommended to take a backpacker stove on the hike since open fire is prohibited in all areas. Even though there should be no problems with finding water, as there are many streams and rivers, make sure to use a water treatment kit to purify the water before drinking. All visitors have to pay a park entry fee for Fundy National Park and a gate fee for Fundy Trail Parkway. All hikers are required to register by park officials and accepting this seemingly pointless bureaucracy could easily save your life if something happens on the trail. The trail is interconnected with another trail and if you still feel like more hiking after finishing the Fundy Footpath, go for the 8-kilometre Goose River Trail extension at the east end of the trail. Before starting, remember that the trail is linear, so either use two cars or arrange a ride (at least leave enough money to pay for the overpriced transit). A map of the path can be found here.

Mantario Trail

Mantario Trail by Richard Munch Sabourin
Mantario Trail by Richard
Munch Sabourin

The Mantario Trail is an exquisite trail in southeastern Manitoba, about 150 kilometres east of Winnipeg. This 66-kilometre backpacking trail stretches north to south from Big Whiteshell Lake down to trailhead near Caddy Lake in Whiteshell Provincial Park. It is by far the most difficult backpacking trail in Manitoba, full of natural beauty, but surprisingly, only a few hundred visitors complete the hike every year, making this experience of true wilderness even more intense. Most people are able to finish the trek in four days, but the overall time always depends on the skill and fitness level of each individual and honestly, inexperienced backpackers should think twice about choosing Mantario Trail.

The trail offers amazing views and the varied landscape consists of gigantic rock outcrops, bogs and marshes, lakes, rivers, and streams full of beaver dams, all located in a great boreal forest. Get ready for plenty of scrambling over exposed granite ridges. A long time ago, the whole area was part of a mountain range; however, the water and wind carved and scraped out the rock into its current look over the thousands of years. For many hikers, one of the highlights of the trip are the campsites by the lakes — who wouldn’t enjoy getting up by a pristine lake in the wilderness? There are several such designated camping spots along the way and generally the only amenity hikers can expect here are the steel fire pits. Some of the wildlife that can be observed along the trail includes muskrats, snapping turtles, bears, beavers, and a diversity of bird species, including bald eagles.

The trail was built in the 1970s by the Manitoba Naturalists Society and is maintained by an NGO, Friends of the Mantario Trail. It is open all year round, but the actual activity strongly depends on weather conditions. The best time to hike is in the autumn, when the trees are beautifully coloured and mosquitos are already gone. Every October since 1980, a group of local marathoners has run the trail for the annual Mantario Marathon. Runners complete the trail in two days and according to tradition, they have to sleep outside rather than in the cabin to prove that they brought proper gear. The first three runners who finish the marathon are awarded with the title “Gods of the Trail.” A map and some additional information can be found here.

Are there any other extreme hiking trails we should know about? Tell us about your ultimate hiking experiences in Canada!

3 thoughts on “Four Most Demanding Hiking Trails in Canada

March 15, 2014 at 9:02 am
Tim Barry says:

fundy foot path is a wonderful trail and i am glad it is in this article the one thing about the trail is that there is no way of doing the trail and not continuing on to the goose creek trail in fundy national park. you can also connect to some trails in fundy park and then onto the dobson trail which is a 58 km trail leading to riverview. this is formally known as the fundy trek. approx. 135km. anyways just wanted to add to it in case your interested in checking it out .
happy trails:)

March 25, 2014 at 5:59 am
Jamie S. says:

Hello, Tim
Thank you for the bit of advice! I am sure it will be helpful to those who decide to choose the Fundy Foot Path. I hope that the weather will let us enjoy these trails very soon and to the full!

November 10, 2015 at 8:58 am
Cathy H. says:

You didn’t mention the North Coast Trail, on Vancouver Island! It’s ten times the trail that the WCT is. Very isolated at its eastern point, it requires a 1 1/2 hour boat ride just to reach the trailhead. At its western terminus it joins up with the Cape Scott Trail, which is much tamer and much more populated.
The NCT isolated, wild, and can be treacherous. We encountered only four other people hiking it when we did it last year. Camp each night is on whatever beach you happen to end up on, and you will wake in the morning with bear tracks in the sand beside your bivy. Should something untoward happen, the Coast Guard is occasionally seen on the horizon; you might be able to flag them down.
On our way out, we came across a cougar on the trail, laying there sunning himself. It was an experience of a lifetime.

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