The Trans Canada Trail, or The Great Trail, is the world's longest network of recreational trails that are available for walking/hiking, cycling, paddling, horseback riding, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling. Construction began in 1992. The trail stretches 27,000 km (17,000 mi) through every province and territory of Canada connecting the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans.
The Trans Canada Trail Organization reported that 27,000 km of the trail were completed as of 2020 and are usable, making the main cross-country trail complete. Some small portions of secondary routes have not been completed.
In practice, much of the trail is in rough condition and there are significant gaps. Significant portions of the "competed" sections are along roads and highways that may not be safe for walkers or cyclists, or along waterways without parallel land routes (especially the northern portions and parts along Lake Superior). The trail is routed along 8,500 km of roads and highways, 5,000 km of trails of various kinds, and 7,000 km of waterways including Lake Superior. Several people have hiked the trail from Atlantic to Pacific, and have had detour to parallel routes to do so.
The project was begun to celebrate Canada's 125th anniversary, and was be completed for Canada's 150th anniversary in 2017.
The trail network is composed of more than 400 community trails, which are managed locally by trail groups, conservation authorities and by municipal, provincial and federal governments.
Considerable parts of the trail are repurposed defunct rail lines donated to provincial governments by the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National Railways rebuilt as walking trails. The route consists of forested paths, canoe routes, urban walkways, streets, logging roads, and secondary highways.
The main section runs along the southern areas of Canada connecting most of Canada's major cities and most populous areas. There is also a long northern arm which runs through Alberta to Edmonton and then up through northern British Columbia to Yukon. Some of these northern routes are navigable rivers that must be travelled by canoe.
The trail is multi-use and depending on the section may allow hikers, bicyclists, horseback riders, cross cross country skiers and snowmobilers. In some parts, the trail is equipped with regularly spaced pavilions that provide shelter and fresh water to travellers, but this varies widely from section to section.
The trail is marked in places by red-roofed pavilions, which can be found across the country. They contain plaques listing the names of individuals, organizations and corporations that have donated to support the trail. They are mostly commonly found near cities.
PDF maps are available from the Great Trail website.
About 35% of the route is along roads, including provincial highways, and other parts of the trails are along waterways (lakes and rivers), and must be travelled by boat.
The trail can be experienced in several ways: walking/hiking, cycling, paddling, horseback riding, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling.
Walking from Victoria at the Pacific Ocean to St. John's at the Atlantic Ocean could be a journey of 8,000 km. At an average hiking pace of 4 km an hour, 8 hours a day, it would take you at least 250 days, with additional days for recovering from injuries and dealing with extreme weather, for this section alone.
The Trans Canada Trail is targeted to pedestrians, canoeists and cyclists, rather than backpacking hikers. A large part of the trail is focused on bicycles: the trail is built on flatter ground. The route follows valleys and winds through towns rather than ridge lines and wilderness areas.
Be prepared for: grizzly bears, mosquitoes, black flies, ATVs, highway traffic, rain, snow, ice, sleet, high winds, dehydration, sun stroke, blisters, prairie wildfires, plagues of locusts, long distances between services and accommodation, gaps in the trail, surfaces not suitable for cycling or walking....
The trail is accessible from many cities and towns—80% of Canadians live within a 30-minute drive of a section of the trail.
Newfoundland and Labrador
The trail in Newfoundland is best-suited to ATV quads, motorcycles and snowmobiles. It is not designed for cyclists, and even hiking it is difficult. The surface is generally deep piles of loose stones. Where hard pack exists, it does not drain following rain. Facilities along the trail do not exist except in major centres such as St. John's.
The trail's eastern terminus is in St. John's where it begins as the "Grand Concourse Trail". It passes by St. John's Harbour through Mount Pearl then Donovans into Paradise as it makes its way through Woodstock. The trail continues through Conception Bay South where the trail is known as "Newfoundland Trailway Park".
The rail becomes the "Gambo to Terra Nova Trail" as it continues to Alexander Bay and Gambo. Continuing north, the next leg of the trail is called "Cobb Corridor Trail" until Norris Arm. The next section is "Newfoundland Trailway Park" continuing to Grand Falls.
The next stretch is called "Deer Lake to Corner Brook Trail" and continues to Corner Brook on the south side of the Upper Humber River until Route 450. Continuing south, the route is now known as Newfoundland Trailway Park until Cape Ray. The last stretch of the trail in Newfoundland is known as the "Wreckhouse Trail" as it continues to Port aux Basques where you would take the ferry to North Sydney (Nova Scotia). This trail is named after train wrecks caused by the 200 km/h winds that sweep across this former stretch of railway.
All trails are truly multi-use with ATV quads sharing the trails with all other users. The trails are groomed near large urban centres.
From here, the trail becomes the "Old Branch Road - George River Division" and continues through Georges River and continues south-east touching the north east corner of the Scotch Lake then enters the community of Scotch Lake and follows the Scotch Lake Rd.
