The East Coast Trail: greatest in the world

Whether you’re from here or away, the East Coast Trail affords 500 kilometers of opportunity for world class coastal hiking

Sunday marked the first full day of summer, although you’d be forgiven for not knowing that if you were at the 4th Annual Whale Festival held at the Cape Spear Lighthouse National Historic Site.

Temperatures hovered around seven degrees Celsius or so, with the occasional on-shore breeze cutting through even the best of windbreakers. This did not seem to deter the large crowd of hundreds as they visited the booths and displays set up by groups like Nature NL, the Petty Harbour Mini Aquarium and, of course, the largely unsung heroes of whale conservation, Tangly Whales (once known as Whale Release and Strandings). This group, which quietly and professionally release whales caught in fishing gear, saves more whales than any other group in Canada. Those interested in whales (and that’s most of us) could not find anyone with more expertise and experience – I watched visitors from near and far slowly become amazed as the members of this group regaled them with astonishing rescue stories of personal courage and intelligence. Indeed, all of the people involved in the event—the vast majority of whom were volunteers—did a fantastic job if smiles and thanks were any indication.

People examine the skeleton of a minke whale at the 4th Annual Whale Festival held at the Cape Spear Lighthouse National Historic Site on June 22. Photo by Douglas Ballam.
People examine the skeleton of a minke whale at the 4th Annual Whale Festival held at the Cape Spear Lighthouse National Historic Site on June 22. Photo by Douglas Ballam.

I brought three teenagers with me, including my daughter Katie. On the way back, with the heat turned up in the car, she told us how she is compiling a “bucket list” of things to do this summer. I thought it was a brilliant idea and told her so. And so we come to the topic of this and future columns – a list of some of my favorite green spaces for you to consider adding to your summer bucket list.

Many of my regular readers will likely be familiar with the green spaces I describe. But, as I saw on Sunday, there are others who may not be familiar with our regular haunts. For example, due to the hot local economy and the low tuition at Memorial University, there are many young Canadians who have moved to this province and may need a little help identifying some of our best green spaces. As an aside, I think this influx of bright, enthusiastic youth is a great thing for our province. While love for our smiling land is bred into our bones, it sometimes takes the new perspective of a visitor to show us what we really have. Anyway, get your backpack and hiking boots and let’s go.

The greatest coastal hike in the world

In 2010, two hundred and forty National Geographic tourism experts voted the East Coast Trail as the best coastal destination in the world. Really, how can you top that? What began in the mid-1990s as the dream of a small group of volunteers has rapidly grown into one of the most important tourism generators in the province and an essential part of the quality of life for nearby residents. To try and address all of the spectacular locations along the trail is simply impossible – it is more than 500 kilometres long. It stretches from the tip of the northeast Avalon down the eastern side of the peninsula and includes open coastal headlands guarded by stout but indestructible tuckamore (ancient evergreen trees kept waist high by the wind). The trail descends to small outports that are nestled in the shelter of bays and coves. Between these, but especially in the more southern portions, the trail passes through true wilderness that only the experienced and prepared should attempt.

And the first step in preparing should be to visit their website: This site provides you with everything you’ll need to know for your excursion. It includes a handy map of the coastline, to help you select the portion of the trail you want to explore. You can then purchase a more detailed map of your selected portion, which I heartily recommend. These maps include keyed notes on landmarks and wildlife that will invariably enhance your trip. Looking for more than a day trip and need somewhere to stay? The site includes an accommodations page. Concerned about how difficult the trail is? Visit their path details page. Or, if looking to participate in a more structured hike, review their guided hike schedule (once again, conducted by volunteers). Written by hikers for hikers, the East Coast Trail website is the perfect vehicle to prepare. And, if you are a neophyte or a little out of shape, don’t worry – there are trail experiences for almost everyone.

Example: The Deadman’s Bay Path

The trail includes a hike to the secluded beach at Freshwater Bay, once destined to serve as a supply port for the offshore. This hike is largely downhill where you will pass giant erratic boulders left by the glaciers 10,000 years ago. The trail is also crisscrossed with small streamlets which, to the surprise of my son and I during one hike, seem to support the entire global population of green frogs (which, of course, are not native to Newfoundland). Once on the beach you may see whales if they’ve chased in the capelin or herring. You can photograph the monolithic icebergs (and maybe collect some iceberg ice for your drink later). If you scan the skies, you’ll probably see the stately northern gannet, who flies hundreds of kilometres from their nests to find meals.

Along the trail you will see a section of the rocky cliffs that are dotted with small white patches. These are likely the guano left by nesting black-legged kittiwakes. These cute, compact members of the gull family return to the same nesting spot year after year and to raise a single chick. Which, in true teenager fashion, are usually larger than the parents when they leave the nest and look almost like a different species. If you bring your binoculars, you may see puffins and murres zipping across the tops of the waves on their way back or from their mega-tropolis, the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve (seven out of ten Atlantic puffins in North America nest in the reserve, which is now without an on-site manager).

Later in the summer, you can pick fresh blueberries or bakeapples on the barrens and bogs next to the trail. Or, like my son and I did, you take advantage of the quiet and calm to shed the detritus of city life. Conversation is easier on the trail and memories are created effortlessly.

A final word before I leave the laptop and get my boots on. Like the Whale Festival held last weekend, the East Coast Trail is managed, maintained and planned largely by volunteers. If you are new to the province and looking to become engaged in the community, volunteer your services. Or, if you simply enjoy the trail, support the trail association. Even poking a bag or two in your pocket to pick up the occasional pieces of garbage left by colossal idiots is a great help. In a province where we take our natural environment for granted, the stalwart volunteers of the East Coast Trail Association have provided us with one of the best hiking experiences in the known universe.

If you meet a volunteer on the trail, give them our signature sharp nod and a heartfelt “thank-you” – they deserve it.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome thoughtful and articulate Letters to the Editor. You can email yours to: justin(at)theindependent(dot)ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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