Saguenay Fiord Trail

Getting There

The beautiful sunny day we spent in Quebec City seemed to have been an aberration. By the time we left next morning, it was grey and drizzling again. Our GPS guided us out through the maze of interconnecting autoroutes that ring the city and on to the northern road to Chicoutimi at the far end of Saguenay Fiord.

Silo in autumn

Covered bridge on the Ste Marguerite River

Coastal autumn colours

The autumn colours were particularly showy as we passed the hills of Parc National Jacques Cartier, lighting up a dull day. As we progressed northwards, things gradually reversed – the foliage colours turned to a more monotone green of conifer forest, but the sun broke through and the rain cleared.

The red autumn foliage of Parque National Jacques Cartier ...

... and the yellows of Saguenay

We had a bite of lunch overlooking the fiord to Chicoutimi and then headed off eastwards, following the fiord towards our destination of Tadoussac. The deciduous forests along this stretch were again spectacular, at first a riot of red and orange shades, and then as we headed up the valley of the Sainte Marguerite River, the yellows kicked in. Unfortunately, the good weather was left behind at Chicoutimi and by the time we checked in to our quirky hostel at Tadoussac, the rain had returned.

Golden birch in the dunes of Tadoussac

National Park headquarters - Tadoussac

Dune foliage and the St Lawrence River

You can only sit around a warm common room for so long, so late in the afternoon, we put on our rain gear and headed out for a short walk in the sand dunes of Tadoussac on the edge of the now very wide St Lawrence River. It was good to feel the fresh cold air, as we admired the strange (for us) sight of golden-hued birches growing on these large seaside dunes. Given the forecast, it was a feeling that we might need to get used to when we set out on our fiord hike tomorrow.

Baie Ste Marguerite to Refuge Anse de la Barge (4.5km - 50m ascent – 40m descent)

The hostel people arranged a shuttle to take us from Tadoussac to the start of the walk at Baie-Sainte-Marguerite. We only headed off at mid-day because the distance from the trailhead to our first refuge was very short. Probably just as well, as the rain had been falling since early morning. However, by the time we reached Baie-Sainte-Marguerite, the rain had reverted to a fine “scotch mist” - barely perceptible, which was a big improvement from the forecast of rain periods all day long. I am not sure which is more frustrating – the fickleness of the weather here or the fickleness of the weather forecasting.

Anyway, we didn't complain with our somewhat improved meteorological lot. After a bite of lunch in the warmth of the National Parks Visitor Centre looking out over the bay framed by yellow-tinted forest, we set off on the Sentier du Fjord, albeit today's walk was a very short stroll to the first refuge. The temperature was crisp, but we could walk without our wet weather gear.

Trailhead at Baie Ste-Marguerite

Heading off on the Fiord Trail

The track headed quickly down to the Sainte-Marguerite River, which we crossed on a very new suspension bridge. It felt solid without losing its rhythmic sway when you crossed it. This brought us to a wide gravel path that headed off alongside the river. Even though the day was still bleakly grey, the colour of the golden-leafed birches overhanging the path brightened it up. With every gust of wind, a few more leaves floated down to add to the soft leafy mat on the path. We were enjoying this much more than we would have thought when we first looked out of the hostel window.

The track was part of an old settlers' road and we found ourselves walking through the area that once housed the village of Baie-Sainte-Marguerite, in the early 20th century a thriving timber town. Little remains, apart from a few remnants of rusting metal and the stone foundations of the sawmill, now overgrown by new trees (final score – forest 2, timber cutters 1).

Suspension bridge on the Ste-Marguerite River

Mouth of the Rivière Ste-Marguerite

Out to our right, the river flowed out into the bay, framed by tall cliffs that marked where it indented from the Saguenay Fiord. The line of cliffs, and the fiord itself, receded mistily into the distance.

