If someone asked me where on the Nova Scotian mainland I'd like to go on overnight hike to, I wouldn't hesitate before saying "Cape Chignecto Provincial Park". I admit that I do have a great love for the Kenomee Canyon trail system on the Economy River but the allure of the Bay of Fundy coastline would take me to the cape every time.
Cape Chignecto Provincial Park is approximately a 3 hour drive from Halifax and is located west of Amherst on the piece of Nova Scotia that juts out into the Bay of Fundy dividing the Midas Basin from Chignecto Bay.
The park has a full trail system, most of which start at the park HQ called Red Rocks which is just outside the community of Advocate Harbour. The big draw as far as hiking goes is the 50+km coastal loop trail which starts and ends at Red Rocks. Ecosystem variety is the keyword on this hike as you'll travel through amazing stands of hardwoods, fog forests of red spruce, cross a number of brooks and streams, walk along cliffs that drop hundreds of feet straight down, as well as scamper up and down a multitude of ravines and canyons. And there are many opportunities along the way to stop and explore small isolated rock beaches or sit on high rocky outcroppings overlooking the Bay of Fundy.
I've spent a total of 10 nights in the park over the years and have camped at Eatonville(1), Seal Cove(3), Key-Hole Brook(1), Refugee Cove(4) and the Arch Gulch Cabin(1). Although Eatonville is a nice spot, it's my least favorite because it's inland and I much prefer to camp on the coast when I'm so close. Key-Hole Brook is another one down on my list because even though I did really like the actual campsite area and it's on the coast, it unfortunately has no beach access.
Seal Cove is one of the more popular spots and also one of my favorites because of its west facing beach which is always a great sunset viewing spot. Seal Cove is also very popular with day-hikers because one can park in Eatonville and easily hike in the 6km, spend the day on the beach and then hike back. But out of all the sites I've camped at, my personal favorite is Refugee Cove as I have an affection for it and its history. It's name comes from the fact that during the Expulsion of Acadians, fleeing Acadians were sheltered in the deep valley by the local Mi'kmaq in a futile attempt to escape their English pursuers. And while the entire park exposes one to the incredible Bay of Fundy tides, the incoming tide at Refugee Cove is one of the more dramatic spots to witness it as an incredibly fast surge comes through a narrow inlet at the end of the beach and fills the entire cove between the beach and the camping area in a matter of minutes. I've also had the opportunity to spend two nights in Refugee Cove over the years where I was the ONLY person in the entire valley and to have the place to myself was very special.
On my most recent trip in the fall of 2011, I spent the last night in the Arch Gulch cabin with two friends which was luxury after 3 nights in a tent. The cabin features 4 bunks, a woodstove (w/ stocked wood) as well as a table and kitchen counter. Over the past few years a number of cabins were built and one can now do the loop trail while staying at cabins along the way instead of tenting.
This opens up the beauty of the park to people who want to hike the loop without carrying the camping equipment required for tenting. On both of my loop trips, I did the route counter-clockwise although I think next time I'll reverse the route. Going counter-clockwise on a 3 day/2 night trip (the usual for loop trips) means that one gets the long 20+km hike from Red Rocks to Seal Cove out of the way the first day. This section goes overland from Red Rocks to Eatonville on a fairly flat trail and then swings west to meet the coast for the last few kilometers into Seal Cove. It also provides a great viewing spot for the famous 3 sisters rock formation. The 2nd day along the western coast from Seal Cove to Refugee Cove is arguably one of the most scenic hikes in the province and because of it's remoteness, one of the least seen views in the province. This leaves the shortest section of the hike from Refugee Cove to Red Rocks for the last day.
I say the shortest section but it's also the most difficult due to its incredible ascents and descents in and out of Refugee Cove and Mill Brook. Hiking from sea level to an elevation of 600 feet may not sound like much, but believe me, your legs will feel differently about that,..much, much differently. The trail on the east side of each of the coves are on ATV access roads which are straight hikes at least a kilometer long with no switchbacks on a 40 degree grade. They are 'leg-killers'!! Anyone who's ever hiked them will know exactly what I speak of. It's on these hills when you question your sanity for deciding to hike this trail and it's a mental challenge to force yourself to keep putting one foot forward after the other. But it comes with an incredible sense of accomplishment when you make it to the top and realize that you made it without your heart bursting out of your chest and your legs not giving out under the strain.
I should note that going down these sections isn't much easier as the grade is so steep that your leg muscles work overtime trying to stop you from plunging forward.
If I had any advice for prospective hikers of this park, it is to use hiking/trekking poles. Some people don't like hiking poles and each to their own I suppose but I never go into the woods without them for a number of reasons.
The first is safety. Doing as much solo camping as I do, I'm quite aware of the increased danger because when you're alone in the woods the consequences of your decisions carry greater weight. So while something like a badly twisted ankle on a group hike is manageable, that same twisted ankle becomes a potentially very dangerous scenario when you're alone. So why hiking poles for safety? Essentially they give you 4 points of contact with the ground which give you extra balance and stability and that can be a life-saver on the trail. And there's been more than once after a long, tiring day on the trail where I stumbled on a tree root or slipped on loose ground and was saved from hitting the ground by my poles. So hiking poles for safety.
The second reason is efficiency. With hiking poles you're spreading the work out to your four limbs instead of just your legs. Why make your legs bear the brunt of the work when you can get your arms to help out? And if you're hiking 50km and doing a lot of ascents/descents then spreading the work out to all your limbs will mean you'll be a lot less tired at the end of the day. And trust me, there are hills at Cape Chignecto where you will appreciate being able to push yourself up with your poles. A lot of the time I will flip my hands to the top of the poles so I can use them for maximum leverage to propel myself up the hills. And not only do they help you on the uphills, when descending, hiking poles can reduce the force going through your knees by 25%. When you consider that on descending a steep slope the joint reaction force between your knee cap and femur thigh bone can be the equivalent of four times your body weight, anything that reduces the load is a good thing.
I always recommend hiking poles just for the safety aspect but at Cape Chignecto with its constant elevation changes, I also recommend them for the efficiency and help they will give you on the hills. Trust me, after you hike from Refugee Cove to Red Rocks, you will appreciate hiking poles like never before. In fact, you will probably personally thank them at the top of every hill.
So if you're looking for a challenging hiking/camping trip on mainland Nova Scotia or even a great day hike, I highly encourage you to check out Cape Chignecto Provincial Park. You will not be disappointed!!