Cape Breton is the island at the northern tip of Canada’s Nova Scotia Province. The island, and especially the portion of the Cabot Trail that encircles the highlands near the northern tip of the island (primarily the section of the trail that is in Cape Breton National Park) was our primary motivation for visiting Nova Scotia.
Although the park’s broad vistas and many of its trails provide some of the most dramatic and most easily accessible rewards, leisurely drives and impromptu stops often yield more subtle pleasures. These can include expansive views, tranquil forests and meadows, and secluded coves and beaches glimpses.
Or occasionally, a ground bird lolling through a meadow or a moose casually gazing on tender leaves and grasses.
We drove clockwise around the island (the route recommended for the most dramatic views). We began our island experience on the west side with a stop at Glenora Distillery.
We spent our nights, and had most of our meals, in two towns at either entrance of the National Park: Cheticamp on the west and Ingonish on the east. Then, on our drive down the eastern shore, we stopped at the city of Baddeck to visit the Alexander Graham Bell Museum. Our links give you more information on these.
This post focuses on Cape Breton Highlands National Park, the highlight of and the primary reason that most people visit the island, drive the Cabot Trail, or for that matter, visit Nova Scotia.
Cape Breton Highlands National Park is divided into a number of very different zones. We entered from the western Cheticamp entrance and drove west to east.
The Cheticamp Canyon and Gulf Coast Zone
The Gulf of St. Lawrence zones have the steep mountains, deep valleys, and a ragged coastline threaded by the winding Cabot Trail highway that provides many of the views that are so iconic of the park. Many of these views can be seen from the road and its many viewpoints.
A different perspective can be gained from a number of the area’s trails.
The 5.2 mile loop has 1,350 feet of elevation gain. The relatively steady incline has a few steeper sections. But the real challenge is the need to continually look down to avoid all the rocks and roots. The top of the trail has two good viewpoints. The first one is right on the trail. The second view is an even more rocky trail that takes about five minutes each way—plus whatever time you spend in the suitably situated Adirondack chair to enjoy the view. The right hand fork (east) generally follows along and makes several crossings of a pretty brook with rapids, a few small waterfalls and many pretty moss rocks.
The very popular Skyline Trail is a 5.1 mile loop whose relatively flat loop with a spur that ends at a coastal overlook. We forgot to remind ourselves to go to the boardwalk and its two dramatic viewpoints and then turn back to the parking lot. While these views are absolutely worth the walk, the remaining two-thirds of the trail is boring and exposed to the sun. Subsequent viewpoints are barely worth the stop.
Highland Plateau Zone
As you leave the Gulf section, you enter the Highland Plateau, the high-altitude section of the park where drainage is poor and tree growth is stunted. A short, interpretive, boardwalk trail–one of our favorite of the park–highlights and explains this fascinating ecosystem.
The half-mile loop trail goes through peat bogs (4-6-foot-deep combinations of decayed sphagnum moss and reeds) and the specialized grasses and stunted trees that are able to grow in the acidic soil. The bog forms when sphagnum moss and reeds grow and compress to form peat. This absorbs and maintains nutrients and water, creating ponds and producing an acid that reduces the growth of many species of trees. Some plants, however, thrive in this material. Burgundy and purple orchids flower throughout the bog, as do buck bean and the pretty, wavy, aptly named cottongrass, whose delicate white puffs sway in the breeze. Water lilies dot the ponds. The most interesting and unique fauna, however, are the “carnivorous plants”, such as pitcher plants, bladderwort and sundew, each, as discussed in our post on San Francisco Museums, each have different approaches to capturing and dissolving the nutrients from trapped insects. (These plants are smaller than, but just as fascinating as some of those we saw on our trek through parks on the island of Borneo.)
The bog, however, also has its own fauna. During our short walk, we heard a number of frogs and, of course, many types of insects. Our most unexpected and treasured sighting, however, was a young (huge, but still a veritable baby) moose feeding in one of the bog’s ponds. Not quite as dramatic as the adult male moose (big antlers and all) that happened onto on a deserted dirt road in central Maine many years ago, but special still.
We spent less time in the central sections of the park, down from the highlands and before the Atlantic Coast section, than in the others. After leaving the highlands, we went through and viewed stretches of other interesting areas.
Mountains and Valleys
The mountains were covered with many species of softwood trees (especially fir and spruce) and the valleys with hardwood forests laced with rivers and streams. We took two short trails in this zone.
Macintosh Brook Trail
The short (1-3/4 mile), flat trail goes along a lovely brook to a small waterfall.
The short, half mile loop trail goes through an old growth forest that consists primarily of sugar maples of up to 400 years old as well as spruce, elm and ferns. The forest also has a rebuilt stone and moss-roofer Shieling, or crofter’s (a small-scale farmer) cottage.
We explored the coastline at the towns at the northern peak of the Cabot Trail. We also paid a brief visit to Dingwall’s North Highlands Community Museum, which explored the history of the region from the First People to Cabot’s voyage and the initial European settlements. The settlements began about 1812 when a handful of shipwreck victims, and discharged and deserting sailors and soldiers began fishing the waters and planting small farms. Although the area had been attracting summer Mi’kmoq visitors for centuries, travel writers and a few intrepid tourists began arriving in the late 19th century. The Depression, however, brought public work projects, one of which included building the Cabot Trail road around Cape Breton Island and in 1936, the opening of the National Park. These brought many more tourists and a gypsum company whose 1933-1955 operations brought many jobs to the region but left a despoiled landscape and a silted up harbor. The museum tells the stories and shows the artifacts of several of the families that settled the region.
The roadside stop overlooks a deep rift valley that stretches 4o kilometers from the center of the island to the coast. The valley is now home to the MacKenzie River and surrounded by mountains of up to 1,750 feet.
The wilderness zone expanses inland from the coast and highway and is accessible from long trails off the road.
Atlantic Coast and Beaches
As you exit the southeastern edge of the park, you get to a rolling inland landscape and a lovely granite rock shoreline dotted with beaches–and many seabirds. And then onto the lowlands and more sandy beaches, punctuated by the long, rocky headland of Middle Head.
White Point is on the north coast, off a scenic detour along the Coastal Route, outside the northern edge of the park. It provides stunning views of islands, sandbars, rocky headlands and a picturesque fishing harbor, which marks the end of the short spur to the “town” of White Point.
A short (0.2 mile) walk on granite ocean headland takes you to rocks broken by lines of lava and studded with quartz crystals, and surrounded, on the inland side, by small shrubs and trees whose growth is stunted by high winds and high saltwater waves.
This 4.6-mile round-trip loop to the peak of a mountain offers a roughly 180-degree view from the ocean, to an inland valley. The trail has an 1,100-foot elevation gain, but is not particularly steep or difficult. It is, however, beautiful, ascending though lovely mixed forest, passing a stream with the quintessential bubbling brook. You then reach a small meadow and a stand of stunted, dead and dying trees just before you reach the peak, complete with an Adirondack chair overlooking the best view. The only downside to the trail is the 4WD dirt and gravel road that makes up the remainder of the loop. It is long and boring, with the top half, to our eyes at least, downright ugly and the bottom half not much better. The only redeeming factor is a small, pretty waterfall just off the trail. Best to skip the loop and take the more direct, much prettier trail both up and down.
The very pretty 2.4 mile loop goes through a nice mixed (primarily spruce and birch) trail that stretches out into the ocean. Although it has a few easy (about 100 to 200 feet) ups and downs and many tree routes to negotiate, the beautiful trail and headland views at the end are well worth it.
The short (quarter-mile), walk goes to yet more spectacular coastal and highland views.