The Cape Breton Highlands National Park

When my circumnavigation of Nova Scotia in a canoe brought me to the Park in 1980, I knew little of the region. At the time my only memories of the Highlands had been vague childhood images that seemed more dream than reality: vertical cliffs peering onto a vast ocean, shadowy valleys lost under cathedral trees, or a desolate plateau where the clouds seemed to scrap the tops of ragged trees. I recall well, though, the Cabot Trail, that famous roadway clinging to the contours of mountains, ascending and descending like a roller coaster, and pushing my stomach up into my mouth. But I was only eleven then, and those disjointed visions of a special summer vacation were but fragments in the recesses of my mind.

They certainly did not prepare me for the mass of smooth, dark shapes that seemed to appear out of nowhere as I paddled around Mackenzie Point. The sea was aboil with whitecaps as they surfaced and dived beside us, sometimes only a paddle length away; sparkling rays glancing off black backs and shooting into my eyes. I was petrified, not knowing what to expect and fearing the worse. Then, just as quickly as it began, it was over. The fear that had me trembling turned to relief, then to awe, and finally to disappointment as the pilot whales disappeared into the background, pursuing a school of mackerel down the coast.

The Cape Breton Highlands National Park was established in 1936 as the first national park in Atlantic Canada. It cuts a wide swath across the rugged northern peninsula of Cape Breton Island, with borders on both the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic Ocean. The major part of its 950 square kilometres is an ancient plateau, the highest in Nova Scotia (although the summit is only 532 m!), which is carved by several prominent valleys that have been eroded by rivers and enlarged by glaciers. Dense balsam fir stands cover the rolling interior hills that are interspersed with expansive barrens, shallow lakes and blanket bogs. This is a bleak environment, especially in the raw winters, and access is difficult. The coastal fringe most familiar to visitors, on the other hand, is a marked contrast. Deep valleys and stable slopes are covered with a rich hardwood mix that belies the fact that we are much further north than the stunted spruce/fir forest of my Eastern Shore home. The extraordinary coastal vistas are opened by the renowned Cabot Trail. This feat of highway engineering was named after the Venetian captain who may have landed on these shores 500 years ago.


A paddling trip is still the ultimate means to explore the park coastline. Gone are the impediments of a dense forest, an oozing bog or an impassable rock face. Rare are the bugs, and even rarer the portages that are often the bane of inland paddling (of which there is none in this park). I return often, with sea kayaks these days, to poke about an endless variety of a sheer escarpment, broken by ragged sea caves and washed by waterfalls. No other tourists here-at the most a few on the tour boats whale watching. And as exciting as that may be for them, it can’t compete with paddling into the middle of a pod under the glare of their inquisitive eyes.

The western shore (the Gulf of St. Lawrence) is the most interesting. This is where the highland escarpment plunges directly into the sea. It is also where the Acadian community of Cheticamp has survived, and retained its French heritage. I was storm bound here for several days during my canoe voyage and was treated to a cohesiveness and joie de vivre that is readily apparent to any astute traveller who has downed a brew at the “Doryman”. The village is the largest adjacent the Park and has prospered due to a generous Gulf fishery and to tourism, until the recent stock collapse has put its future in doubt.

You can put in at several points, including Cheticamp Harbour itself, but I prefer La Bloc, just off the Trail north of the park interpretive centre (which houses an excellent exhibit and nature bookstore). The remnant of a wharf predating the park offers some shelter from the open water. Under calm conditions you can easily reach the village of Pleasant Bay in a single day (23 km away, and the first spot where you can take out). However, I suggest an overnight trip, including a stopover at Fishing Cove. This idyllic break into the coastal scarp was once a tiny fishing settlement that was accessible only from the sea. Today, several campsites dot the abandoned hillside fields. The brook forms a small pond behind a cobblestone bar that is continually rearranged by winter storms. Rough trails extend along each side of the cove to overlook the ragged cliffs and sea caves, and the pilot whales that occasionally feast on squid at the entrance.

When the weather is calm I will hug the shoreline and weave among the spires and shoals, peeking into the sea caves and under cavernous overhangs. Here the enormity of the earth processes that have formed the Highlands are the most apparent. Massive headlands, that were once part of mountains as high as the Rockies, and formed during a time when the dinosaurs became extinct (65 million years ago), are still impressive seen from the perspective of a kayak. The earliest rock is over a billion years old. The youngest dates from the Carboniferous era of fern forest and evaporating seas, and the variety of textures, forms and colours are striking, even for the uninitiated. It was here that my enthusiasm for geology was awakened.

