Cape Breton Island(Skyline Trail and Meat Cove Trail)

Getting There

Not long ago, National Geographic rated Cape Breton Island as the second best tourist destination in the world. Now having made it all the way to the maritime provinces of Canada, that alone made it worthwhile to head that little bit further and check out the claim.

It is a long drive from Moncton to Cape Breton Island across the tree-covered rolling hills of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Once we crossed the causeway on to the island itself, we started to get a bit more excited. We had made this long car trip with the intention of hiking amongst the brilliant red autumn foliage for which the island is reknowned. What we hadn't counted on was arriving in the middle of the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday weekend and the Celtic Colours Festival which celebrated the celtic origins of the island's population. We also hadn't counted on the weather forecast for this holiday weekend – cold, wet and windy.

Typical Cape Breton house near Cheticamp

We reached the picturesque seaside village of Cheticamp, a place proud of its Acadian origins, where French is spoken as commonly as English, and found our little B&B (one of the few places with a room because of the holiday and festival – we also needed to move accommodation to stay a second night). That night we went to a local Acadian restaurant for a feast of crabs legs while entertained by one of the local Cape Breton fiddlers.

Bienvenu à l'Acadie

Nello enjoying the sunshine while she could

The silvery sea of Cape Breton Island

It was an accidental piece of good timing to be here for this music and cultural festival. My planned timing, however, was not as good for the season was late and the expected peak of autumn colour had not yet arrived – no dazzling expanses of red to greet us, just a general paling of the green with the odd splashes of yellow, orange and red. It was pretty, but a little disappointing (perhaps a case of unreal expectations) - not as disappointing though as the sound of the first raindrops on the roof of our B&B in the early hours of the morning. Our first hike had been planned for that day.

Skyline Trail (9.5km - 190m ascent – 190m descent)

As we sat eating our breakfast in Cheticamp, the rain started bucketing down and for a while looked like never stopping. However, by 11am it did and, with patches of blue sky appearing out to sea, we decided to hurry out and do at least one walk in the Cape Breton National Park. The walk we chose was the Skyline Trail, the signature walk of the park. We drove quickly out along the Cabot Trail, winding around the steep cliffs and slopes above the St Lawrence Gulf, before climbing up the Jumping Brook Valley to the trailhead carpark. Several other cars were already there, as other people also took advantage of the improvement in weather.

The Cabot Trail road winds its way around
the coastal cliffs

Setting out on the broad start of the Skyline Trail

We set out from the car, following a wide gravel vehicle track through the conifers. It seemed more like a promenade than a hike, even when we finally took to a footpath - still smooth, still gravel. Still, the sun was finally shining and we were out walking in the crisp fresh air of the Cape Breton highlands. The bronzed foliage of the bracken beneath the dark green of the conifers provided a touch of autumn colour, even if it was somewhat the reverse of what we expected.

Skyline landscape

Boggy clearing - this is moose country ....

... and this is a moose

Passing through an area of boggy dense conifer thickets, we crossed a clearing that had been created by moose over-browsing young birch trees and killing them. Moose are very abundant in the park and hikers always harbour the hope of spotting one. We were lucky as, a little further on, we saw some people peering into the trees ahead – a moose was browsing only a few metres from the path.

Overlooking the Cabot Trail road

After a period of moose-watching, we headed on to reach the stepped board-walk that led us down through the fragile meadows on the high seaward slopes of the highlands. Dropping down to the lowest level, we sat down for a while to take in the coastal vistas, as the Cape Breton Highlands plunged down to the Gulf of St Lawrence.

Cape Breton coastline from the Skyline Trail look-out

High above the St Lawrence Gulf

Then it was time to climb the 280 steps back up to the plateau. This time we left the smooth gravel path to follow a long loop on more classic walking trail – single file, a bit of mud after the rain, a few exposed roots – it was much more like hiking here, though the terrain was flat and easy. Many people chose to walk back along the gravel boulevard, so this was a quieter route.

