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Difficulty: #Moderate (Distance, Terrain).
Setting: Sand Beach, Rugged Coastal Peninsula, Cliffs, Forest.
Facilities: Parking, Benches and Toilets.
Signage: Minimal & Adequate.
7.5km return-trip, looped peninsula trail.
Huge 3km sand #beach, one of the best in the province.
Scenic, rugged hiking, almost equal parts inland, and #coastal.
Gaff Point Trail
Gaff Point hiking trail and Hirtles Beach is a 1h40min drive from downtown Halifax, 20-minutes from the scenic town of Lunenburg. It’s only 15 minutes from another popular outdoor activity destination: the Ovens Natural Park & Campground, a great place to camp if you’re looking to stay overnight in the area. The parking lot is relatively small, and often overflowing onto the access road. On a nice summer day, it’s best to get there early.
As soon as you get out of the car at Hirtles Beach, you’ll be struck with the feeling you’re walking around inside of a painting. Walking down the boardwalk with each plank inscribed with names of supporters, I entered onto the beach. At low tide, the sand stretched for such a distance in all directions, that it was an immediate moment of awe. It’s not often a place that you’ve been wanting to see for years actually lives up to its extremely high expectations, but Hirtles Beach and Gaff Point certainly did. Much like Taylor Head Provincial Park, Gaff Point is full of astonishing coastal scenery.
A Day At The Beach
The Gaff Point hike starts out on stunningly beautiful Hirtles Beach. A 3km long, wide sandy beach. Like Crystal Crescent, and Taylor Head Provincial Park, the beach alone can satisfy the entirety of your visit, or it can be the beginning and end to a hike that is worth every step.
Ideally, you’ll want to plan your hike along the beach during low tide, to be able to walk on the sand rather than loose beach rocks for 1.5km to the trailhead (shoutout to @marleigh60 for reminding me of that tip).
Though the entire hike can be done in 2 hours, I highly recommend leaving plenty of extra time to enjoy the scenery. Taking time to relax on the beach, post-hike is a must in Summer. Any extra hour you can afford to spend here is an hour well spent.
Gaff Point Hiking Trail
The Gaff Point hike starts out on stunningly beautiful Hirtles Beach. A 3km long wide, sand beach. You’ll hike 1.5km’s of it to reach the trailhead at Gaff Point, the peninsula visible in the distance. As you stroll along the beach you may feel a little over-dressed, but the 4km peninsula trail is certainly not something you want to do in flip-flops. Signs at the trailhead warn of ticks, so you’re well-advised to take precautions and not hike in your beach attire.
The trailhead is a bit easy to miss, as you have to take a sharp right off of the beach into the forested area, rather than continuing to the end of the beach (all marked on the trail map above). Marked with a couple of information panels about the trail courtesy of the Nova Scotia Nature Trust, Nature Conservancy of Canada and Kingsburg Coastal Conservancy who are credited for protecting and sharing this gem with the public. These organizations are worthy of your appreciative support.
After 400m of the scenic forested trail, you’ll reach a clearing atop a sheer cliff on one side, and a small path leading to Grabble Cove on the other side. On the Grabble Cove side are trails that lead to Sandy Cove, a secluded and moderately difficult off-trail destination involving ropes and rock climbing. Known as the “secret beach”, it’s not marked on official maps (I didn’t visit it on this occasion, and caution is advised if you do).
Continuing down the center, along the main trail for another 400m you’ll reach a fork in the trail. This is where you will choose to do the loop in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction. Clockwise will take you along the coast for the first half of the hike, counter-clockwise will be along the inland forested trail for the first half. A decision that is entirely personal preference and weather dependent. I was happy with my clockwise decision as the summer heat was at its peak while we hiked the coast, and cooled off as we entered the sheltered inland side of the trail.
Further along the clockwise loop, you’ll reach a look-off with a wooden platform look-off overlooking a very steep actively eroding cliff. Exercise extreme caution near the edge, as it could crumble and give way at any moment. A great place to stop for a break, we watched ocean kayakers exploring the peninsula from the water as we enjoyed a cold drink from my trusty Ice Mule Cooler.
As you continue the hike, you’ll head out of the sheltered forested trail, onto rugged coastal sections. Temperatures can dip and the wind can really pick up as you head toward the exposed tip of the peninsula (absolutely ideal on this hot summer day). You’ll see wild West Ironbound Island and an abundance of sea birds and other ocean-going wildlife as you circle the tip of the peninsula.
The tip of the peninsula has considerably more surf and wind, as well as an abundance of scenery. Near the middle of the point and halfway through the hike lies William F. Schwartz Memorial Point, dedicated in 2004 to former Chair of the National Board of the Nature Conservancy of Canada. The memorial plaque is a fitting tribute to Mr. Schwartz, as is all of Gaff Point a tribute to everyone involved in its preservation.
Finishing off the looped portion of the trail, after spending plenty of time checking out the scenic point, the trail heads back into the woods and becomes much more sheltered. These wooded sections of the trail are often lined with old, weathered log pathways, that can give way to muddy patches.
The inland trails are full of greenery along a procession of evergreens draped in old man’s beard, and plenty of places to ‘stop to smell the roses’. Seemingly every time I stopped to take a photo, I noticed a Ladyslipper out of the corner of my eye, waiting for its closeup. These endangered wildflowers are rare (don’t touch, it’s the law!), so count yourself lucky to be able to have such an opportunity.
The looped trail continues through the sheltered woodlands until you complete the loop and retrace the trail back to the beach. At this point I was thankful I left plenty of time to relax on the beach in 5-star comfort with my new Inflatable Lounger and the contents of the cooler I had waiting in the car. I thoroughly enjoyed bathing in a warm sunset before heading back to Halifax for the night.
Gaff Point is one of the most memorable, photo-rich, soul-restoring outings Nova Scotia has to offer. This trail was one of the most fulfilling hikes I’ve done recently. Blessed with great Summer weather, it was easily done with no worries. The hike was reminiscent of Taylor Head Provincial Park, and similar in many ways. This smaller, southern shore version of that eastern shore gem has much of the same magnificence, packed into a smaller peninsula without skimping on the beach. Of all the amazing #coastal trails Nova Scotia has to offer, it’s impossible say which ones are the best, but Gaff Point is always high on the list in that conversation.
The hike does require standard hiking preparation to ensure you’ll be safe and comfortable. You’ll want to be ready for rapidly changing coastal temperatures, wind, and weather conditions. Pack extra layers and wear sturdy, rock-gripping hiking footwear to comfortably hike the varied terrain. When taking a dip on any hike, you should opt for an easy to carry, quick-drying, compact, lightweight towel that you can easily stick in your backpack. Especially during warmer months, the lack of shade through much of the hike makes sunscreen a must.
Be mindful of ticks during any hike in Nova Scotia. Always pack a ticker remover and do your best to avoid them. Minimize exposed skin, stay on the trail, and avoid contact with tall grass and brush. A thorough post-hike head-to-toe check is most important of all.
Getting lost isn’t a concern if you stick to the trail, but the sheer cliffs and rocky coastline have plenty of dangers. Stepping mindfully, keeping a distance from eroding edges, and avoiding wet rocks are rules of thumb.