Cape Breton Highlands National Park

Length of stay: 3 days
Visited: September 2022

Cape Breton Highlands National Park was the first national park created in Atlantic Canada. It’s situated on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia where the mountains meet the sea. It is famous for its dramatic coastline and ocean scenery. The Cabot Trail, a scenic highway that is 298km in length, weaves through the park and offers spectacular viewpoints and access to a variety of hiking trails.

Day 1: The Drive to Cape Breton Highlands

Today was a long day of driving. We left Prince Edward Island National Park first thing in the morning and spent the next several hours driving towards Cape Breton Highlands National Park. We made a couple of detours along the way, including at the Balache Point Lighthouse, located near the Canso Canal in Cape Breton.

By the time we reached the southern edge of Cape Breton Highlands, it was just after 6p.m. We planned to spend the next two nights at the Broad Cove Campground. Along the drive to the campground, we stopped at a couple of overlooks off the highway to admire the coastal scenery.

We also stopped at the Ingonish Visitor Centre to pick up a map of the park. We were eager to stretch our legs from being in the car all day so we hiked the Freshwater Lake Look-off (300m round trip, rated moderate), which is located across the road from the Visitor Centre. The trail involves a short, but steep climb up a series of steps to an overlook of the ocean. There was a bench and a single Parks Canada Red Chair at the very top.

We contemplated whether to hike another trail, but it started to lightly sprinkle outside, so we decided to just head to the campground. The forecast was calling for 30-40mm of rain overnight and we didn’t want to risk it. We picked up the key to our oTENTik, which is an A-frame cabin with canvas walls. It consists of a single room and contains six foam mattresses arranged on a giant bunk bed, as well as a table with four chairs and a bench. It also had solar lighting and an electric heater, which we turned on since it was getting chilly outside.

We bunkered down for the rest of the evening as it steadily rained for the next several hours.

Day 2: The Views

It was lightly misting when we woke up the next morning. We walked down to the beach, which is located a couple hundred metres from our campsite. The forecast was calling for more rain throughout the day, mostly in the morning.

After eating a late breakfast, we continued our drive along the Cabot Trail, hitting up a few of the scenic viewpoints along the way, starting with Green Cove. There’s a short trail along a boardwalk that leads to an overlook of the rugged coast and shallow coves. The plants here have adapted to the rough winds and salty spray. At this point the rain had subsided, but everything was a bit wet and slippery.

We hopped back in the car for a short stretch before pulling over again to hike the Jack Pine Trail (2.3km loop, rated easy). The trail winds through a jack pine stand that was created after a fire swept through this area along the coast in 1921. The interesting part about this lonesome forest is that it’s situated almost 200km from other jack pine stands in Cape Breton.

Along the trail there’s a series of interpretative signs that provide some fun facts about the forest and about the flora and fauna found in the area. The trail connects with the Coastal Trail (11.3km round trip) in a few places, which we followed. This portion of the trail features a few scenic overlooks of the rocky coastline and passes by a single Parks Canada Red Chair.

From here we drove through Neils Harbour, a small fishing village situated in the northeast corner of Cape Breton Island, just outside of the park. We passed the Neils Harbour Lighthouse and found a seafood place around the corner, the Chowder House. We were a bit too early for lunch though and the place was still closed.

And so we continued driving along the Cabot Trail. At this point it started to rain again. Hard. We had little interest in getting out of the car to check out more of the viewpoints or trails. And so we turned around and drove back to the Chowder House to get takeaway and return to our oTENTik to eat lunch.

We headed out later in the afternoon to go on a few hikes by Ingonish, starting with Middle Head Trail (3.8km round trip, rated moderate). The trailhead is located just beyond the Keltic Lodge. The path weaves through the forest along a narrow peninsula and features several viewpoints of both sides of the bay, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Cape Smokey and Ingonish Island.

There were a few signs along the trail that provided more information about the Keltic Lodge. In 1890, Henry Corson spotted this peninsula and decided to build his summer home here. In 1938, Middle Head became part of Cape Breton Highlands National Park and a few years later, the summer home was replaced with the Keltic Lodge, now owned and operated by the government of Nova Scotia.

