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- Difficulty: Moderate (Terrain, Distance).
- Facilities: None.
- Signage: None.
- Features: One of Halifax’s most scenic coastal hikes. Part of a sensitive nature reserve (tread lightly). Up to 8km return trip (3-4hrs).
- Habitat: Arctic Blueberry | Harbour Seal | Coastal Headland | More…
- Categories: #Coastal, #Lookoff, #Hiking, #NatureReserve, #Bird-Watching.
Videos: Duncan’s CoveHiking in Nova Scotia: Duncan's Cove
Duncan’s Cove Hiking Trail
Duncan’s Cove Nature Reserve is an unspoiled natural landscape that has some of the best soul-realigning coastal views Halifax Regional Municipality has to offer. It’s not an easy stroll in the park and is best suited for experienced hikers who come prepared and know what to expect from unmanaged wilderness trails. Its rugged trails and coastline are challenging, dangerous & exhilarating. You’ll be surrounded by rare coastal flora that adds splashes of colour to the rocky landscape. The area plays host to birds of many feathers, sunbathing seals, and you may even be blessed with a whale spotting. You’ll see international shipping traffic come and go from Halifax Harbour. Ships appear and disappear into the grand horizon of the open Atlantic Ocean in the backdrop to this artistic masterpiece of a landscape.
Duncan’s Cove is very photogenic. Like Peggy’s Cove, it’s easy to get a great picture here. It’s also very easy to find a spot of your own to take it all in. The most convenient aspect is that it’s only a 30-minute drive from downtown, though not directly accessible by public transit. The conveniences end there, as access requires careful considerations.
Parking & Trail Access
There is no parking lot, no proper trailhead, no facilities & no garbage removal services (pack out everything you take in, including used dog poop bags). This area calls for strict Leave No Trace outdoor ethics. Respect local residents by keeping noise levels down, not clogging the road, not crowding/blocking driveways, and avoiding illegally trespassing onto private land (see official boundaries). Parking is limited to one side of the already narrow roads. Keep an eye out for the numerous “no parking” signs, they’re there for a reason and you will be ticketed. At peak times (like nice weather on a weekend) this place will be jam-packed. You’ll see by all the pylons and signs that the situation has become a nightmare for locals. Carpool to reduce the overloaded parking strain, or consider another local #coastal hike during these peak times. Unfortunately, there is no public transportation servicing this area so it is not a #bus-accessible destination.
The most commonly used trailhead off of Gannett Lane is on private property. Gannett Lane is a private driveway, do not park on it, or anywhere in this area or you’ll be towed. Those who use Gannett Lane as an access point should know it’s private property and must respect that ethically and legally (obey all signs). For those reasons, I can’t recommend using Gannett Lane for access even though it’s a short 400m walk and then a sharp right off of the driveway into the woods (usually marked with a sign on a power pole). It’s easy to miss the sharp righthand turn off of the driveway onto the trail and instead end up walking to the end of the driveway and onto the front yard of someone’s house (do not do this). From Gannett Lane, the trail starts off quite muddy and splits into 2 branches. One branch heads toward the water, and one heads inland where there is some signage indicating you are now on Nature Reserve land. The inland portion will take you directly to the first lookout bunker, the coastal trail is considerably more rugged. Keep in mind this coastal section heads onto private property adjacent to a small cove, so don’t venture off to your left (refer to the map).
The only way into Duncan’s Cove without going up the private drive on Gannett Lane is to use a former ATV trail off of Chebucto Head Road, closer to Ketch Harbour Road. The trailhead is unmarked, has no parking, and is generally poor. The road is quite narrow here, so parking is again a problem. Stick to the same side as others so as to not narrow the road, and obey all no parking signs. This trail can be overgrown, extremely muddy, and wet to the point that rubber boots are recommended for short sections of it. There is no signage, and getting off track can send you onto private property, or trampling delicate ecosystems, so you’ll have to pay attention to where you’re going. This 2km trail runs through rocky, marshy, bushy coastal barrens terrain that is anything but barren from a botany perspective. This rugged & challenging trail suddenly gets quite marshy and wet as you approach the end of the trail where it meets the first lookout bunker. You may have to get creative with your puddle jumping, but always try to stay on the trail as every step off of it is damaging a delicate ecosystem. Once at the first lookout, you’re onto Duncan’s Cove proper where the Gannett Lane entrance also converges. From this point, you’re free to explore whichever direction.
Nova Scotia Coastal Beauty
Duncan’s Cove is one of Halifax’s top #coastal hikes, if not the most scenic. The astonishingly beautiful coastal barrens give way to rugged granite cliffs and crevices pounded by the vast Atlantic Ocean surf. Waves can be large and raucous or calm and peaceful on any given day. The coastline has wide-angle views of busy shipping lanes, with cruise ships, container ships, and other ocean-going vessels regularly coming and going. A #moderate-to-#difficult hike depending on how far you want to venture, the farthest end has steep drops requiring an abundance of caution.