The trail continues as "Upper Leitches Creek to Scotch Lake" briefly merging with Highway 223 on the Bras D'or Lakes Scenic Drive then follows the Upper Leitches Creek Rd as it enter Upper Leitches Creek.
The trail continues as the "Scotch Lake - Grand Narrows" trail on Tower Rd as it passes the MacAulays Lakes. The route here will cross McLeod Brook as it passes through the Bodale Hills. The trail becomes the "Little Narrows" trail as it enters the community of Rear Christmas Island. The trail again merges onto Highway 223 in Christmas Island and follows the highway through Grand Narrows, Iona, Jamesville, Jamesville West, and Ottawa Brook. As the trail passes Bras D'or Lake, it crosses at Little Narrows using the Little Narrows Ferry and crosses the Trans-Canada Highway at Highway 105 in Aberdeen, then continues north through Lewis Mountain where it becomes the "Celtic Shores Coast Trail".
The trail continues passing Highway 395 and passing through Scotsville to a fork north of Strathlorne.
- The North Path travels north and ends in Inverness.
- The South Trail passes through Strathlorne, Loch Ban then Black River where the trail continues as the "Mabou Rivers Trail". From here it passes through Glendyer then crosses Highway 252 as it passes through Rankinville then crosses Highway 19 in Mabou.
Prince Edward Island
The trail is also known here as the Confederation Trail. It is entirely built on a former rail bed and links all of the island's communities. Motorized traffic is prohibited, but ATV users are common in less populated areas.
It starts at the Confederation Bridge from New Brunswick, and heads north through Borden. It splits into
- a west branch through Summerside and O'Leary to Elmira at the western tip of the island, and
- an eastern branch through Mount Stewart to Elmira at the eastern tip of the island, with spurs to Souris and Montague.
The surface is an excellent hard-pack crusher dust trail. There are picnic tables, some sheltered, and outhouses. Many parts are badly infested by mosquitoes.
Tignish to Summerside: 100 km. Summerside to Mount Stewart: 100 km. Mount Stewart to Elmira: 70 km. Borden Spur: 30 km. Mount Stewart to Montague and Georgetown: 40 km.
There is a 6-km section after the Confederation Bridge at Cape Tormentine, where it ends in a rubble-filled trail the rest of the way to Sackville. The trail is excellent for short distances near Moncton, along the Fundy Coastal Trail to Fredericton, and near Saint John. From Saint John, the trail heads north to Grand Falls and Edmundston and to the Quebec border. There is a long section from Woodstock to Grand Falls but much of it is overgrown, and covered in thick mud with poor drainage. This section runs along a secondary road network along the Saint John River which would be a good alternative.
The trail uses Quebec's Route Verte network of bike trails, paths and wide shoulders on secondary roads. Facilities are all along the route. Most of the network consists of paved bike paths and separation from traffic is a goal that is more often achieved than not.
The trail enters Quebec from New Brunswick near the border with the United States, and continues to Lévis, across the river from Quebec City. The trail follows the south shore of the St. Lawrence River and detours through Victoriaville, Sherbrooke, Granby and the Eastern Townships en route to Montreal. At Montreal, it crosses over to the North Shore, and continues through Gatineau to enter Ontario at Ottawa.
In southern Ontario, the trail is well developed in the Ottawa area, and in the Greater Toronto Area from Pickering to Hamilton. The remainder of Ontario trails are not maintained and have either been taken over by ATVs or have completely grown over.
The waterfront trail from Kingston to Toronto is well-suited to cyclists with approximately 70% on roads with some busy highways, but most of the waterfront trail is not part of the TCT. To the north and west of Toronto, there are rail trails that are listed as part of the TCT, but they are often primitive, not maintained and are chewed up by ATVs. All other trails in proximity to Lake Huron and Superior are rugged hiking trails, nothing more.
In northern Ontario, the trail heads west from North Bay to Sudbury and on to Sault Sainte Marie. From there it is a water trail that follows the northern shore of Lake Superior through the towns of Wawa, Marathon and Nipigon, to Thunder Bay. Parts of the water trail are being matched by the Voyageur Trail, a hiking-only trail on land.
Other than Selkirk to Winnipeg, the trail in Manitoba follows the unpaved grid road system of Manitoba. After rain, the grid roads are not passable by bicycle. Motorized traffic moves at high speeds on the grid roads so be prepared to be peppered with rocks.
The trail enters Manitoba from Ontario at the Whitesell Provincial Park and heads northeast to the shore of Lake Winnipeg. It then turns south through the City of Winnipeg towards the US border, and turns west and north until it reaches Duck Mountain Provincial Park at the Saskatchewan border.
Very little of the trail is suitable for cyclists.
