This section describes Cape Breton maps and other resources for exploring Cape Breton’s geography that I have found useful; they are listed alphabetically. If you are aware of maps and resources not listed here that you think should be, please so notify me using the address in the footer.

The Atlas of Canada—Toporama—Topographic Maps

Thanks to a link supplied by a friend, I discovered the web site at The Atlas of Canada in late 2009. This site offers online free access to the National Topographic System through the use of a mapping tool in your browser. The maps shown there are the next generation of topographic maps. Their contents, at least in the Cape Breton areas I have examined, differ, often significantly, from the current generation of Canadian topographical maps (see below) and seem to be more up to date. At maximum zoom (1 : 20 000) and using the XL map size, one can get an 8 km × 9.5 km section of terrain in a browser window; there is no restriction, as there is with a paper map, that one cannot cross topographical map boundaries. Moreover, the browser tool allows the maps to be saved on your hard drive (such maps and their content, of course, are protected by crown copyright). It also provides tools for measuring distances and for determining the GPS coöordinates of a location or for determining the location corresponding to a given set of GPS coördinates. In short, this is an excellent site for exploration of an area through an internet browser.

Cape Breton Highlands National Park of Canada Park Guide and Map

This superb bilingual Parks Canada brochure is given to each visitor to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park upon payment of the park entry fee. It unfolds into a surprisingly detailed map of the northern portion of Cape Breton Island, including all of the territory belonging to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. It shows the locations of and tersely describes all of the maintained hiking trails and camp grounds within the park boundaries; symbols indicate the look-offs and interpretive exhibits that are scattered throughout the park. I have found it extremely useful and highly recommend it. If you click on this Parks Canada link, this very useful map will be downloaded to your computer as a PDF file.

Cape Breton Highlands National Park Topographic Map

Published in 2012 by Parks Canada, this huge topographical map measures approximately 125 × 107 cm (49 × 42 inches) and covers all of Cape Breton Island north of a line stretching from Point Cross in the west to the Cape Smokey Provincial Park in the east. It includes all of the area inside the Cape Breton Highlands National Park boundaries, but also large portions of northern Cape Breton outside the park boundaries, including the Polletts Cove-Aspy Fault Wilderness Area, most of the Margaree River Wilderness Area, and the Chéticamp Flowage. It is far more convenient to use than the regular topographical maps for the area, which are broken across several sheets, and offers the same 1 : 50 000 scale. Like the much smaller, but very useful, Cape Breton Highlands National Park of Canada Park Guide and Map, it shows the locations of and tersely describes all of the maintained hiking trails and camp grounds within the park boundaries; symbols indicate the look-offs and interpretive exhibits that are scattered throughout the park. As well, it includes the same hiking trails and other data outside the park that are found on the regular topographical maps. The map’s coverage does not include St Paul Island in the Cabot Strait. It comes folded into a rectangle approximately 27 × 13 cm (10½ × 5 in), making it convenient to carry in a back pack (though it would be very hard to consult the middle of the huge map in a blowing wind!) and is printed on one side only. I picked up my copy for $15 at the Park Visitors’ Centre outside Chéticamp. Highly recommended.

Cape Breton Highlands Snowmobile Trail Guide

The Cape Breton Highlands Snowmobile Trail Guide is a free brochure available from some of the Cape Breton Visitors’ Centres; I got mine (dated October, 2006) at the Visitors’ Centre in Les Trois Pignons in Chéticamp. The brochure expands into 70 × 58 cm (27.6 × 22.9 in) map of the very extensive snowmobile trail system in Inverness and Victoria Counties. In spite of its title, there are no maintained snowmobile trails in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park: the map covers areas from the southern border of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park all the way south to Port Hastings. The reverse side of the map has several gorgeous winter photos of selected views from the trails and contains information about the seven regional snowmobile clubs whose volunteers maintain these trails and their signage, services found in the communities accessible from the trails, and general information about snowmobiling in Nova Scotia (including the important fact that you need a valid permit to use a snowmobile on these trails). The on-line version of this map is no longer at its former site, which no longer exists, nor is it archived on the Wayback Machine; a somewhat different version (of the map only) with, as far as I can see, the same information, can be found here.