Track lined with autumn gold

At the end of the bay, we deviated to wander down to the sandy beach at La Pointe-du-Moulin – the sight of golden deciduous trees growing on the beach was both beautiful and disorienting. I have trouble associating the two.

Cabins near Pointe du Moulin

The beach at Pointe du Moulin

Headland pines

Pine needles with beluga

Continuing on, we reached a long wooden boardwalk that took us out through the headland pines to a look-out, La Halte de Belugas. Saguenay Fiord is famous for being home to pods of these small (~4m) white whales and this section is a hot spot for seeing them.

View up the misty fiord

At La Halte de Belugas viewing platform

Even on a cold grey day the spot was hot, white hot in fact, as way out in the middle of the fiord we could see the distinctive white shapes of belugas rising to breathe and diving again. The game became spot the white spots before they disappeared – belugas don't remain long on the surface and don't always blow.

Zooming in on a pod of belugas

We stayed until we started to get a bit chilled – it was time to move again. Retracing our steps back up the boardwalk, we continued on half a kilometre on a narrow muddy footpath through the forest to our first refuge, Anse de la Barge. We had no idea what these refuges would be like, so when we saw it we gave a collective “wow”. It was one of the best refuges we have stayed in on a walk – built up above the rocks of a cliff-backed point, surrounded by a wooden deck and whispering pines, it had six 2-bed rooms, a large eating area, wood stove for heating and double-glazed windows.

The refuge at Anse de la Barge

Looking over the Anse de la Barge

Even better, it had its own private beluga-viewing and we sat on the deck watching a pod of 5 or 6 cavorting in the distance. We had time to explore the beautiful setting, heading down to the rocks to listen to the soothing lapping of the wavelets where a lone fur seal stopped briefly to check us out before swimming on past, and then on to a small cove, scattered with driftwood, from where we could look down the misty fiord. A flock of ducks skimmed low across the water and a V-shaped flight of honking Canada geese passed by high overhead. Life on the fiord rolled on.

Fur seal .....

...Canada geese heading south ...

.... and forest birds

The fiord from just below our refuge

Evening was slowly falling and a fog was building up around us – it was time to chop up some kindling and light the wood-stove. What a great spot it was and we had it all to ourselves. I'm sure that I saw some other names when I registered at the Park Entry, but perhaps they were put off by the weather forecast.

Outside the predicted rain was finally falling, but here in the refuge we were cosy and well-fed. Sometimes bleak is beautiful.

Interior of the refuge

Refuge Anse de la Barge to Refuge Anse Creuse (15km - 520m ascent – 520m descent)

It rained most of the night – that steady soaking rain that gardeners love. By morning it was gone and the air was clear. We were still under cloud, but the dark grey menace had disappeared. The tide was out and had sucked the water out of the little coves on each side of our refuge, leaving behind rocks and a mat of wet sea-weed. The belugas were nowhere to be seen – oh well, small whales, big fiord.

We had our breakfast looking out the full-length windows, watching a squirrel leaping from pine to pine and the wisps of low cloud curling over the ridge-tops on the far side of the fiord. We could easily have spent another day here. However, we took the harder option, loaded our packs and set out, retracing our steps to the junction that led up onto the misty ridge and began the climb.

As we did so, we breathed the rich scents of a wet forest, heading steadily up through the conifers that dominate the steep-sided slopes of the fiord, a scattering of deciduous yellow and the rarer orange adding a touch of colour.

Morning mists over Saguenay

Heading off into the forest

With the high humidity, it didn't take long to work up a sweat and we were quickly down to tee-shirts as we entered the mists still swirling around the ridge. The forest seemed full of small chirping birds, more so than anywhere else we had walked in Canada, and a couple of grouse scurried across the path ahead of us.

.... that's how the light gets in

Above us the sun was trying to break through, while below the fog shrouded any views of the fiord and Ile Saint Louis. We pressed on, now following a loose contour of ups and downs as we wound our way through dense thickets of low-growing conifers high up on the slope.