Even in the height of tourist season, this route leads you into seclusion, away from the steady stream of vehicles hidden by the hills. Your companions will be the wildlife: the cormorants and guillemots nesting on exposed ledges and jagged spires, the bald eagle following overhead in the up drafts and the curious seals guarding their distance among the shoals. And, if you are lucky, the school of mackerel breaking surface in shimmering unison, pursued by the whales.

This is a trip for experienced paddlers. Little has changed since the l700’s, when accounts by shipwreck survivors painted a stark and unforgiving wilderness. The coastline remains exposed (there are no offshore islands) and good landing spots are at a premium. The winds are predominately southwest (i.e., onshore) and they can rapidly churn up a swell and dumping surf (especially in late summer and fall). Plan well before committing yourself, for if you are storm bound there is no exit overland. Bring extra supplies just in case. On the positive side, though, the warm Gulf water (up to 20 C) adds a welcome margin of safety.

Novice paddlers might prefer the park’s Atlantic coast. The water may be a tad chillier, but the westerly winds are usually attenuated by the Highlands. You can leave from the beach adjoining the campground (this is the eastern entrance to the park and the administrative centre) or from Ingonish Ferry wharf, in the shelter of Ingonish Harbour. Paddle under Cape Smokey or visit Ingonish Island (deserted now, except for the sea birds) on the way north to Neil’s Harbour. The Cabot Trail touches the coastline at several points along the route, allowing a quick take out if necessary.
Don’t be limited by the park boundaries. Some of the most impressive, and remote, Highland scenery is just to the north. A particularly challenging 7-ll day journey will take you from Cheticamp to Ingonish, around the tip of the province.


Long before I ever embarked in a canoe or sea kayak, mountaineering was my great passion. I lived in Europe where my ramblings took me from Mount Blanc to the Austrian Alps with an intensity that had, at times, almost led to a premature demise. And while Nova Scotia is far from being an alpine region, the numerous cliffs within the Highlands National Park suggested that, here too, there might be something of interest. I soon discovered, though, that the brittle rock didn’t lend itself to anything technical, and certainly not to the level of risk that I was willing to consider in my mellowing age. Instead, the taste of hiking that I had gleaned from coastal paddling suggested another approach, and indeed the best means to discover the interior of the park.

My first hiking foray, a carryover from the earlier alpine challenges, was a rather unconventional attempt to cross the park. The plan was to follow the Cheticamp River gorge (beginning at the park’s interpretive centre), onto the remote central plateau and down into Ingonish. The distance was only 50 km and the topo maps foretold a spectacular journey. Indeed, the deep canyons were flanked by a dense canopy of brilliant autumn colours that led into one of the most remote and pristine sections of the province. However, it was also a far cry from the pampered trails of the Alps and the precipitous walls forced us onto incessant detours through demanding brush and over onerous rock piles. Our progress became bogged down in details. To complicate matters, five days into the trek, a severe leg infection forced a hasty exit and a visit to the hospital.

My thirst for the ultimate local adventure somewhat satiated, I returned to the more modest exploration of the official hiking trails, of which there are over 25 (with something for all interests and fitness levels). The Bog and the Lone Sheiling, two of my favourite short walks, emphasise the contrasts in the interior of the park. The bog trail (0.6 km loop, located on the plateau between Cheticamp and Pleasant Bay, is an annotated boardwalk twisting through a scattering of gnarled tamarack and black spruce. The wet depressions harbour insect eating plants and, in spring, a display of colourful orchids. This is a harsh habitat where both growth and decomposition evolve in slow motion. The adjacent Benjies Lake Trail (3.2 km return; 1-2 hr), a continuation of this theme, leads through soggy barrens and evergreen forest to a shallow, acid lake where you might hear the call of the Greater Yellowlegs. This is one of its only nesting sites in Nova Scotia. Or you might also spot, as I did, the park’s premier resident.

