Winter in Nova Scotia: if you speak to any Nova Scotian, it’s typically not a season they look forward to. For most of my life, I would have agreed—and until recently, I hadn’t made much of an effort to experience this season in all its glory. Over the last few years, hiking and spending time outdoors has become such a passion—the fresh air, stress release, exercise, beautiful sights, and appreciation of Nova Scotia’s natural beauty has become addictive. Having logged more hiking kilometres this year than ever, and having experienced so many stunning landscapes along the way, the thought of staying cooped up for another winter didn’t sit right. So, this has been the winter of embracing the season and continuing to do what I love.
Like anything new, this has come with its share of learnings. I’ve discovered some beautiful new trails, rediscovered some favourites in a different season, and have built some experience on what it takes to enjoy them in a season which entails new challenges and considerations.
My hope is by sharing that I can encourage other Nova Scotians feeling cooped up in winter to see this season through a fresh set of eyes. There’s no feeling quite like being surrounded by the awe-inspiring beauty of snow-covered woods, frozen lakes and waterfalls, and ice-kissed coastlines.
Read on to learn 5 of my favourite Nova Scotia trails to experience during winter, featuring trails from across the province, followed by tips for how to make the most of your adventures if you’re new to winter hiking in Nova Scotia.
Nova Scotia Hiking Trails to Try in Winter
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While there are undoubtedly many great trails I’ve yet to try, I’ve had excellent experiences at each of these in winter. Each gets points for being well-marked and easy to follow with snow on the ground, and because they feature beautiful scenery and/or points of interest to reward you for your effort.
1. Taylor Head Provincial Park → Bull Beach Trail
Location: 20140 Hwy 7, Spry Bay
Note that the park is closed during winter, so you need to hike or snowshoe in from the parking area on the side of the road which adds some distance to your trip. The Bull Beach trail follows the coast overlooking the harbour through the woods, so you get the best of both worlds—snow covered trees and views out to the ocean.
Learn more about the trails at Taylor Head here.
2. Gully Lake Wilderness Area → Sandy Cope Trail
Location: Trailhead is on Kemptown Road near Truro
This network of multi-use trails has so much to offer—we visited for the first time and will be back in all seasons. The hike we did most recently starts on the Yellow Birch Trail, connects to the Portage trail, and then finally to Sandy Cope Trail. We did not do the full loop, but made it up to Donald’s Falls, which features a small but lovely cascade waterfall.
Learn more about the Sandy Cope Trail here.
3. Wentworth West Hiking → Wentworth Look Off
Location: Trailhead starts at the HI-Wentworth International Hostel & Lodge at 249 Wentworth Station Rd
There are extensive trails in this area, but the Look Off is absolutely worth seeing, especially in winter. A gradual uphill climb through the woods takes you to a panoramic view of the Wentworth Valley and the rolling hills that surround it. There are printed maps at the hostel and they can point you in the right direction.
They also have snowshoes onsite which you can rent—this ended up being a saving grace for us because of how much snow was on the ground.
4. Ski Cape Smokey
Location: Near Ingonish Beach in Cape Breton
Ski Cape Smokey does not feature hiking trails, per se; and this should not be confused with Cape Smokey Provincial Park (which features stunning trails but is closed in winter and better suited to spring-autumn hiking). We climbed Ski Cape Smokey by foot which lead us to stunning views of the Mount Smokey and Middle Head. While the runs are small, thanks to the view, this would be a beautiful place to ski, too—but when the hill isn’t open for skiing, climbing up provides an excellent workout with the reward of a spectacular panoramic view.
5. Red Island Hiking Trail
Location: Trailhead is next to St. Anns United Church on the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton
This trail follows an old cart path, so is large, well established, and relatively flat. The path follows the river and eventually leads you to a cobblestone beach where you can see islands in the distance.
Learn more about the Red Island Hiking Trail here.
Tips for Winter Hiking & Snowshoeing Adventures in Nova Scotia
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There’s no question that while beautiful and rewarding, adventure-seeking during Nova Scotian winter comes with its challenges.
If you’re a seasoned winter hiker or snowshoer, these tips may seem commonsensical. As a newbie, I learned many of these lessons on the go—and knowing them in advance would have likely lead to more successful and enjoyable adventures the first go around. If you’re new, too, hopefully these will help you get the most out of your winter hiking and snowshoeing!
Bring the Right Clothes & Gear
This might sound obvious, but there are times when conditions in one part of the province are dramatically different than another that’s only an hour away. The amount of snow on the ground in a given area compared to, say, Halifax has caught us off guard on more than one occasion. My advice:
- Dress in warm, comfortable clothes with layers
- Wear warm, waterproof shoes with a good tread
- Bring snow pants just in case
- If you have snowshoes, bring them; if you don’t want to buy, consider renting them
Better to have the gear and not need it than the other way around!
Choose Well-Marked Trails
If you’re checking out a trail for the first time in the winter, choose one that is well-marked.
A few inches of snow can easily obscure a footpath—especially on trails that are less trafficked, which is often the case during winter. Even well marked trails can be more challenging to navigate with snow on the ground. The good news is that if you’re following a linear path, finding your way back is much easier since you can follow your own footsteps.
We learned this the hard way attempting to find several waterfalls in the Tatamagouche/Wentworth area—and failing—that were on trails that were unmarked.
All of the trails referenced in this post are well marked and suitable for winter hiking or snowshoeing.
In addition to comfort, safety is key. You may be hiking/snowshoeing in an area without cell reception, so it’s important to be proactive. For example:
- Choose a realistic distance. If there’s snow on the ground, hiking and snowshoeing becomes more challenging and it takes more energy and time to cover the same distances you’re accustomed to without the resistance of snow. Additionally, it’s a good idea to carry water and balanced snacks like a protein bar or nuts since you’ll be expanding lots of energy.
- Be aware of daylight. This has snuck up on us before since the sun sets around 4:30pm in the winter. Get an early start so you’re not racing against time to get out before it’s dark.
- You may be sharing the trail / area with wildlife. While it’s unlikely that a wild animal will approach you, at the end of the day, you’re on their turf—so it’s important to be conscious of it. [Sidebar: On our last trip to Cape Breton, we decided not to follow through with hiking two trails because we were totally alone (no previous footsteps in the snow on the trails) without cell service, and saw fresh coyote tracks. After doing some research about coyote behavior, stats on attacks, and talking to other avid hikers, we were likely overly precautious. Statistically speaking, the chances of being attacked and killed by coyotes is extremely low. The funny thing about winter is that you can see clear tracks in the snow, whereas in other seasons, there would be no trace and we likely would have proceeded (plus the trails would have been in more regular use by other humans, upping the safety factor)]. In any case, best practices include:
- Go with a buddy or buddies
- Talk / make noise so animals can hear you coming
- Find a large walking stick; if you’re snowshoeing you’ll have poles
- I carry a little pepper spray in my backpack as an extra precaution
For anyone reading who has been craving some adventure and experiencing Nova Scotia’s hiking trails during winter, hopefully this post is the push you need to get started!