Conifer forest on the ridge-top

The mist still hanging over the fiord

A forest stream

The ugly side of the walk

Suddenly I saw light ahead and we emerged on to a broad treeless meadow on the crest of the ridge. Above it stood a row of what looked like Martian terminators from “War of the Worlds”. However, they were but the giant pylons holding up one end of high voltage lines that looped low across the fiord to another set of massive pylons on the other side – impressive technology, ugly aesthetics. Still, a clearing meant uninterrupted views and, with the sun finally breaking up the mists, these were real views – looking down over the blue water and gold-spattered walls of Saguenay.

View over the fiord from the pylons

In a mist even ugly can be beautiful

Wisps of mist and autumn colour

An open section of pine on the ridge edge

A stream in the deeper forest

Broad-leaf forest near the pylons

Cloud play over Saguenay

We crossed the meadow and another patch of forest, then back under a second set of high voltage lines before re-entering the forest yet again. The forest here though was more open, with large areas of shrubby autumn-red understorey and patches of bare rock, offering tree-filtered views down over the fiord and the play of mists about its edges.

Gradually heading inland, we reached the brand new and sweetly cedar-scented Abri des Cendres, a 3-sided shelter and pleasant place to have a break.

Mossy path in the interior

Lunch at the Relais des Cendres

From the shelter, we descended quickly and steeply into a deep gully, climbing out equally steeply to gain the high slope on its far side and one of the best views of the day. Thus began a long and stepped descent along this ridge, across areas of bare rock and pine, beneath dark and mossy floored conifer thickets, past the occasional glowing yellow and red foliage of broad-leafed trees, glimpses of sunlit water far below, all on a rocky and root-gnarly track. The roots were slippery with the night's rain, but luckily the rocks had grip.

Glimpses of the fiord through the trees

View back over the Anse des Mouches

View south down the fiord

Autumn colour on the cliff face

The mossy surrounds of a forest stream

Descending towards Anse a Pierrot

Suddenly, we emerged on to a wide muddy road that had recently been bull-dozed through the forest near Anse a Pierrot. We had left the National Park and were obliged to walk along this ugly scar to cross private land – signage welcomed us to “La ferme a 5 Etoiles”. I'm not sure what they got five stars for, but it wasn't environmental awareness.

View over the coastal forest

We left the road when it headed on to the farmhouse, but were now obliged to head inland to skirt the fields of the farm before doubling back on its far perimeter. I guess that the open terrain here gave us some views of the Saguenay hinterland that we might not otherwise have seen.

The fair Nello crossing a field

Bypassing a bit of farmland before Anse de Roche

On leaving the farm, we had to walk along the asphalt road through the commune of Anse de Roche. At least, we thought, there is a beach at the end of the road and it will be a fine place for lunch – wrong, all the waterfront was privately owned and there was no room in the inn for a pair of hungry walkers. Instead, we had to continue on the road as it now climbed back up to the high rim of the fiord. Looking back, we were surprised to see a large cruise ship steaming down the fiord towards the St Lawrence. We imagined the passengers lined up on the railings, cocktails in hand, watching us climb. I tipped my hat and headed on. Finally, we re-entered the Park and found ourselves a nice dry outcrop of rocks with filtered views of the fiord, sat down and had a very late lunch.

Cruise ship on its way down the fiord

The clmb up from Anse de Roche

Looking back towards Anse des Mouches

Gold and silver in the forest

It was only a couple of kilometres between our lunch stop and the next refuge. We again skirted the slopes that looked down through the trees to the water far below, before dropping down to cross the creek flowing into Anse Creuse. A little further on, we emerged on to an open rocky knoll above the inlet and there was our refuge, every bit as nice as the first. The views form the eating area and deck were glorious, looking up the length of Saguenay Fiord and its tree-fringed cliffs.

The refuge at Anse Creuse

View from the refuge - glorious!

