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Difficulty: Moderate-Difficult (Distance/Terrain).
Setting: Forest, Lakes, Granite Barrens.
Facilities: Parking, bike rack, and garbage cans at the trailhead.
Signage: Info kiosk at the trailhead, periodic maps, and trail markings throughout.
Features: Challenging #Backcountry hiking trails for experienced hikers. 4 stacked loops (~4hours each) for full-day and multi-day adventures. Directly accessible from the BLT Rails-To-Trails.
The Bluff Wilderness Trail
Parking & Access
Access to the Bluff Wilderness Trail begins in a large, but easy to miss parking area adjacent to Bay Self Storage in Timberlea. Often verging on full during peak times, its best to come early to assure yourself a spot. From the top of the parking lot you’ll enter directly onto the BLT Trail where you’ll head to the right for 500m until it meets Cranberry Lake.
Planning & Preparation
Everything along the trail is well marked & maintained with corresponding colour coded trail markers throughout. You shouldn’t get off course if you’re paying full attention, but it is certainly possible. A large map and info are posted at the trailhead (take a photo for reference) with others placed sparingly at key junctures. Signs warn of wildlife encounters as the large area is home to black bear, moose, and coyotes, most of which are commonly avoided by making your presence heard.
These trails are intended for experienced hikers and as such, you should carry a printed map, compass, and basic survival gear. Your first major decision will be which of the 4 stacked loops you would like to tackle. This decision should be based on how much time/daylight you have, as well as your experience and physical condition. Keep in mind that a kilometer along this rugged terrain takes significantly longer than a kilometer along a typical hiking trail. Naturally rugged and uneven, it demands your careful attention. Stretch (with extra attention on calves & Achilles tendon), warm-up, and stay hydrated to avoid injury as even small ones can turn into big problems when #backcountry hiking.
Rugged Backcountry Hiking Trails
The most popular route is, of course, the Pot Lake Loop as it’s the shortest, but by no means a simple stroll. All of the trails are in parts extremely rugged, steep, muddy, uneven, slippery, dense and rocky hence the “Wilderness” part of the Bluff Wilderness Trail. These varying aspects are exactly why it’s so appealing to experienced hikers. Come prepared for an authentically rugged wilderness hike on any of its 4 loops.
1) Pot Lake Loop
The shortest is the 7km return trip Pot Lake Loop which takes around 3-4 hours (3 for exercise and 4+ at a photographer’s pace). A delightfully rugged trail with plenty of dips and climbs to keep your blood pumping (view elevation profile).
From the parking lot, you’ll walk a half kilometer along the BLT Rails-To-Trails through a highway underpass shortly after which is the Bluff Wilderness trailhead. The Pot Lake Loop Trail begins with an easy stroll along its aesthetically pleasing 100m boardwalk which combined allows for plenty of distance to get warmed up for the rest of the hike.
The first half of the trail has a couple of great views of Cranberry Lake as you make your way through the rocky forest terrain. The geologic landscape throws plenty of great scenery at you, just be mindful that safe footing begs your attention. The crowning masterpiece of the trail is the elevated clearing at the far end of the loop. One of the best scenes in all of the Halifax Regional Municipality (especially inautumn), makes the challenging hike worth every well-earned step, so plan on spending lots of time taking it in while recharging for the second half of your hike.
The second half of the loop is dense with peaceful forest scenery pulled straight from the pages of a whimsical storybook. You’ll trek through mixed forest offering a kaleidoscope of scenery that keeps things interesting throughout. This part of the trail doesn’t have many views of the lake and you’ll come to the shoreline at only one point, so be sure to make a stop to check it out.
2) Mi’kmaq Hill Loop
Next is the Mi’kmaq Hill Loop which is a 14.5km return trip, or around 7-8 hours. Starting from the previously mentioned far end of the Pot Lake Loop, descending downhill towards a small pond, referred to as “the puddle“. The trail continues through dense rocky terrain until reaching an open, elevated area with your first views of Frederick Lake in the distance.
As you near the lake you’ll come upon 2 “leave no trace” approved campsites. The first is known as “Coyote/U’lukwej” and the site closer to the lake is known as “Crow/Ka’qaquj” (read further below for camping restrictions and regulations). This loop is also accessible via paddling on Frederick Lake (see map).
From this point on I can’t offer any great insights as you’ll be venturing into the unknown (to me), and to me, venturing (preparedly) into the unknown is the most fun part of any trip.
3) The Bluff Loop
The Bluff Loop is a 20.5km return trip into remote wilderness. Another leave no trace camping site known as “Squirrel/Atutuwej” lies at the mid-point of the trail. Venturing into these further back loops requires considerable preparation and conditioning, so make sure to take all safety precautions. A satellite communicator should be something you own if you’re into these kinds of adventures.
4) Hay Marsh Loop
The Hay Marsh Loop is the longest route with a 28km return trip. Choosing to do this route involves a full 2-day hike from the parking lot. This farthest back loop can also be accessed by a series of natural portages from nearby lakes (see map). Along the portage trail from Upper Five Bridge Lake is the final Leave No Trace Campsite known as “Moose/Tia’m”.
Leave No Trace Camping Sites
Camping is discouraged, but legal. Refer to the map for the 4 approved leave no trace campsites. Campfires are not allowed, so bring a camp stove. If you’re looking for somewhere more geared towards traditional camping check out these suggestions instead.
The trails are a top-notch #backcountry hiking destination due to its thoughtful design and maintenance by volunteers with the Woodens River Watershed Environmental Organization. This group of volunteers maintain, monitor and educate. All of the things that make this trail as popular as it is are because of these volunteers. Becoming a member and/or donating any amount goes a long way to show your appreciation. 1km into the trail, the WRWEO have placed a notepad for you to leave valuable feedback, so do them a favour and fill it out on your way out.
Not only is it a popular hiking destination, but also a place for #paddling and #swimming with multiple access points. In winter, Cranberry Lake is a great place for a skate, or to walk along as a shortcut with unique perspectives. The diverse array of landscapes from rocky bluffs to un-spoiled green marshland make it a great place to explore by any means.
During Hunting season (End of October-beginning of December) you should make yourself visible by wearing hunters orange. It’s always wise to be aware of your surroundings as bears, coyotes and even moose have been known to make an occasional appearance. You can gain extra peace of mind by carrying a bear bell or pepper spray when venturing into any remote area in Nova Scotia.
Wilderness Trails Done Right
The Bluff Wilderness Trail is perhaps the best example of a trail system done right. With multiple trails and hike lengths to choose from, and its location so close to the city, The Bluff Trail is a must for novice and experienced hikers alike. Choose your loop distance wisely and you’ll have a great wilderness experience and a workout that no gym can offer.
Bluff Wilderness Trail Habitat:
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