Cape Smokey Trail Description


Cape Smokey Trail
Cape Smokey Provincial Park and Crown Land on Cape Smokey
Brief Description
This trail starts in the Cape Smokey Provincial Park and, after an inland excursion skirting a deep ravine, returns to the coast and crosses the Cape Smokey plateau, following cliffs that rise 280 m (925 ft) above the ocean, to reach the Stanley Point Look-Off at the north end of Cape Smokey (well outside the provincial park boundaries). It offers superb coastal views to St Anns Bay to the south; of Kellys Mountain, Boularderie Island, and the Cape Breton County shore towards and beyond New Waterford to the east; and, from the Stanley Point Look-Off, of the Atlantic Coast at and beyond Ingonish to the north and of the Clyburn Valley and Franey Mountain to the west. As well, there are fine views of Smokey Mountain and the Cape Breton Highlands plateau at the top of Cape Smokey.
Trail Head
Take the Cabot Trail to the the Cape Smokey Provincial Park just below the summit of Smokey Mountain (between Wreck Cove and Ingonish Ferry), turn into the access road, and park in the parking lot (GPS 46°35.600'N 60°22.846'W). The trail head is just beyond the north end of the parking lot, where you will see a structure to which a map of the Cape Smokey Trail is affixed on its left post.
Trail Length
5.5 km (3.4 mi)¹ from the trail head to the Stanley Point Look-Off
Generally good, though the path is badly overgrown in a couple of spots (wear jeans, not shorts), several wet spots could use log or foot bridges, and a dead tree across the trail above the Stanley Point Look-Off required a tiny bushwhack.
A fair amount of easy to moderate up and down. From the parking lot’s 260 m (850 ft), the trail descends to about 175 m (575 ft) and then climbs back to 280 m (925 ft) before again descending to 170 m (550 ft) at the Stanley Point Look-Off. There are no really steep climbs. The descent to the Stanley Point Look-Off requires a bit of agility descending boulders.
Topographic Map
Ingonish (11 K/9): this map does not show the trail itself, but only the area through which it passes.
Reference Times
3 hours [Lawley]; 3-4 hours out and back [Haynes]; 4-5 hours for the entire trail [O’Neil]
My Times
  • 2007 August 10 (trail head to Stanley Point Look-Off skipping side trail to Look-Off #1): hiking time: 1h40; clock time: 2h19
  • 2007 August 10 (Stanley Point Look-Off to trail head including side trail to Look-Off #1): hiking time: 1h57; clock time: 2h54

¹ Three different values are given for this trail’s length: the provincial trail description and the map at the trail head both gives its length as a “10 kilometre (6 mile) return trail”, i.e., 5 km one way; Haynes gives its length as “11 km (6.75 mi) return”, i.e., 5.5 km one way, with which the Cape Breton Highlands National Park of Canada Park Guide and Map, O’Neil, and the no longer online Victoria County Cape Smokey Trail Description all agree, while Lawley gives it as “8 km (5 miles)”, i.e., 4 km one way. There is an approximately 0.4 km (0.25 mi) side trail to the first look-off that may account for the differences in lengths given. In any case, I do not know which of these lengths is correct and have used the longest and most frequently cited.

² If you have problems with the links in this bulleted item, particularly if you get the error message “Bad Request (Invalid Hostname)”, wait a few seconds and try them again. See the note here for additional information about this problem and a last resort.

Extended Description

Photo of the Cape Smokey Trail Map at the edge of the Parking Lot in the Cape Smokey Provincial Park
Photo of the Cape Smokey Trail Map
Taken 2007 August 10 at the trail head
at the edge of the Parking Lot
in the Cape Smokey Provincial Park³

The Cape Smokey Trail begins at the Cape Smokey Provincial Park and, except for an inland excursion to skirt a deep ravine separating the park’s site from the rest of Cape Smokey, parallels the coast line across the Cape Smokey Plateau to Stanley Point at its north end, a distance of some 5.5 km (3.4 mi), as seen in the trail map posted at the trail entrance, a photo of which is at the right.

