When a Québec town with less than 10,000 people attracts more than 300,000 visitors every year, you know it must have something very special. That town is Coaticook, in Québec’s bucolic Eastern Townships, and that something special is Parc de la Gorge de Coaticook. Not only is this a beautiful natural gorge by day, by night this park transforms into a magical interactive experience called Foresta Lumina. And the only word to describe it is enchanting.
Parc de la Gorge de Coaticook: Beautiful by Day
The 50-meter deep Coaticook gorge and the river that runs through it have always been an important part of the town of Coaticook, from the days when the river and its waterfalls were harnessed to produce hydroelectric power for the town’s lumber, textile and manufacturing industries.
But it wasn’t until the late 1970s that the town decided to invest in the area specifically as a tourism destination, developing the naturally beautiful canyon and its surroundings as a multi-use park for camping, hiking, mountain biking and other 4-season outdoor activities.
Henk and I decided to explore some of the park by doing a day hike on one of the park’s 20 kilometres of trails. After consulting with the staff at the Visitor Information Centre at the Rue Michaud entrance, we decided to do the 3.5 kilometre-long Gorge Trail (one of the most popular routes) that would take us to a suspension bridge, observation tower and right down to the river’s edge.
The Longest Suspension Bridge in North America
At 169 meters long (554 feet), the Coaticook suspension bridge is the longest of its kind in North America, longer even than the Capilano Suspension Bridge near Vancouver (140 meters), or the longest one in Ontario at Blue Mountains (126 meters). The bridge arches over the Gorge below and gives visitors great views down to the rocky riverbed.
The Coaticook suspension bridge actually held the title of the longest bridge in the world until 2006 when another bridge was built in Japan.
Le Tour Couillard Lookout Tower
Another popular park landmark just a short loop off the main Gorge Trail is the Couillard Tower, built to honour local entrepreneur Gérard Couillard. (It was Couillard Construction, one of Gérard’s four companies, that built the suspension bridge in 1989.) Climb up the 96-foot tall wooden structure for more great views, this time out over the rolling hills of the Eastern Townships.
Surprises Down at the Riverbed
Henk and I were determined not to miss anything on the trail so we made sure to explore every loop including some that took us down to the river close to the swooping concrete Corticelli dam, named after the textile factory that used to operate nearby.
But it was when we went down to the bottom of the Gorge and around the bend in the river that we discovered a delightful surprise that we had not seen, even when we looked down on it from the suspension bridge: a ‘forest’ of inukshuks built using the stones of the riverbed.
There were hundreds of these inukshuks of all shapes and sizes, built by creative visitors who had built them using the stones from the riverbed. And as we learned later, their inspiration had come from the Foresta Lumina experience…
Parc de la Gorge de Coaticook: Foresta Lumina Enchants by Night
Henk and I were impressed with the natural beauty and trails of Parc de la Gorge de Coaticook on our daytime hike, but it was when we returned to the park that night to experience Foresta Lumina that we saw just how magical the forest can be.
Foresta Lumina is the collaborative brainchild of the town of Coaticook and Moment Factory, a Québec multimedia company that has made a name for itself with its creative illuminated installations around the province. (These include the Aura experience inside the Notre Dame Cathedral in Montreal, and the interactive lighting on the Jacques Cartier Bridge).
Foresta Lumina was a concept created for Coaticook’s 150th anniversary in 2014 that was designed to incorporate and enhance the natural beauty of the Gorge. Building off the already popular idea of night hiking, Moment Factory created a multi-media experience by installing discreet lighting throughout the trails that is virtually undetectable by day, but brings to life a fantastical story by night.
The story centres around the ‘spirits’ in the forest, and a young girl’s interaction with them. The experience begins when visitors walk under a canopy of illuminated lanterns, stopping to share a secret wish with the fairies in the trees nearby and choosing a white fairy stone to bring with them during the walk.
As Henk and I continued along the same paths we had hiked during the day, we encountered fairies, a forest creature, a devil, interactive exhibits and animations, and an ancient tree that was literally brought to life before our eyes.
Towards the end, we found ourselves once again at the bottom of the Gorge, where we were instructed to deposit our stones on one of a dozen or so inukshuks that we now realized had been the inspiration for the other visitor-built creations we had seen during the day.
But the real showstopper here was the ravine itself, which had been completely transformed into a magical wonderland: the canyon was filled with millions of colourful lights everywhere we looked, even extending up the steep cliff sides until they blended seamlessly into the night sky and its own stars above.
After experiencing Foresta Lumina for ourselves, it’s easy to see why this interactive attraction has welcomed more than 700,000 visitors (called “luminaries”) to the park since its inaugural season. It’s also easy to see why Foresta Lumina has won numerous tourism and multi-media awards both in Canada and internationally.
It took vision to bring Foresta Lumina to the Coaticook Gorge, and Moment Factory has done an amazing job with an already-beautiful natural landscape as its canvas. But it also took creativity and imagination on the part of the Park’s administrators and the town of Coaticook, to invest in a unique attraction like Parc de la Gorge de Coaticook itself.
Today, with over 300,000 annual visitors to the park, it looks like the return on that investment has paid off for everyone.
PRACTICAL TIPS for Parc de la Gorge de Coaticook and Foresta Lumina:
Cost: Entrance to the park during the day is $8 for adults with discounts for for children up to 15 years old.
Foresta Lumina tickets cost $19.50 for adults, and admission is timed, so it is best to make reservations in advance and book your entrance time.
Parking: During the day, parking is usually not a problem at the Rue Michaud entrance, but at night it fills up quickly for Foresta Lumina visitors. However, there are free shuttles from downtown Coaticook for ticket holders and parking in town itself is free. Check the shuttle schedule here.
Accessibility: Although the Parc de la Gorge de Coaticook hiking trails are not particularly difficult, they are not recommended for people with mobility issues. Same for the Foresta Lumina experience which uses the Gorge Trail. Proper hiking footwear is recommended for both.
Where to Eat: Le Coffret de l’imagination is a very good restaurant open from May to December right inside the Rue Michaud entrance opposite the Foresta Lumina waiting area. Given its ‘captive audience’, Henk and I were pleasantly surprised at the high quality of the food here, its use of local ingredients for which the region is famous, and the reasonable prices.
TIP: Definitely visit the restaurant’s ice cream parlour, as it serves excellent locally-made Coaticook Dairy ice-cream. Or go directly to the source at the factory on Child Street. Coaticook Dairy is Québec’s largest ice cream manufacturer and has a reputation across the province for its quality and taste.
Special thanks to Eastern Townships Tourism who sponsored Henk and I on our visit to the region.