Hiking Information

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Vic atop Beinn Bhiorach
Taken 2004 August 5 atop Beinn Bhiorach in the Cape Mabou Highlands

This Area of My Website

This area of my web site (which, like the rest of the site, remains under construction several years on) is devoted to hiking in Cape Breton. In it, I provide the following information:

In addition, resources for the interested reader—guide books about Cape Breton hiking, typographical and trail maps, web sites giving trail information, and other resources available to the hiker that I have found useful—can be found in the Resources section of this web site.

On this page, I will limit myself to generalities: I will try to convey a bit about myself to let you know “where I’m coming from” and to present the salient geography of Cape Breton as it relates to hiking.

Hiking in Cape Breton

Cape Breton is filled with gorgeous scenery that is accessible to nearly anyone who can walk. If you are a serious alpinist, you are likely to find most Cape Breton hiking unchallenging, since the highest point in Cape Breton (and in Nova Scotia) is White Hill in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park at 535 m (1755 ft) [The Nova Scotia Atlas, ISBN 0-88780-521-3, p. 6], though I’m sure you will nevertheless be taken by the Island’s great beauty, altogether different from that of inland mountain chains such as the Rocky Mountains because of the nearness of the seas, both internal and external, which are integral to most of the great vistas on the Island. On the other hand, for an overweight 72-year old who has no problem walking 16 km (10 mi) on level ground but who quickly runs out of breath when climbing 100 m (328 ft), it offers more than enough challenge, but one repaid with a sense of accomplishment and delight in being able to enjoy the marvellous views!

In my twenties, I did a considerable amount of hiking in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State (see this web site for an objective description), close to the St. Lawrence River valley in the “North Country” where I grew up. I have stood atop, among others, Algonquin Mountain and Mount Marcy (New York’s highest at 1629 m (5344 ft)), a number of times. Even then I found significant difficulty in uphill hiking, but not enough to keep me away from the trails. On a good day, the views there are tremendous, with the beautiful undulating terrain spread out as far as the eye can see. The lush summer greens and the magnificent fall colours of these mountains and of the Appalachians to the south and east have always appealed to me far more than the much more sterile views in the Rockies, in spite of the awesome majesty of the latter. But, as proud as I am of my home turf, I have to admit that the views in Cape Breton are superior because of the proximity of the mountains to the seas: the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the northern and western sides of Cape Breton, the Atlantic Ocean on the eastern and southern sides, and the Bras d’Or Lakes and Lake Ainslie in the interior.

The mountains in Cape Breton are part of the Appalachian Mountain system, a 2500 km (1500 mi) range running from Newfoundland to Georgia, dispassionately described here. Mountains dominate the landscape in nearly every part of Cape Breton, the few exceptions lying mainly along the southeastern and northeastern coasts of the Island, and even there significant elevations rise not far inland.

The Cape Breton Highlands in the northern part of the Island are doubtless the most well known because the Cabot Trail (a scenic highway, not a hiking trail) winds through spectacular portions of this area, hugging the mountains, often high above the sea. Significant parts of the Cape Breton Highlands, such as the Pollets Cove, French River, and North River Wilderness Areas, are accessible only to hardy hikers and some are so remote that they require spending the night in the wild. Still other parts of the Cape Breton Highlands are rarely visited by humans and are effectively inaccessible.

The beautiful Cape Mabou Highlands are found along the western coast of Cape Breton between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Cèilidh Trail (Highway 19) between the villages of Mabou and Inverness. As best as I can determine from The Nova Scotia Atlas, the highest elevation is less than 350 m (1150 ft), noticeably less than in the Cape Breton Highlands. Once the site of the best and most extensive trail system on the Island, with seventeen trails maintained by the Cape Mabou Trail Club in tip-top shape, this trail system offered great and varied hiking, from the easy to the quite difficult, from short outings to a long day’s hike, with gorgeous views from nearly all of the trails. Alas, this trail system was officially closed in 2009 and 2010 as a consequence of the devastation wreaked by the spruce bark beetle, which has killed large numbers of white spruce trees in Cape Mabou (and elsewhere all over the island), exposing hikers to danger from fire when the weather is dry and especially to danger from falling trees caught above the trail or teetering beside it. A portion of the system accessible from the Mabou Post Road Trail Head (at the end of the Mabou Coal Mines Road) was cleared and reöpened in 2011, with a partially rerouted Fair Alastair’s Trail offering stunning views not previously available, and more trails were cleared and reöpened in 2012-2014 (the severe winter of 2014 brought down a lot of deadfalls, blocking many of the trails and requiring them to be recleared). Most of the old system is now officially available, though deadfalls remain on the lesser-used trails.¹

