Miles to Go: Walking Prince Edward Island

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Modeled on Spain’s El Camino, PEI’s Island Walk offers beautiful scenery to savor by day and charming inns and lodges in which to rest at night.

From the minute you set foot on Prince Edward Island (PEI), it’s nearly impossible to miss the Mars-red provincial soil. The dirt here contains high amounts of iron-oxide, which literally causes the earth to rust and take on an autumnal hue. This red soil, paired with pine and birch forests, hidden coves, towering dunes, and fields of potato plants (the island’s top crop), makes PEI an environment built for slow wandering and savoring. And now, there’s a new cross-island trail designed for exactly that purpose.

man standing by fence on trail
Bryson Guptill, founder of the Prince Edward Island Walk. – Photo by Heather Ogg

Encircling the whole island and tracing the shoreline for a whopping 435 miles, the Island Walk is described by its creators as “PEI’s Camino.” That’s partly because the trail oscillates between long stretches of ragged country and charming villages offering nourishing grub and lodgings. But it also speaks to how Bryson Guptill, the former president of a local trails advocacy nonprofit, first cooked up the idea for the Island Walk. “In 2016, my partner, Sue, and I went over to Spain and hiked the Camino de Santiago,” Guptill recalls, referring to the legendary pilgrimage road leading to Santiago de Compostela, the city that houses the remains of St. James, one of Jesus’ twelve apostles. “And I said, ‘You know, we could do something like this in PEI.’” A subsequent walk on Portugal’s Rota Vicentina trail sharpened and affirmed this early vision of a pilgrimage route for PEI. “We were going though rolling hills on old country roads, with little towns in between,” Guptill says, “and it was very reminiscent of PEI’s landscape.”

The first step was figuring out whether one could walk the circumference of PEI. After completing this epic scouting adventure over 31 days with friends in 2019, Guptill and his comrades began mapping the route — piecing together pre-existing pathways, seldom-used dirt roads, and, when necessary, stretches of public highways to create the Island Walk. The challenge, as Guptill saw it, was curating a route that would showcase the island’s most stunning coastal scenery while also being walkable in four to five weeks (the average amount of time that it takes to walk the Camino). On one day’s scouting trip, the trailmakers logged nearly 22 miles on foot. “There was a lot of whining from my hiking companions that day,” Guptill recalls.

While the trail’s official launch in 2021 was somewhat ill-timed, given the rise of mid-pandemic travel restrictions, it was also strangely fortuitous. Covid’s social distancing rekindled widespread interest in long outdoor walks, and by the time PEI began welcoming back summer and fall visitors, the Island Walk had been covered by National Geographic and Lonely Planet. Hundreds of walkers were showing up, hiking poles in hand.

While 435 miles is a trek, the Island Walk is divided into 32 sections that range from seven to 16 miles each. The terrain is primarily level, and the trail segments either pass through island villages or serve as links between them. You can “thru-hike” the Island Walk — which takes 32 days, at a daily pace of 12 to 15 miles — or you can choose a couple of trail segments, explore the diverse natural environments of each leg, and then pick up the trail again on your next visit.

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I kicked off my inaugural journey on October 9th in St. Andrew at Bishop’s Rest, a former parochial house transformed into a beautiful, family-run bed and breakfast, steps away from Section 20 of the trail. I had chosen Section 20 for its primo views of St. Peter’s Bay, and, as I hiked along a wide dirt path through corridors of trees that often gave way to fields and wetlands, I could already smell the briny air of the sea. After stopping in Morell for a heaping lobster roll at The Seafood Shack, I found myself ambling past cerulean waters and pristine sandy beaches, where legions of gulls watched me pass. My destination for the night, Mysa Nordic Spa, would have its thermal pools and saunas ready — the perfect tonic for a long walk.

Lodging can be one of the trickier elements of planning an Island Walk thru-hike. Getting off of the trail to a nearby hotel often requires a lift. But several of the island’s inns offer this service to visitors, as well as the option to have heavy luggage transferred to their next lodging stop. Local tour companies like Go For A Walk can coordinate these arrangements. And as popular demand for the Island Walk increases, it’s likely that the trail-to-town experience will become more seamless. “Once we achieved a certain critical mass, we had groups of walkers running into each other on the trail, sharing stories,” says Guptill, who now finds himself conversing with fellow PEI explorers when he ventures out to check in on the trail. “This past summer, we had a couple from New York state who kept running into a couple from New Zealand. They had a dialogue going on in our Facebook group, teasing each other.”

That critical mass of walkers is already having an impact on how some trail-adjacent inns and restaurants choose to approach the seasonal window for business. Two nights into my walk, I found myself in Rock Barra at the Johnson Shore Inn — an elegant guest house perched atop red cliffs that overlook the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The owners, Mel and Dave, were still welcoming travelers, even as much of the island was shutting down for the winter. “We’ve had about 60 nights of walkers this year,” Mel said as we kicked back in the living room that evening, sharing some fine Canadian whiskey while the inn dog, a yellow lab named Jonesy, ambled around. Mel and Dave planned to stay open through October. “We were happy to see that some of the island restaurants also held on,” Dave adds. “There’s a push across the tourism industry to extend the season.”

Perfect, I thought. A new year lay ahead, with much more of the Island Walk still left to explore.     

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Miles Howard
Miles Howard
Miles Howard is an author, journalist, and urban trail designer based in Boston but frequently on the road. He is the author of three books, and also publishes Mind the Moss, a newsletter about unusual hiking in New England’s wilderness areas, cities, and suburbs.
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