Backpacking in Eastern Townships: A Perfect 3-Day Itinerary with Nature, Culture, and Delicious Eats (Part 1)

I’m continuing my experiments with car-free backpacking travel in North America to prove that not only is it possible, but it can actually b...

I’m continuing my experiments with car-free backpacking travel in North America to prove that not only is it possible, but it can actually be quite an enjoyable experience. Backpacking travel presents two key benefits over traditional car-centric travel: a focus on sustainability and a deeper connection to nature and local cultures. After all, if this form of travel has successfully thrived in numerous European, Asian, and Latin American countries, it is only logical to question why it would be any different in Canada and the United States. Right?
The truth is that the availability of bus and trail networks outside major North American cities is quite limited, even in densely populated areas. It is rare to find a local bus that conveniently connects to intercity trains or bus services, requiring the use of a car to reach your final destination. While one potential solution would involve bringing a bicycle along, the majority of buses and train cars are not designed to accommodate bicycles, and additional fees, combined with already costly bus or train tickets, further discourage the use of public transit. But it didn’t discourage me :)
Given the chance to participate in a cybersecurity conference in Montreal in late May 2023, I decided to extend my stay in the province of Quebec and venture towards the Eastern Townships, a favourite recreational destination for Montreal residents throughout the year. This region offers an array of activities, ranging from winter skiing to summer pastimes like golfing, beach outings, and fishing, as well as opportunities to explore wineries and witness the picturesque foliage during autumn.  
Long-distance hiking trails in the Eastern Townships region are incredibly scarce, with my research indicating the existence of only one such trail, Les Sentiers de l'Estrie, which only vaguely meets the criteria of a long-distance hiking trail: it is not continuous but rather a network of shorter day hikes. I faced two challenges with this trail: firstly, it primarily runs in a north-south direction, while the intercity bus network between Montreal and Sherbrooke operates east-west, making it impossible to access either trailhead without the use of a car. Secondly, the trail predominantly caters to local residents, as it requires the purchase of an annual membership to use it. 
So, I had to devise a custom route that would include various elements such as natural landscapes featuring lakes and mountains, overnight stays at hostels and campgrounds, visits to cultural and historical landmarks, enjoying local culinary delights such as poutine, croissants, and Montreal bagels, ensuring access to potable water, not killing myself with too much hiking, and access to public transportation at both ends of my route. 
Day 1. Sherbrooke, total distance 5 km / 3 miles.
Day 2. Sherbrooke - Magog, total distance 20 km / 12.5 miles.
Day 3. Magog - Parc National du Mont-Orford, total distance 15 km / 9 miles.
Day 4. Parc National du Mont-Orford - Magog, total distance 18 km / 11 miles.

Let's dive into details and see some pictures, shall we? 

Day 1. Sherbrooke. 
The best, and the only way if not counting rideshares, to get from Montreal to Sherbrooke without a car is to take an intercity bus called Limocar that runs every few hours. Considering the high population density of the Eastern Townships region and the frequent traffic congestion on the main highway A-10 connecting the two cities, it would be more logical to have a regular train service. Interestingly, it would be exactly where the first railroad in Canada was built in 1836. However, Canada is terrible with large infrastructure projects and continues to build car-centric communities.
At least large metropolitan areas such as Montreal and Toronto have recognized the importance of public transportation and are actively expanding their train services. In Brossard, located east of Montreal, a cutting-edge driverless REM train is currently undergoing its final testing stages and is set to open in 2023 (update: the first section between Montreal downtown and Brossard was opened on July 28, 2023). 
Limocar operates older but still pretty comfortable coaches that mostly cater to university students. Beware that a bus driver doesn’t take cash or credit cards, so I almost missed my bus on the way back. 
My conversation with a bus driver is worth citing here: 

Driver: Can I scan your ticket?
Me: I don’t have a ticket. Can I buy it here?
Driver: No, I don’t take cash. 
Me: I have a credit card. Can I use it?
Driver: No, I don’t have a device to take credit cards.
Me: How can I get on a bus? 
Driver: You can go to a nearby gas station and buy your ticket there.
Me: Will you wait for me?
Driver: No.
Me: (Confused, almost panicking as the next bus is in two hours, trying to figure something out) Can I buy a ticket online and show it to you on my phone?
Driver: (Thoughtful as it clearly was a non-standard situation for him): Yes, get on, you can show me your ticket at the next stop. 

