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.