We then hiked up Broad Cove Mountain (2.3km round trip, rated moderate). The trail consists of a steady incline up a series of switchbacks through the forest. At the summit there’s a nice view of the rocky coastline with Middle Head in the background, as well as a single Red Chair and a bench to soak in the views. We didn’t stay long as it looked like it was about to rain again. We hurried down the mountain and returned to our campsite.

Day 3: The Rest of the Cabot Trail

We ate an early breakfast and packed up to hit the road again, or rather the incredibly scenic Cabot Trail. We planned to drive around the rest of Cape Breton Highlands towards Cheticamp. We picked up where we left off yesterday. Thankfully it was less rainy outside, but it sure was windy.

We stopped at a few viewpoints, including Beulach Ban Waterfall, which is located right off the Cabot Trail. The waterfall tumbles into a river that flows through the valley into the Atlantic Ocean.

Another notable viewpoint was of the Aspy Fault, which extends 40 kilometres from the centre of the highlands to the Atlantic Ocean. The fault was created millions of years ago when two continental plates collided and pushed the seafloor upwards to form the Appalachian Mountains.

Shortly after we pulled over again to stretch our legs at the Lone Shieling (0.6km loop, rated easy). There’s a short trail that leads through the Grande Anse Valley, one of the largest old growth hardwood forests in the Maritimes. Some of the trees here are over 350 years old. There were a few storyboards along the trail that provided more information of the forest and history of the park. The trail also passes a replica of a Scottish shepherd’s hut which was built in recognition of Donald S. MacIntosh and his Scottish heritage as he bequeathed 100 acres of his homestead in 1934 for a park. In 1936, Cape Breton Highlands National Park was established to preserve these valleys and highlands.

We then hiked along the MacIntosh Brook (1.7km round trip, rated easy). The trail weaves through an Acadian old growth forest in the valley and follows a babbling brook towards a waterfall. There were lots of mossy rocks, gnarly bark and mushrooms along the way.

We hopped back in the car and hit up a few more viewpoints in the MacKenzie River Valley. We stopped to hike the Bog Trail (0.5km loop, rated easy). The path follows a boardwalk through the French Mountain Bog, situated on the highland plateau, 410 metres (or 1,350 feet) above sea level. Along the way there’s a series of signs that provided more information about the bog and the types of plants that can be found here.

Wetlands like this are common in the highland plateau because of poor drainage and a cool, wet climate. This bog is actually a slope fen, which receives its moisture from precipitation, but also through the seeping ground or surface water. They are important as they support a variety of wildlife and plants, but they also reduce flooding. They act like a sponge and soak up and store water which is slowly released in dry periods. The vegetation through this highland plateau bog is stunted from the harsh conditions of extreme winds and changes in the temperature.

At this point we were getting hungry (and cold from the wind), so we drove to the Mkwesaqtuk/Cap-Rouge Campground where there’s an enclosed picnic area to eat lunch. We weren’t quite ready to brave the wind again, so decided to just drive to the Cheticamp Campground where we planned to spend the night (in another oTENTik of course). Naturally we stopped at a few more viewpoints on the drive.

After unpacking, we headed out later in the afternoon to hike the Skyline Trail (8.2km look, rated easy). The trail is located up on a headland cliff in the highlands and contains a series of viewpoints that overlook the rugged coastline. It is considered the most popular trail in the park and it lived up to its reputation, both in terms of the views and the crowds.

The terrain along the trail is pretty easy. The path is mostly made of gravel and winds through the highlands. The vegetation looked windswept and oh boy was it windy. At the junction the path splits off into two directions to form a loop. We went to the right. The first scenic viewpoint overlooked the highlands and showcased the lush greenery in the area. The second viewpoint provided sweeping views of the coast.

Near the third viewpoint, the trail splits off and makes a small detour to the main highlight of the trail, which consists of a boardwalk along a ridge through the wild boreal headland. It is here where the global winds and ocean currents converge on mountain rock, creating a unique and fragile environment for certain low-growing plants and animals. This stretch of the trail provided the best views of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Once we got to the lowest viewing platform, we turned around and climbed back up all the wooden steps. At the junction we turned right to complete the loop. The trail continues to weave through the open headland and passes through a moose exclosure, a fenced area which is meant to keep moose out so recently planted tree seedlings can grow. There was a viewing platform inside the exclose and a sign that provided some fun facts about how the park is testing a variety of planting methods here to determine what works best.