Even if you have absolutely no interest in snowmobiling, the snowmobile trail guide map is still very useful to have. Portions of some of the snowmobile trails, particularly the main ones crossing the various plateaux, are car-drivable in the summer; if you attempt such exploration, you should definitely carry this map with you as the signage will make little sense without it — each of the trail junctions is normally marked with a digit-letter combination, such as 4E, and the map shows exactly where that junction is, invaluable information to have. There are also many fine hikes along the various trails of this system and the map is often the only way to locate the several look-offs along the system.

Cape Breton Travel Map¹

Produced by Destination Cape Breton (the Cape Breton tourism industry association whose very useful web site is here), this finely detailed map is without any question the single most useful travel map of Cape Breton of which I am aware. It has a place name index and two very useful tables, one giving distances and one giving driving times, between 31 selected Cape Breton localities, making it an excellent tool for planning vacation drives. The level of detail, both of back roads and streams, is excellent. For several years, this map was available from the Destination Cape Breton web site and I provided a link to it here and in each of my photo essays; following its removal from the redesigned Destination Cape Breton web site in the fall of 2012, I was given written permission in an e-mail from Destination Cape Breton dated 2012 October 5 to provide the PDF file containing this map on my website, now found here; I strongly suggest you save it to your hard drive for future reference: it can be scaled up to make it easily readable (even by my aging eyes) or to focus in on a specific area. A paper version of this map is available in the Visitor Information Centres in Cape Breton. I have also seen it offered for sale in gift shops.

This map does contain a few anomalies in place names, e.g., Ragged Point and Emerson Point on St. Georges Bay and Bridgend Brook² near Whycocomagh are respectively designated as MacNeil Point, Big Rorys Point, and Indian River on the Natural Resources Canada topographic maps. On the other hand, it is one of the few road maps to get the location of Route 19 in the Port Hood area correct (the provincial road map does not and many other maps are based on the incorrect provincial road map).

¹ I am indebted to Kimberley Wotherspoon for the reference to this map in a posting on 2007 July 24 to the now defunct Cape Breton Music Mailing List.

² There is evidence that Bridgend Brook is an older name for this stream; it is, for example, so listed on a Canada Department of Mines Lake Ainslie Geological Survey map issued in 1933 that I was recently given by a good friend. Current local usage, however, prefers Indian River.

Google Earth

Google Earth is an application program which runs on Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows; it presents maps derived from satellite photographs on your computer in real-time using information stored in Google’s data bases. By selecting various features, you can show roads, boundaries, hospitals, etc., on the map. Amazingly, you can zoom in on a spot until you are hovering above it, as if in an airplane looking down; most amazingly, you can tilt the view to obtain a three-dimensional view of the terrain. Alas, the resolution of much of Cape Breton Island is not at the same level of detail as, say, New Jersey, where it is so good that I can make out the rhododendron bush by the garage of my house and the car parked in front of the garage (though, for some bizarre reason, it associates my address with a house further down the street), but it is sufficient for one to make out geographic features, follow roads, and gauge the terrain. It is a very good way to explore Cape Breton “virtually” from your desktop. Moreover, numerous photographs become available at a sufficiently detailed level of exploration, making the program even more valuable. “Street View” also is a rich store of photos taken of the roads and byways where Google’s crews travelled, photographing what they passed; you can even get a taste of travelling parts of the Cabot Trail using “Street View”. Hopefully, at some point the satellite photography of Cape Breton will become as good as that in New Jersey.

If you are on broadband, your experience of Google Earth will be much better than if you are on dial-up; however, you can still very profitably use the program on dial-up but you need some patience.

Google Maps

I often use the Google Maps web site. It has a very useful feature: the ability to get the coördinates under the cursor.¹ I find the Terrain view the most useful, though it lacks many details that are present on the topographical maps. The naming of local roads in its data base sometimes varies from the local usage, but I have often found it closer to the official names of these roads (which appear in civic addresses and government documents) than other sources.

¹ To enable this feature, you may need to select “Maps Labs” under the Gear menu in the upper right corner and scroll down to “LatLng Tooltip” and click the “Enable” radio button. The Distance Measurement Tool in the same location is also a useful addition.

