Hiking in Cape Breton Highlands

Cape Breton Highlands National Park and the famed Cabot Trail was the second important stop in our Canadian Maritimes travels (after Halifax). We had only two nights here, though, and chose Ingonish and Cheticamp campground on the two sides of the park as our bases. If we had more time, we would probably have added a stop in the middle of the Cabot Trail, allowing us more time to linger over smaller hikes, and to head out of the national park to the more isolated northern coves. As you can see, the Cabot Trail loops in and out of the national park – but most of the areas outside of the national park were also nature spaces – there isn’t a notable difference between the two areas on the drive. In any case, here’s the map with the list of treks that we did do and the two campgrounds we stayed in!

Map of Cape Breton Highlands National Park : what to do in 36 hours - Franey and Skyline trails, other shorter hikes, coastal drives, cabot trail, camping at Cheticamp and Ingonish Beach

Day 1 – Franey – Uphill work and a bear sighting!

We’d passed the night before at Nimrod’s campground near Sherbrooke, and drove up to Cape Breton from there early in the morning. Baddeck, with the Alexander Graham Bell Natural Historic Site, was our picnic stop. Unfortunately, there was a power cut in the museum, and half of the exhibits were closed. We did read a lot of informative panels about his work with the deaf, though, and the view over the Bras d’Or lake with kids flying the kites they’d made at the center was a good backdrop to the picnic.

We arrived in the national park after lunch and promptly set up camp at Ingonish Beach, before heading out again in the late afternoon. The first trek we did was Franey, a few minutes drive from the campsite – a tough but rewarding hike. The light, filtered through the various tints of green in the foliage, played on the textures in the forest – the effect was altogether rather charming.

Franey Trail, Cape Breton

Franey is a loop, and one should definitely do it in the clockwise sense (in the parking lot, the clockwise trailhead is where there is the sign). Doing so, the uphill portion will have wooden stairs and trails along with normal treks, with quite a few spectacular viewpoints east-wards to the sea and also west-wards to the Clyburn valley behind.

Franey Trail, Cape Breton

The view on Clyburn Valley follows the meanders of the river. There is actually a trek that leads to an old gold mine in Clyburn Valley itself, but the view from Franey is probably more impressive!

Franey Trail, Cape Breton, Clyburn Valley view
Clyburn Valley

The timing given in the visitor guide was pretty accurate for most of the hikes (2-3 hours for Franey), and we found had some marge for stopping and exploring the small side trails that gave to viewpoints.

Franey Trail, Cape Breton

Of course, the Franey summit was really spectacular, and we spent a little longer here clambering over the huge boulders. At this time of the day, we met only one family and a few couples on the same hike, so we got to enjoy the summit to ourselves.

Franey Trail, Cape Breton, summit
Franey summit

The downwards hike will be on a wider and less interesting road that used to be for vehicles. We walked fast on the way down as the road was wide and made for easy walking, when suddenly we heard two large animals moving to our right in the bushes! Remembering the multiple signs warning of wild animals (bears, moose, coyotes), my walking pace inadvertently sped up, and throwing a few glances to the right, I saw a black furry shape hurrying away in the other direction from us! Probably a black bear cub, as it wasn’t as big as expected, but the first animal that had already moved further away could have well been a mother bear. Hearts still racing, we continued the descent, marveling at our close encounter. (We later learnt from the park rangers that black bear encounters are getting more frequent in N. America, but attacks are relatively rare.)

Cape Breton National Park Coyote sign
A typical sign on what to do when encountering wildlife!

Back at Ingonish, night was falling soon. It seems too bad that we didn’t have time to head down to the beach but we were rather tired after the long hike and settled for a dinner around the campfire and sleep!

Day 2 – Cabot Trail – Coasts + Skyline

A light drizzle greeted us in the morning as we woke in the tent – misery! This was to be our long day out around the Cabot Trail, and good weather would have been nice! Thankfully, the clouds soon cleared away some and we set off with a list of trails to conquer!

Freshwater Lake, Cape Breton
Freshwater Lake

The first stop was back at the visitor center: the Freshwater Lake Belvedere. The drive back wasn’t too long and the view was definitely worth it, although it would make more sense to do this trail as one enters the park, should time allow it! (we had wanted to head out to Franey ASAP the day before…)

Freshwater Lake, Cape Breton
Canada 150 red chair

This was a short but steep hike that took about 10 minutes to the viewpoint, and the view was surprisingly rewarding. The Freshwater Lake is separated from the sea by a narrow stretch of land, backed with the high coves typical of Cape Breton, and the garden behind the Visitor Center was decked out with red flowers. Of course, there was a Canada 150 red chair waiting for us at the top of the trail, a much appreciated reward at the end of every steep hike!

Broad Cove Mountain, Cape Breton
Yet another red chair!

