National Park Guides

The Diverse Landscape of Cape Breton Highlands National Park

POSTED ON May 6, 2022 BY John Evans


Introduction

Cape Breton Highlands National Park, located on the beautiful Cape Breton Island (location) in Atlantic Canada, is a natural paradise that boasts breathtaking views and diverse landscapes. Established in 1936, it was the first national park in Atlantic Canada and is now one of the most visited parks in the country.

The park spans over 950 sq km (366 sq mi) and is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, making it a must-visit destination for nature lovers.

The park’s landscape is a perfect blend of rugged mountains, lush forests, winding rivers, and picturesque beaches along the Atlantic Ocean. The western entrance of the park in Chéticamp (location) leads you through the Acadian culture and charming fishing villages, while the eastern side in Ingonish (location) takes you on a scenic drive along the famous Cabot Trail.

As you explore the park, you’ll also have the chance to learn about the Mi’kmaq heritage and culture of the Waycobah First Nation, who have been living on these lands for thousands of years.

With stunning viewpoints, hiking trails, and visitor information centers located throughout the park, there’s always something new to discover in Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

History of Cape Breton Highlands National Park

Cape Breton Highlands National Park - Nova Scotia

The history of Cape Breton Highlands National Park, nestled in the northern part of Cape Breton Island, is as enchanting as its stunning landscapes.

The park’s origins can be traced back to the years following the last Ice Age when the region was inhabited by the Waycobah First Nation, whose rich Mi’kmaq heritage plays a significant role in the park’s human history.

In the 1930s, a significant development took place when the government of Nova Scotia, recognizing the unique beauty of the region, began advocating for the establishment of a national park. On July 7, 1936, their efforts bore fruit as Cape Breton Highlands Park was officially established, becoming the first of many national parks in Atlantic Canada.

The creation of the park was a collaborative effort involving numerous notable individuals. Dr. J.H. Clarence, a renowned botanist, played a pivotal role, passionately advocating for the protection of the ancient plateau and its unique Acadian forest. Later, the famous landscape architect Thomas Adams designed the world-famous Cabot Trail, a scenic highway that winds through the park, where mountains meet the sea.

Over the years, the park has undergone numerous changes, including the development of amenities for visitors. On the east side, near Black Brook Beach (location), the park’s first visitor center was built. This center, which now houses a nature bookstore, serves as a gateway to the park’s rugged wilderness. Various trails have been established throughout the park, each offering unique perspectives of the captivating landscapes. The Lone Shieling Loop Trail, for instance, takes visitors through an ancient grove of 350-year-old sugar maples, while the trail around Warren Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the park, offers stunning views of forested river canyons carved by powerful glacial activity.

In recent times, the park has expanded its offerings to include world-class golf on the eastern side, in the charming town of Ingonish. Today, the park stands as an ode to the undying efforts of the Waycobah First Nation, the Mi’kmaq people, and countless others who have contributed to preserving this gem in northern Cape Breton, one of the most enchanting places on Cape North.

Key Facts

Cape Breton Highlands National Park - Nova Scotia

  • Size: approximately 950 sq km (366 sq mi)
  • Number of visitors: approximately 300,000 visitors per year
  • Established on: July 7, 1936
  • Number of hiking trails: over 26
  • Total length of hiking trails: over 62 miles (100 km)
  • Lowest point: sea level at the Atlantic Ocean coastline
  • Highest point: White Hill, at 1,749 feet (533 meters) above sea level