Hiking Trails of the Cape Mabou Highlands

This paper map, currently in its second edition, is produced by the Cape Mabou Trail Club. It is the sine qua non of any hiker using the superb Cape Mabou Trail Club system in the Cape Mabou Highlands. The map, which arrives as a folded flier, unfolds into a sheet 63.5 × 39.3 cm (25 × 15.5 in); the front side contains a wealth of information in its twelve panes—useful information about the trail system and hiking the Cape Mabou area, a map showing how to get to the three trail heads, and detailed descriptions of the individual trails with difficulty ratings; the entire back side is given over to a large scale map of the trail system. The map shows the fifteen trails in the trail system at the time it was published; three new trails have been added since then, but two of those three are shown as proposed trails on the map (and the third is quite short), so the second edition of the map remains very serviceable. It is available at a nominal charge ($5 as of January, 2007) either in local stores or by writing to the CMTC directly (enclosing a stamped self-addressed envelope) at:
         Cape Mabou Trail Club
         Inverness, NS B0E 1N0

N.B. The Cape Mabou Trail Club system was officially closed in 2009 and 2010, at the request of the provincial Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources, because of the huge number of dead white spruce trees, killed by the spruce bark beetle infestation, which present two dangers to hikers: fire and falling trees. A portion of the trail system was reöpened in 2011; see my 2011 Hiking News and Discoveries page for details.

Natural Resources Canada Topographic Maps

Natural Resources Canada publishes¹ topographic maps that cover Cape Breton on a scale of 1 : 50 000. The grid that Natural Resources Canada has chosen unfortunately results in dividing Cape Breton into rather awkward sections, with several consisting mostly of water and others broken at inconvenient points. They measure 94 × 66 cm (37 × 26 in) and are available unfolded in heavy cardboard cylinders at various outlets on Cape Breton Island, including the Les Amis du Plein Air book store in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park Visitors’ Centre outside Chéticamp. Details and specifications for these topographic maps can be found at this Natural Resources Canada web site. The maps can be ordered on-line in either paper or tyvek versions at this Nova Scotia Government web site for $11.45 each; shipping and handling fees are added to the order.

For complete coverage of Cape Breton Island, one needs the following twenty-five maps:

I now lack only two maps from having a complete set and reference them very often, especially when working on a photo essay or planning a hiking trip to a specific destination.

These maps provide the greatest amount of detail of any maps I know of. Their large format, however, makes them somewhat inconvenient to handle, unless they are folded into something manageable in the wind. For the casual tourist, these maps are clearly overkill, but they are the sine qua non for the backcountry hiker and are also very useful to anyone considering purchasing real estate.

Also note that the next generation of these maps can be accessed on-line: see The Atlas of Canada—Toporama—Topographic Maps on this page for details.

¹ According to this story dated 2006 October 11, “Natural Resources Canada plans to get out of the business of printing paper topographical maps. […] Rather than print the maps, the government will make the digital information available for people to download and print themselves […]. […] The government plans to stop printing the maps at the end of 2006.” I do not know whether this change in policy was actually put into effect. However, the paper maps were still readily available in 2010 and, as of the spring of 2011 were still for sale at the Nova Scotia Government web site given above.

The Nova Scotia Atlas

The Nova Scotia Atlas, sixth edition, prepared by Service Nova Scotia’s Nova Scotia Geomatics Centre, co-published by the Formac Publishing Company Limited and the Province of Nova Scotia, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2006, spiral bound paperback, 90 map plates. Includes gazetteer and listing of national and provincial parks. ISBN 10: 0-88780-707-0, ISBN 13: 978-0-88780-707-7. [The sixth edition was reprinted in 2010 with the identical information, but with different front and back covers.]

As its name indicates, this set of maps covers the entire province of Nova Scotia, with twenty-five plates (out of ninety plates) providing full coverage of Cape Breton Island. Its scale of 1 : 150 000 and its format make it basically a reduced-scale version of the Natural Resources Canada topographic maps (which are published on the scale 1 : 50 000), with each plate having the same name and covering the same area as the corresponding topographic map. As a convenience, a small amount of the adjacent area is provided beyond the edges of each plate to help the user transition between plates (the grid Natural Resources Canada uses results in dividing Cape Breton into rather awkward sections, with several consisting mostly of water and others broken at inconvenient points). This work provides the greatest amount of detail of any maps I know of other than the aforementioned topographic maps themselves. Moreover, its spiral binding makes it far more convenient to deal with than the topographic maps—it is even practical to use in the car—and it comes with a complete place name index that covers geographical features as well as localities. After substantial usage, I have discovered no anomalies in the information it provides,¹ though I have encountered occasional local usages at variance with those given in the atlas and a few of what it marks as “local roads” are not driveable. This work is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in Cape Breton areas off the beaten track or a need for the level of detail it provides.

