When we first decided to visit Atlantic Canada, Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia was one of our top destinations. This section of the Cabot Trail has gorgeous rocky beaches, unique hikes and so much culture! We even got to enjoy a “Kitchen Party” while staying at Cheticamp Campground – complete with fiddle music, singing and delicious potato pancakes with molasses. However, the hiking was the real highlight of our trip. There are so many options to choose from in this area. But, we loved these five short hikes in Cape Breton Highlands because you can fit in a few in one day. Plus, they really highlighted the varying landscape of this famed area.
Although, ever the contrarians, we went clockwise around the trail. We now understand why counter-clockwise is suggested. There are way less steep descents by going the preferred route! So, this list starts at the Ingonish Beach entrance and ends at the Cheticamp Campground. Most trails should not take longer than two hours. And, although some have steep areas, we did not find them overly difficult.
1. Freshwater Lake & Look-Off
- Location: Ingonish Beach, shortly after eastern park entrance.
- Distance: 2 km round trip (1.2 miles)
- Difficulty: The Freshwater Lake portion is easy, but the look-off is moderate due to the incline (it is a short one though).
This is the first trail you will see signs for as you enter the park’s eastern entrance at Ingonish. Although the look off is across from the visitor center, we suggest parking at Ingonish Beach to include the short trail next to Freshwater Lake. Plus, there is way more parking in that area (plenty of room for our rig) and you get to check out the gorgeous beach!
The Freshwater Lake trail begins just passed the beach. This lake – which was once an ocean bay – is separated from the Atlantic Ocean by just a small cobble barrier. Look for birds, bugs and fish as you walk this easy, flat trail.
For a challenge and amazing views, make sure to add on the 0.3-km trail to the look-off and back. Just head up to the park entrance and carefully cross the road (there is a big sign marking the trail).
This adds a beautiful, new perspective of the lake as well as the beach and surrounding coastline. The trek up is steep, but short. And it is totally worth it!
Before heading back to your vehicle, make sure to stop by the beach. Take in the views of the popular Keltic Lodge on the adjacent coast or go for a swim.
Near the lodge is another popular hike, Mallory Head. However, this area was packed when we arrived, so we skipped it. (And we think we found a great alternative – #2 on our list).
2. Jack Pine – Coastal Combo
- Location: Parking lot near the Black Brook day-use area, on eastern side of park.
- Distance: About 2 km (1.2 miles) round trip to do about 1/3 of the Jack Pine trail and a small portion of the Coastal.
- Difficulty: Easy, just be careful near cliff edges!
We stopped to enjoy an easy loop on the Jack Pine trail. However, Buddy had the great idea to check out the nearby portion of the Coastal Trail as well. So, we did about a third of the Jack Pine trail before hopping on the Coastal trail. And it was one of our favorite places in the park!
After a leisurely loop through a forest with a few look-off points, we ventured onto the Coastal Trail. At 11.3-km the entire trail would take 3-4 hours. But, this portion only took us less than an hour – and we were stopping a lot to take photos.
We were all alone as we walked along rugged coasts. There were fishermen on boats nearby, lots of birds and dozens of scenic places to stop for photos. Make sure to wander down all the off-shoot paths, or you may miss one!
A favorite was watching the Harlequin Duck soar off the rock cliffs into the water. These unique birds actually fly under water as well! It was amazing to see them dive into the water and flap their wings as they hunted for lunch.
Getting to look down at the people enjoying the beach below was also a fun stop. It was a unique perspective and allowed us to enjoy the views without the crowds.
We thought that this was a great lesser-traveled trail that allows a taste for the Coastal Trail without the commitment. However, on our next trip we definitely want to hike along the entire thing – especially if all the views are as pretty as the ones we experienced. Even the trail has a unique beauty to it!
3. The Bog
- Location: Before the Skyline Trail, atop French Mountain.
- Distance: 0.5 km (0.3 miles) round trip
- Difficulty: Extremely easy – flat, short trail.
This is a very short hike on a wooden trail over a bog. It can be finished in less than 10 minutes, but to really enjoy it, you have to take your time. We loved stopping to watch the fish, tadpoles, and insects in the small ponds. And we even had a frog startle us when it jumped in to gracefully swim across. Moose also frequent this area, but they have proven quite elusive to us!
But, the plants in this area interested us the most. After reading the helpful signs, we learned that many of them were carnivorous. Our favorite – the Pitcher Plant has a flower that looks kind of like an Orchid from far away. However, it is actually part of the trap it sets for insects. Nature is savage, and we love it.
4. Skyline Trail at Sunset
- Location: About mid-way through the park, atop French Mountain.
- Distance: 7 km (4.3 miles) to the boardwalk trail and back, or 8.7 km (5.4 miles) round trip for the loop.
- Difficulty: Easy, mainly flat trail. The only incline is going back up the stairs on the boardwalk portion of the trail.
