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Hiking the Entire East Coast Trail

The East Coast Trail is extraordinary. How could it not, spanning 265 km of the world's best rated coastal destination? Being so long, with 24 distinct legs, it's hard to know where to begin.

The easiest answer: hike all of it! A local couple, Sean and Janet Kelly, did just that -- over the course of a few months. Living in Portugal Cove, they had convenient access to the East Coast Trail -- but never lost their entusiasm and sense of awe as they travelled in just past their own backyard. Here's their East Coast Trail story:

What drew you to the East Coast Trail in specific?

Janet: It’s so close to home and it’s coastal. There is a good mix of woods hiking and spectacular ocean views. Most amazing is the fact that so many of the trails follow routes that were historically used to travel from community to community – when you’re on the trail, it’s like you have a living connection to the tradition and heritage of the area.

Sean: We started off by hiking just a few kilometres on a trail near our home in Portugal Cove that we know know the East Coast Trail Association plans to develop. We went a little further each time until one day, we went all the way to Bauline. That was a big accomplishment, probably a bit above our skill level at the time, but we made it. From there on in, we were hooked.

How long did it take you to hike all the developed trails on the East Coast Trail?

Janet: Altogether, it took us 91 hours, 30 minutes and 29 seconds to hike all the fully developed paths, from Cape St. Francis to Cappahayden. Our time includes all breaks, lunches, whales, and icebergs.

What was your favorite leg of the East Coast Trail?

Janet: It’s so hard to pick just one. Among my favourites is the Spurwink Island Path from Aquaforte to Port Kirwan, where we did our first overnight hike. Coming from Aquaforte, you walk right over Berry Head without even knowing it. What a feeling when you look back and see this incredibly high, treacherous looking sea arch and realize, “I just walked over that!”

Sean: Agreed. I’m a big fan of the Cape Broyle Head Path as well. We have camped on that one a few times and there is no better motivation to get going in the morning than the view of the beach at Lance Cove from the campsite. Perfect spot for a boil up.

Were there any especially memorable moments during your adventures?

Janet: One of the most memorable moments was on the Fort Amherst to Blackhead trail. It started out as a beautiful sunny day but the fog started rolling in as we approached Blackhead. Within minutes we could no longer see the water but we could hear the cackling of sea birds, followed closely by the unmistakable crash of a humpback breaking the surface and spouting just metres from shore. It was mesmerizing to sit there, blinded by the fog but hearing and feeling the whale’s presence.

Sean: I will never forget the time I left my wedding ring on a tent platform on the Spurwink Island Path and had to drive back down the shore and hike to our campsite the following weekend to retrieve it. So, you could say that I have slightly more hiking experience than Janet. On that one path, anyhow.

What did you encounter on the trail that you least expected?

Janet: Because we’ve rarely met anyone else on the trail, encounters with other hikers are unexpected and in a couple of cases, quite memorable. For example, we ran into the same person twice on two different weekends, on two different trails, both times having set up camp right next to each other.

Sean: Then there was the time that we decided to have a lunch on the beach at Lance Cove. It’s quite a climb to get down there, so you can imagine our surprise when we met a group of about 40 people who’d made similar lunch plans. It turned out that they were kayakers and they seemed just as surprised to see as we were to see them. We heard one of them remark as he pushed away from shore that he thought you could only get to that beach by sea. It’s really amazing where you can get to if you’re willing to walk!

What advice would you have for anyone wanting to do the same? What about a visitor who may have time for only a limited portion of the trail?

Janet: Bring snacks because you’ll want the energy for climbing up and down all the hills. Just when you think you’ve leveled guessed it, another hill. No other way to get to those awesome vantage points and of course you have to climb back down to the shoreline, too. On that note, watch your step. If you get distracted or start feeling a little tired, you could easily trip or slip into a dangerous situation. The views are spectacular from a safe distance, but with towering cliff drops, the last thing you want is an extreme closeup of the jagged rocks below.

Sean: Wear proper footwear. Going up and down hills can be tough enough, add to that navigating through terrain that includes rocky paths, bogs, exposed tree roots or even just a boardwalk or staircase that’s slick from dew or rain. It can be tricky and even hazardous if you have poor ankle support or worn soles.

For visitors with limited time, one good option is Blackhead Path. You could get dropped off in Blackhead and walk over to the Cape Spear National Historic Site in about 1-2 hours. Dress in layers as it’s a truly coastal experience and the weather can change quickly.

What other trails, besides the East Coast Trail, are must hikes?

Janet: Although it’s a whole other roadtrip from St. John’s, Gros Morne National Park has some fantastic trails for those looking for a challenge, such as the James Callaghan Memorial Trail to the top of Gros Morne Mountain or the trek from Wallace Brook to Long Pond on the Green GardenTrail, On the east coast, we’ve also enjoyed the hike up Butterpot Hill, from which you get an incredible panoramic view of Conception Bay. It’s a great way to spend an afternoon while camping in Butterpot Provincial Park.

Photos courtesy of Sean and Janet Kelly.