I got my copy for $29.95 at the Les Amis du Plein Air book store in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park Visitors’ Centre outside Chéticamp, but I have also seen it in book stores throughout the province. It can also be purchased on-line from this Nova Scotia Government web page.

¹ The St. Anns Harbour topographic map (11K07), in its lower right corner, labels the waters east of River Bennett as “ST ANNS BAY (GULF OF ST LAWRENCE) (GOLFE DU SAINT-LAURENT)", though The Nova Scotia Atlas does not, using only “St Anns Bay” on its plate (p. 9). Similarly, the Ingonish topographic map (11K09) and The Nova Scotia Atlas on its Ingonish plate (p. 7) both identify the waters off Cape Smokey as belonging to the “Gulf of St Lawrence”. Initially, I thought these labels to be in error, but, after some research, have concluded that they might technically be legitimate. The definition of “Gulf of St. Lawrence” is not terribly precise, but all authorities I consulted consider it to include the Cabot Strait, which runs between Cape Breton and Newfoundland. I had heretofore believed that the Cabot Strait did not descend much to the south of Cape North, as shown on most of the world atlases I have, but it appears that, at least in some sources, it also includes the waters considerably further south and east. There is unanimity that the waters off Wreck Point to the east of Glace Bay belong to the Atlantic Ocean, but where the boundary between the Cabot Strait and the Atlantic Ocean is remains completely unclear after consulting a number of sources. Both the Bras d’Or topographic map (11K08) and the Bras d’Or plate (p. 10) in The Nova Scotia Atlas label the waters north of Boularderie Island as the Atlantic Ocean, as I had always thought. But the labelling of St. Anns Bay and the waters off Cape Smokey as the Gulf of St. Lawrence indicates that official Canadian usage must consider the Cabot Strait to run from somewhere east of Cape North southwest to Cape Dauphin and includes the waters to the west of the Bird Islands, which is not at all what I had believed.

Nova Scotia Backroad Mapbook

Nova Scotia Backroad Mapbook Outdoor Recreation Guide by Linda Aksomitis, Backroad Mapbooks, 5811 Beresfort Street, Burnaby, British Columbia, 2006, spiral bound paperback, 176 pages. Includes 52 map plates and four pages of inset maps. ISBN 1-894556-83-6.

This book covers the entire province of Nova Scotia and includes information about backroads attractions, fishing, paddling routes, parks, trails, wildlife viewing, and winter recreation. (It lost points with me because its trails section omits any mention of the fine Cape Mabou Highlands trail system, but it otherwise seems to include most of the major Cape Breton trails.) It contains a set of fifty-two map plates, of which fourteen provide full coverage of Cape Breton, based on a much more convenient grid scheme for Cape Breton than that used by Natural Resources Canada. The maps lack any topographic markings for altitude, but otherwise the level of detail in the maps is impressive and seems to be independent of the Natural Resources Canada maps. Its spiral binding and 21.75 × 28 cm (8.5 × 11 in) format make it very convenient to deal with and very practical for car use. It has an adequate place name index and city maps (including Sydney in Cape Breton). The names given to some roads sometimes differ from those in local use, but back roads are very definitely quite prominent in its coverage. This atlas is a very useful complement to other sources of information and often provides information not available elsewhere.

I got my copy for $20.95 at the Les Amis du Plein Air book store in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park Visitors’ Centre outside Chéticamp, but I have also seen it in book stores throughout the province.

Nova Scotia Government Map

A high-quality computer-readable map of Nova Scotia, of which Cape Breton Island is a part, is available for free as a PDF file on this Nova Scotia Government web site, where it is listed first (“High Quality Map of Nova Scotia”). This file can be scaled up to make it easily readable or to focus in on a specific area. This map is quite good but it leaves many geographical features unnamed, omits several place names (e.g., Little River), and lacks the index and tables on the Cape Breton Travel Map described above.

This provincial map has its own anomalies, e.g., it shows Route 19 passing too far inland at Port Hood and it misspells Belle-Côte as “Bell Cote”.