My first time on this trail was in 2003, but then I went no further than the first look-off: it was simply a stop on the Cabot Trail and I didn’t have the half day necessary to explore the trail further at that point, the normal situation for most visitors to the Cape Smokey Provincial Park. But I took note of the trail and, given the glorious views from the provincial park, was certain that I wanted to hike it at some point in the future.

Given the dearth of traditional Scottish music north of Smokey these days (in years long gone, this area was home to such celebrated fiddlers as Winston “Scotty” Fitzgerald and Mike MacDougall),¹ I usually stay much further south along the Cèilidh Trail and I rarely get north of St Anns. In the two previous years, the handful of times I was in the area, the weather failed to make exploring this trail worth while. When I left Aberdeen in the morning of 2007 August 10, I had no specific plans, but I was hopeful the promising morning skies would hold when I reached northern Cape Breton. When I arrived at Cape Smokey Provincial Park’s parking lot at 10h45, I found an almost hazeless atmosphere that was nearly perfect for photography. I wandered around the area below the parking lot snapping photos of the great views one has from there, as I had done in previous years, but I quickly decided that, given the near-perfect day, I would never have a better opportunity to explore the Cape Smokey Trail, so I filled my backpack with water and lunch, “saddled up”, and set off down the trail.

Three minutes down the trail from the car, one reaches the junction with the side trail to the first Look-Off.² This side trail, which I guess to be about 0.4 km (0.25 mi) long, starts at an elevation of roughly 260 m (850 ft) and over the next five minutes descends fairly quickly to about 170 m (550 ft) at the edge of the cliffs. Like all the look-offs on the Cape Smokey Trail, this one has railings to prevent one from approaching too closely to the eroded cliffs and provides benches on which to sit and enjoy the views. The views to the south and east are similar to those from the parking lot, but those to the north are new (in the parking lot and along the trail, these views are obscured by trees): one has a good view of the Cape Smokey plateau in the distance, with its bare cliff face falling into the ocean, and, nearer at hand, a glacier-carved ravine down which a brook flows (nameless on the topographic map); it must create a fine waterfall as it falls over the cliff into the ocean below. This view to the north offers a fine preview of the hike to come.

After climbing back up the side trail to rejoin the main trail, the latter soon turns to the west towards the Cabot Trail, around the southern edge of the ravine seen from the first look-off, and starts to descend. At this point, it is a stony path in excellent condition with some wet spots (2007 was one of the wettest years I remember in Cape Breton, with lots of rain, so my comments here and later about wet spots may be an aberration peculiar to this year, though Haynes also mentions wet areas in this portion of the trail). The views here are mostly of forest, but some are open.

Six minutes from the junction with the side trail to the first look-off, one arrives at a fine railed wooden footbridge over the brook which flows through the ravine (the Cabot Trail is very close to the bridge and one can see and hear cars passing on the road). Once across the brook, the trail parallels the road briefly before turning northeast to skirt the northern side of the ravine, descending now quite noticeably. After fourteen minutes, one arrives at a bench next to a foot bridge. Somewhere along this stretch one also passes outside the boundaries of the Cape Smokey Provincial Park and onto Crown Land.

From here, the trail starts back up towards the Cape Smokey Plateau, at first relatively gently, but then more moderately. Here, I found the trail badly overgrown in a couple of places and with several quite wet spots that would have benefitted from log bridges or even foot bridges. Looking to the southwest, one now has clear views of the forested sides and summit of Smokey Mountain, where one sees communications towers on its flanks and the gash of the Cabot Trail below. The contours of the ravine that the trail has been skirting are also now more obvious.

After thirteen minutes on this uphill stretch, one arrives at the benches of the second look-off. The views here, at perhaps 175 m (575 ft), are mostly of the rocks below (one is at the exposed cliff face one sees from the first look-off, but not yet high enough to have good views to the south), though looking north through the trees, one can readily see that the climb is not yet over.