Looking north from the refuge at Anse Creuse

Saguenay in gold and blue

The only downside was water – the rainwater tank had disappeared and the only source - the stream we had just crossed – was still carrying a bit of sediment from the heavy rain of last night. Still, we had our puritabs and it tasted fine.

Four loons and a duck

Afternoon sun illuminating the rocks

Late afternoon at Anse Creuse

We were both pretty tired as the rocks and uneven track had been hard on feet and legs, if not on lungs. This was the perfect place to recuperate, with its million-dollar views of the fiord and, again, we had the place to ourselves.

The belugas seemed to have gone elsewhere, but some loons paid us a visit and we were treated to the sight of a passing Minke whale. In fact, it was so close that we heard it blow before we saw it, heading south on a mission – one quick loop out of the water and away. The Saguenay Fiord is indeed a special place.

Refuge Anse Creuse to Refuge Anse de la Boule (13km - 470m ascent – 300m descent)

We started the day with a rare luxury on a hiking trip – a cup of tea in bed. Then followed breakfast, watching a Minke whale cruising slowly past the windows of our refuge, leaving large smooth circles in an otherwise wind-rippled water surface. We could have stayed another day.

Morning view of the fiord from Anse Creuse

Minke whale .....

... passing by

Back into the mossy forest

We didn't – the sun was shining and today's walk was shorter. We set off, quickly picking up the track heading east through the dense and shady conifer thickets, and then climbed up to the rocky pine woodland that typifies the slopes facing the fiord. We soon arrived at a large rock slab with glorious views across the bright blue waters of the fiord, marked by the curious lines and circles as the outgoing tide and currents enmeshed in this deep and narrow body of water. It was fascinating to watch.

View over the fiord near Anse à Isaac

Early morning on the trail

Rocky outcrop on the trail

We continued to parallel the fiord along this rocky landscape, dotted with pines and, at times, carpeted red and white with the autumn leaves of low-growing shrubs and lichens. All the time, the blue waters of Saguenay glistened up through the trees.

A carpet of autumn leaves

The golden glow of autumn

Beluga below

At one point the fair Nello gave a shout “belugas below” and there they were - a small pod - their white bodies emerging from time to time to push dark bow waves along as they headed up the fiord. Today would not be beluga-free.

View through the pines to the far bank

The high open slopes above the fiord

We then headed inland, following a path through a flattish section of denser forest behind the rocky fiord-side ridge. It was darker, damper, cooler and softer underfoot on a mossy and sometimes boggy track – much easier walking than yesterday.

A splash of colour on the rock slab

Another glorious day on the Saguenay Fiord Trail

The track eventually returned to its (and our) favourite haunt – the high slopes above the fiord with long sections of rock slab and open forest. It was a long viewing platform over the water and our beluga count was rising, as first the fair Nello spotted a pod and then I noticed a boat cruising slowly out on the blue waters. It was a whale-watching boat and they were just ahead of a pod of belugas rising to the surface and blowing in synchrony – impressive. The whale-watchers were getting their money's worth today and so were we high on the cliffs above.

Whale watching boat below

Beluga pod blowing

This section was so nice that several times we just sat on a rock to take in the magnificent panoramas of a Saguenay Fiord in bright sunlight. The track was keeping to a contour, but did so by repeatedly climbing sharply up rocky knobs then descending slowly. However, eventually we were obliged to lose elevation and did so very steeply, dropping down into a rock-walled gully with the help of some judiciously placed wooden steps.

We reached the bottom, where squirrels busied themselves storing away nuts for winter, only to climb out just as steeply on the other side. From here we followed a winding path past rocky outcrops and down a shady gully to reach the camping site at Pointe à Passe-Pierre.

View over Pointe à Passe-Pierre

Descent to the point via ladder ...

... and shady gully

Mossy rocks near Pointe à Passe-Pierre

It ws a good place to stop for lunch and watch the incoming tide rapidly fill the small cove beneath us – it was fascinating how fast it moved. No wonder the water surface appears so troubled further out.

