The Cape Chignecto Coastal Trail is a spectacular backpacking path in Nova Scotia, which provides a beautiful, varied and challenging hiking experience while showcasing the power of the huge Bay of Fundy tides.
This 51km circular trail leads hikers to the top of towering cliffs and dramatic rock formations, overlooking sandy beaches tinged with red. The ocean backdrops it all, sparkling aquamarine blue in the sun.
As is a necessity with most coastal hiking, you have to sometimes to leave the coast. Rushing streams intersect the trail requiring detours, descent or an interval through the lush boreal forest.
Some of these creeks continue on and cascade down the cliffs towards the ocean. It’s a wonderful sight, wherever you look.
This post contains our own trip report from hiking the Cape Chignecto Trail plus a hike planning guide. You can skip to the latter here, if you like.
Published 2018, updated 2021. There are affiliate links in this post. If you make a qualifying purchase through one of these links, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Red Rocks to Seal Cove – Day 1
We hiked the Cape Chignecto Trail in June 2018. Not really having many expectations, we were pleasantly surprised by the spectacular coastal scenery and remote location.
Our plan was to hike the full 51km circuit over four days, in a a counter-clockwise direction. As it turns out, this was a somewhat unusual choice since almost all the hikers were met were travelling clockwise and also chose to skip a significant section of the trail.
The section in question is the 14km from the Red Rocks Visitor Centre to Eatonville, which almost entirely travels through forest.
I was aware (from previous trip reports) that a lot of people choose not to hike this section but since we had no second car and were not aware of an existing shuttle service, the only choice we had was whether we should hike it first or last.
We chose to hike it at the beginning, in order to travel towards the coast rather than away from it.
Through the forest
While this forest section is not remotely difficult by any means (and does have some pretty moments), I can understand why so many would make the choice to skip.
It is pretty unremarkable compared to the rest of the Cape Chignecto trail. It also made our first day’s distance total to be 19km, which is reasonably high.
If I had to make the decision again now, I’d do the same. There is just something so satisfying about completing a full, circular trail.
My favourite parts of day one? Starting the hike with a walk along the beach, lunch in Eatonville’s sunny meadow, finally spotting the ocean after almost 16km in the woods, admiring the impressive Three Sisters rock formation.
Camping at Seal Cove
Seal Cove may not have had any seals, but it was a welcome sight that first afternoon. The campsites are high above the beach itself, which offers a wide stretch of stones and sand bordered by soaring cliffs. A lookout close to the trail offers the perfect spot to watch the sunset.
This was by far our favourite campsite of all that we explored, though we did also have the best weather. Unfortunately, the cloudless blue sky did give way to a freezing June (!) night.
As we later found out, the resulting frost devastated the growth of many crops all over Nova Scotia.
Seal Cove to Big Bald Rock – Day 2
Whether it was the aftermath of hiking the 19km the day before or simply the trail elevation (hear a stream on the Cape Chignecto trail? Prepare to ascend), the Seal Cove to Big Bald Rock section was the most taxing for us.
You may be surprised to hear it was also my favourite, for the trail stayed on the coast for almost the entirety and the views were fantastic, all day long. We visited every lookout and admired each ocean panorama. This day also had the best reward, since we had booked the Big Bald Rock cabin for the night.
The Big Bald Cabin
The Cape Chignecto trail has three cabins and one bunkhouse en route.
Since we were hiking the trail in the shoulder season, we decided that it would be fun to stay in one for our ‘middle’ (second out of three) night.
The Big Bald Cabin is located a short distance inland, up a short hill. The views from the deck were pretty sweet!
When the rain came in that evening, we felt very cosy indeed, in a warm cabin with ocean views, tortilla pizzas cooking on top of the wood stove and no tent to put up.
I can see why so many Cape Chignecto hikers stay exclusively in the cabins.
Big Bald Rock to Refugee Cove – Day 3
Day three was one of mud. Now, we have a high tolerance for mud after hiking Cape Scott a few years ago (one of the wettest places around) so this wasn’t too much of a big deal.
It did, however, reaffirm my choice in bringing my waterproof boots on this hike. Also verified was our decision to hike the Cape Chignecto trail in a counterclockwise direction as soon as we descended the steep, rooty hill entering Refugee Cove.
But I’m skipping ahead. Before that, we visited the famed Cape Chignecto. The Cape itself isn’t much to write home about (a trail of rocks leading out to sea) but we enjoyed watching the waves collide and the seabirds ride the air currents.
The hills of Cape Chignecto
The Refugee Cove campsite is a dark little place in a valley; the real highlight here is the rocky beach a short walk away.
For hikers travelling the trail in the clockwise direction, this would be the first real direct shore access (besides the beginning, if the tides are right).
Arriving pretty early at 3.30pm, we probably could have continued on the last 8km and finished that day. But I’m glad we didn’t, for two reasons.
