Falling in Love with Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail

Cabot Trail on Cape Breton, with its spectacular scenery and even more stunning views, loops through Highlands National Park and remains a treasure waiting to be discovered for hikers and adventurists alike.
 

The Skyline Trail

After getting let go from my job and spontaneously purchasing a ticket to Halifax to begin the job hunt, I decided that a road trip around Cape Breton Island and the Cabot Trail would be the perfect place to start.

Many of my dearest friends hail from the island, and hearing them gush about their beloved home for years made me eager to see it for myself.

The trail named after the Italian explorer John Cabot (Giovanni Cabota, if you prefer the mother tongue) loops around mountains, along rivers and through the Highlands National Park of Canada.

The 300-kilometre route connects eight major communities, including Acadian, Irish and Scottish settlements. Both French and Gaelic signs still line the road.

The Beginning

Crossing the Canso Causeway in Nova Scotia, I stuck to the eastern side of the island and reached the trail through the town of Baddeck.

Here, I embarked on my first mini-hike around Middle Head, near Ingonish. The trail was a busy one, being next to the popular Keltic Lodge, but in between meeting a handful of people during the hike, there were still long stretches of quiet forest breaking open to views of the Atlantic Ocean and the coastline of cliffs.

The Middle Head four-kilometre trail is a fairly quick walk and will take about an hour to complete at a moderate pace. It’s perfect for anyone looking to stretch their legs during a long drive.

Heading to Dingwall

My destination for the evening, however, lay further north in Dingwall.

After leaving Ingonish, the mountains started popping up: giant hills greened with summer (which will turn a beautiful mix of red, gold and orange come fall) and carved out by river canyons. I felt like I had entered a whole different world.

The road took sudden sharp turns and plunged down hills and crossed bridges, and gave way to several look-outs great for whale watchers.

Despite the low population in the area, there are a surprising number of motels, cottages and even a hostel to book. I opted for Markland Beach Cottages, a secluded spot off of the highway.

The sun was setting on the beach when I arrived, the crickets were chirping, and I was delirious with happiness as I dipped my toes in the ocean.

I was falling fast for the island—in Newfoundland, the beaches are few and far between, and there’s no cricket lullaby in the evenings.

The Skyline Trail

My ultimate goal was to hike the famous seven-kilometre Skyline Trail after breakfast in Pleasant Bay. Several friends and travellers stressed the importance of seeing the highlands from 400 metres above, as well as the opportunity to check out some wildlife.

The west side of the island is where things start getting crazy: the hills get steeper, the roads get twistier, and the heights you’ll climb in a vehicle are dizzying.

Some guidebooks suggest taking the route along the eastern side of the island as a safer alternative, but you’ll be missing out on stellar views. I saw many cyclers and even one man riding a penny-farthing on the road.

The hike was busy as expected, but again there were long stretches of trail without any other company, and there’s more than enough space for everyone. I grabbed a walking stick just to be on the safe side—there are coyotes within the park, so it’s best to be cautious.

On top of the World

After strolling through the woods for a while, I finally broke out onto one of the headlands overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and the hills.

The view was unreal. I found a quiet spot to sit and take it all in, perched on top of world.

Boats appeared as little white dots as they motored their way around the ocean, and the road twisted and weaved around the cliffs hundreds of metres below.

Sitting there for nearly an hour, I felt completely content.

Back into the woods, the landscape changed to stunted trees and forest charred by fire.

Here it’s likely you’ll find the most interaction with wildlife: not five feet away from me on the trail, I came face to face with a bull moose.

He wasn’t particularly interested in me however, and after taking a few photos, I moved on.

My time in Cape Breton was brief, but the island made a lasting impact. The next time I return, I’ll be spending much longer than one day there.

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