Across the grassy flats to the sea beyond

Mixed broadleaf and conifer forest on the plateau

Track through the conifers

The track led us through the stunted conifers, past straw-coloured meadows and the occasional grove of old hardwood, some even showing a tint of autumn yellow. Occasionally, we got a glimpse across to the deep valleys that intersect this high plateau.

Looking out over the Cape Breton forest

Bracken adding a touch of colour to the forest

The loop rejoined the smooth gravel walkers' boulevard and we followed it back to the car park and the end of the Skyline Trail. The park was now completely full of cars - people were on the move again on this holiday weekend, seeking the open air, and it was clear to see that the Skyline Trail is high on everyone's list.

It it is a very easy track – the kind that you could wheel a pram along, as we saw people do – and this is the case with many of the walks in the Park. It is both good and bad – good because it offers an opportunity for all to experience the landscapes and natural beauty of the park, bad because it does not really offer any challenges for the more serious hiker. In the end, the Skyline Trail left me feeling a little flat, but this may be because it was impossible not to compare it with the other Skyline Trail that we walked near Jasper in the Rockies, and that was grossly unfair.

Eagle soaring high above the Skyline Trail

The Lone Shieling (1km)

Cape Breton National Park has several very short walks. The Lone Shieling is one such walk, but it is in an area of the Grande Anse Valley where the forest has remained untouched by humans. The chance to stroll amongst 350 year old sugar maples cannot be refused, even if it is for less than a kilometre and the day is bleak and wet. The forest here was more open than regrowth forest and with a forest floor covered in seedling maples waiting to push skywards should any gap appear in the shady canopy.

Wet day on the Cabot Trail

In the heart of the Cape Breton Highlands

19th century crofter's hut at Lone Shieling

A forest of old-growth sugar maples

The day may have been bleak, but the splashes of autumn colour brightened it up.

House in the Cape Breton hinterland

Trees along the bank of the Grande Anse

Meat Cove and Cape St Lawrence Trail (13km - 550m ascent – 550m descent)

We woke in Cheticamp as we had yesterday, to grey skies and heavy rain. Consequently, there was no rush to head off to our destination of Meat Cove on the far north of Cape Breton Island, where we hoped to get one last walk in before leaving. Eventually, we gave up on waiting for the rain to stop – we called by Charlie's music store and bought a CD, then set off to cross the fog-shrouded Cape Breton Highlands with the windscreen wipers beating time to the songs of Acadian country music. This fusion of French and Anglo cultures had taken our fancy.

Cape Breton highlands in the rain

The quirky interior of our lodge

North Aspy River

Coastline of the Bay St Lawrence

Meat Cove is the end of the road (and a pot-holey gravel one at that) as far as Cape Breton Island is concerned. I like such places and this did not disappoint me. Set in a deep wedge of a valley, facing the wild Atlantic Ocean, Meat Cove has a fantastic sense of isolation. We checked in to our hostel, the Meat Cove Lodge, and again were not at all disappointed.

This quirky, charming wooden lodge, filled with character and an eclectic collection of memorabilia and country craft would make any hobbit feel at home – it certainly made these two hobbits from the southern hemisphere feel so. We had a good chat with our host, Catherine, a 5th generation Scot, as she fired up the wood stove. By then it was 2.30pm and the rain had stopped – it was time to get out and walk before the day disappeared.

Meat Cove

Our lodge at Meat Cove

The stream next to our lodge

Seaside waterfall

Our target was Cape St Lawrence, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the St Lawrence Gulf, and the northernmost point of Cape Breton Island. Leaving the lodge, we headed up the last few hundred metres of road on the island, following the babbling Meat Cove Brook to the cliffs above the ocean. From here there were grand views eastwards along the rugged coastline towards Black Point.

View back towards the hinterland of Meat Cove

View east along the coastline

The road doubled back as it started to climb and promptly ended. However, a stony 4WD track replaced it and led us rapidly up through the overgrowing hardwood trees. The yellows and orange of their developing autumn foliage brightened up the gloomy sky as we climbed.