Luckily, I still had enough power in my phone and the cellphone reception was decent, so I was able to buy a ticket and show it to a bus driver at the next stop. 
My bus arrived in Sherbrooke just past 6:30 pm and dropped me at the old CN train station which has been converted into a hipster bike-themed microbrewery Siboire. Right away, I was greeted by these happy and slightly drunk folks who were apparently having their TGIF moment. 
I had about three hours to kill before it would get pitch dark. I knew I could easily cover a downtown core despite having to carry my bulky backpack. 
I also knew that I needed some energy to walk to my Airbnb located in Sherbrooke’s quiet east-end neighbourhood (~ 4 km / 2.5 miles from the town centre), so I was already on the lookout for some local culinary treats. 
It didn’t take me long to discover Louis Luncheonette, initially a horse-drawn trailer, which later evolved into a motorized canteen and eventually found its permanent location on Sherbrooke's renowned King Avenue. Founded in the early 1940s, the snack bar gained popularity among locals, workers, students, and tourists who enjoyed its homemade fries, hot dogs, and hamburgers. I picked their famous Louis de l'Ouest sandwich with sweet coleslaw salad and french fries on the side. It was exactly what I was craving for - delicious, filling, and reasonably priced. 
One of the drawcards of Sherbrooke is in its 18 large-scale realistic murals that showcase the rich heritage of the town’s old neighbourhoods. The realistic mix of sophisticated details, vibrant colours, and shadows in the murals is so striking that it becomes hard to differentiate between what is real and what is a painted image. 
I didn’t aim to see all 18, but walking through the streets of Sherbrooke, I couldn't help but be captivated by these larger-than-life artworks. 
Even without extensive knowledge in theology, it becomes evident that Sherbrooke has an unusually high concentration of cathedrals per capita compared to other Canadian cities. This led me to believe that there might be a significant seminary in the area that trains clergy for these cathedrals. Additionally, my assumption was supported by the presence of Bishop's University, one of the prominent educational institutions in Sherbrooke. 
However, I discovered that my guesses were wrong as Bishop's University is a regular university, offering a diverse range of programs in Arts, Science, Business Administration, Education, Music, and Drama, similar to other universities across Canada. 
I noticed another peculiar thing regarding the cathedrals in Sherbrooke and the nearby town of Magog: several of them have been completely repurposed. I saw instances where these cathedrals had been transformed into a restaurant, a library, a gym, a cultural centre, and even a distillery. 
A welcoming observation I made in historic towns across Quebec, including Sherbrooke, and Magog, is the absence of fast-food chains. The Tim Horton's or McDonald's logos on the picturesque row of Victorian-era buildings along Wellington Street in Sherbrooke is something I would definitely strongly oppose.
In addition, historic towns in Quebec tend to have a vibrant food scene with local eateries, charming cafes, and traditional restaurants that focus on regional specialties and local ingredients. This approach helps sustain local businesses, encourages a sense of community, and enhances the overall cultural experience for visitors exploring these historic areas.
It was quite remarkable to discover massive waterfalls right in the heart of Sherbrooke. The waterfall, known as the Sherbrooke Falls or Cascade de la Gorge, is a natural attraction situated along the Magog River and offers a stunning display of cascading water. The falls are notable for their size and beauty, creating a picturesque scene within an urban environment. 
As someone visiting for the day, I enjoyed the sight and sound of the rushing water which provided a refreshing and serene experience amidst the cityscape. However, I can only imagine what it must be like for those who live nearby, with some windows directly facing the waterfalls. 

The second part of the story is covered here - Part 2

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