The trail enters Saskatchewan from Manitoba at the Duck Mountain Provincial Park, and heads west and south to Yorkton and Regina, then west to Moose Jaw. At Moose Jaw, the trail splits into two routes:
- The main route heading north to Saskatoon, North Battleford and Onion Lake where it crosses into Alberta.
- The Southern Route heads south towards the US border through Grasslands National Park, and then crosses into Alberta at Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park.
The major part of the trail is the 176-km Iron Horse Trail from Heinsburg to Waskatenau. It is a rough ATV trail and is not recommended for cycling. Calgary and Edmonton have paved bike trails that are part of the trail. The Fort Saskatchewan portion is on gravel grid roads and rain makes this route not passable by bicycle. Canmore to Banff has a paved bike trail alongside the Trans Canada Highway that is a part of the trail. The trail network over the Rocky Mountains that should only be attempted by serious hikers and elite cyclists.
The Trans Canada Trail route in Alberta includes the Arctic land and water route and the main east-west trail route through the province.
From east to west, the main route of the trail enters Alberta from Onion Lake, Saskatchewan. From there, it travels west along Alberta's Iron Horse Trail, making its way to Fort Saskatchewan and Edmonton. The route then splits, heading north and south.
- The westbound route heads south to Calgary and then onwards through the Rocky Mountains to British Columbia.
- The route to the Arctic Ocean heads north to Athabasca where it splits, with the Arctic land route connecting through northern BC to the Yukon, and the Arctic water route connecting via the Athabasca and Slave Rivers to the Northwest Territories. The northern land and water routes meet again at Inuvik in the Northwest Territories and continue from there to Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean.
There is also a Southern Route coming from Regina, Saskatchewan, which enters Alberta near the Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, continues to Medicine Hat and north to Calgary where it rejoins the main route.
In British Columbia, the trail runs nearly 1,700 km from the Rocky Mountains to Victoria, through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. It passes through or near many communities including: the Rocky Mountain communities of Cranbrook, Trail, and Grand Forks; Kootenay; Kelowna, Princeton, and Penticton in the Okanagan; Hope, Chilliwack, and Langley in the Fraser Valley; Lower Mainland communities, Vancouver and the North Shore; and Nanaimo, Duncan, and Victoria on Vancouver Island.
In the province's north, the trail runs an additional 1,000 km along the Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek, BC to Watson Lake, Yukon, to connect the Yukon Territory and the Arctic Ocean.
The main leg of the trail enters British Columbia from Alberta, passing through the Kootenays and Columbia mountains. From there, it delves southward and westward near the Kettle river. The trail passes through the Okanagan Valley over what used to be the Kettle Valley railway, including the very popular Myra Canyon portion. From here, it heads through Princeton and continues west into the Lower Mainland.
The trail network from Elk Lake Pass to Gray Creek (near the Kootenay Lake Ferry) should only be attempted by serious hikers and elite cyclists with the best mountain bikes and full wilderness camping gear. Be prepared for encounters with grizzly and black bears are high. Nelson to Salmo is a rough trail mostly used by ATVs. Cranbrook to Kimberley is a paved rail trail spur that is suited to cyclists and walkers. From Castlegar to Hope, a series of rail trails make up the trails. The conditions range from not cyclable (Osprey Lake and area) to excellent (Myra Canyon). The average rail trail conditions are poor, but improve closer to urban areas.
Paleface Pass from Hope to Chilliwack is closed most of the time. There are many other road options for this stretch. Once you reach Abbotsford and west to Vancouver, the cities have excellent trails, some of which are part of the TCT but none seem to connect to one another ending abruptly at a busy highway. Vancouver Island from Nanaimo to Victoria is a work in progress but there are cyclable sections. From the Schwartz Bay terminal to Victoria (Lochside Regional Trail) and beyond to Sooke (Galloping Goose) are excellent for cyclists but most of these are not part of the trail. The communities of Vancouver Island have well developed trail networks that connect (e.g. Lochside to Galloping Gosse).
The trail for Yukon leaves from Edmonton, Alberta, crosses the northeast corner of British Columbia, and crosses Yukon's southern boundary. It reaches Whitehorse before heading north to reach the Arctic Ocean at Inuvik in the Northwest Territories.
Two branches of the trail go through NWT:
- A primarily river route, which starts from Edmonton, Alberta, and crosses into NWT close to the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, and follows Slave River to Great Slave Lake, with a land branch to Yellowknife, and the Mackenzie River up to the Arctic Ocean at Tuktoyaktuk.
- A shorter land route that enters from northern Yukon and reaches Inuvik.
There is no trail connection between NWT and Nunavut.
The Itijjagiaq Trail in Nunavut starts at the south entrance of Katannilik Territorial Park near Kimmirut and spans 177 km (including about 25 km of navigable water trail) to Iqaluit. Rivers, lakes and hills on the plateau above the river valley mark the trail on either side for hikers and snowmobilers.