The sandy beaches, dunes, sandstone cliffs, marshes, and forestlands of Prince Edward Island National Park represent the island as it once was, unspoiled by 20th-century development.
The park protects a slender 40-kilometer-long coastal slice of natural perfection extending almost the full length of Queens County, as well as a six-square-kilometer spit of land farther east, near Greenwich on the North Shore of eastern Prince Edward Island. The park also extends inland at Cavendish to include Green Gables Heritage Place and Green Gables Golf Course. The main body of the park is book-ended by two large bays. At the eastern end, Tracadie Bay spreads out like an oversize pond with shimmering waters. Forty kilometers to the west, New London Bay forms almost a mirror image of the eastern end. In between, long barrier islands define Rustico and Covehead Bays, and sand dunes webbed with marram grass, rushes, fragrant bayberry, and wild roses front the coastline.
Sunrise and sunset here are cast in glowing colors. All along the gulf at sunrise, the beaches have a sense of primeval peacefulness, their sands textured like herringbone by the overnight sea breezes.
Things to Do
The national park was established in 1937 to protect the fragile dunes along the Gulf of St. Lawrence and cultural features such as Green Gables Heritage Place. Parks Canada walks a fine line, balancing environmental concerns with the responsibilities of hosting half a million park visitors a year. Boardwalks route visitors through dunes to the beaches and preserve the fragile landscape.
Bird-watchers will be amply rewarded with sightings of some of the more than 100 species known to frequent the park. Brackley Marsh, Orby Head, and the Rustico Island Causeway are good places to start. The park preserves nesting habitat for some 25 pairs of endangered piping plovers—small, shy shorebirds that arrive in early April to breed in flat sandy areas near the high-tide line. Some beaches may be closed in spring and summer when the plovers are nesting; it’s vital to the birds’ survival that visitors stay clear of these areas.
The park’s unbroken stretches of sandy beaches—some white, others tinted pink by iron oxide—are among the best in Atlantic Canada. On warm summer days, droves of sunbathers laze on the shore and swim in the usually gentle surf. The busier beaches have a lifeguard on duty, but always be aware of undertows.
Stanhope Beach, opposite the campground, is wide and flat and remains relatively busy throughout summer. Next up to the east, Brackley Beach is backed by higher sand dunes. The adjacent visitor center has changing rooms and a snack bar. Cavendish Beach is the busiest of all; those toward Orby Head are backed by steep red-sandstone cliffs.
Established hiking trails range from the 0.5-kilometer wheelchair-accessible Reeds and Rushes Trail, beginning at the Dalvay Administration Building near Grand Tracadie, to the 8-kilometer Homestead Trail beginning near the entrance to Cavendish Campground. The latter wends inland alongside freshwater ponds and through woods and marshes and is open to both hikers and bikers. Be wary of potentially hazardous cliff edges and of the poison ivy and ticks that lurk in the ground cover.
If you’d like to learn more about the park’s ecology, join one of the nature walks led by Parks Canada rangers. The treks lead through white spruce stunted by winter storms and winds, to freshwater ponds, and into the habitats of such native animal species as red fox, northern phalarope, Swainson’s thrush, and junco.
The park’s two campgrounds are distinctly different from one another. A percentage of sites can be reserved through the Parks Canada Campground Reservation Service (877/737-3783) for $11 per reservation. During July and August, especially for weekends, reservations are recommended. The remaining sites are offered on a first-come, first-served basis.
Stanhope Campground (north of Stanhope; early June-early Oct.) is across the road from the ocean and has 95 unserviced sites ($28), 16 sites with two-way hookups ($33), and 14 sites with full hookups ($36). Amenities include showers, a playground, a grocery store, laundry facilities, and wooded tent sites.
Closest to Cavendish and the center of the park’s summer interpretive program is Cavendish Campground (early June-early Oct.). This, the most popular of the park’s campgrounds, has 230 unserviced sites ($28) and 78 hookup sites ($36). Campground facilities include a grocery store, kitchen shelters, launderettes, flush toilets, and hot showers.
Getting There and Around
Getting around is easy. Route 6 lies on the park’s inland side, connecting numerous park entrances along a 12-kilometer stretch between Cavendish and North Rustico, and the Gulf Shore Parkway runs along the coast nearly the park’s entire length with four access points. You can drive through the park year-round. Cyclists will appreciate the smooth wide shoulders and light traffic along the Gulf Shore Parkway.
The closest entrance to Charlottetown is at North Rustico, 30 kilometers (30 minutes) north of the capital along Routes 2, 7, and 6. Continuing north for four kilometers from North Rustico you can access the park along Cape Road. This access point is 34 kilometers (32 minutes) north of Charlottetown via Routes 2, 7, and then 6. The main park entrance is at Cavendish, 40 kilometers (40 minutes) north of Charlottetown via Routes 2 and 13. Less than one kilometer west of this entrance is Grahams Lane, which leads to the park’s most popular beach. This access point is 41 kilometers (40 minutes) north of Charlottetown via Routes 2 and 13 to Cavendish and then west on Route 6.
The main Cavendish Visitor Information Centre (902/672-6350; mid-May-mid-Oct. daily 9am-5pm, July-Aug. daily 8am-9pm) is combined with the province’s Visitor Information Centre, 50 meters north of the Route 6 and Route 13 intersection in Cavendish. As well as offering general park information, displays depict the park’s natural history and a small shop sells park-related literature and souvenirs. Another source of information is Parks Canada.
Between early June and mid-September, a one-day pass is adult $8, senior $7, child $4, to a maximum of $16 per vehicle. Before purchasing a pass, check with your Cavendish accommodation, as some local lodgings include a park pass in their rates.