Fall to the Rising Sun Trip • September 30 • Hiking in Cape Breton Highlands National Park
Whether you’re an avid hiker or not, Cape Breton Highlands is such an incredible place to explore. From hiking through forests, up mountains, and on coves out over the ocean, you can go on multiple hikes in a day in just a small area and see a wide variety of gorgeous vistas. If hiking isn’t your thing, you can still get great views from the scenic drive, and enjoy the overlooks, picnic spots, and beach access areas. If you’d rather go and enjoy this place away from tourists, the back country is so big and expansive, you could go hiking the long distance trails through the heart of the highlands. It’s also great for bird and whale watching during the right seasons, and has some places where you are almost guaranteed to see a moose. We spent 4 days in this area, and yet we know that if we were to return, we could do completely different hikes and activities and have a whole new experience here. In this post, I’ll share things that we did in the national park itself, but be on the lookout for an upcoming post that will share our favorite spots outside of the park!
We started our first full day here with driving from our campsite back to the Eastern side of the park and doing some of the best hikes recommended by the park rangers. First up was Franey Trail, a 4.5 mile loop that took us up to a panoramic view of a river canyon and the ocean. The trail was rated as difficult, but we really enjoyed the climb and the view was definitely worth it. The trail went from hiking through the woods, up to a more marsh-y area and then to the more barren highlands. At the top, you’re standing on a plateau with an unobstructed view of both the tree lined canyon, the Atlantic Ocean, and Middle Head, a small stretch of land that goes out into the ocean (which we would hike to next — read on!)
The sun was beating down on us at the top, but it felt so good after being so cold for the past couple days. We had gotten an early start and hiked fast enough to pass everyone on the trail, so we had a few minutes alone up there. We wandered around to get different views of the canyon, and met and exchanged photos with another couple. They were currently doing a work away project, where they were doing odd jobs for a local homesteader in the area in exchange for food and lodging. I’ve heard of the websites that you can use to find jobs like this, but they were the first people I’d met that were doing it and could say that it’s legitimate. What a great place to be able to visit and explore, while becoming acquainted with the locals and familiar with a homesteader’s lifestyle! We’ll have to file this idea under “future plans”. 🙂
We opted to make this hike a loop hike by taking a service road back down. We didn’t see anyone else here, but the road was also flooded with huge puddles in some areas, more so than the trail had been. There was a pretty hidden lake along the trail which we stopped to see, with a little extra caution because I was nervous about the moose situation. I’ll say that I would love to see a moose sometime while living here in the Northeast; however, I’d like it to happen under a few circumstances: we be safely in a car, in daylight, going at a slower pace so that we could stop easily, and I’d like to have my camera ready and the moose to be extra photogenic for me. I’m not asking for much, really. 😉
Once we finished with this hike, we drove practically right across the road to the Keltic Lodge, where the trailhead for Middle Head was. We packed a lunch with us this time, then set off on the short trail to the coast. There were a lot more people here, as it was a super easy trail and right in the middle of the day, but we still were able to be alone for much of the hike and found a quiet spot for lunch. The hike was a 2.5 mile loop that went out on this stretch of land into the Atlantic Ocean, giving beautiful views of the coves on either side. For the first part of the trail, it really just felt like we were walking through another forest, but as the stretch of land grew more narrow, we began to get peeks of the water when there were breaks in the trees. Finally, we walked out into a clearing with amazing views on both sides. We weren’t quite at the end of this short peninsula, but this was one of my favorite views (one of many…haha!). We ate lunch sitting on a rock overlooking the water, watching the waves crash into the rocks on the cove.
For the afternoon and all of the following day, we did some exploring outside of the national park, which I will save for another post. On Sunday, our last day in Cape Breton Highlands, we finished up with driving through the rest of the park on the West side, and went for one last hike near the visitor center. We had considered doing the Skyline Trail, one of the most popular hikes in the park, but did not this time for a few reasons. The Skyline Trail is the only trail that dogs are not allowed on, and that is because of the frequent moose sightings. While we probably could have left Charlotte in the car because it wasn’t warm outside at all, and the trail is marked as “easy” and only 4.5 miles long, we decided to pass on this one because the parking lot was already packed.
Instead, we decided to hike the Acadian Trail. This one was another loop trail, just over 5 miles long, that first took us up to an overlook of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, then through a lush green forest, back to the visitor’s center. While we saw people on the first half going up and to the overlook, we were the only ones walking back through the forest. I have to say, I think we found the views on the Eastern side of the park more impressive, but we really enjoyed our hike back through the woods. We even saw our first moose print in the mud — ahhh! No real animal sightings this time though! The trail followed a ravine and was very muddy in some sections – and there weren’t even any scenic views – but we still found it to be a very pleasant walk.
And that wraps up the time we spent in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. While we would love a chance to return someday, and know that there is still so much that we didn’t see, we are very content with what we were able to do and don’t feel the need to go back. There’s still a great big world out there, with plenty of other places to visit!
Come back soon to read about the rest of our time on Cape Breton Island — exploring what might be our favorite spot in Canada so far!