The first is the two hills that follow Refugee Cove. They are pretty tough, no matter which way you hike them. The 200m elevation is gained in a perfect 45-degree angle, straight up (or down). There are no switchbacks here.
There’s no doubt about it, these hills are a slog, and likely a memorable part of the trail for most hikers. I can tell you, however, that they were handled much better with fresh legs and a lighter backpack.
Whale watching at Refugee Cove
The second reason I was glad to stay at Refugee Cove was one of pure chance. The morning of our last day, we chose to eat breakfast on the beach. Even before sitting down and unpacking, we noticed something unusual.
Just offshore, seemed to be a large school of fish, made obvious by water disturbance. Where there is fish, there is often other animals too. In this case, a group of porpoises.
They didn’t hang about long, just long enough for us to see their dorsal fins rise and fall a few times and glide away. Definitely one of the more interesting mornings I’ve ever experienced on a trail!
Refugee Cove to Red Rocks – Day 4
With whales on the brain, the rest of the trail was easy going. Those two aforementioned hills were the only real challenge, with flat intervals in the forest. There were less coastal views than I expected during this part, but it hardly mattered.
Before we knew it, we were ascending the steps to the beach and walking final couple of kilometres of sand to the Visitor’s Centre. The tide was way, way out and we were able to jubilantly wander the beach and look back at the distance we had come.
Planning a Cape Chignecto Coastal Trail hike
The Cape Chignecto Coastal Trail can be found in Cape Chignecto Provincial Park in western Nova Scotia, on the edge of the Bay of Fundy.
The trailhead is a 45-minute drive from Parrsboro and approximately an hour away from the New Brunswick border.
Cape Chignecto Provincial Park is open in mid-May and closes in early October.
How difficult is the Cape Chignecto Coastal Trail?
I would class the Cape Chignecto Trail as moderately difficult. The biggest challenge is the consistent elevation gain/loss along the entire route. There are some flatter areas but the path is never very level for long.
To view the trail’s elevation gain and loss, I’d recommend using Maps.me. As well as being useful for research purposes, the maps can be used offline while hiking the trail.
Besides this, other notable challenges are wet terrain (mud, streams) and exposure to the ocean. On a windy day, I can see some of the coastal sections becoming uncomfortable to walk.
Cape Chignecto trail conditions
In general, we found the Cape Chignecto coastal trail to be in good condition.
The majority is of backcountry standard with steep, rocky, muddy and rooty sections. Travelling over small streams and creeks is necessary but not difficult.
The trail is well defined and signposted throughout, with red markers on trees and rocks at least every 100m or so.
There is the possibility to walk along Red Rocks beach at the start/end of the trail (1.5km stretch), but only when the tide is out.
When the tide is in, there is a 2.6km (153m elevation gain) detour. If you do walk along the beach, be sure to not to miss the exit stairs that lead back to the main trail.
Reasonable phone signal is available throughout most of the trail.
Which way to hike the Cape Chignecto trail?
As mentioned, it is possible to hike the Cape Chignecto Coastal Trail clockwise or counterclockwise direction. We travelled in a counterclockwise direction and were happy with our choice.
I think I would have found hiking the Eatonville forest section on the last day a bit anti-climatic.
Before starting on the trail, hikers must check in at the Red Rocks Visitor’s Centre. Luckily, the Centre is open long hours – 8.30am to 8 pm during our June visit. Some hikers then choose to park or leave from the Eatonville trailhead.
If you wish to skip the Eatonville forest section but do not have two vehicles, there is a shuttle service run by the Advocate Country Store in nearby Advocate Harbour (reservation recommended, on request only).
Suggested hiking itineraries
There are many ways to hike the Cape Chignecto Trail. We were happy with our chosen itinerary as it allowed us plenty of time to enjoy the scenery without rushing, and included a number of shorter days for recovery. It was:
Day 1 – Red Rocks to Seal Cove (via Eatonville), 20km
Day 2 – Seal Cove to Big Bald Cabin, 9km
Day 3 – Big Bald Cabin to Refugee Cove, 9km
Day 4 – Refugee Cove to Red Rocks, 13km
Strong hikers (or those in a tight schedule) may consider this shorter itinerary:
Day 1 – Red Rocks to Seal Cove (via Eatonville), 20km
Day 2 – Seal Cove to Refugee Cove, 18km
Day 3 – Refugee Cove to Red Rocks, 13km
Hikers planning to use the cabins and hike in a counter-clockwise direction, would have an itinerary like this:
Day 1 – Red Rocks to Eatonville Bunkhouse, 14.1km
Day 2 – Eatonville Bunkhouse to Carey Brook Cabin, 8.8km
Day 3 – Carey Brook Cabin to Big Bald Cabin, 7.5km
Day 4 – Big Bald Cabin to Arch Gulch Cabin, 8.9km
For hikers planning to skip the Eatonville forest, a suggested itinerary would be:
Day 1 – Eatonville trailhead to Seal Cove, 7km
Day 2 – Seal Cove to Big Bald Rock, 9km (or Little Bald Rock, 11km)
Day 3 – Big Bald Rock to Refugee Cove, 9km (or 7km from Little Bald Rock)
Day 4 – Refugee Cove to Red Rocks, 13km
This plan would be particularly good for anyone trying out a multi-day hike for the first time as the distances are short.
