The Natural Splendor of Cape Bretton Island

As mentioned in our previous post, Cape Breton is the island at the northern tip of Nova Scotia. The island, and especially the portion of the Cabot Trail that encircles the highlands near the northern tip of the island (primarily the section of the trail that is in Cape Breton National Park) was our primary motivation for visiting Nova Scotia.

We drove clockwise around the island (the route recommended for the most dramatic views). As discussed in our previous post, we began our island experience on the west side with a stop at Glenora Distillery.

We spent our nights, and had most of our meals, in two towns at either entrance of the National Park: Cheticamp on the west and Ingonish on the east. Then, on our drive down the eastern shore, we stopped at the city of Baddeck to visit the Alexander Graham Bell Museum. (These towns, cities and their restaurants and entertainment are discussed in our next post).

This post focuses on Cape Breton Highlands National Park, the highlight of and the primary reason that most people visit the island, drive the Cabot Trail—or for that matter, visit the province of Nova Scotia.

 Cape Breton Highlands National Park

Cape Breton Highlands National Park, which we entered from the western, Cheticamp entrance, is divided into a number of very distinct zones. This post divides our visit by zone (from west to east), briefly describing each and what we did in them.

The Cheticamp Canyon and Gulf Coast (Gulf of St. Lawrence) zones have the steep mountains, deep valleys and a ragged coastline threaded by the winding Cabot Trail highway that provides many of the views that are so iconic of the park. Many of these views can be seen from the road and its many viewpoints.

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A different perspective can be gained from a number of the area’s trails. The most popular of these is the Skyline Trail:

  • Skyline Trail is a 4.3-mile loop whose relatively flat loop with a spur that ends at a coastal overlook and 262 steps (yes, Joyce counted them) down to a series of lower viewing platforms. We were initially consumed by a trail that began as a mature spruce and fir forest, evolved into one of dead and dying evergreens and birches, and then gave way to open meadows, and then to more devastated forests. We found out why on the trip. Parts of the mature evergreen forest was devastated by a spruce budworm infestation. This opened the overstory, allowing birch to grow. Young birch tree buds, however, are the favored food of moose, who thrived, but devastates the forest, creating meadows. Rangers have built a fence to exclude moose from a portion of this area as an experiment to determine if and how the forest would regenerate. They are still awaiting results.

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Most people, however, take the trail for the coastal view at the end, not for the devastated forest in the middle. The payoff is worth it, although similar views can be had during the drive and at scenic pull-outs through this section of the park.

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As you leave the Gulf section, you enter the Highland Plateau, the high-altitude section of the park where drainage is poor and tree growth is stunted. A short, interpretive, boardwalk trail–one of our favorite of the park–highlights and explains this fascinating ecosystem.

  • Bog Trail packs a fascinating ecosystem and a lot of explanation into its short (0.4 mile), flat boardwalk through a peat bog. The bog forms when spagnum moss and reeds grow and compress to form peat. This absorbs and maintains nutrients and water, creating ponds and produces an acid that reduces the growth of many species of trees. Some plants, however, thrive in this material; burgundy and purple orchids flower throughout the bog, as do buck bean and the pretty, wavy, aptly named cottongrass, whose delicate white puffs sway in the breeze. Water lilies, meanwhile, dot the ponds. The most interesting and unique fauna, however, are the “carnivorous plants”, such as pitcher plants, bladderwort and sundew, each, as discussed in our July 24. 2014 post on San Francisco Museums, each have different approaches to capturing and dissolving the nutrients from trapped insects. (These plants are smaller than, but just as fascinating as some of those we saw on our 2013 trek through parks on the island of Borneo.)

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  • The bog, however, also has its own fauna. During our short walk, we heard a number of frogs and, of course, many types of insects. Our most unexpected and treasured sighting, however, was a young (huge, but still a veritable baby) moose feeding in one of the bog’s ponds. Not quite as dramatic as the adult male moose (big antlers and all) that happened onto on a deserted dirt road in central Maine many years ago, but, as only our second wild moose sighting, special still.

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We spent less time in the central sections of the park, down from the highlands and before the Atlantic Coast section, than in the others. After leaving the highlands, we went through and viewed stretches of other interesting areas:

Mountains and Valleys, where the mountains were covered with many species of softwood trees (especially fir and spruce) and the valleys with hardwood forests laced with rivers and streams. We took two short trails in this zone:

  • Macintosh Brook Trail, a short (1-3/4 mile), flat trail along a lovely brook to a small waterfall.

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  • Lone Shieling Trail, an even shorter, half mile loop through a mature, 350-year-old hardwood forest of sugar maples, and to a recreation of an 18th-century stone hut built by a Scottish sheep crofter (herder).

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Wilderness, the expanses inland from the coast and highway, accessible from long trails off the road;

Then to the Atlantic Coast, which is less steep and ragged than the western Gulf Coast. It has more of a rolling inland landscape and a lovely granite rock shoreline dotted with beaches–and many seabirds.

As you exit the southeastern edge of the park, you get to lowlands and more sandy beaches, punctuated by the long, rocky headland of Middle Head.

Our Atlantic Coast and Beaches zone trails and stops included:

  • White Point (the north coast, off a scenic detour along the Coastal Route, outside the northern edge of the park), which provides stunning views of islands, sandbars, rocky headlands and a picturesque fishing harbor, which marks the end of the short spur to the “town” of White Point.

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  • Green Cove is reached by a short (0.2 mile) walk on granite ocean headland with rocks broken by lines of lava and studded with quartz crystals, and surrounded, on the inland side, by small shrubs and trees whose growth is stunted by high winds and high saltwater waves.

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  • Franey. This A 4.6-mile round-trip loop to the peak of a mountain that offers a roughly 180-degree view from the ocean, to an inland valley. The trail, while it does have an 1,100-foot elevation gain, is not particularly steep or difficult. It is, however, beautiful, ascending though. Lovely mixed forest, passing a stream with the quintessential bubbling brook. You then reach a small meadow and a stand of stunted, dead and dying trees just before you reach the peak, complete with an Adirondack chair overlooking the best view. The only downside to the trail is the 4WD dirt and gravel road that makes up the remainder of the loop. It is long and boring, with the top half, to our eyes at least, downright ugly and the bottom half not much better. The only redeeming factor is a small, pretty waterfall just off the trail. Best to skip the loop and take the more direct, much prettier trail both up and down.

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  • Middle Head, a very pretty 2.4 mile loop through a nice mixed (primarily spruce and birch) trail that stretches out into the ocean. Although it has a few easy (about 100 to 200 feet) ups and downs and many tree routes to negotiate, the beautiful trail and headland views at the end are well worth it.

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  • Freshwater Lake, another short (quarter-mile), walk to yet more spectacular coastal and highland views.

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Although the park’s broad vistas and many of its trails provide some of the most dramatic and most easily accessible rewards, leisurely drives and impromptu stops often yield more subtle pleasures. These can include expansive views, tranquil forests and meadows, and secluded coves and beaches glimpses.

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Or occasionally, a ground bird lolling through a meadow or a moose casually gazing on tender leaves and grasses.

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We then, as discussed in our next post, reached the resort town of Ingonish, where we spent the night.

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