Other Interesting Facts About Cape Breton Highlands National Park

  • Cape Breton is home to one of the largest remaining stretches of Acadian forest, a unique blend of hardwood and coniferous trees. This distinctive ecosystem supports a diverse range of wildlife, including the endangered bald eagles, Canadian lynx, and pine marten.
  • The Cabot Trail, designed by Thomas Adams, is one of Canada’s most scenic drives. This 185-mile (298-km) loop takes drivers through spectacular coastal landscapes, charming communities, and the heart of the park.
  • Established in 1936, the park was the first national park in Atlantic Canada, paving the way for nature conservation in the region.
  • The Lone Shieling trail takes visitors through an ancient grove of 350-year-old sugar maples, a rare sight and testament to the forest’s resilience.
  • The park is a haven for bird watchers, with over 230 species of birds. Rare sightings include the Boreal Chickadee, Bald Eagles, Spruce Grouse, and the Canada Warbler.
  • Cape Park is the only national park in Atlantic Canada with a boreal forest, home to black bears, moose, and a variety of bird species.
  • The park serves as an important site for scientific research, including studies on moose and forest health, climate change, and archaeology.
  • The park is home to numerous waterfalls, like the MacIntosh Brook and Beulach Ban Falls, offering stunning views and tranquil spots for picnics.
  • Recognized as a Dark Sky Preserve, the park offers some of the best stargazing opportunities in Canada.

Climate and Weather

Cape Breton Highlands National Park

Cape Breton Park experiences a maritime climate strongly influenced by the proximity of the Atlantic Ocean. The varying temperatures throughout the year create ideal conditions for a range of outdoor activities in different seasons.

Spring

Spring in the park, from mid-May to June, is generally cool, with temperatures ranging from 1°C to 10°C (34°F to 50°F). The park begins to awaken from its winter slumber, with wildlife such as moose and bald eagles becoming more active. This is also when seasonal passes for the park become available at the Ingonish Beach entrance or the visitor center.

Note that some facilities, like pit privies, may still be closed at this time.

Summer

Summer, from July to August, is the peak season, with temperatures ranging from 14°C to 25°C (57°F to 77°F). The warmer weather presents perfect conditions for swimming at Ingonish Beach or Broad Cove Beach, hiking up Broad Cove Mountain, or even spotting pilot whales from Cape Smokey or Pleasant Bay.

The park’s two visitor centers are fully operational during this period, facilitating a seamless visitation experience.

Fall

Fall, from September to mid-October, offers a spectacular display of colors as the trees change from green to vibrant hues of red, orange, and yellow. Temperatures can range from 5°C to 15°C (41°F to 59°F). This is also a good time to catch sight of wildlife around Freshwater Lake or hike along the Black Brook and Cap Rouge trails.

However, be prepared for sudden weather changes, as Atlantic Canada can experience early winter storms.

Winter

Winter in Cape Breton Island, from late October to early May, can be severe, with heavy snowfall and temperatures often dipping below freezing, -10°C to -1°C (14°F to 30°F). Winter activities include snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and wildlife viewing.

The park remains open year-round, but visitor services may be limited, and visitors should always check the Parks Canada website for current conditions and operational status.

Also, check out the current conditions of the North Mountain (Cape Breton), NS, here.

Recommended Gear

Cape Breton Highlands National Park - Nova Scotia

Proper preparation is essential for any outdoor adventure. When visiting Cape Breton National Park, you’ll need quality equipment to ensure you can fully enjoy the stunning landscapes where the mountains meet the sea.

  • Park Pass and Entry Essentials: Start with a reliable park pass from Parks Canada. This will grant you access to the entirety of Cape Breton Island, from the dramatic headlands of the eastern shore to the tranquil fishing cove on the north side.
  • Footwear: Comfortable and durable footwear is a must for tackling the hiking trails. A pair of waterproof hiking boots will serve you well, especially on the uneven terrain of the Skyline Trail or Middle Head. Check out our guide to hiking boots vs. trail running shoes.
  • Clothing Layers: Nova Scotia’s weather can be unpredictable, so layering your clothing is advisable. Use moisture-wicking base layers, a warm mid-layer, and a waterproof outer layer. Don’t forget your gloves if you’re visiting in the cooler months.
  • Backpack: A well-packed backpack is your mobile base camp. Also, a backpack with adjustable straps ensures a comfortable fit for longer hikes.
  • Sun Block: For those sunny days at Ingonish Beach, Pleasant Bay, or the dramatic headlands of Middle Head, a high-SPF sunblock is essential. Include a pair of sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat to further protect you from the sun.
  • Hiking Poles: Hiking poles can provide extra stability on uneven terrain, particularly on trails like the Skyline Trail, known for its steep sections and stunning panoramic views.
  • Water Bottle and Snacks: Remember to pack a reusable water bottle to stay hydrated. You can fill it up at many points within the National Parks. A compact, high-energy snack, like trail mix or energy bars, is perfect for a quick energy boost on the go.
  • Navigation Tools: A good map (1:125,000 map of the park [PDF, 12.7 MB]) or a GPS device is crucial to ensuring you don’t lose your way. If you’re heading up to the panoramic views on the west side, a compass can also be a handy tool. Download a printable version of the 2019 visitor guide [PDF, 18.7 MB]
  • Camera or Binoculars: With wildlife abundant across the park, especially around Pleasant Bay, a pair of binoculars will enhance your experience. And finally, a first-aid kit for minor injuries will complete your equipment list.