Incoming tide at Pointe à Passe-Pierre

From the campsite, we followed a wide and apparently old footpath up a hill and beneath a cliff to reach Anse à la Pass-Pierre, a larger inlet. On the way, we stopped at an old spring to re-fill our water-bottles – the big climb of the day lay just ahead.

The old path to Anse à la Pass-Pierre

View south over the fiord

Anse à la Pass-Pierre at low tide

The old footpath took us there and headed quickly up to reach a still and humid gully on the inland side of the rocky ridge. This was our route to the top and, near its head, we cut across the ridge to find ourselves on a cliff-edge high above the fiord. A large band of cloud had by now invaded the sky and the water of Saguenay had taken on the colour of slate, showing another aspect of its character. The views from a couple of wooden-fenced look-outs on the cliff were spectacular.

The climb up toward Cap de la Boule ...

... amongst the brilliant shades of autumn

Slate grey water....

.... and autumn gold

High above the fiord near Cap de la Boule

We pushed on over the large rock slabs towards Cap de la Boule to find ourselves beneath the shining silver threads of yet more high voltage lines draped across the fiord between massive pylons on both sides. Despite these, the views in this open area were superb, back along our path above the golden-fringed forest and ahead towards the steep walls of Cap Noir on the far side.

Golden-fringed rocks near the pylons of Cap de la Boule

View south towards Cap Noir

We could have stayed longer, but became a little concerned that the low buzz was the sound of high voltage lines frying our brains. We climbed over the rocky outcrops to pick up a gravel service road and head inland. It was pleasant walking down this wide open boulevard, even more pleasant with the rich hues of the yellow, orange and scarlet autumn foliage of the trees lining it.

Heading inland from Cap de la Boule

The road inland lined with autumn yellow

Eventually we reached a point where the route left the road to follow a narrow footpath, quickly passing under the high voltage lines for the last time, above one impressive beaver dam and below another. Here a sign warned that this was the last water before the refuge 900m away. Did that mean it didn't have a water tank like the last one? We couldn't take a chance - filling up our extra water bag and a couple of big ziplocs, we lugged 10kg of water up through the forest and rocks to the refuge Anse a la Boule. It had a full rainwater tank!

Beaver dam on the way to the Refuge du Cap de la Boule

A dash of scarlet on the roadside

View from the deck of Refuge du Cap de la Boule

Still, the facilities were as good as we had come to expect and the setting was brilliant – perched near the cliff edge, 200m above the water, and facing the spectacular 300m high cliffs between Caps Noir and Blanc. Down to the east, the mouth of the fiord opened up into the immensity of the St Lawrence. It was truly a great spot to spend our last night, sitting out on the deck being entertained by squirrels and watching the setting sun light up this incredible panorama in shades of pastel pink.

The fair Nello takes in the view from the deck of the refuge

Sunset over Saguenay

A ship passing in the night below our refuge

After dinner, out on the deck to watch the full moon bathe the scene in a pale silvery light, we could see the lights of the car ferry crossing the mouth of the fiord between Tadoussac and Baie Ste Catherine. A small ship steamed down beneath us, lit up like a floating candlestick. All those people carrying on with the business and busy-ness of life. We felt privileged to be here, just the two of us in this extra-comfortable refuge high above the Saguenay Fiord. Soon we would be back in civilisation ourselves, but this memory would stay for a long time.

Refuge Anse de la Boule to Tadoussac (11km - 470m ascent – 610m descent)

It was an earlier start for our last day – not for any other reason than that was when we woke. The sky was clear blue and, as we enjoyed our coffee looking out over the water of the fiord glistening in the early morning sun, we thought "we could spend another day here".

We didn't – setting off once again to contour our way along the fiord. Climbing up from the refuge, we found ourselves walking along a moss-lined path through the dense thickets of low conifers that grow on the ridge tops, before crossing into the damper taller forest of the inland slopes. Gradually the track headed back towards the fiord to follow the cliff-tops high above the wide inlet of Anse a la Baule, with more superb views out over the deep gully to the fiord beyond.

