Scotia’s Cape Breton Highlands National Park offers scenery so breathtaking, you might just have to stop and sit down.
My family and I were hiking in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, NS, when I did something uncharacteristic. I stopped, sank onto a bench, and stared out toward the Atlantic Ocean.
In a busy, get-up-and-go world, the scenery had stopped me in my tracks.
We were hiking Middle Head Trail, a century-old former carriage road. This gem of a trail starts at the iconic Keltic Lodge Resort in Ingonish and follows a long, narrow peninsula that separates two ocean bays; it ends on headland cliffs that overlook the Atlantic, Cape Smokey and Ingonish Island.
The raw beauty is hypnotic. It’s little wonder that hiking is one of the most popular activities for visitors to Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The 950-square-kilometre park, home to the famous Cabot Trail, can take your breath away with its vistas of deeply cut river canyons, soaring highlands, and sweeping seacoasts.
The park’s hiking trials—they range from easy strolls to challenging climbs—provide panoramic views and intimate opportunities to explore the beauty of northern Cape Breton Island; you can go on your own or have a park interpreter offer information about the Park’s wildlife, plants and history.
“We consider hiking to be our top offer here at the park,” says Mariève Therriault, the park’s product development officer. “Trails are one of the best ways to experience the park.” She notes that the majority of visitors come to take advantage of the trails; there are 26 to choose from.
We asked Therriault to suggest three popular choices for hikers. “The Skyline is our signature trail, and our most popular—accessible for all, because the car climbs the mountain for you,” she says of this hike, referring to a dramatic headland overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence. “Once you are parked, you have an easy, flat trail all the way to the end, and the view is simply breathtaking.” En route, hikers may see moose and bald eagles.
The trail known as Franey is equally spectacular, she says. “I think it’s the jewel of the park. It offers a sweeping view of the ocean, the Middle Head peninsula, and the Clyburn Valley. Wow!”
She speculates that every member of the park’s staff might offer a different trail as his or her third choice, but she suggests the Acadian Trail. “It’s a gentle climb up, following a brook in the Acadian forest valley, and once you reach the top, the view of the ocean is fantastic. You can see the village of Chéticamp bordering the Gulf, la Grande Falaise [the great cliff that looms over the Cabot Trail] and the highland plateau. It’s very nice, indeed.”
No matter which trail you choose, pack a picnic. Sit and listen to waves serenading you. Feel the peace wash over your soul. Above all: don’t rush the experience.
Hiking tips from Parks Canada
- Don’t hike alone
- Take a solid walking stick
- Tell someone where you are going
- Pack in, pack out; littering attracts wildlife and puts you and the animals at risk
- Dress appropriately—weather may change rapidly on the plateau and along the coast
- Bring water, especially for longer trails
- Bring insect repellent
- Stay on the trails to protect fragile vegetation
- Do not approach, disturb or feed wild animals: check in at the Visitor Centre before you go to learn how to handle an encounter with a moose, coyote or bear
Top trail picks
Acadian: Breathtaking views and challenging slopes
Franey: Spectacular bird’s-eye view of the Clyburn Valley
Bog: Insect-eating plants and a boardwalk that keeps feet dry; wheelchair accessible
Jack Pine: Rare trees and unique, stunning geology
Skyline: Viewing decks that offer a chance to see whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence
Glasgow Lakes Look-off: Spectacular 360º views of the highland plateau
MacIntosh Brook: A babbling brook with a delightful waterfall at the end
Salmon Pools: The high cliffs of the Chéticamp River canyon
Broad Cove Mountain: Short but steep hike to a dramatic view
Middle Head: Scenic peninsula separating two ocean bays
The park has hiking trails that range from simple to challenging—but the view from the peak is often its own reward.