Another eight minutes of relentless uphill hiking (from easy to moderate) brings one to the third look-off at about 220 m (725 ft) of elevation, according to the trail map. The first thing that one notices about the southward-looking views from this look-off is that one is somewhat further east than one was at the parking lot, so more of the coast towards St Anns is visible and one can see further into St Anns Bay. The views to the southeast show the Bird Islands (Ciboux Island to the north and Hertford Island to the south) lying in the waters north of Cape Dauphin and a tiny speck of white marking the Point Aconi lighthouse on Boularderie Island on the shore behind. The views to the east are of the northern coast of Cape Breton County and the hills that rise behind it; I do not use binoculars and so made out none of the landmarks that should have been visible with their use (though one of the photos I took shows at moderate magnification the twin Nova Scotia Power station stacks at Lingan to the east of New Waterford), but I did move my eyes eastward along the coast until I saw only water, which should have been its easternmost point, Wreck Point (east of Glace Bay), some 68 km (42.5 mi) off in the far distance!

From the third look-off to the fourth look-off, the trail climbs still more, to 260 m (850 ft), but after seven minutes one arrives at the glorious views from the fourth look-off. They are much the same as those from the third look-off, but now one is high enough to see across the flat-top on which the park’s parking area is located to the mountains further south; the look-off is also a tad bit further to the east, slightly improving the views to the south. And there are fine views now of the Cabot Trail and Smokey Mountain, similar to those one had earlier on the edge of the ravine, but improved because of the added elevation. In spite of the climbing, my trail notes read “well worth [the] hike to here”! This is truly a beautiful spot.

The fifth look-off is yet higher, “on top of ol’ Smokey” (the plateau, not the mountain) at roughly 280 m (925 ft) and a slight bit further to the east. The views from the fifth look-off are again superb, even somewhat improving on the already marvellous views at the fourth look-off. The park map shows the fifth look-off about as far from the fourth look-off as the fourth is from the third, yet it took me sixteen minutes to do this segment and only half that to do the previous segment, which, moreover, gained twice as much in elevation; the return times were one minute less in each case, so the longer time here is not an aberration. I am not sure why my time disagrees with the trail map: my trail notes list no complaints about climbing and their times agree with the times of the photos taken. During this segment, one reaches and begins to cross the plateau at the very top of Cape Smokey, which is very much like the plateaux everywhere in the Cape Breton Highlands, which is to say, rarely level, boggy, and forested. About eleven minutes past the fourth look-off, there was a very bad spot in the trail—I got my shoe covered in muck, but managed to keep my foot dry, not that it would have mattered that much on such a fine day had it gotten wet.

The trek from the fifth to the sixth look-off has a fair amount of up and down, but there is no real change in elevation; it took me twenty-three minutes, but here the map shows a significantly longer distance as well. Along this stretch, one continues to have good views of the Cape Smokey plateau. Haynes talks about the moose that are common in this area, which was severely burned in the middle of the last century. Although I saw no moose on this hike, there was plenty of evidence that they were frequent visitors. About fifteen minutes after leaving the fifth look-off, one crosses a foot bridge and two minutes after that a bridge of logs. This is a signal that the sixth look-off is only a few minutes away.

While welcome as a place to catch my breath, the sixth look-off was otherwise a disappointment: its siting is such that its views are only to the northeast and all that is visible there is the ocean down below.

The last segment of the trail leads to the Stanley Point Look-Off. The park map shows the distance to there from the sixth look-off to be about the same as that between the fifth and the sixth look-off, yet it took me half the time; this leads me to suspect that the fifth and sixth look-offs are not correctly placed on the trail map. About nine minutes from the sixth look-off, a dead tree lay across the trail and blocked it; a tiny bushwhack was needed to get around it. The trail descends rather abruptly, crossing boulders where it is necessary to plan one’s moves carefully on the way down. There are few hints of the views to come through the trees, so four minutes past the dead tree I was astonished when I found myself standing at the look-off at the end of the trail in the midst of a 180° panorama of stunning beauty, a place I have since heard most fittingly referred to as God’s balcony.