Nova Scotia Groundwater Interactive Map

This high-quality interactive map of Nova Scotia¹ is intended to provide information relating to ground water, but can be used to study the terrain if one uses the magnification option enough times (place name labels show up at the 8 km level of magnification; contour lines are useful at and below the 2 km level of magnification; contour shaded relief is one of the many options that can be used to customize the map’s appearance). Apparently including the information on the Natural Resources Canada topographical maps, it shows details such as trails and back roads, again at suitable levels of magnification.

To access this interactive map, point your browser to this web page, select the area you wish to explore from the inset map in the upper left corner, click on the magnifying glass with the plus sign in it to select the magnification tool, go to the map and click there until the magnification level reaches a level of detail suitable to your needs. You can then select the hand tool and click and drag to move the map’s focus to adjacent areas. I find the 1 km level of magnification with shaded relief to be incredibly useful for looking at terrain (but one can go much further—I gave up at the 0.0016 km level of magnification). Note that one has control over the shading and can select any of the eight compass directions—some choices are much more readable than others, depending on the terrain.

There are a few typos (e.g., “St. Nimiam” for St. Ninian). The place labels for “Places” (highlighted with a yellow background) are mostly correctly sited, but many of the place labels for “Gazetteer” (transparent background) are not and many are very wide of the mark—recourse to the topographical maps or The Nova Scotia Atlas is therefore necessary. Some trails shown on the topographical maps are missing here, but the opposite is also the case. These pecadillos in no way diminish the real value of this excellent resource: in a short time, it has given me a better understanding of the lay of the land than I have been able to achieve by hiking and driving the back roads or from the one-dimensional topographical maps.

¹ I am indebted to Mike Little for the reference to this map in a private e-mail dated 2008 August 25.

Rand McNally Cape Breton Island Regional Map

The Rand McNally Cape Breton Island Regional Map, published in 2000, which I purchased in a Sydney book store a few years ago for $3.95, is a typical folding paper map intended for car use. It has a considerable amount of detail, showing back roads and some geographic features. Symbols locate museums, lighthouses, historic sites, beaches, whale watching, and other such features of interest to tourists. It has a place names index and a driving distance chart (though the latter includes only one Cape Breton Island location, North Sydney, rendering it of marginal value to the Cape Breton tourist). The reverse side of the map has street maps of Glace Bay, Sydney Mines/North Sydney, Baddeck, Louisbourg, Port Hawkesbury, Sydney, and New Waterford, including a street index for Sydney and area.

This map has a few anomalies, showing Route 19 passing too far inland at Port Hood and naming as Bridgend Brook near Whycocomagh what the Natural Resources Canada topographic map designates as Indian River. Nevertheless, it is now so tattered and torn from very frequent use that it needs to be replaced, so I have certainly found it very helpful.

Tourism Regions Map

This paper map is available for free from any Nova Scotia Visitors’ Centre; in previous years, it was called the Scenic Travelways Map, but the 2008 edition was renamed as Tourism Regions Map. Updated annually, it usually accompanies the provincial Doers and Dreamers Guide—both can be ordered without cost from this tourism web site. Like the Cape Breton Travel Map described above, it provides a localities index and time/distance driving charts (though for the whole province rather than just for Cape Breton Island, which means that space considerations cause it to list only six Cape Breton Island destinations) and detailed inset maps of certain municipal areas (Sydney, North Sydney, Glace Bay, Louisbourg, and Baddeck on Cape Breton Island). Its reverse side provides information about the Cèilidh, Cabot, Marconi, and Fleur-de-Lis Trails and the Bras d’Or Scenic Drive. Given that its scope is of the entire province, not just Cape Breton, it does a decent job and is a useful map to carry in the car.

This provincial map also shows Route 19 passing too far inland at Port Hood though, unlike the Nova Scotia Government Map described above, it spells Belle-Côte correctly, though without a hyphen.¹

¹ For compound place names formed as Belle-Côte (Beautiful Coast) is, standard French usage is to hyphenate the component words. In English text, this usage seems to be followed sometimes (e.g., Grand-Étang (Big Pond) and Belle-Marche (Beautiful Walk) usually have the hyphen) and ignored other times (e.g., Petit-Étang (Little Pond), Terre-Noire (Black Land), and Belle-Côte are more frequently found without the hyphen than with). I follow the standard French usage for all such names.