As I described here, I discovered MacDonalds Glen Road on a hike in 2006 that started on Cape Mabou Road 0.3 km (0.2 mi) southwest of its junction with the Glenora Falls Road in the Cape Mabou Highlands. That hike taught me where the northwestern terminus of MacDonalds Glen Road is located on the Mabou Coal Mines Road, just a short distance before it ends at the Mabou Post Road Trail Head of the Cape Mabou Trail Club’s wonderful system of trails in the Cape Mabou Highlands. Since I had been unable by other means to determine where its southeastern terminus in Northeast Mabou was,¹ I resolved to find out by hiking the road from MacDonalds Glen. (The level of detail in The Nova Scotia Atlas, while good, wasn’t sufficient to resolve the location of southeastern terminus, while the topographic map, which I did not have at the time, is.)
Accordingly, on 2007 July 2, I drove out to MacDonalds Glen and parked at the side of the road across from the black mailbox bearing the numbers 1426-1500. Having already hiked from here to the Cape Mabou Road the previous year, I knew what to expect and made sure that my woods boots were in my backpack, as I knew I was going to need them, and set off. At that point, the skies were somewhat inscrutable, with a warm sun playing hide-’n’-seek among a slew of clouds, and a nice cool breeze blowing that made a perfect day for a hike through the Cape Mabou Highlands; some days like this turn cloudy, damp, and rainy while others become very fine days: I hoped for the latter, but was prepared for either.
Four minutes up from the road, I was beside the white house trimmed in green, puffing and noticeably warmer, as there is a gain of roughly 20 m (66 ft) in a relatively short distance. The house is a good point to catch one’s breath, as it offers fine views of Finlay Point, MacDonalds Glen, the Gulf, and of Beinn Alasdair Bhain (Fair Alistair’s Mountain), which will be very familiar to anyone who has hiked up to the glorious look-off there.
Beyond the house, the road levels out considerably, but continues inexorably uphill. After fifteen minutes of easy climbing, one is at 100 m (328 ft) on the western ridge of a V-shaped glen. There is a semi-open view here of the highlands to the southwest, which reach more than 280 m (919 ft). At the bottom of the V some 30 m (98 ft) below and an easy two minutes downhill hike later, an unnamed brook from the east runs underneath a wooden bridge and one hears for the first time the waters of MacDonalds Glen Brook into which the unnamed brook empties a few metres/yards to the west of the road. The height one has just given up has, of course, to be made up as one ascends to the eastern ridge of the glen. Both on the way down and the way up, the road now has ruts caused by run-off that would require very careful attention in a car, but it remains otherwise in generally quite good condition.
Six minutes beyond the bridge, one arrives at a wooden gate, presumably once (and perhaps still) the entrance to a pasture for cattle or sheep. Somewhat before the gate, the road approaches the gully carved by MacDonalds Glen Brook and runs for quite some distance close to and along its edge. On both sides of the brook’s course, the flanks of the mountains are now quite close and one notes the transition from an open road to a tree-covered forest path. The previously gravel road becomes much grassier here and travel by car is now if not completely impossible then both very problematic and unwise.
For me, the gate marks the start of the most beautiful part of this hike: like MacIsaacs Glen along the Trap à Mhathain (Bear Trap) Trail and the Gleann Sidh (Enchanted Valley) Trail in the Cape Mabou Trail Club system, this too is a magical place that boosts my spirits each time I pass through it. The brook’s song fills the air beneath the canopy of the trees overhead through which the sun’s filtered light adds sparkles and movement to a scene in which one would not be greatly surprised to hear a whimsical leprechaun’s mischievous greeting. The brook here is very shy: my camera captures mostly leaves and dark hues and only glimpses of the water flowing below, as the light does not penetrate very far into the gully. My eyes do little better, so it is very tricky trying to judge how much water is coursing down below—the sound makes one believe that there must be a fair amount. Indeed, the topographic map shows that numerous unnamed rills run down from the mountains above on both sides to empty into MacDonalds Glen Brook all along this stretch of the road.
Eight minutes beyond the gate, the road badly deteriorates, as the ground becomes ever wetter and muckier. Delicate small wildflowers abound here, showing their blues and whites and yellows to the passer-by. In another five minutes, one reaches the point where the brook has preferred the road to its former course; here, the road’s original surface is now gone, washed away, and one is left with a jumble of small rocks and boulders over and past which the water flows. At this point, I switched out of my oxfords and into my woods boots, as the water reaches well above one’s ankles here in places. The many minutes it took me last year to cross this stretch were reduced with proper footwear to two this year and I enjoyed splashing through the water much more than clinging to the trees and trying to hop from rock to boulder to rock without either slipping or getting my feet wet.