Before you embark on your journey, take the time to review our hiking tips and gear tips archive to explore every corner of this park comfortably.

A great addition to any hiking trip will be a pair of Silverlight socks:

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What to Do in Cape Breton Highlands National Park

Cape Breton offers an array of activities for its visitors. Outdoor enthusiasts can embark on thrilling hiking and backpacking adventures. For those who prefer a leisurely pace, scenic drives allow a view of the mountainous scenery. Camping amidst nature or fishing in the clear waters provides a serene escape from the chaos of urban life.

Here’s what to do in the park.

Hiking and Backpacking

Cape Breton skyline trail view

Cape Breton is a hiker’s paradise. From the challenging Skyline Trail that offers panoramic views of the Cabot Trail to the tranquil path of Middle Head leading to stunning coastal views, each trail is an adventure in itself. The park also boasts the Acadian, Coastal, and Le Chemin du Buttereau trails, each offering unique glimpses into the natural and cultural heritage of the region.

In addition to hiking, the park is a coveted destination for backpacking, allowing adventurers to fully immerse themselves in the wilderness.

Best Hikes

  • Acadian Trail: Stretching about 5.2 miles (8.4 km), the Acadian Trail is a moderate hiking trail located near the Ingonish Beach entrance. The trail offers a combination of Acadian forests, the world-famous Cabot Trail, and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. It takes approximately 3-4 hours to complete, depending on your pace, and you can find parking and visitor information centers at the trailhead.
  • Skyline Trail: The Skyline Trail is undoubtedly one of the most enchanting places in Nova Scotia. This trail is a 4-mile (6.5 km) return and 5.1-mile (8.2 km) loop, classified as easy, and offers stunning views of the rugged wilderness where mountains meet the sea. Known for its dramatic headlands, the hike takes about 2-3 hours to complete.
  • Fishing Cove Trail: A challenging 7.4-mile (12 km) round trip, the Fishing Cove Trail descends 335m to the only designated wilderness camping area in the park. The trail meanders through an ancient plateau carved by forested river canyons and offers a breathtaking view of Fishing Cove, a tranquil fishing cove on the north side that was once inhabited. This hike may take up to 5-6 hours, depending on the individual pace.
  • Lone Shieling Trail: The Lone Shieling Trail is a 0.4-mile (600-meter) easy loop trail located near the park’s western entrance, suitable for all skill levels. Primarily used for walking and nature trips, it’s best used from May until October. The trail boasts a 350-year-old Sugar Maple Acadian forest and the Lone Shieling, a replica of a Scottish crofter’s hut. It takes about 15 minutes to complete.
  • Middle Head Trail: The Middle Head Trail is a 2.4-mile (3.8-km) loop hike that extends deep into the Atlantic Ocean from the grounds of the historic Keltic Lodge. The trail, relatively moderate in difficulty, is most popular during the peak season and offers one-of-a-kind views from the peninsula’s tip, including Cape Smokey and Ingonish Island. It takes approximately 1-2 hours to complete.
  • Broad Cove Mountain: Broad Cove Mountain is a 1.4-mile (2.3-km) trail, near Ingonish Beach, that takes you through a mixed forest and ends with a steep climb to a look-off at the top of Broad Cove Mountain. This short, moderate hike offers a panoramic view overlooking Cape Smokey, Ingonish Island, and Middle Head. It typically takes an hour to complete.
  • Freshwater Lake Trail: This easy 1.7-kilometer trail encircles Freshwater Lake near the Ingonish Beach entrance. Suitable for all skill levels, it’s a great place for a leisurely walk, and during peak season, you might catch sight of ducks and other waterfowl. It takes 30-40 minutes to complete, offering various activities like bird watching and guided hikes.

