National Park

A sampler from Cape Breton Highlands National Park

The Skyline trail that leads to stunning views of the Gulf of St. Lawrence is at the top of most Cape Breton Highlands/Parks Canada visitors’ to-do lists, Adam Cornick

Located on an island surrounded by ocean, Cape Breton Highlands National Park is an island itself, made up of tumbled mountains, thick forests and vast, mostly untouched upland barrens by human imprint. At its heart the parks are much as they always have been, uncrossed by roads or transmission lines, unmarked by lodges, cut only by streams that run to the coast, thick with a wonderful mix of boreal forests and occasionally interrupted hardwoods. by generally treeless moors where shrubs, herbaceous plants and grasses grow at ground level.

Located in the northern half of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, the park has a split personality. The Cabot Trail, a 299-kilometre (186-mile) two-lane scenic road winds around the park, showing the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the west, but never really breaking through the national park. What the highway envelops is an imposing landscape of mountains dotted with lakes and intertwined with streams. Moose and bear are among the terrestrial species at home here, overhead you might spot a bald eagle, while in the surrounding ocean waters pilot whales might pass by. Salmon are still battling their way up the Margaree River to spawn, and ospreys and eagles are drifting overhead, ready to pick off any fish that come too close to the surface.

Cape Breton Island is a wonderfully bucolic place where the landscape has been largely protected, fortuitously, from the hubris of human involvement and the industrial tourism industry. Frankly, the whole island could rightly be designated a national park. The natural landscape here in the summer is full of rose hips and blueberries, crabapples and currants. Cows bask in lush pastures, no doubt delighted with the views and abundant ocean breezes.

The human landscape includes ubiquitous piles of weathered lobster traps, charming homes surrounded by vast expanses of green lawn and the handed down collections of fiddle tunes that are responsible for the sound of Cape Breton, which arrived from Scotland in the early 1800s with the highlanders who were exiled from the Isle of Skye. The west coast of Cape Breton seems like the perfect place to fiddle, with live music easy to find at the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou which packs them in every night and the Celtic Music Interpretive Center in Judique where they hold concerts. lunchtime concerts. Glenora Distillery north of Mabou and Baddeck Gathering Ceilidhs in Baddeck with its late night music.

Venture off the beaten track deep into the Margaree Valley and, if you’re lucky, you’ll stumble upon Anne Morrell Robinson’s quilt gallery that has earned her fame. There, in a 1,600-square-foot, two-story showroom, is a seasonally rotating collection of storytelling quilts.

The Cabot Trail circles the Cape Breton Highlands National Park and offers stunning ocean views, but never really goes inside the park/Parks Canada, Alaïs Nevert

But wherever you intend to go on the island, the national park is not far from your mind. Designated in 1936, the Cape Breton Highlands protect approximately 366 square miles (950 square kilometers) and include Nova Scotia’s highest point, 1,755 feet (535 meters) White Hill. Aside from the Cabot Trail, named after the Italian explorer who sailed to North America in 1497 (and may have landed on the island that year), no roads climb through the heart of the park. There are a few stops on mostly short hiking trails, but you need to be self-sufficient and skilled to really head inland.

“The Aspy, Franey, Mica Hill and Branch Pond Look-off trails, and technically the Clyburn Valley and Salmon Pools trails, would be the trails that go furthest into the interior, but none of them really go into the moors,” Eric Magnan, a Parks Canada media contact told me. “However, there is always the opportunity for camping and hiking in the undesignated backcountry.”

There is only one designated backcountry campground, Fishing Cove Campground, on the west side of the park, just north of the Fishing Cove River. You will find only eight sites offering a magnificent and panoramic view of the gulf.

It seems that for many, a visit to the national park would be incomplete without walking the iconic Skyline Trail, which is not so much a trail as a heavily traveled corridor. Despite a parking lot about a quarter mile long, with spaces on both sides, the popularity of the trail necessitates an overflow lot, which is maintained by parking attendants during the height of each summer day. These attendants, who are bilingual to direct you in French or English, do not hesitate to recommend that you come back later in the afternoon when the bulk of the pedestrian traffic has subsided.

Taking this advice, my wife and I pulled out of the parking lot and spent several hours exploring some of the other trails on the west side of the national park.

A boardwalk takes you to Lake Benjie/Marcelle Shoop

Lake Benjies

This short hike (1.9 miles, 3 kilometers round trip) takes you over a plateau at the top of French Mountain and through an expanse of boreal forest and moorland to a small lake/large pond at the end of a walk. Moose are said to frequent the area, but we never spotted any. Apparently your chances of seeing one increase in the spring and fall, and earlier in the day. The birds, on the other hand, were flying everywhere. The trail was officially named on June 13, 1975, but what might have been Benjie has been lost to time.

MacIntosh Creek

Another short hike, covering 1.7 miles round trip, this walk follows its namesake creek through the landscape. Your walk uphill passes through old-growth Acadian forest (hemlock, sugar maple, birch, spruce) so shade is plentiful. The creek meanders quietly for most of the hike, until you come to the reward, a waterfall that tumbles about 19 feet (6 meters) over a rocky plateau. The heavy traffic over the years has exposed many roots, so watch your position.

Solitary Shield

While this is also a short hike, a loop that doesn’t quite extend to half a mile (0.6 kilometers), the human and natural history on display warrants you adding it. to your to-do list. It wasn’t until we parked and took the trail that we found out what “Lone Shieling” is. In Scotland, a “shieling” was a structure erected by sharecroppers on the pastures of chieftains to shelter from the elements for themselves and their sheep. One end of the structure was left open for access and to provide light, and during the storm the farmer/crofter would pile up sod to erect a wall to keep out the weather.

The shield near the start of this trail, a sign explains, was erected “in accordance with the wishes of Professor Donald S. MacIntosh, a native of Pleasant Bay, Inverness County, who died July 20, 1934, and was designed for the province. of Nova Scotia one hundred acres of land about, expressing the wish that the Government of the Province should maintain a small park in the interval and build therein a small cabin to be constructed in the same design or plan as the single shield on the l ‘Isle of Skye, Scotland.’

Beyond the Lone Shieling, the trail takes you through a dense forest of sugar maple trees, some of which are believed to have sprouted 350 years ago. According to Parks Canada, the 4,000-acre valley that contains the trail is home to “the largest intact expanse of old-growth hardwoods in the Maritimes.”

Lone Shieling, Cape Breton Highlands National Park/Kurt Repanshek

With those three hikes checked off, we headed back to Skyline. While the parking lot was about two-thirds empty, it is a very large parking lot and your walk is still not without others. Yet despite these crowds, they are not enough to convince wildlife to avoid the area. During our brief stop in August, park officials were warning those on the trail to watch carefully for black bears.

Heavy trail traffic diminishes the hiking experience, and we skipped doing the entire 4 mile (6.5 kilometer) loop or 5.1 mile (8.2 kilometer) loop adding a rugged back loop, both offering views of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. That’s not to say the trail and its rewarding views aren’t worth the effort, but rather to encourage you to start early in the day before the crowds arrive.

As for our visit to Cape Breton, a week is certainly not enough to scratch under the veneer of the island and the national park. Plan, if you can, for at least two, to both slowly navigate the Cabot Trail, stop at the artisan shops along the way (leatherware, metalwork, pottery, quilts and more), do other hikes in the park and join the locals for dinner in pubs, taverns and restaurants where the fiddling continues long after dark.