An epic pilgrimage trail circles Prince Edward Island

Challenging but accessible, the new 435-mile Island Walk reveals Canada’s smallest province.

In the fall of 2019, Bryson Guptill hiked 435 miles of Prince Edward Island over 31 days. The island resident traversed green hills and farmland, chatted with strangers along red-dirt roads, and watched herons and cormorants swoop along the coast.

That trek with three friends sprouted an idea that became the Island Walk. This new 435-mile route circumnavigates the Canadian island province using a combination of existing trails, dirt roads, and public highways.

The original plan was to launch the walk in spring 2020, says Guptill, a past president of Island Trails, a volunteer organization that promotes and develops sustainable trails on the island. 

But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, for much of the past two years, access to Prince Edward Island (PEI)—Canada’s smallest province at 2,185 square miles—has been cut off from the rest of the country and the rest of the world. The island, which is one of Canada’s eastern Maritime provinces, was quick to implement travel restrictions when the pandemic began, establishing a protective bubble to help keep its 160,000 residents safe.

The recent easing of those restrictions, combined with a public that has developed a new appreciation for being outdoors, gave the Island Walk new life.

Officially launched in September 2021, the trail combines the ease of a walk through the park with a pilgrimage that offers a sense of real accomplishment and an opportunity for reflection, like other great walks around the world.

A history of trails 

Walking paths on the island are nothing new. When the Canadian National Railway abandoned the PEI Railway in 1989, leaving behind the railbed, residents persuaded the local government to turn it into a cycling/walking path. That eventually became the Confederation Trail (which has grown to 280 miles long, with branches extending across the province).

“The Confederation Trail is great, but since it is a former railway, it runs down the middle of the island—the shortest distance from west to east,” explains Guptill. “In a sense, it misses the point. PEI is an island; people want to see the ocean.”

(Check out some of the best hikes in North America, from Alaska to the Caribbean.)

The Island Walk makes that possible by linking 217 miles of the Confederation Trail with heritage roads, the shoulders of quiet secondary roads, and some local trails and beach walks.

Room for reflection 

The Island Walk also offers a chance for quiet and solitude that the more famous pilgrimages can’t always provide.

For Bernie Brunino, who completed the walk last week, time along the trail was an opportunity for self-reflection that he says he likely would not have taken without the pandemic. COVID-19 restrictions thwarted the Newmarket, Ontario, resident’s intentions to tackle an international walk. (In past years, he’d completed the Camino de Santiago and the Via Francigena).

“I found the island to be amazing,” he says. “I’ve walked days without bumping into anybody. I can’t even begin to describe the peace I feel. I have analyzed what type of a parent I’ve been, what am I like as a husband, a good son? It is truly the best medicine.”

(Here's everything you need to know about Prince Edward Island National Park.)

Christine Renaud, from South Bay, Ontario, also completed the walk last week. She used it as an opportunity to raise money for Lennon House, a center supporting people struggling with addiction and mental health disorders.

“Beautiful quiet paths and isolated beaches are more conducive to reflection than noisy cities,” she says.

Brunino and Renaud are two of around 50 people that Guptill expects will complete the fully signposted circumnavigation by year's end, netting them a passport and certificate of completion as proof. By comparison, in 2019 there were 350,000 people who did the Camino and received the certificate of completion, he says. “This is not that.”

An accessible pilgrimage 

Another key difference is that each leg of the 32-section route averages about 12.5 miles. The Island Walk makes up for longer daily distances than its international counterparts by being circular—no matter where you are, you’re never far from the more populated centers of the island and a place to eat, sleep, or explore.

Pre-pandemic, PEI was already making a name for itself as a trail hub in the Atlantic region. The new walk may be one of the island’s most accessible for beginning hikers. The Confederation Trail section offers crushed-stone paths and a maximum three-percent grade elevation, which novice walkers will appreciate. There are no big stony climbs or arduous mountains to traverse here.

The Island Walk is in its infancy but local businesses—from hotels to B&Bs, breweries to restaurants—are already beginning to develop ways to partner with and support travelers when they arrive, including offering transportation and packable meals for walkers.

(Check out this visitor’s guide to PEI.)

Brunino says those who may be nervous should start slow, choosing a few sections to explore rather than the whole.

“You will get a taste of what this island is about,” he says, “the countryside, the coast, the islander charm will hook you in for the rest.”

What to know

The Island Walk is open year-round, though most hikers will likely opt to use it between May and November. The proximity to towns means that each day-hike requires little more than good walking shoes and a small daypack of supplies. Bryson Guptill has written a guidebook with tips on each leg of the journey. All visitors to the island will need to take a COVID-19 test to enter.

Short on time? Hikers can pick from one of the sections below.

For accessible travel: Waypoints 31-32, Charlottetown. This portion of the trail is probably best for those seeking accessibility options. The hardpack of the Confederation Trail in this area will make it easier to access with wheelchairs or other devices, and the section is lit with streetlamps at night. Explorers have access to the historic capital city.

For the foodie: Waypoints 12-13, Portage to Notham. This portion of the trail puts hikers close to the community of Tyne Valley, hub for some of the island’s best burgers (Backwood Burgers), an oyster bar, and a small grocery store to replenish supplies. sland Walk Food Hikes offers half-day walks of along the trail with a catered breakfast, musical entertainment, and, at the end of the hike, a chef-prepared lunch.

For the craft beer lover: Waypoints 26-27, Cardigan to Montague. Step off the trail in Montague to sample the craft suds at Bogside Brewing and Copper Bottom Brewing. Then chase your beers with “the best bread pudding on PEI.” This is the shortest leg of the trail. It crosses the tributaries of three rivers offering coastal views of the harbor. The area was settled in 1732 and was a French settlement for many years.

For family with young kids: Waypoints 23-24, Bothwell to Souris. A stop at Basin Head Provincial Park outside of Bothwell will introduce hikers to the famous singing sands (the sand’s high silica content rings when you walk on it). Let kids linger before heading over to the Basin Head Fisheries Museum to learn the story of PEI’s historic inshore fishery. During summer at the Basin Head Bridge, brave acrobatic swimmers often jump from the bridge to the cool waters below.

For the photographer: Waypoints 9-10, Miminegash to Christopher Cross. This leg takes explorers around the North Cape, past windmills, and along a boardwalk that offers spectacular views of red cliffs, blue waters, and the North Cape Lighthouse. For similar views but with an added bird sanctuary and beach walk, try waypoints 22-23 (New Zealand to Elmira).

For the Anne of Green Gables fan: Waypoints 16-17, Bayview to Cymbria. The popular Anne of Green Gables series of books, first released in 1908, are the number-one reason international travelers visit PEI. If you too have been lured here by the popular red-haired girl and the area that inspired her creator, Lucy Maud Montgomery, this walking section gives you the choice of walking through Cavendish (where Montgomery spent most of her childhood) or taking a route through Prince Edward Island National Park. Both access places such as Montgomery Park, the author’s Cavendish Home, and the National Historic Green Gables Heritage Place, which includes spots readers will recognize from the books, such as Lover’s Lane and the Haunted Wood.

Hike with us: Heading into the great outdoors? We can help. National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated maps highlight the best places for hiking, camping, boating, paddling, and wildlife viewing in North America’s rugged frontiers and urban fringes. Created in partnership with local land management agencies, these expertly researched maps deliver unmatched detail and helpful information to guide experienced outdoor enthusiasts and casual visitors alike. Click here for a Canada East Adventure Map, which includes Prince Edward Island.

Heather Greenwood Davis is a Toronto-based travel writer and National Geographic contributing editor. Follow her on Instagram.

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