When gazing toward the ocean, you’re likely to see sun-bathing seals, coastal birds, and even distant whales on occasion (a great place for binoculars and a zoom lens). The nature reserve is a coastal habitat rich in biodiversity. Deer have a literal field day snacking on the local greenery, flush with Arctic Blueberry in the summer months. Rare meat-eating pitcher plants thrive in the wet, boggy areas, as do an array of colourful wildflowers.
Late summer is an ideal time to do this hike, as it is warmer and drier compared to the rest of the year. In spring and summer, it takes on more colour as the grass, shrubs, flowers, and bushes lay a blanket of greenery over the rocky terrain. The cool ocean breeze can make temperatures significantly lower than the mainland so always bring an extra layer no matter what the season.
Sensitive Nature Reserve
Duncan’s Cove Nature Reserve encompasses 370 hectares of coastal headland, extending to nearby Chebucto Head. This large area of protected land and vast ocean view will have you struck by the scale of your surroundings. The openness of the barren terrain allows for sweeping views as well as easy navigating. Despite its open terrain, you should always stick to the main, well-established paths for your own sake and for the nature this area is meant to protect.
Since this is a nature reserve, not a park, it’s extremely important to follow “Leave No Trace” principles. Campfires are a huge no-no here or in any Nova Scotia #nature-reserves. The ultimate insult is piles of dog poop bags. Since this is not a park, there are no services like garbage cleanup & disposal. Bring a simple waste bag holder, & sealed container in your car for later disposal (peanut butter jar, etc.)
Rugged Wilderness Hike
Use extreme caution near the coastline and the later end of the trail where there are some dangerous drop-offs and tricky footing. Wet rocks combined with coastal surf can make for a dangerous situation if you’re careless. The trail isn’t a well-groomed leisurely stroll. It can also require varying degrees of rock scampering depending on your route. The trail is narrow, rugged, and extremely muddy in spots so wear proper footwear.
The trails are not designed or marked with maps or signage in any way throughout most of the hike. Some paths can lead off in different directions but the main trail will almost always be apparent as it is well-traveled. Avoid going off the main trails and hike single file along the narrow parts. Opt to travel on hard surfaces where possible to avoid disturbances to the fragile ecosystem. With proper footwear, you should be able to hike through the muddy spots without having to damage the surroundings. Taking wrong turns can lead you to stray onto private property, so consult the map to keep from doing so.
In addition to the amazing natural landscape, there are two crumbling ruins of WW2 era lookout bunkers along the way, and 2 lighthouses visible. In both cases one near the start and one at the end of the trail.
The first bunker is a camera-friendly graffiti canvas with a wide view of the coast. Roughly 1km from the main road, it’s the most visited part of the trail. The nearby Chebucto Head lighthouse is also visible during this first section of the trail.
The second bunker is in worse shape, bordering on unsafe, but has equally expansive views. The Sambro Lighthouse can be seen in the distance, in the opposite direction of the Chebucto Head lighthouse. At this point, you’ve reached the end of the trail and must turn back the same way you came. Thankfully, it’s a Great spot to take a breather.
Total hiking time is about 3 hours or 8km (to the end and back) along the linear, coastline trail. I recommend giving yourself 4 hours to do this trip properly because you are sure to make plenty of stops. With a perfect photo presenting itself every few feet, there’s always something begging to be framed.
The trail gets more challenging with more dangerous terrain the further you go, so make sure you’re up for it before deciding to tackle the entire length on your first visit. You’ll want to pack light if you intend on doing the entire length of the trail up and back. It’s not advisable to bring small children along on the full length of this hike due to some of the steep drop-offs from this point onward to the second lookout.
Coastal microclimates like this can change rapidly & don’t correspond to the weather conditions inland in the city. Expect much cooler temperatures, wind & unexpectedly fast changes in weather. Pack an extra layer for warmth regardless of the season, as well as a windbreaker. A sitting pad is a worthwhile luxury to bring to pad your butt from the hard granite.
This is a nature reserve first and foremost. Keep dogs on a leash & pack out what you pack in (including used dog poop bags) as there are no garbage cans. An empty peanut butter jar is good to keep in your car for storing used poop bags for just such occasions, which are often the norm. Plant foraging & open fires are both strict no-no’s. I highly recommend investing in a lightweight backpacking stove as a much-preferable alternative.
Don’t play it close with the ocean surf. A rogue wave, an unexpectedly slippery rock, or an unstable ledge can result in a dangerous fall into the ocean. Being extra cautious near the water is always advisable on all #coastal hikes.
Wear sturdy, waterproof hiking boots. The trail will be muddy & rugged. In these bushy, coastal barrens landscapes I prefer wearing knee-high socks and/or hiking gaiters to shield my shins & keep twigs, pebbles & insects out of my boots. Ticks are less of a problem on these coastal hikes, but certainly not unheard of. Practice basic tick avoidance with regular checks, and always have a tick remover on hand.