Moose were exterminated by hunting and disease in the early part of this century, but reintroduced in the l940’s with stock from Alberta. Now, relatively safe from humans (although poaching remains a problem) they have flourished, especially following the latest spruce bud worm epidemic, which has led to considerable regenerating browse. The woodland caribou and the timber wolf have not been so fortunate. This is also the last bastion in the province of the secretive lynx and, perhaps, even the eastern cougar.

The Lone Shieling lies a short distance to the north in a totally different setting. This replica of a Scottish sheep crofter’s hut is found under a 300 year old climax sugar maple forest that has never seen a cutter’s blade. These were the cathedral trees of my youth. A short walk (0.8 km) leads over a rich valley floor where a carpet of spring flowers emerge long before the bog land sheds its blanket of snow. This is what much of Cape Breton would have looked like to the first Scottish settlers who, driven off their lands by British barons and their sheep, came to the New World in search of a better life.

Most of the other trails require the better part of a day to fully appreciate. The Skyline (7 km return), just above the Corney Brook campground, takes you through a scraggy forest (the result of a fire in the l950’s) onto a windswept ridge overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence. On a clear day I’ve been able to see Quebec’s Isles de la Madeleine floating in the distance, and spotted whales a thousand feet below pursuing their prey up the coast. On the park’s northern boundary, beginning at Beulach Ban Falls, the Aspy Trail (9.6 km return; 3-4 hr) climbs along the river, through a deciduous forest and up onto the plateau. The dramatic scarp, part of a major system of faults that extends from New England up through western Newfoundlands and perhaps into the British Isles runs towards the northeast and under the ocean at Cape North. Some geologists suggest that this is an extension of the Great Glen of Scotland, adding an intriguing geological link to the cultural ties already existing between the two disparate continents.

The only major hiking trail along the shoreline of the park is on the Atlantic side, between Black Brook and Neils Harbour (ll km return; 3-4 hr). Beginning at the upper parking lot at Black Rock Beach this ragged route is underlain by ancient, and extremely resistant, granites and metamorphic bedrock. Erosion is painfully slow yielding little sediment for the high energy boulder beaches. Prominent outcroppings are streaked with a spider web of igneous intrusions. The exposed headlands, with their carpets of crowberry, front a backdrop of white spruce, the result of a meagre soil cover and a rigorous climate.

The park has two back country campsites. I have visited the most popular, Fishing Cove, only from the water. The most common approach, though, is via a narrow path (l6 km return; 4-5 hr) that winds down from the Cabot Trail. The other destination is the Lake of Islands, atop the eastern plateau. This trail begins at the Mary Ann Falls and follows an old fire road through a study of bog, barren and stunted conifer (25.8 km return; 8-9 hr), a reliable description of the three quarters of the park ignored by most visitors. It is also an excellent terrain to spot a moose. Dress appropriately for a change in the weather, can rapidly transform a crusty dry path into a soaking sponge, and obliterate reference points. Bring a compass.

The exact location of these, and the other, trails may be obtained from the park offices or, for a more detailed description, refer to “A Nature and Hiking Guide to Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail” by Dave Lawley, a park naturalist.

Off trail back country camping is not encouraged, but permitted, although, a step from most official trails will likely be met with a tangle of krumholz or a bottomless bog. A path of sorts does cross the plateau, but it is seldom used and, even then, mainly in winter by park staff on snowmobiles. It is less than ideal hiking territory. And, of course, avoid the upper section of the Cheticamp River gorge, where I spent several day learning why this route wasn’t indicated on any hiking map.


A few years ago, about the time I gave up using my high altitude climbing boots for down hill skiing, I also finally parted with my Raleigh 3-speed that was gathering rust in the basement. I invested in one of the high tech modern bikes that had all the bells and whistles, and that had more gears than I could count, and set out on our Maritime highway system. My travels eventually brought me to the park where I, unfortunately, chose the windiest weekend in the season for my initiation and ended up admiring much of the route from the back of a pickup.

The park is a popular cycling destination and an estimated 4000 come every year. Some complete the entire Cabot Trail (289 km, although less that a third is actually in the park). Others select only sections, as the challenging climbs (up to 500 m) are not for the timid. However, the intimacy of the view, the varying smells and sounds and the sense of accomplishment make it very worthwhile. Local traffic is light, but the influx of vacationers can create long, tortuous snakes whose attention is directed more to the cliff side view, than to the struggling cyclist. More than once I felt I was being nudged towards the edge. Buses and motor homes are a particular annoyance, although if you get up and off early you can avoid a lot of hassle. I prefer to cycle here during the shoulder season, before July and after August when the road empties along with the inns and campgrounds. Most spectacular, of course, is in late September and October, when an intense fall tapestry colours the forested slopes.