Camping

Cape Breton Highlands National Park - Nova Scotia

Cape Breton Park is a camper’s haven, with a choice of eight campgrounds affording a variety of experiences. The serene setting, rich natural beauty, and diverse terrain make camping here an unforgettable adventure.

  • Broad Cove Campground, nestled in a forested area near Ingonish Beach, provides a blend of tranquility and accessibility. The campground offers hiking and swimming opportunities, in addition to a variety of sites to suit every camper’s needs. Reserve your campsite here.
  • Set along the Cabot Trail, Chéticamp Campground is a seaside campground offering stunning views and easy access to the Chéticamp River. Check availability and make reservations here.
  • With its breathtaking ocean views, Ingonish Beach Campground offers sites for tent and RV campers alike, ensuring a memorable stay. Make your reservations here.
  • Mkwesaqtuk/Cap-Rouge campground is located near the water, offering a quiet experience with basic amenities. Reservations can be made here.
  • Corney Brook and MacIntosh Brook campgrounds offer a more rustic experience, with fewer amenities but an abundance of natural beauty. Payment by self-registration is required for both campgrounds.
  • Big Intervale, situated along the Aspy Fault, offers a unique and secluded camping experience.  Payment by self-registration is required for camping here.
  • For the adventurous, there’s the Fishing Cove backcountry campsite, only accessible by a steep 6-kilometer trail. Here, you can experience the wilderness in its rawest form. Make reservations and check backcountry availability here.

Fishing

Cape Breton Highlands National Park - Nova Scotia

Cape Breton Park offers exceptional fishing opportunities for visitors. Anglers can try their luck in the multitude of freshwater lakes and rivers that are home to a variety of fish species, including brook trout and Atlantic salmon.

The Cheticamp River, renowned for its salmon populations, and the Clyburn River are popular fishing spots. However, before casting a line, a Parks Canada fishing permit is required, in addition to the Nova Scotia sportfishing license. These permits can be obtained at the park’s visitor centers.

Remember to follow all the park’s fishing regulations to maintain its delicate ecosystem.

Sightseeing and Scenic Drives

Cape Breton Highlands National Park - Nova Scotia

The natural grandeur of Cape Breton unfolds majestically during sightseeing and scenic drives.

  • The Cabot Trail, one of the world’s best scenic drives, meanders through the park’s diverse landscapes, offering panoramic views of the highlands and ocean.
  • The picturesque Cheticamp River Route leads to picturesque Acadian villages, while the Cabot Trail’s Skyline Sunset Trail provides breathtaking sunset views.
  • The Ingonish Beach Route reveals stunning coastal landscapes. Each route showcases the rich natural and cultural heritage of the region. However, remember to adhere to park regulations and guidelines to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.

Click here for more scenic locations within the park.

Beaches and Swimming

Cape Breton Highlands National Park - Nova Scotia

Cape Breton Highlands National Park offers an array of swimming opportunities, with a choice of freshwater and saltwater locations.

  • Ingonish Beach and Freshwater Lake: This is one location in the park where you can swim in both saltwater and freshwater in the same location. The saltwater beach is on the Atlantic Ocean, while the freshwater lake is just a short walk away.
  • North Bay Beach and Broad Cove Beach: These two beaches are known for their warm waters and sandy shores, making them ideal for a relaxing swim.
  • Warren Lake: The largest freshwater lake in the park offers a beautiful beach and warm waters for swimming.
  • Black Brook Beach and La Bloc Beach: These beaches on the eastern coast of the park provide stunning views of the ocean and are also popular swimming spots.