Creignish Mountain and the Creignish Hills, which line the southern part of St. Georges Bay (an inlet of the Gulf of St. Lawrence), are part of a great southern interior plateau that extends inland a considerable distance north and west from the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 105), forming River Denys Mountain, the Bornish Hills, the Big Ridge, Skye Mountain, and the terrain at Glencoe.

The Bras d’Or Lakes form a complex fjordal system situated in the heart of Cape Breton Island. This large lake system of brackish water (i.e., slightly salty—mixing fresh water from Cape Breton’s rivers with sea water from the Atlantic Ocean) is a place of stunning natural beauty, surrounded nearly everywhere by mountains: the Boisdale Hills to the north and east, the East Bay Hills on the east, the mountains of the Iona-Washabuck peninsula in the centre, North Mountain and South Mountain along the southern shore, and the ridge of mountains all along the western shore, including Whycocomagh Mountain and Salt Mountain at the southern end and Kellys Mountain at the northern end. Roads traverse these mountains and some cross summits, while most follow the base of the mountains, requiring hiking to access the views from the summits.

Lake Ainslie, Cape Breton’s largest fresh water lake, is surrounded by mountains; its outlet, the Southwest Margaree River, flows through mountains to join the Northeast Margaree River, which rises in the Cape Breton Highlands, at Margaree Forks. This river system flows through valleys carved through the mountains that surround it on all sides.

Not all the great hikes in Cape Breton require climbing mountains—far from it! The marvellous Celtic Shores Coastal Trail, formerly (and still frequently) referred to as the “Railway Trail”, now incorporated into the Trans-Canada Trail, follows the abandoned railway bed from Inverness to Port Hastings; essentially flat, it offers more than 89 km (55 mi) of trails through the countryside and along St. Georges Bay with beautiful views of the varied terrain along its entire length. An excellent, though much shorter, trail system in the West Mabou Beach Provincial Park (whose highest point is 56 m (183 ft)) offers beautiful views of the local Gulf of St. Lawrence coast from the trail above the beach and of the Mabou River and the Cape Mabou Highlands from the Acarsaid Trail along the Mabou River, all without demanding much climbing from the hiker. The Skyline Trail in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park runs along a high ridge, but is essentially flat walking from the parking area until one reaches the extensive stair system (entirely optional) at the trail’s end. Large parts of Les Trous de Saumons Trail, Le Chemin du Buttereau Trail, the Corney Brook Trail, and the Macintosh Brook Trail, all also in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, are primarily flat walking, though each has some easy climbing involved. Numerous back roads and snowmobile trails abound all over the Island, some driveable and some not, many up the sides of mountains, but others offering flat walking over much or all of their course. So, if you are averse to climbing, there is still a cornucopia of riches from which to choose.


¹ See the News and Discoveries pages on this web site for the years 2009-2014 for additional details and information.

Equipment

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Three-Legged Stool and Backpack
Taken 2006 June 28
on Little Grappling Beach on St Anns Bay

I almost always hike alone, which means I need to be extra conservative and carry emergency supplies—a well-stocked first aid kit with bandages and antiseptic for cuts, scrapes, and blisters first among them. I always pack a warm sweat shirt and a light-weight, light-coloured, long-sleeved tee shirt, as well as a pair of jeans if I start hiking in shorts, as it can be quite cool on a hot day on the top of a mountain next to the sea. Extra socks are there in case I get my feet wet or to provide extra padding when an incipient blister makes itself felt. A rain poncho completes my backpack’s clothing provisions, as storms can and do spring up seemingly out of nowhere in the middle of a hike and they can dump a lot of rain in a short time. I carry Deep Woods Off!® and sunblocker, but I find that I use little of either. Applying the insect repellent to my shirt, jeans, and floppy sun hat usually suffices for the insects I typically run into (mostly mosquitoes and deer flies) and is normally necessary only in wet areas or in early summer—I usually wait until I know I’m going to need it before I apply it. Since many hikes are through wooded areas, sunblocker is needed only when one is in the open and the sun is strong enough to make excess sunlight a concern—my floppy sun hat keeps it off my face, neck, and ears while the long-sleeved tee shirt keeps it off my arms and those often are all I need (although I am frequently red-faced in summer, that is normally from windburn and not sunburn). I carry a GPS, a compass, a brass whistle, a pen knife, and any maps or trail descriptions relevant to the area I am hiking in. I always pack bottled water and cans of soda, fruit (usually fresh apples, pears, and plums), granola bars, oatcakes or cookies, and hard candy for a little extra sugar when the climbing is particularly onerous.