Alternatively, an alternative three day itinerary for strong hikers is:
Day 1 – Eatonville trailhead to Seal Cove, 16km
Day 2 – Big Bald Rock to Refugee Cove, 18km
Day 3 – Big Bald Rock to Red Rocks, 13km
Where to stay on the Cape Chignecto Trail
Unless you’re a trail runner, you’ll need to stop overnight while hiking the Cape Chignecto Trail. There are two types of accommodation available – camping and cabins.
There are nine backcountry campgrounds in Cape Chignecto Provincial Park. Seven of these are located on the coastal trail route:
- Mill Brook
- Refugee Cove
- Little Bald Rock
- Big Bald Rock Brook
- Keyhole Brook
- Seal Cove
In each of these campgrounds, there are 4-11 individual campsites, each usually featuring a picnic table and a flat spot for a small tent.
Each campground has at least one outhouse, plus nearby water (usually a stream/river) suitable to treat with a filter. Campers should bring their own means to hang food/smelly items to avoid bear and rodent issues.
Our favourite campgrounds were Seal Cove, Big Bald Rock and Little Bald Rock. Refugee Cove is also nice, though the campsites are set back into a dark forest.
Trail cabins and bunkhouses
The Cape Chignecto Coastal Trail also has three cabins and one bunkhouse. They are:
- Arch Gulch Cabin – 8.9km / 44.1km
- Big Bald Cabin – 22.6km / 30.4km
- Carey Brook Cabin – 30.1km / 22.9km
- Eatonville Bunkhouse – 38.9km / 14.1km
The first distance noted is from the clockwise distance from the Red Rocks Visitor Centre and the second is the counter-clockwise distance.
So, for example, the Arch Gulch cabin is 8.9km from Red Rocks in a clockwise direction but is 44.1km along the trail from the counter-clockwise direction.
Due to their convenient locations, it is possible to hike the Cape Chignecto Coastal Trail and stay only in the cabins. We plan to hike the trail again and will definitely do this.
While they may appear basic accommodation normally, these cabins are luxury after ascending and descending elevation with a backpack all day.
Each of the cabins have four wide bunks (we shared one), a woodstove, a deck and seating. Outside, there is an outhouse and water container (treating the water is recommended).
Since the cabins are pretty basic, you’ll still need to bring almost everything you would for camping (sleeping mat, sleeping bag, cooking equipment etc). That is, of course, everything but the tent!
We didn’t use or visit the bunkhouse but I believe it also offers sleeping space for eight, with a small deck outside with seating.
The cabins and bunkhouse are locked, with the keys issued on registration to reservation holders. So when you book a Cape Chignecto cabin, you have exclusive use of it.
Reserving camping and cabins
Campsites and cabins are allocated either by reservation or on registration at the Red Rocks Visitor Centre.
We reserved our sites two weeks in advance to secure use of the Big Bald Rock Cabin. Otherwise, we would not have bothered for our early June hike as it was reasonably quiet. We only saw four groups of hikers total.
Reservations can be made on the Nova Scotia Provincial Parks website for both campgrounds and cabins (select ‘backcountry hiking’ as camping type). The non-refundable reservation fee is $9.00.
Planning to stay in Parrsboro before or after hiking the Cape Chignecto trail?
Ballymena Farm Cottage – Good value
Parrsboro Mansion Inn – Great location
Cape Chignecto Coastal Trail fees
There is no charge to hike on any of the trails in Cape Chignecto Provincial Park, however, the campsites, cabins and bunkhouse all have a fixed nightly fee. As mentioned, there is also a reservation fee if you’d like to avoid the chance of disappointment.
Up to six people can share each backcountry campsite. Up to eight people can share the cabins and bunkhouse. The Arch Gulch and Big Bald Rock cabins can also accommodate four people camping in tents outside.
Cabins and bunkhouses are exclusively reserved/allocated to one group e.g. we hiked as a group of two but we had exclusive use of the Big Bald Cabin.
Equipment we used on the Cape Chignecto Coastal Trail
These packs are a lot larger than what we’ve used previously for hikes of this length. While this amount of space was certainly not needed, the support was much appreciated.
My Osprey Tempest 40 is wonderfully light and just about the right size for a three-night hike, but the hip support is sorely lacking.
Consequently, I will now probably only use it for day hiking and hut-to-hut (or British style) backpacking.
For the curious, other outdoor gear we used on this trip included:
Rab Siltarp 2 for shelter
Carbon Z hiking poles (we shared a pair)
Exped Synmat Hyperlite Duo (double sleeping mat)
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