In July, my friends and I travelled to Squamish, B.C., in hopes of completing the hike at Murrin Provincial Park, a trail that promised stunning views overlooking Howe Sound and an easily accessible lake for a postsummit dip. When we got to the parking lot and saw the rows of cars waiting for the limited number of spots, we knew we weren’t getting in.
With so many people eager to get outdoors, where COVID-19 transmission risks are lower, it seems like everyone is crowding around the same sights. BC Parks has implemented a day-use pass system to limit the number of hikers on high-traffic trails. In Ontario, some provincial parks are providing updates via Twitter about how full their parking lots are to temper expectations. Travel Alberta’s website even provides a list of “photogenic alternatives” to popular spots such as Lake Louise.
I used to think hikes were only worthwhile if they took me somewhere far away and offered a social-media-worthy summit selfie. But this past summer, I found joy in the opposite. On several occasions, I hiked Burnaby Mountain, a trail in the sleepy suburb east of Vancouver – where I grew up – that I had never considered a worthy outdoor excursion. Because it was so close to home, I had lumped it in with all that I found humdrum about Burnaby. At the end of my hike, there was a peekaboo lookout of the Burrard Inlet. I stood there for a while taking in the view, feeling grateful to be out of the house – and out of my own head.
North Burnaby’s portion of the Trans Canada Trail does not require reserving a pass or paying entrance fees. And there are no crowds, not even on Saturday mornings. After being cooped up in a small condo all spring, the act of getting outside, of having breathing room, felt like a release. This place that I’d always considered boring became my saving grace.
Stephen Hui, the Vancouver-based author of 105 Hikes in and Around Southwestern British Columbia, had a similar experience. He and his son had been going on regular walks through the Central Valley Greenway in Metro Vancouver; linking Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster, this urban recreation trail is something he’d never considered before the pandemic. But it was enough of a nature fix during those early months of physical distancing. Now, even with the province in Phase 3, he’s sticking with that slower approach.
“With everyone clamouring to get outside, I’ve, in general, been avoiding the really popular, super-spectacular hikes," Hui said. "I’ve been doing a lot of shorter hikes in more overlooked places and just revelling in them … just getting out in nature, you know? It’s not all about the turquoise lake.”
For Hui, a good hiking trail is one that allows him to find solitude and hear the sounds of nature. Another good quality is a trail with different types of terrain. Transitions from creeks to cliffs provide variety. In an urban setting, this could apply to nature walks, too.
Finding walks around the neighbourhood may not seem very sexy. But “there is no boring hike," Hui said. "I find something redeemable about every trail.”
Maybe reconsidering what we used to find boring as a small win, as we have been doing throughout the pandemic, is what we need now.
The paths less taken
Whether you’re seeking overlooked trails or an urban walk near you, here are some suggestions for quiet routes to explore, selected for low Instagram exposure. Before you go, visit the website alltrails.com, a good resource to check for closures and user-submitted reviews.
Nine kilometres, 2.5 hours
This scenic trail is a 20-minute ferry ride from Vancouver. As with other trails on the island, be sure to watch and listen for wildlife such as woodpeckers and owls. Hui says some of his pastoral highlights include a beaver dam, lily pads and a small waterfall.
Campbell Lake Trail, Chilliwack
10 kilometres, five to six hours round trip
For a hike with more difficulty and elevation, Hui recommends this hidden gem that climbs Agassiz Mountain, located about 1.5 hours from Vancouver. Also known as the Harrison Grind, the name echoes the steepness of the popular (and gruelling) Grouse Grind.
Oak Ridges Corridor Reserve, Richmond Hill
14 kilometres, three hours one-way
A 30-minute drive from downtown Toronto, this trail is part of the larger Oak Ridges Moraine. Rated as “easy” by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, there are secondary routes and multiple trailheads to customize the length and starting point of your hike. Meander through meadows, mature forests and wetlands.
Kinnaird Ravine Art Walk, Edmonton
About four kilometres, one hour round trip
There are many trails in the vast River Valley parks system, making it easy to find a quick nature getaway while staying close to the city. This ravine walk is moderately flat with some incline. Check out the murals painted by the community.
Crowbar Lake Hiking Trails, Porters Lake
18 kilometres, from one hour to one day, depending on the trail
Halifax has relaxing nature walks and waterfront strolls, but if you want a challenge, head 40 minutes east to the Crowbar Lake trails, with four trail loops increasing in difficulty. This is a true wilderness trail, with high ridges and vast landscapes.
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