In addition to my backpack, I carry a three-legged stool. When climbing and totally out of breath, I find it most helpful to be able to sit down and rest for a few minutes until I am breathing normally again and ready to continue upward. It is also delightful to be able to deploy it when I reach my goal and to just sit and enjoy the views in a comfortable position, especially when the ground is wet or no natural feature (log, boulder) is in proximity—my legs tend to go to sleep when I sit cross-legged on the ground for any length of time. The stool cost about $30 and weighs less than a pound, so it's hardly onerous to tote one around. Friends gave me a very stout walking-stick that I find useful for maintaining my balance, especially in tricky spots, such as crossing brooks.

My sister made me a belt containing several Velcro™-sealed semi-waterproof canvas pockets in which I carry my GPS, my iPhone (cell phone coverage is still often very spotty in Cape Breton, especially in remote areas, but I nevertheless find it very useful for recording notes and for holding relevant maps and trail descriptions), a can of bear/coyote repellent, and a notebook in which to jot observations of the trail and notes on the pictures taken (if the hike is long, I use it instead of the iPhone to conserve the latter’s battery). I tote my camera in a padded semi-waterproof bag along with a spare battery pack for the camera and, if I’m likely to need one, a spare memory chip.

I normally hike in a pair of Rockport walking oxfords (seen in the picture at the top of this page), not in more robust hiking boots. They are almost always appropriate for the trails described herein. Occasionally, and especially in areas I have found to be mucky after rains or when there are shallow streams to be crossed that require getting one’s feet wet, I wear “woods boots” instead. For those who don’t know what I mean by woods boots, they are insulated waterproof boots that come half way up the calves of one’s legs and have laces only at the top; usually green or tan in colour, they are also known “Adirondack boots” or “Maine boots”.

Cautions

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Recently Fallen Cliff Face
on the Beach north of Coal Mine Point
Taken 2006 June 17 from the Mabou Coal Mines Road at Mabou Coal Mines

Erosion by water, ice, and wind is constantly at work on the coasts of Cape Breton. As you will see if you descend to water level, it often hollows out a cliff face underneath, giving it a concave shape, i.e., with a lip at the top which is unsupported below. Eventually, that lip will break away, crashing down to the water or shore below. Unless you are certain of the character of a cliff face or unless a well-defined trail crosses it, you should avoid approaching too closely to the edge of a cliff when there is water below, even if there is good grass cover right up to the edge: your weight could be enough to cause the lip to give way. For the same reasons, use great caution when you are on a shore below an eroded cliff; falling rocks or the whole upper part could easily come crashing down. These cautions are especially cogent at MacKinnons Brook Mouth in the Cape Mabou Highlands, a favourite picnic area, where considerable rock falls have recently occurred, but they are hardly limited to that single locale.

Cape Breton weather is very changeable; don’t assume that because the sun is shining when you leave on your hike that you won’t get rained on before you return. A squall moves across the Gulf of St. Lawrence with astonishing speed, so make sure you are prepared to stay dry until it has moved on. If you are climbing, be prepared for cool temperatures and strong winds at the top, especially early or late in the season. Even on very hot days, there are almost always good breezes blowing along the Gulf, and those breezes on a summit can be quite chilling. Make sure that you can stay warm while you enjoy the views you came to see.