On the drive back to Cheticamp Campground, we pulled over at a few of the overlooks to enjoy the blue skies and wavy water.

What a fabulous end to our road trip through the Maritimes. The next morning we had to get up early to drive towards Halifax to catch our flight back home to Ontario. It poured rain pretty much the entire day and we just didn’t have the energy to make any detours.

L

118 thoughts on “Cape Breton Highlands National Park

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      It was a long drive to get to Cape Breton Highlands, but it was worth it for the gorgeous coastal scenery. The Jack Pine Trail was perfect to hike in such gloomy weather as the rain tends to bring out the natural scents of the forest. It was also neat to learn more about the impact of a wildfire from over a century ago has had on this area.

      Like

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      The landscape in Cape Breton Highlands is gorgeous, which makes for some incredibly scenic hiking and driving. It’s a long drive across the entire national park, but at least there are viewpoints and hiking trails along the way so we could take a break and stretch our legs. Thanks for reading. Take care. Linda

      Like

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      It’s a long drive through Cape Breton Highlands, but it’s nice that there are plenty of viewpoints and hiking trails to better enjoy the scenery. The boardwalk section of the Skyline Trail definitely had the best views of the coastline. Even though it was really windy up there, at least it wasn’t raining while we were hiking.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. kagould17 says:

    A spectacular part of Canada we have been lucky enough to see numerous times. Looks like you fit a lot into your visit and while the weather was mixed, you managed some spectacular shots Linda. Thanks for sharing. Happy Tuesday. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks for your lovely comment. It was a long drive to get to Cape Breton Highlands, but it was so worth it for the beautiful scenery. The weather was all over the place, but thankfully the timing worked out well and we never got caught in the rain while hiking. I’m so glad we were staying in an oTENTik though as I’m not sure our tent could have survived all that wind (or the rain)! Thanks for reading. Enjoy the rest of your week and the holiday season. Take care. Linda

      Liked by 1 person

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks! The scenery in Cape Breton Highlands is very enchanting. It was very windy and rainy when we visited, which wasn’t ideal for camping. Thank goodness we were staying in one of those oTENTiks though as I don’t think our tent could have survived!

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  2. Rose says:

    That gnarly tree photo is interesting. I wonder why that tree decided to grow in such a way? All of your photos are a breath of fresh air. Thanks for taking us with you.

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    • WanderingCanadians says:

      The weather was pretty wild and very windy. It was also crazy how different the weather was depending which side of the island we were on. I’m so glad we were staying in an oTENTik though instead of our tent! It also had a heater, which helped take away some of the dampness from the rain. I’ve never been to Scotland before, but I’d love to, especially after hearing that the landscape is similar to Cape Breton.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. wetanddustyroads says:

    I really like these ‘bulky’ lighthouses! Your Day 2 looked a bit wet, but Day 3 seemed better (although windy) … the boardwalk must have been a lovely walkway. And the Skyline Trail definitely is my favourite in this post – the views are beautiful! I’m impressed … through rain and windy conditions, you have actually done exceptionally good on the hiking trails!

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    • WanderingCanadians says:

      The lighthouses in Cape Breton are very stumpy, yet cute. Maybe they build them short because of all that wind! The weather was all over the place, but thankfully we never got caught out in the rain while we were hiking. The wind was relentless though. The Skyline Trail was definitely my favourite trail that we hiked. The views were incredible and I’m glad we had some blue skies and sun to more fully appreciate the scenery.

      Liked by 1 person

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Oh I know. The viewpoints along the Cabot Trail are outstanding. It was a bit of a drive to get to Cape Breton Highlands, but it was so worth it. It was a great way to end our road trip through the Maritimes. There’s still so much we have left to see and explore though.