Remember to check local conditions and follow safety guidelines when swimming. These beaches and lakes provide lifeguards during peak season.

Where to Stay

Cape Breton Highlands National Park - Nova Scotia

For those seeking comfort and convenience, the surrounding areas offer numerous accommodation options that provide easy access to the park.

Inside the Park:

  • Keltic Lodge Resort and Spa: Keltic Lodge is a premier resort boasting an awe-inspiring cliff-top location overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Facilities include an award-winning golf course, a full-service spa, and a restaurant featuring locally sourced cuisine.
  • Parks Canada’s Rustic Cabins: For a more intimate connection with nature, Parks Canada offers rustic cabins at Corney Brook, MacIntosh Brook, and other camping sites. These accommodations immerse guests in the park’s tranquility.

Nearby Towns:

  • Adjacent to the park, the town of Ingonish Beach offers a range of accommodations. The Castle Rock Country Inn is a popular choice, providing panoramic ocean views and a gourmet dining experience at its Avalon restaurant.
  • North of the park, the village of Chéticamp is well-known for its cozy and comfortable B&Bs, such as the Maison Fiset House, a historic home turned inn, noted for its warm hospitality.
  • In the town of Baddeck, gateway to the Cabot Trail, the historic Inverary Resort offers first-class amenities, including a waterfront restaurant, spa, and recreational activities.
  • Just outside the park in Cape North, Hideaway Campground & Oyster Market offers unique glamping cabins with stunning views of Aspy Bay.

Each of these accommodations offers a unique experience, with close proximity to the park. However, it’s always a good idea to book your accommodation in advance, especially during peak season.

How to Get There and Getting Around

Cape Breton Highlands National Park - Nova Scotia

Getting to Cape Breton Highlands National Park is an adventure in itself, with the journey offering scenic vistas and glimpses of local life.

Nearest Airports:

  • Sydney/J.A. Douglas McCurdy Airport (YQY): Situated in Sydney, Nova Scotia, this airport is the most convenient gateway to the park. With domestic flights connecting to major Canadian cities, including Halifax, Toronto, and Montreal, it provides a convenient entry point for travelers.
  • Halifax Stanfield International Airport (YHZ): While not on Cape Breton Island, Halifax’s airport is a major international hub with a wider range of flight options. Visitors can opt to fly into Halifax and enjoy a scenic road trip to the park, which takes approximately 4 hours.

Transportation from Airports to the Park

  • From Sydney/J.A. Douglas McCurdy Airport: Upon landing at Sydney Airport, travelers can rent a car, a popular choice for flexibility in exploring the park. Rental services like Enterprise and Budget are available at the airport. The park is approximately a 4-hour drive, primarily along Highway 102 and Trans-Canada Highway 104, which merge with Highway 105 as you approach the park.
  • From Halifax Stanfield International Airport: For those arriving at Halifax Stanfield International Airport, car rentals from agencies like Avis and Hertz are easily accessible. The drive to the park takes around 4 hours, offering scenic views and several spots for rest stops.
  • Alternatively, Maritime Bus operates a service from Halifax to Baddeck, near the park, three times a day. From Baddeck, local taxi services can get you into the park.

Getting Around

Once in the park, moving around is straightforward. A personal vehicle is the most practical means of transportation, allowing flexibility to explore the diverse sites.

The park’s main road, the Cabot Trail, loops around the park, providing access to all major attractions, hiking trails, campgrounds, and visitor centers.

For those without a vehicle, organized tours are available, providing guided experiences of the park’s highlights. Additionally, during the peak season, a shuttle service operates along the Cabot Trail, offering visitors a convenient way to access key points of interest.

The park is also equipped with ample parking facilities, making it convenient for those traveling by car.

Conclusion

With its stunning landscapes and diverse activities, Cape Breton Highlands National Park is a must-visit for nature enthusiasts. From challenging hikes to breathtaking scenic drives, this park offers something for everyone.

With convenient transportation options and various accommodation choices, it’s the perfect destination for a memorable outdoor adventure.


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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