Much of Cape Breton is wild and that means that there are wild animals about. I am a noisy hiker, huffing and puffing and panting, and that seems to work pretty well at keeping the animals out of my sight. I have seen the occasional moose, deer, and coyotes during my hikes, but, so far, have not met any black bears, though I have seen plenty of evidence that they are around (I have, however, seen black bears on or beside the road when driving: I saw one crossing the Cabot Trail near the Chéticamp River campground just inside the Cape Breton Highlands National Park in 2004, and I saw a mother and two cubs on the Whycocomagh Road in 2007 in Kewstoke, but, as yet, none on any trail).

The protectiveness of a mother bear is legendary and you definitely do not want to be between her and her cubs. Moose can move very quickly and their hooves are dangerous weapons that they can and will use if provoked. My experience is that these animals will avoid you if they hear you or smell you when at all possible, unless young are involved, in which case they will defend them when given no other choice. Keep any food you carry well wrapped so that animals cannot smell it, especially early in the spring when bears are hungriest. Avoid berry patches and other known food sources that bears like to frequent. If you do not know what to do when you encounter a black bear, see this Parks Canada web page; other very useful information about black bears, including avoidance suggestions, is linked from that page.

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Parks Canada Coyote Habitat Sign
Taken 2011 June 22
near the start of the Louisbourg Lighthouse Trail

In 2009, a diminutive lone hiker was attacked by two eastern coyotes on the Skyline Trail in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park and succumbed to her injuries the following day. The reporting which followed this tragic event made it clear that many instances of coyotes exhibiting aggressive behaviour had occurred and continued to occur in Cape Breton, primarily, but not exclusively, in the Margarees and in the Highlands to the north. Signs like the one at the left are now appearing in places where coyotes and humans are likely to meet.

In 2010-2011, a cull ordered by the provincial government reduced the coyote population in Cape Breton by some 400 animals, but encounters with aggressive coyotes continue to be reported. While the coyotes I encountered a few years ago were anything but aggressive, the behaviour of at least some eastern coyotes has changed in recent years so that they no longer fear humans; as a result, they are now definitely to be treated as a threat. This web page offers the provincial government’s advice for staying safe, summarized as the easy-to-remember slogan BAM! [Back away, Act big, Make noise]; this Parks Canada web page repeats essentially the same advice, if somewhat less memorably. Other very useful information about eastern coyotes, which are roughly of the size of a border collie and which, though they are now genetically distinct, have in the past interbred with wolves, is linked from those pages.

Both the referenced web pages recommend carrying a stout walking stick and reporting in the local press has indicated that its presence in several encounters was decisive in repelling attacks. Friends living in Cape Breton purchased a can of pepper spray for me, since replaced, that I now carry in my pocket belt when I am out hiking (I leave it with them when I return home because I judge that carrying pepper spray with me into Canada is not a good thing to do¹); so far, I have not needed it, but it is another defensive measure often recommended. Of course, it is best to hike in groups of two or more, but that is not always possible.

Finally, it is important to wear highly distinctive clothing when hiking during the fall hunting season in Cape Breton (the various hunting seasons run from September into December). If I understand the regulations correctly (for those interested in details, start at this web site), hunters are required to wear “hunter orange” coloured clothing when hunting. Hikers should ensure that they wear either the same hunter orange or some other fluorescent colour or, at a minimum, a bright red; it is essential that no hunter could possibly mistake you for prey.


¹ I am not sure of the precise legal status of a US citizen attempting to bring pepper spray into Canada—the Internet offers conflicting information. This web site flatly says that pepper spray is prohibited in Canada; I was told the same thing when I asked a Canadian customs officer in 2013. However, pepper spray is readily available in stores in Canada (most sports/hiking outfitters carry it); I had no problem purchasing a replacement for the one I was given. This manufacturer’s web site says that hikers can enter Canada with an EPA-registered bear deterrent provided it returns with the hiker and does not remain in Canada. A web site, no longer on the Internet, citing the National Firearms Association of Canada, said: “Pepper spray is legal if it is intended for use on vicious animals, and is a prohibited weapon if intended for use on vicious humans. On the other hand, if you carry it to protect yourself from vicious animals, and are attacked by a vicious human, it is legal to use it on that vicious human. It doesn't have to make sense, it is government policy.” [italics in original] All I know for sure is that, each time I enter Canada, I am asked “Do you have any alcohol, tobacco, firearms, or pepper spray?” I find it simpler to reply, truthfully, “no” than to risk being turned away at the border because I have some with me.