Meat Cove Brook

The climb up to the plateau

Nearing the top of the climb, we passed a small field and horse-corral. A little later we passed a group of moose-hunters in fluo orange jackets and carrying heavy calibre weaponry. It was moose-hunting season and Catherine had warned us not to take the inland tracks because hunters were about, at least not if we were wearing a bullwinkle hat and fur coat. Meat Cove actually gets its name from the moose-meat trade of the 19th century and these creatures are still abundant on Cape Breton Island. However, if I were a moose, I'd be heading quickly towards the National Park. We exchanged greetings with the hunters and headed on.

Autumn colours ...

... on the Meat cove Trail

After the turn-off to the cape

A little later, an old cart track headed off to the north and deeper into this stubby forest. It was going to Cape St Lawrence and so were we – we took it and started a gradual descent through thickets of dense conifer and groves of luminous orange and yellow hardwoods.

A dash of scarlet on the edge of the pond

The edge of Big Pond

The track took us by a beautiful little pondage, bordered by trees of scarlet and orange and then a bit later another larger body of water, aptly named Big Pond. The sun broke through to light it up as we passed, before hiding once again behind the clouds.

The sun breaks through to light up the pond

On golden pond

Track beneath the conifers

Just beyond Big Pond, we crossed French Brook to reach the edge of the escarpment, with views out over the lowland forest to the white-caps troubling the leaden waters of the Atlantic Ocean – there was a strong wind out there that we in the forest were well sheltered from.

View from the escarpment over the lowland forest

Lowland forest track

The old cart track now descended steeply down the escarpment on a stony surface to resume its route through the lowland forest in the direction of the cape. The last section was quite smooth and grassy and led us out to the green grass-covered cliff-tops of the cape itself.

Curious light on the northern edge of Cape Breton Island

As soon as we were out of the tree cover, the wind hit – the fierce gusts of cold air making it difficult to stand and I had to prop firmly to take any photos near the cliff edge. However, the sun had broken out of its dark grey prison and the sea to the west gleamed silver beneath the line of low cliffs and their bright green carpet of grass. To the east, the cliffs were higher, reddish brown rocks dropping to a dark sea striped with wind-whipped waves. It was beautiful and the negative ion count must have been huge – refreshment for mind and body.

Cape St Lawrence and its lighthouse

St Lawrence seascape

Changeable weather at Cape St Lawrence

Low cliffs west of the cape

After taking in the views and fighting the force of the wind, the fair Nello and I took shelter behind the low ruined walls of some old light-house building, having a snack and listening to the wind rattling the metal frame of the new solar-powered lighthouse. Time was pushing on and, if we were to be back by dark, we would have to leave. It was a pity that we didn't have time for our original plan to continue up the coast to return via the inland route, but rain, wind and moose-hunters had put paid to that.

Nello sheltering from the wind

The coastal moors of Cape St Lawrence

We backtracked along our outward route, still as pleasant as before, but with the increasingly strong wind now rushing through the tree-tops above us. Reaching the ponds, we met up with some more moose hunters, this time dressed in camouflage gear (run, moose, run!). Actually, the fair Nello met them first and warned them that I was coming up the track behind and that I was not a moose (both were true).

In the deep dark forest

Descent towards Meat Cove

Last glimpse to the distant sea

Soon, we were descending again and, as the light began to slowly pale, walked back into a lodge warmed by the cosy wood-fire (thanks, Catherine). It was a great place to relax with our traditional post-hike beer, sampling yet another fine Canadian brew.

Sunset over Black Rock Point

This was our last walk on Cape Breton Island, but it was a great way to finish and, for us, staying at this rustically comfortable lodge was integral to our enjoyment of it. After a somewhat dubious rain-interrupted start, we had finished our time here on a high note.

Canopy of conifer and broad-leaf

A curious globular rainbow