Enjoying the splendour of the Greenwich dunes
By Dale Dunlop
Prince Edward Island National Park dates all the way back to 1937 when the federal government acquired a relatively small amount of land in the Cavendish area and created Atlantic Canada’s second national park. The principal attraction was a large expanse of sand dunes and beach on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with relatively warm waters suitable for swimming; and in later years, body surfing, sailboarding and even kite surfing. In addition, there was the fabled Anne of Green Gables House, and in 1939 the opening of a golf course by legendary Canadian golf architect Stanley Thompson.
The park had what at the time was thought to be “something for everybody” and that was true—as Cavendish became one of the most popular vacation spots in Canada. One might fairly call it the Niagara Falls of Atlantic Canada. Then, as thinking evolved about what a national park should and should not be, Parks Canada realized that something was missing on PEI—the essential wildness and sense of nature that is integral to the preservation motif behind all parks. Instead of trying to change the character of the existing park they did something better.
In 1998 Parks Canada acquired a completely separate parcel of land on St. Peter’s Bay, Greenwich Point, which contained the largest and best-preserved dune system on the island. Since that time a large interpretive centre, an extensive trail system with an amazing floating boardwalk and access to many kilometres of often-deserted beach have made Greenwich Dunes a must-visit attraction on the island.
The starting point for a visit is the Interpretive Centre, not far from the village of St. Peter’s. Here you can buy a day pass and learn the natural history of the Greenwich Dunes area, including the fact that it is a parabolic dune system, quite different and more rare than those at Cavendish.
From the Interpretive Centre a boardwalk leads to the dunes and the beach. On the day I visited in August 2020, it was completely deserted and I could not see another soul in any direction.
After spending as much time as you want on the beach or in the water, it’s time to do some hiking. There are three trails at Greenwich Dunes and they all start from a parking lot at the end of a dead end road not far from the Interpretive Centre. It’s quite possible to hike all three in a day visit.
The Havre St. Pierre trail is a nice rectangular warm-up hike that follows the shoreline of St. Peter’s Bay before returning to the parking through fields that were ablaze with fireweed in mid-August. On this trail you will learn the history of Havre St. Pierre, which in the 1700s was the largest European settlement on the island, at that time known as Ile St. Jean.
While most people know of the expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia, I had no idea that 3,000 Acadians were deported to England from here in 1758; of whom almost half perished on the voyages.
The second trail is Tlaqatik, a Mi’kmaw word for “campsite” and it references the fact that Indigenous people have been visiting this area on a seasonal basis for thousands of years. This trail is a 4.8-kilometre loop that features open grassland, forest and the lee side of the huge dunes that are the principal feature of the area. The portion near the dunes is a boardwalk that protects this fragile environment from the type of damage that formerly occurred at Cavendish when people and their pets roamed freely over the area.
The third trail is the star of Prince Edward Island National Park, Greenwich Dunes. Chances are you will recognize the dramatic landscape from the promotional advertising that the province has been using in recent years. This is the trail with the floating boardwalk that has rapidly become famous and a magnet for people of all ages. Unlike the dunes near the Interpretive Centre, this section of the park is very popular, especially with families. Other than the start and end of this trail, most of it is perfectly suitable for strollers.
The trail is linear and listed as 4.8 km. out and back although in truth, because it is so interesting it hardly seemed that long. It starts out with a short trek through the forest to a stationary boardwalk that then becomes a floating one as it traverses the marsh between the coastal dunes and the forest. The scenery is simply marvelous and the sensation of movement on the floating boardwalk is like being on a ship.
At the end of the floating boardwalk there is a narrow path that leads up and over the dunes to the beach where you will be rewarded with great views in all directions. Don’t forget to have your camera ready for pictures.