In 2006, I climbed Salt Mountain (on the eastern edge of Whycocomagh) for the first time and posted some photos from it in this photo essay; that led to an e-mail exchange with Alasdair MacGillean, who grew up in the Whycocomagh area and now lives in Port Hawkesbury, in which the subject of Campbells Mountain and its look-off came up. In 2007, I attempted to find the trail, but, through no fault of Alasdair’s, misunderstood some of the information in his messages and ended up above the Campbells Mountain quarry in a mess of logging roads with no reasonable continuation for the trail. I wrote him again in the winter of 2008 and, after a further exchange of maps and notes, we finally figured out that the trail I should have taken was the snowmobile trail. So, that I made it to this gorgeous place is due to Alasdair’s help and encouragement, for which I here convey my sincerest thanks. As with so many things, once one knows what one is looking for, it’s not that hard to find!
Campbells Mountain look-off is one of those places about which apparently nothing is written in the tourist or hiking literature—and I got only one relevant hit via a Google search, a name-only mention in a snowmobilers’ forum. On the snowmobile map, it appears only as an unnamed symbol. Yet this is as beautiful a place as there is anywhere on Cape Breton Island, with a marvellous panorama stretching from Whycocomagh Bay to Cape George! It has to be one of the better kept of Cape Breton’s secrets!
August, 2008, proved to be the rainiest on record for Cape Breton Island and the weather, during the three weeks I was there, was nearly unremittingly bleak—grey when it wasn’t raining, as it did nearly every day. I was extremely frustrated as I was not able to go on many of the hikes that I had hoped to take and those I did get in yielded a string of generally dreary photos; fortunately, the great music each night was enough to keep my spirits up during this trying time. Wednesday, 6 August was not a particularly good day either, but there were some bright areas in the completely overcast sky, so I decided this was going to be the day when I determined whether I could find the look-off, even if I couldn’t see anything once I got up there and even if I got wet doing it. Accordingly, I set off for Whycocomagh and arrived at the trail head at the base of Campbells Mountain.¹
Since the road is intended to be driven up, it has at most a moderate grade; I had expected a much harder slog than it actually proved to be. I was still out of breath several times on the way up—not unusual for me—but only twice to the point where I needed to sit down. A few minutes of walking up the interesting tree-lined lower road, with views of a brook and pool on the left in the forest, soon brought into sight Sandy Rankin of the highway department, who was trimming brush at the side of the road; we talked for several minutes and he told me to watch behind me for the views that would open up a bit further up the road. At first, all I saw was Whycocomagh Mountain, but by the fourteen-minute mark Whycocomagh Bay was coming into view. The bright spots in the sky had by now disappeared and a light mist was in the air; the clouds were decidedly grey, but I stubbornly determined to keep going.
As one ascends the road, it changes from being an all-gravel surface to a road with two gravel tracks and a grassy crown in the centre; since it is not deeply rutted, this presents no real problem to a car. Eight minutes later (twenty-one minutes from the start), I reached the end of the provincially maintained section of the road, signalled both by a distinct change in the tread from the two-gravel-tracks-plus-grassy-crown to a gravel/rocky surface and by untrimmed brush at the sides of the road. The views here of Whycocomagh Mountain and its plateau are very fine. One could park a car in the wide grassy area beside the road here, though if you were to drive up to this point, you would miss the great backwards-facing views on the hike up. Although it took me only twenty-one minutes of walking to climb this section, the clock advanced by forty-eight minutes, in good part because of my halt to talk with Sandy but also because I took several photos, was walking fairly slowly and sometimes backwards soaking in the views, and stopped to catch my breath a couple of times. This is a very pretty part of the trail.
Beyond this point, the views disappear and the road worsens significantly, with deep ruts in the road and eroded shoulders caused by rushing downhill water; a jeep or a high-slung truck could likely make it through here with some care, but it’s well beyond what I would risk in a car. Trees line both sides of the road, which still climbs steadily, though less steeply than before. Eleven minutes beyond the end of the provincially maintained section of the road, tree-obscured views of Skye Glen appear on the right. I heard, but did not see, two eagles on this stretch of the road. In another seven minutes, the road levels off to easy uphill, and resumes the car-driveable state it had before the eroded section; it is also now distinctly easier to walk than heretofore. During the much of the next eight minutes I saw what I noted as “great views if I were a bit taller”—views of the undulating terrain to the northeast obscured by trees not much taller than I was, with occasional small open spots that let one see a bit of what one was missing. In yet another minute, I came to a clearing on the left side of the trail where presumably a farm once stood (many years ago, a community named Campbells Mountain thrived up here); it offers the opportunity to get a bit above tree level to better see some of what the trees are covering up. And two minutes beyond the clearing brought me to the spur road; although the sign was lying in the ditch at the side of the road, it clearly said “Campbells Mtn Look-Off”.
My mood had grown progressively cheerier as the misting had stopped and I had begun to see small sections of blue sky here and there amongst the grey clouds; it even looked as if the sun might eventually be able to pierce through the clouds. I started up the spur road, which climbs briskly for about four minutes, but soon stopped for photos, as the views behind me were magnificent. The extra height and the clearing through which the road runs were enough to allow one to see a very long ways, although the narrowness of the clearing meant that there was also a lot that one either didn’t see at all or saw only through the tree branches. Still, it is a spectacular place, worthy of the trip on its own.
After I had finished photo taking here, I continued on up the spur road, which soon levels out, becoming mucky as it passes through the forest which crowns the top of Campbells Mountain. It was getting brighter by the minute as I crossed over the summit and on to the other side. I had no trouble bypassing the water holes in the road in my hiking oxfords, but there were still some slippery spots, doubtless due to all of the summer’s rain. Fifteen minutes of hiking from the start of the spur road left me on a meadow (a bald spot I was easily able to identify from the Whycocomagh Road below once I knew where it was) near the edge of a cliff with a spectacular panorama whose views range over almost half of the compass rose: at the left, one can see down Whycocomagh Bay; Skye Mountain and the inland areas towards the Big Ridge, the Creignish Hills, and Dunakin lie at one’s feet; further to the right, one can see across St Georges Bay to Cape George and Henry and Port Hood Islands in St Georges Bay; looking along the mountain’s flank, the areas northeast of Port Hood to the Southwest Ridge are visible. On a clear day with no haze, the views would be incredible! Even on this day, with the sun now successful enough in piercing the still heavy clouds to cast light on various points of the landscape, the views were superb—I could not believe my eyes! I quickly busied myself taking photo after photo of this wonderful scenery, the first time I had really gotten to see much of the inland scenery (the views from Salt Mountain reveal some of it, but in nothing like the detail one sees it here laid out below). I was very happy that I had persevered in spite of the earlier dismal weather. For sure, I will be returning to these great views as often as I can!