      Liked by 1 person

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks for your kind words and for leaving a comment. The weather was pretty wild with all the wind and rain, so I’m glad we were staying in a sheltered oTENTik, which is kind of like a cabin made with canvas. Enjoy the rest of your week as well. Linda

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  4. Ab says:

    What a beautiful travelogue Linda. Cape Breton and the Cabot Trail are on my wishlist to visit one day. We did Halifax, Lunenberg and Peggy’s Cove a few years with T but didn’t have time to do Cabot Trail. Your photos and recap make me wanna go so bad.

    Good to know that three days is about the estimated time needed and good to know about the OTentik options and some of your trail recommendations. I just love those boardwalk style stairs and paths up to the hilltop views. It is stunning even after all that rain you two encountered.

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    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks! Cape Breton Highlands is such an enchanting place. It’s quite the drive to get to, but so worth it. I really wanted to spend some time in and around Halifax, but we ran out of time. Plus the weather was awful on our last day. There never seems to be enough time to see it all.

      The oTENTiks are such great options for accommodations. There is no way our poor little tent could have survived all that wind and rain, especially since many of the campsites are out in the open. The oTENTiks in Cape Breton Highlands even had heating, which was nice to take out the chill and dampness. We’ve really pampered ourselves this year when it comes to camping (or rather glamping)!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. usfman says:

    I read that relatively nothing stops you from hiking when you can except hunger and the onset of nightfall. I would rather tackle this relatively flat area as a hiker than risk ascending the highlands in Western Canada for sure. Happy Holidays

    Liked by 1 person

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      That is very true. I am not a fan of hiking in the rain though, but I have been known to make exceptions when the scenery is breathtaking. Even though the weather was all over the place in Cape Breton Highlands, I’m glad we never actually had to hike through the rain. Most of it happened in the evening or while we were driving. Enjoy the holidays as well. We’re expecting a major snowstorm today, which should make everything look festive. I can’t wait.

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    • WanderingCanadians says:

      For sure. Cheticamp has a very different vibe than Ingonish and felt very laid back. It’s also closer to some of the more popular hikes like the Skyline Trail. The campground was a bit underwhelming, largely because many of the sites were out in the open. We were staying in another oTENTik, which was in a fantastic spot by the river though, so we had no complaints.

      Liked by 1 person

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks for your kind words and for leaving a comment. We had a wonderful time in the Maritimes and I’m glad we managed to squeeze in a visit to Cape Breton Highlands. The coastal views were stunning, which made for some great hiking.

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  6. leightontravels says:

    A lovely article, Linda. What a beautiful area this is, luckily someone was far-seeing and wise enough to preserve it as a national park. Fascinating stories and characters as well interwoven with the amazing vistas, pines and boardwalks weaving their way around the coast. I liked the shepherd’s hut replica in honour of Donald S. MacIntosh, trust a Scott to settle in a highland area even if it’s across an ocean.

    Liked by 1 person

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks for your kind words. It’s always interesting to learn more about how some of these national parks were created. It’s amazing that even then some people recognized that this area is special and that it needed to be protected and preserved. I got a good laugh too about how Donald S. MacIntosh traded in the highlands in Scotland for more highlands in Canada. Stick to what you know I guess.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Bama says:

    It’s great to know that the weather gradually improved over the three days of your hike in this national park. Skyline Trail certainly is the winner — it’s good that put it at the end of your itinerary.

    Liked by 1 person

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      The weather was pretty crazy in Cape Breton Highlands. We managed to avoid the worst of the rain as it happened either overnight or while we were driving. There was no escaping from the wind though. The Skyline Trail was such a highlight. I was surprised at how busy it was considering we didn’t encounter many people on the other trails we hiked. This was an amazing end to our road trip through the Maritimes.

      Liked by 1 person

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      The east coast of Canada is a great spot to go on a scavenger hunt for lighthouses. I love how each one is unique. While some of them are no longer functional, I’m glad they’re still maintained as they’ve become such a big tourist attraction.

      Liked by 1 person

      • gsilvosa63 says:

        I wish we could have gone that far. We toured some of the lighthouses in Maine. We actually went around the New England states so we had a short time window for each place.