As for which direction to take, choose the clockwise route, mainly to take advantage of the prevailing westerly winds. Count on 3-4 days from Cheticamp to Ingonish, more if you plan to explore the roads above the park (and I highly recommend the detour to Meat Cove, the most northerly community in the province), and a week to complete the entire Trail. Convenience stores are common, as are restaurants high on deep fried foods, but you are on your own when it comes to bike repairs and replacement parts - except if you can make it to Arts North (near Cape North) where Denis Doyen combines his craft skills with cycle repairs and rentals.

Many of the hiking trails in the park also double for mountain biking (e.g., Cheticamp River, Clyburn Brook, Lake of Islands). These are usually rough roads, a legacy of pre-park days. I once encountered some keen cyclists at Fishing Cove, although this is a rather difficult (and definitely non-sanctioned!) route. Inquire with park stall concerning the current regulations.


Come wintertime, when rain, sleet and slush define much of the Martimes, the Highlands are usually blessed with a thick blanket of snow. A rural calm cloaks the landscape and most of the park services hibernate (although outdoor shelters remain open at the Cheticamp campground). Few visitors call. The dormant hiking paths now become snowshoe and cross country ski trails, and several are groomed.

Clyburn Brook begins at the golf course, north of Ingonish, and has a wide circuit prepared for both skating and traditional technique. It parallels the river into a steep valley (6 km) through a forest of birch and popular. Gold was mined here until l916 and the abandoned hotel still stands. At the end of the trail a tiny hut, with a wood stove, will warm the extremities. Another groomed route nearby is the 15 km jaunt (return) into Mary Ann Falls. On the Cheticamp coast, the Salmon Pools trail (13 km return) is also prepared. Park staff are not optimistic that the grooming will continue, since the trails are not heavily used and funding is becoming increasingly scarce. However, just outside the park, in Cape North, a system of challenging trails (a legacy of the 1987 Canadian Winter Games) winds about an abandoned gypsum quarry, and is maintained by an active local club.

The park provides for some excellent back country skiing, especially on the plateau where a heavy snow cover can stretch well into April. I find a challenge and an isolation here that I seldom encounter elsewhere in this well settled province. A few winters ago, after having been denied a crossing via the Cheticamp River gorge, I decided to give it a try on skis.

This time, loaded down with fifty pound packs and accompanied by two other trekkers, I set out from Benjies Lake on the western rim. Initially, light powder covered the firm base and, under the bright March sunshine, the skiing was superb. At times its was even magical. In the evenings a full moon, hanging in the clear frozen sky, invited us out of the tent onto an immaculate carpet. There were no roads, fences, or no-trespassing signs to hinder our freedom to climb and descend, turn or stop, where and when we pleased. No cars, nor snowmobiles, nor chain saws. And no wind. Just a blanket of white, reflecting the moonlight with a brilliance of crystal, atop one of Canada’s finest natural areas.

But eventually the winds did come and they were vicious, sweeping in across the frozen Gulf, and up through the gorges, to churn up a frenzy that would equal any arctic storm. The chill crawled into the crevices of out clothing, encrusted our beards and froze our water. Gusts to 200 km/hr have been recorded, We were lucky, ours only reached 90 km/hr. No wonder the few trees that exist are stunted and deformed. Particulary devastating in the Highlands are the temperature fluctuations which during our traverse ranged from+l5 to -30 C. Blizzard turned to rain, powder became slush, then solid ice, then powder once again. The contrasts were remarkable, and stressful, and my expectations were met. It was a demanding adventure.

However, by the time we descended towards Ingonish, and the familiar sounds of rural Nova Scotia, it was clear that the winter had finally broken. The melt swirled over the roadway and into the ditches as the ground soaked up the rays. And as we headed back to Halifax, I was already planning a future adventure in one of the most captivating regions in eastern Canada.

Scott Cunningham is a biologist and Senior Instructor with the British Canoe Union. He has recently published Sea Kayaking in Nova Scotia.