The Cape Breton Highlands are a mountainous plateau of older rock and forests on the northern portion of Cape Breton Island. Most of the area is within the Cape Breton National Park that was established by Canada in 1936. The area contains many magnificent views of deep canyons, harbors, and great coastal scenery. The Cape Breton Highlands are most easily accessed by taking the Cabot Trail, a scenic highway, that traverses the perimeter of the Highlands
There are many spectacular areas to turn off of the trail to view the scenery of the Highlands. We happened to venture out to the area in October when the fall colors were at their brightest. The area affords many great hiking trails. However be advised that due to coyotes and bears it is not safe to walk on these areas alone. See warnings.
Just south of Cheticamp is the very unusual Joe's Scarecrows. As you approach you are not sure what is. Literally tens to hundreds of scarecrows are located on a grass field with halloween masks. They are dressed in many different ways portraying everything from lumber jacks, to police officers to little kids. Many of them are arranged in circles and appear to be holding hands. Each scarecrow has a card attached to it which provides some information as to what it is. This bizzare site is something not to be missed just south of the entrance to Cape Breton National Park.
Located just south, of the entrance to Cape Breton National Park, on the western side is the town of Cheticamp. The town of Cheticamp is home to about 4,000 residents. It is the largest Acadian and french speaking town in the Cape Breton area. Cheticamp grew up primarily as a fishing town in the 1700's and its first permanent residents didn't settle until 1782. It is part of a large bay and the Cheticamp river flows through the town.
What is striking about the town is the fact that there are virtually no trees. According to a friend of mine who lives farther south this is because of the extraordinarily fierce winds that blow down from the park making it difficult for large trees to root.
On the day we went through the town there was virtually no one outside. When we stopped into the local Tim Horton's we found out why. Nearly 100 people, most of them local residents, were having a group meeting. Quite a site and a very interesting event.
To the south of the city is the very unsual Joe's Scarecrow's. See separate review
Cape Breton Highlands NP is perfect for hiking. Along the road that leads through the park there are no less than 28 hiking trails ranging from a 15 min walk to a rocky cape to a 6 hrs hardcore hike. Due to the bad weather conditions I experienced when I visited Cape Breton Highlands NP, I had to skip most of them. I did, however, hike down the Smokey Trail not too far away from Ingonish. It actually doesn't belong to the park itself, but its scenery is breathtaking nonetheless.
The hike goes up and down the coastal areas, partly leading through crooked birch and fir forests, partly through maple growths coloured in the most wonderful reds and yellows, partly on top of the cliff with gorgeous views on the sea, partly through dense flora where you are lucky to find your way. It's approximately 5km long and certainly nothing for amateur hikers. Good walking boots are obligatory as there are many rocks and roots on the ground. The trail ends at a lookout point from where you can see Ingonish and around. It's not a round trip, so you have to walk the whole way back. But all the great views and scenery make this well worth the hike!
Neil's Harbour is worth a short stay: A very nice and pleasant village located on the east side of the Cabot Trail with a beautiful lighthouse and some places to stay or eat. Make sure to visit the lighthouse as you have a good view on the village from there and you also see the dramatic skies over the ocean in front of you.
The Skyline trail was the highlight of the trails we hiked (and the only one without signboards). It was the longest - almost 9 km, and the view at the mid-point of the trail was amazing. You land up at the top of a hill with a boardwalk part way down the hill -- spectacular view -- ocean before you, the winds blowing at you - almost gale-force winds, and the highlands behind you.
We were actually quite happy that the wind was blowing at us from the ocean - the worry was if the wind would blow the other way, it could blow us off the cliff and into the ocean.
From the top of the highlands, looking one way you can see the Cabot trail below winding through the forest, another direction and you could check out the ocean many metres below. If the season is right, you may even be able to see whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Another point to remember, they were quite strict about where you walked. Stick to the boardwalks - they are trying to regrow natural vegetation -- which takes many years because of the unfavourable weather there.
We sat on one of the benches and ate the lunch we had packed. When we turned around, we followed the loop trail back to the car (most people returned the same way they came). Following the loop (slightly longer way) was worth it - we came across moose and grouse that virtually ignored us. We also walked through forest that had burned many years ago and was slowly recovering.
We remembered this hike from the last time we drove the Cabot trail, over 20 years ago. Back then, we brought our eighteen-month-old son on that trip, and he walked the whole bog trail.
The bog trail is built on a boardwalk meandering through the bog. You will pass bog plants (like the bug-eating pitcher plant) and orchids, and perhaps see a moose. Of course to see a moose, you would have to post a 'Closed trail' sign there behind you because there are normally so many people wandering the 1/2 km trail that no self-respecting moose would be caught dead within a kilometre of the trail.
The Lone Shieling is a replica of a Scottish highland sheep-herder's hut -- the hut and some sugar maple forest were donated to the province by a Scottish family before the national park was created. I don't think there ever was any sheep herding in this forest, just one family trying to remind visiters of the Scottish heritage of many of the area's settlers.
Now the whole forest is inside the national park. It is full of 350 year-old maples, and the forest is closed to any visiters at all except for this short trail of less than a km. What is strange about this forest is that most of the lush green undergrowth under the gigantic maples are maple seedlings. The seedlings grow slowly, waiting for light to strike them (for instance if one of the 350 year old tree dies). The seedlings are so numerous that they cut out any other growth. This keeps the maple forests from changing into other species of trees like most other forests do.
This trail was interesting. First you have to drive out to the Keltic Lodge on a peninsula. It's a fancy Lodge -- rooms in 2005 for two go for $351 plus taxes per night (dinner included) -- a little out of our league.
However, you can drive past the lodge and the cottages and start the 1 to 2 hour (4km) hike from the parking lot beyond all the humanity. The trail goes out onto an estate owned by the Corson family in the early 1900's. You pass wonderful sea views of Cape Smokey, and if you are lucky will see eagles, cormorants or terns and their nests. We did see an eagle zip by below us while we were up on a cliff.
Don't let kids run free, there are lots of warnings that you could run off the edge of a cliff if you are running too fast.
Trail 19 is just a short walk-about. After parking, you walk out on a large rocky outcrop which juts out into the ocean. They warn you not to walk on the rocks when the waves are crashing because the chances of slipping and spilling into the sea are high. Since you are on a jut-out into the ocean, there is constant wind, and the trees and vegetation are all stunted and salt-covered.
In the picture, you can see the salt water that collects in pockets in the rocks. It is a large outcop of rocks -- you can see me posing near the edge.
This trail starts approximately 5km from the park's SW entrance. You hike along a road that was settled before the area became a park. Five families, 50 kids. In the 1930's (I think), Parks Canada moved the families south to the area around Chéticamp.
It would have been a hard life - you still see building foundations and meadows where fields had been hacked out of the forest. You also have great ocean views from various points of this hike.
If you look closely at the photo, you can see Chéticamp off in the distance. That is where these five families went to church every Sunday.
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