The next hike was Broad Cove Mountain. This was a short hike of an hour, leading up to another mountain top viewpoint, with yet another red chair sequestered away among the rocks… on our way down, we saw this little guy!

Toad

Then began the long stretch of magnificent coastal sights, with pull off points and short treks. We stopped at Lakies Head and Green Cove, both of which had red rocks you could climb over and the sea stretching out and crashing down on the shore on both sides – both coves had informative sign posts too!

Green Cove, Cape Breton

Green Cove, or Anse Green in French, was a perfectly lovely bit of land that I really liked. The origin of its name is evident – the part of the cove facing inland was completely cushioned over with the most vibrant green, whereas on the other side, barren rocks jagged out at all angles, inter-spaced with tidal pools!

Green Cove, Cape Breton
Green Cove

Green Cove, Cape Breton

We continued making our way north and arrived at the Jack Pine trail head / Black Brook Beach area. There are parking lots to the left where the trail starts, or to the right with easier access to the beach – in any case, the walk over from trail head to beach is short and we opted to leave the car at the trail head under the shade of the trees.

Jack Pine Trail, Cape Breton
Jack Pine Trail

On Jack Pine, we chose to take the shorter loop that took us through most of the viewpoints on the coastal side. The slightly different habitat up on the rocks and under the pines were definitely interesting – orange with lichen and other mossy bits – life was here too, breaking out between the rocks.

Jack Pine Trail, Cape Breton

The sheltered coves with the deep turquoise waters were delightful, as we looped in and out of various bays. As the coast of this area was lined with pines, the trail was cool and had many offshoots onto the various pieces of land jutting out.

Jack Pine Trail, Cape Breton

Other families were lounging around on the rocks, each family had chosen their own little cove to colonize, it seems! The sun beat down – hopefully it would hold until we got to the beach!

Black Brook Cove Beach, Cape Breton
View on Black Brook Cove Beach

Hold it did, and after a quick lunch break on Black Brook Cove beach, we headed into the waves that crashed down on screaming children and floating adults alike. The sun was shy, however, and hid behind clouds on a whim – the water was cold, and when we’d had enough, it was back to the road.

Beulach Ban Falls, Cape Breton
Beulach Ban Falls

Then began the long drive to traverse from east to west of the national park. We stopped at two points: Beulach Ban Falls, reduced to a trickle in summer, and Lone Shieling, where stands a faithful old shepherd house. Both trails were really short ones, the turn off to Beulach Bans comes just as the Cabot Trail heads back inside the National Park – be careful not to miss it!

Lone Shieling, Cape Breton
Lone Shieling

Unfortunately, there were many construction works going on in this part of the Cabot Trail, and we spent a lot of time waiting to be allowed pass blocked off one way portions of the road. We had wished to do another shorter trek on top of the skyline trail, but by the time we got to the skyline trail head, it was already late in the afternoon, almost evening. By this time, the sky had covered back over – gray clouds were everywhere as we headed onto the trail.

Skyline Trail, Cape Breton

A mist set in, bringing with it another atmosphere – not altogether unpleasant – and imbibing the area with a mystical feel. It seemed to me that at any moment, a huge moose could step out of the fog and before us!

Skyline Trail, Cape Breton

The well known part of the Skyline trail descends on a boardwalk rimmed with light blue stripes onto several platforms. The vegetation growing on either side of the boardwalk is extremely fragile, and the trails where people had wandered off to take photos or to explore were easily recognizable.

Skyline Trail, Cape Breton

Despite the various signs warning against going off trail, quite a few people were still heading down into the vegetation to get a perfect selfie – which was rather a shame as this part of the Skyline trail is really well constructed and I felt well allowed one to appreciate the wilderness without spoiling it.

Skyline Trail, Cape Breton

The sun broke through the clouds at a few little spots on the sea – we munched on dried raisins as we watched the beams of light move as the wind blew the clouds around – what a beautifully rugged place to stop and sit for a while.

Skyline Trail, Cape Breton

Doing the Skyline loop instead of heading back the same way as we came, the trail trudges through open plains, and there are lesser viewpoints – as compared to the other trails that we had done earlier that morning. As it was late in the day, tourists dwindled down to almost zero – it was here that I really felt the isolation of the highlands! Not completely “recovered” from our run-in with the black bears the day before, I felt that at any moment a moose or some other large mammal might step out of the tall grass – but sadly/fortunately, nothing did, and we finished the trail in good time.

Cheticamp Campground, Cape Breton
Cheticamp – Site 13

Finally, it was back to Cheticamp campground. This was definitely one of my favourite camping sites during the trip – situated in a huge field with a few trees, surrounded by highlands, the night sky was dotted with stars and the atmosphere was for some reason, really familial. A good way to end our time in Cape Breton – we were to leave early next morning to catch a ferry to PEI!

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