The first thing that took my eyes was Middle Head, the site of the famous Keltic Lodge and a very fine public hiking trail at whose end one has great views up and down the coast, but fine as those views are, they can’t compete with the even more stunning views from this height! I next picked out St Paul Island in the very far distance—it’s about 70 km (43.5 mi) away in the Cabot Strait! The view from the look-off is a bit north of northeast, but looking inland just a bit west of due north, one sees across the forest in the far distance prominences which rise well above the nearer terrain—they must be part of the Cape North Massif at the north end of Cape Breton Island.

Returning to the area nearer at hand, one realizes with just how incredibly beautiful a siting the Ingonish area is blessed; the perspective one has from this look-off is very wide and not, so far as I am aware, available anywhere else. Middle Head divides North Bay Ingonish from South Bay Ingonish, both this day showing a gorgeous deep blue beneath a largely cloudless sky. Ingonish Centre and Ingonish village are followed along the coast of North Bay Ingonish by the very visible reddish-tinged cliffs along Bear Cove that delimit the forests on the hills above them from the seas below; picturesque Ingonish Island rises from the ocean beyond Middle Head; and the indentations of the Atlantic coast well to the north are easily visible from this height. To the south of Middle Head, the gleaming white sands of Ingonish Beach with Freshwater Lake behind it next take the eye; a spit of land separates Freshwater Lake from Ingonish Harbour (only the northern half of which is visible from the look-off because trees block the view of the rest), and the buildings of the village of Ingonish Beach can be seen behind the spit. The dramatic cleavage of the Clyburn River valley with Franey Mountain rising above is sure to keep your eyes entranced as you trace the contours of this stunning view to the west.

On this beautiful day, it was strange indeed to hear the regular blasts of the fog-horn, which accompanied the last half hour or more of the hike to the Stanley Point Look-Off. As he so often does, Haynes provided the answer to this question too: there is a buoy off Stanley Point whose sound carries to the top of Cape Smokey and some ways inland. It obviously operates without any regard to the weather! On such a fine day as this one was, it was easy to forget that Cape Smokey is a literal translation of Cap Enfumé, the French name based on earlier Portuguese names with the same sense, which was likely chosen because it is so often enshrouded in clouds and the adjacent waters in fog.

I met no one on the way to Stanley Point; on the return hike, I did meet first a couple and then a lady who was hiking alone: even on one the finest days of high summer this was certainly not a herd path!

As must by now be clear, the marvellous and varied views this trail offers are well worth the effort it takes to see them. I can only wish you as beautiful a day as the one I so greatly enjoyed. I will definitely hike this trail again when the opportunity next presents itself!

¹ The emergence of Shawn MacKinnon of Bay St Lawrence, a young fiddler I encountered in 2007 playing both at the Cape Breton Fiddlers’s Association Festival at St Anns in August and at the Jerry Holland benefit concert in Glace Bay on 30 September, gives one hope that the once vibrant music scene in northern Cape Breton may recover some of its past glory.

² On this hike, I continued past the side trail to the first look-off without stopping, since I had already been down it previously; I did visit it on the return hike (and saw the Newfoundland ferry on its way to North Sydney in the distance while doing so). However, since I’m describing the trail in one direction only (south to north), I will ignore the temporal order and describe it here in its proper physical order.

³ You can download here a PDF file of this photo that will enable you to scale it up to make it more readable.

⁴ Every map I have with enough detail to show this stream labels it as “Clyburn Brook”, yet every reference to it in text is as the “Clyburn River”. For example, the map in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park of Canada Park Map and Guide names it as Clyburn Brook, but the text describing the hike up Franey Mountain reads “panoramic views of the Clyburn River canyon”. In the photos I have seen of it from Franey Mountain, it looks much more like a river than a brook to me, so I have settled on Clyburn River here.


In addition to presenting information I have gathered about Cape Smokey, my Cape Smokey photo essay offers twenty-one photos taken from Cape Smokey, most of which are from this trail (the four others are of Cape Smokey taken from other vantage points); I thought them the best of my collection for illustrating the essay. The photos below are additional shots I didn’t have room for in the photo essay that offer other views or material deemed inappropriate for an essay focussing on Cape Smokey; they are ordered as they would be seen going from the parking lot to Stanley Point, even though some were taken on the return hike. Click here to view the first photo; use the navigation block in that page to view the subsequent photos.