A couple of minutes beyond this bad stretch, the road’s character changes yet again. MacDonalds Glen Brook has just crossed to the east side of the road and flows some distance from it, so that its cheerful song fades away nearly as soon as one starts uphill. The road is again in fine condition, though still definitely a forest pathway and not a gravel road, and quite dry. From the gate, the road has been climbing gently, gaining perhaps 20 m (66 ft) over a kilometre (0.6 mi). One is now about to climb up along the side of the mountain that was earlier to the west of MacDonalds Glen Brook in order to reach Cape Mabou Road; the road climbs about 80 m (262 ft) over roughly 0.8 km (0.5 mi). After about three minutes of easy uphill hiking, one traverses a noticeable C curve, passing over a sluice in the middle of the curve. Seven minutes more of moderate uphill climbing, punctuated by three stops to recover my breath, I found myself coming into a grassy meadow and two minutes later I arrived at the junction with Cape Mabou Road, roughly the midpoint of MacDonalds Glen Road, warm from the climb, ready for a lunch, and very pleased to be able to enjoy it in the sun under a lovely blue sky: though plenty of clouds were still there, it was clear that they were going to remain benign for the rest of the day.
Lunch done, my wind recovered, my legs rested, and back in my oxfords (while they do keep one’s feet dry, woods boots also become uncomfortably hot in the summer time!), I then set off towards Northeast Mabou. Just as the hike to Cape Mabou Road was (with one exception) all uphill, that to Northeast Mabou is all downhill. One is now back on a good gravel road that is readily drivable by a car. While trees line the road for nearly all of the rest of its descent into Northeast Mabou, there is usually open sky above. At the junction with Cape Mabou Road, there are fairly open views, one allowing a glimpse of the Creignish Hills in the far distance between the profiles of two prominences in the Cape Mabou Highlands. Such views diminish thereafter, being replaced by brooks that enter from the side or cross in sluices beneath the road, wild flowers, individual trees of distinctive form or colour, birds, and small animals such as red squirrels scurrying across the road in search of food or mate—in other words, all the things one sees during a normal walk along a back country road. What makes this walk different is that one is passing through the beautiful Cape Mabou Highlands, though it is rather more often their sides than their summits that are in view.
From Cape Mabou Road, in about twenty-five minutes time and 1.8 km (1.1 mi), one descends 100 m (328 ft). A stream crosses underneath the road near here through a sluice that enters a brook which follows the road much of the way into Northeast Mabou, where it will empty into the Northeast Mabou River, though distant enough from the road that one only occasionally hears it flowing along. A small gravel pit lies near the sluice off the side of the road. Not far above this sluice I met the only vehicle I encountered on MacDonalds Glen Road this day: an ATV.
In another nine minutes, one arrives at a Y junction, with a road entering from the left. (When returning from Northeast Mabou, one must remember to take the left fork here as the right fork, though it looks to be the better road, dead-ends after a kilometre (0.6 mi) at a private home.) As one continues on towards Northeast Mabou, the side of Mabou Mountain now rises in the distance above the road, so one knows that one is fast approaching Northeast Mabou. Indeed, about seven minutes later, one passes the first house on the road. At the next house down, my arrival was noticed by two large dogs, who set up a loud clamour and, thankfully, were called indoors while I passed by. To the west, a fine vista opens up showing the Northeast Mabou River, Northeast Cove, the Mabou River, and West Mabou. The road then makes a sharp curve to the right and descends past a fine patch of lupins, in bloom this day, to reach its southeastern end at 110 Northeast Mabou Road, eight minutes below the first house on the road. From the sluice above the Y junction to Northeast Mabou Road, another 95 m (312 ft) of elevation has been lost over a distance of some 1.7 km (1 mi).
When I reached Northeast Mabou Road, I knew exactly where I was but was bewildered at how it was possible that I had never tried to explore the road I had just descended. It was then that I saw the garbage bin at the side of the road and immediately answered my question: after having unintentionally driven up a number of private driveways during my first years on Cape Breton, I learned to recognize the trash bin by the road as signalling a private driveway and not a public road. In this case, however, the signal was wrong, as the trash bin belongs to the residents across the road and not to those up the road; it was this false sign that kept me from exploring this road in past years. Mystery solved!
It was a fine hike on what turned into a very nice day and one I would readily repeat. While the section from Northeast Mabou to Cape Mabou Road is easily drivable, one misses a lot in a car.² It may not have the magic of the stretch along MacDonalds Glen Brook, but it is very pretty nonetheless. I had fallen in love with the first half of this hike last year; I can now recommend both halves of this hike without hesitation.
So, should one do this hike from MacDonalds Glen to Northeast Mabou or the other way around? You will save some driving (and gas!) if you start from Northeast Mabou, but you will then miss the beautiful drive along Mabou Harbour to Mabou Coal Mines and back, which will only add to the beauty of your day. For the hike itself, I don’t think it much matters one way or the other. In either direction, you have an uphill climb followed by a downhill climb and, on the return trip, the same. Just enjoy it, whichever way you go!