One of the most well-known – and busy – hiking options is the Skyline Trail. But, for good reason. This iconic boardwalk path offers sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean and Cabot Trail. It is often highlighted on the marketing materials for this area and is a bucket-list destination for many.
However, weaving through tourists while trying to enjoy the views didn’t sound like fun to us. So, we opted for a sunset Skyline Trail hike. The colorful sky added to the picturesque views and there were way less people.
Although there is a shorter option that goes directly to the view-point, we decided to take the loop. And we barely saw anyone on this portion of the hike. Although we didn’t see any, moose and bears do live in the area, so keep an eye out.
After wandering through a beautiful forested area and past a few overlooks, we finally got to the long, ocean-side boardwalk trail. Skyline is definitely one of the most uniquely, beautiful trails you will ever see.
The wooden trail meanders along a small peninsula. To the right the powerful waves of the Atlantic Ocean crash against the rocky coastline. While to the left, the Cabot Trail winds through lush mountain scenery.
We stayed here for hours until the sun had completely dipped behind the horizon and we had soaked up all the magic this special spot had to offer. There were only a few people who stayed until this point. We all quietly walked back to our cars by the light of a full moon in front of us and lingering pink light at our backs.
If you only go on one hike while visiting Cape Breton, this should be the one. Yes, it can be busy, but it is an amazing place. If you are nervous about walking back alone at sunset, the park even offers a guided option. But, a good flashlight is all you really need.
5. Le Chemin du Buttereau & Le Buttereau
- Location: Near the Cheticamp Campground (western park entrance)
- Distance: 5.6 km round trip (3.5 miles)
- Difficulty: Moderate due to a gradual incline to the viewpoint areas.
This one is a bit longer, but still only takes a few hours to complete. Since the Cheticamp Campground was our base for our time in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, we were excited to explore this nearby trail. And we loved that we could just walk to this trailhead without having to unhook the RV!
Slightly more difficult than the rest of the trails we’ve listed, Le Chemin du Buttereau is mainly forested, but offers some interesting insight into the history of this area.
The trail was once a cart path for Acadian pioneers. There are even pieces of foundation along the way. At each point, there is an overview about what the structure was and its historical significance.
After a gradual ascent up the mountain and a brief history lesson, you will be at the Le Buttereau Loop. This section of the trail offers beautiful views with sitting areas perfect for a picnic. After exploring, just go back down the Le Chemin du Buttereau Trail. (There is a separate parking lot if you only want to do the 1.6-km Le Buttereau Trail).
This mainly shaded hike is perfect for an escape from the heat. But, make sure to bring your bug spray because mosquitoes and flies love these wooded areas.
P.S. Another great hike or bike ride near the campground is Salmon Ponds. At 7.8 km, it is a bit longer than others we’ve listed. But, if you are staying at Cheticamp it is another option accessible from the campground. And it is a pretty, tranquil trail with lots of chances to see nature. Just exploring part of it makes for a nice stroll or bike ride.
BONUS: Inverness Beach Loop
- Location: Inverness Beach (just after leaving the park on the west side).
- Distance: 3 km (1.9 miles) round trip
- Difficulty: Very easy – flat, beach trail.
This is a relaxing beach stroll with amazing views. We suggest taking the boardwalk trail until it ends, then going down to the beach to loop back up.
The boardwalk trail borders a gorgeous golf course – Cabot Links. And on a clear day you can even see Prince Edward Island. For beach lovers, this is a can’t miss stop!
Tips for a Great Trip
Check the park website to be aware of any construction or other notices. The roads are very winding and have some steep areas, so it may not be ideal for people towing a trailer or larger rigs.
Go early or later in the day to avoid the big crowds and have better luck with parking. Although, the Skyline Trail did have an RV parking area, finding a spot may be an issue at the other trail heads. And some may not have many spots even for a normal-sized car on weekends. A lot of the look-out points may be a bit cramped as well, so plan ahead.
Give yourself plenty of time. We loved staying at the Cheticamp Campground because it allowed us to explore the nearby areas without having to drive too far away. In retrospect, we would have stayed two nights there and another two nights on the eastern side for plenty of time to explore.
Participate in Parks Canada events and tours. The park has some awesome activities for visitors – either for free or at a low cost. We loved the free Kitchen Party we mentioned at the beginning of this post. You can also learn how to have a lobster boil or go on a night-time lantern walk! Just check in at the visitor center to see what is going on throughout the week.
Don’t forget to eat! This is the #1 rule in our rolling home. Luckily, we have plenty of food in the RV with us. But, that didn’t stop us from trying some local cuisine.
The Rusty Anchor in Pleasant Bay made for a great lunch break with amazing views.
And, shortly after leaving the park, the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre offers a great lunch with live music. This mid-day celebration is called a Ceilidh, and it gives you a great look into the local culture. In their small interpretive center, you can even try to play the fiddle and learn to step dance like the locals!
We would like to thank Parks Canada for providing us with support for this trip. As always, all opinions are our own.