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      • WanderingCanadians says:

        Maine has a similar vibe to Eastern Canada. If we had more time I would have loved to drive back through New England for a change of scenery. It’s very beautiful, especially in the fall when the leaves are changing colour. There just never seems to be enough time (or vacation days)!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Diana says:

    Yay yay yay! I love this place and Skyline Trail is one of my favorite hikes I’ve ever done! Thanks for the walk down memory lane, as I hiked many of these trails too. It sounds like you had more time on the island than we did, though, and managed some extra thing. The waterfall was super pretty, I don’t recall seeing that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      The weather was all over the place when we were in Cape Breton Highlands, but I’m glad we enjoyed some blue skies and sun while hiking the Skyline Trail. It’s one of my favourites as well. The only thing missing was us seeing a moose. It was nice how all the trails and viewpoints were just off of the Cabot Trail, which was super convenient.

      Liked by 1 person

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      For sure. Even though it was a long drive to get to Cape Breton Highlands, at least it was super scenic. This was a wonderful last stop on our road trip through the Maritimes. Glad to hear that Eastern Canada is now on your radar. Take care. Linda

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Linda K says:

    Oh you got so much more hiking in than we did. Looks like you had better weather too! We had debated doing the Skyline Trail, but the one full day we had was misty and overcast so we explored Cabots Landing Park instead. The rugged coastline with the water views are definitely lovely!

    Liked by 1 person

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      The weather was actually much better than what we were expecting. Even though we got a lot of rain, thankfully it was mostly overnight or while we were driving. I was so happy to be staying in a heated oTENTik as I don’t think our poor tent would have survived all that wind and all that rain. It’s too bad that the crummy weather prevented you from hiking the Skyline Trail. It was one of my favourite hikes. I guess this means that you’ll just have to return someday!

      Liked by 1 person

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Why thank you. The weather was all over the place when we were in Cape Breton Highlands, but I’m glad we had some periods of sunny weather to more fully appreciate those coastal views. The sun always has a way of making the water sparkle and shine.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Thattamma C.G Menon says:

    Cape Breton Highlands is wonderful place , eternal nature with flora and fauna , beauty of ocean and it’s
    Waves, amazing the stone figure , fantastic waterfalls, the light house and so many varieties of flowers 🌺
    mind blowing sceneries and dear your worth explanations marvellous ✍️👏grace wishes 💝 🙏

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    • WanderingCanadians says:

      It was quite the drive to get to Cape Breton Highlands, but it was so worth it. It’s such a wild and enchanting area. The weather was pretty crazy though with all that wind and all that rain. I was not surprised to see so many mushrooms through the forest.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. NortheastAllie says:

    This looks so beautiful, and your travel adventures in Nova Scotia make me want to go up north! This seems like the perfect spot to just relax and take in those amazing nature views. Thank you for sharing this!

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    • WanderingCanadians says:

      It was a bit of a drive to get to Cape Breton Highlands, but at least it was incredibly scenic. It was a great last stop on our road trip through the Maritimes. I just wish we could have stayed for longer. Thanks for reading. Have a wonderful weekend. Linda

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Laura says:

    The views in your photos here are just absolutely stunning. I am so glad you got to see so much natural beauty even with the winds and some rain. Thank you for bringing us all along for the drive! 🙂

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    • WanderingCanadians says:

      You are too kind. Despite the weather, we had a wonderful time exploring the trails and terrain. If anything, I’m sure all that rain is the reason why the forests and valleys are so lush. The timing of the rain actually worked out well and thankfully we didn’t have to hike in the rain.

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  13. rkrontheroad says:

    This area has such nicely maintained boardwalks and stairs. I’m sure that was especially welcome to keep you out of the mud and marsh! I enjoyed seeing the maritime provinces with you.

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  14. BrittnyLee says:

    Crape Brenton Highlands had a lot to offer. it’s impressive how much you got to see and do ! The scenery looks so peaceful 😍 About how far is cape Breton Highlands from Ontario? I know you wrote you took a plane. It definitely wouldn’t be car distance ? I know driving takes a lot more than a plane trip. I’m so deathly afraid of flying haha 😂 but I did it for the family cruise we went on. It was fine but I was scared inside haha 😂 The cruise made it worth it though. Those otentiks are so awesome. I love that they even have an electric heater in there for you guys . I’m sure the ocean breeze kept things cooler. All of those trails you took held such beautiful views. I would be lost in photography heaven there 🙂 great post

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