The track now headed steeply into the gully, helped by several sets of wooden steps, to work its way beneath the sheer rock walls and then across the damp gully floor. At a junction in the track, we made a slight detour to check out the campsite at Anse à la Boule before continuing on.

The cliffs near Anse à la Boule

Early morning at the refuge

View through the trees to Anse à la Boule

Descent beneath the rock face

The cliffs of Cap de la Boule

Back beneath the golden arches

Fortunately, the climb out of the gully was much gentler, due to a series of switchbacks. It took us out of the conifers and beneath some luminous groves of yellow-leafed deciduous trees. Regaining the elevation lost, we stopped for a bite to eat and to take in the views from above Pointe à la Croix.

Maple on fire

View north from Pointe à la Croix

From here the track meandered around, heading inland once again amongst the mosses and fungi that grew beneath the dark forest canopy. It was a good diversion away from the cliffs, taking us past a large beaver pond, where the colours of the foliage were reflected in the still pond water. A little later we passed a second beaver pond close to the beavers' lodge, a dome of sticks and earth rising out of the water. They are industrious creatures!

A large beaver pond in the Saguenay hinterland

Boardwalk across the beaver dam

Leaving the beaver-ponds, we followed the track through to another look-out, with views out to the mouth of the fiord and the across the wide St Lawrence, its far shores almost blending in with the water.

In the forest behind Pointe à la Croix

Beaver lodge in the middle of the pond

Saguenay Fiord opens into the St Lawrence

A pair of friendly grouse

Topping up the water supply

The track headed inland again and, as we passed a small waterfall, we stopped to fill our water-bottles for the last climb of the hike, up the slopes of Mt Adela-Lessard. Again it was long and steady rather than steep, bringing us up through mixed conifer and broad-leaf forest to the highest point of the hike, at 300m, on a crest covered with broad sloping rock slabs.

View of the fiord mouth from the slopes of Mt Adela-Lessard

View back over the forest of the Saguenay hinterland

We crossed this open landscape quickly to reach the next look-out, this time over the mouth of the fiord and the village of Tadoussac itself. The end of the walk was in sight, literally. Continuing around, we followed the cairns and painted yellow spots across the bare rock slabs to the last look-out of the walk and declared an early lunch stop. Sitting on the broad sloping slab of rock, we looked down on to Tadoussac, wedged between its curving beach and Lac de l'Anse à l'Eau. The noise of the town itself and the cars and trucks driving on and off the ferry drifted up – civilisation was encroaching on our walk.

Lichen-covered rock slabs

Looking down on Tadoussac and the St Lawrence beyond

The play of light and shade

A pair of eagles soared high above and headed up the fiord. We headed in the opposite direction back to the bustle of life. The way down was a long and steady descent through sun-dappled forest to the edge of Anse à la Barque. The outgoing tide had sucked the water out of this cove and we hurried around its exposed sea-weed covered bed to cross a small saddle to the marshy reaches of Lac de l'Anse à l'Eau.

Anse à la Barque

Descent to Anse à la Barque

A short walk along a broad path around the lake edge brought us to the road near the ferry terminal and the end of the track – a bit of a whimper of an ending for such a great walk. From here it was but a short stroll up the hill to the hostel where we were staying, and where a couple of cold beers that we had left in the fridge were waiting to celebrate the end of the walk with us.

The shore of Lac de l'Anse à l'Eau

An end-of-walk beer at the Tadoussac Hostel

As we sat in the warm afternoon sun, sipping our beers, we reflected on the rich and diverse forest, superb autumn colours, amazing views and interesting animal encounters. Yet this walk is as much about enjoying the superb refuges as about the walking – they are not just a place to stay, but an integral part of the Saguenay experience. We definitely could have stayed another day.