Photograph by Eric Baccega, Photolibrary
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Sunset lights up Cap Rouge in Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
Photograph by Eric Baccega, Photolibrary

Cape Breton Highlands National Park

Location: Nova Scotia
Date Established: 1936
Size: 235,000 acres

Cape Breton Highlands National Park was the first national park designated in Atlantic Canada. The Cabot Trail, a world-famous scenic highway, runs along parts of the coastal borders on both sides of the park and crosses the highlands. Renowned for its hiking trails, the park is home to a diverse mix of boreal and temperate species not found elsewhere in Canada.

Park Facts

Living History The human history of northern Cape Breton reaches back 10,000 years. The Mi’kmaq have lived here about 4,000 years. Portuguese, French, Scottish, Irish, and Dutch immigrants settled here from the 1400s onward, and there continues to be a rich cultural history in the region that is active and engaging.

High and Low The park is often referred to as the place “where the mountains meet the sea.” The dominant feature of this region is the elevated plateau, divided by steep-walled river canyons; northern species and habitats on the plateaus coexist with the more temperate habitats and species of the lowlands. Consequently, there is much diversity.

Boreal, Barrens, and Bogs Approximately 88 percent of the park is forested. The plateau, or upper reaches, is dominated by both boreal and taiga vegetation and is part of the worn-down Appalachian Mountain chain that stretches from Georgia to Newfoundland. The boreal land region of this plateau features large swaths of coniferous trees, sprinkled with barrens and wetlands. Most of the entire population of Nova Scotia’s endangered Canada lynx lives here, as well as moose, hare, grouse, and marten. The taiga land region of the plateau features a tundra-like landscape characterized by scrub forest, barrens, and bogs.

Old Growth In the lowlands, the Acadian forest includes a mix of northern and temperate plants and animals. Most worthy of note are the old-growth stands—more than 350 years old—as well as some pure sugar-maple stands found only in the northern part of this species’ range.

Water World The park and its treasures have been shaped by the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which flanks it on the westward side, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. The shorelines range from rocky shores and dramatic headlands to cobbled and sandy beaches. A healthy marine food chain includes krill, lobster, and salmon. Minke whales, pilot whales, and harbour seals are frequently seen along the coast. Around 230 species of birds frequent various sections of the park, the most noticeable being bald eagles.

Recreation The park has six campgrounds, 26 hiking trails, several beaches, and a world-class golf course. Bordering communities have seasonal amenities, recreational programs, and cultural activities.

How to Get There

Airports are located in Sydney in Cape Breton and in Halifax on mainland Nova Scotia. From Sydney, take Rte. 125 to Hwy. 105, then take the Cabot Trail at the Englishtown ferry or at St. Ann’s to Ingonish Beach. Driving time is two hours.

If driving from Halifax, take Hwy. 102 to Truro, then Hwy. 104 to the Canso Causeway that links mainland Nova Scotia to Cape Breton Island. Allow three hours to reach Cape Breton. At this point you need to decide which park entrance/visitor center you want to check into: Ingonish Beach or Chéticamp.

For the Ingonish Beach entrance, take Hwy. 105 to exit 11 at Southaven. Follow the Cabot Trail north to the visitor center. Driving time is two hours. Approaching the park from the west side, once you’ve crossed the Canso Causeway, follow Rte. 19 (the Ceilidh Trail) along the coast to Margaree Forks, then follow the Cabot Trail to Chéticamp. Allow two hours. The park entrance is ten minutes from Chéticamp.

When to Go

The park is open year-round. The best time to go will depend on your interests. Bird-watchers may prefer spring and early summer as there is less foliage and chances are better for spotting birds, although peak breeding activity is June through July.

Hiking is great from May to November, when the ground is usually snow free. Some people prefer to hike in the fall as there are no flies and fall foliage is spectacular. It’s also when the Celtic Colours International Festival takes place, which is a bonus.

The best time for cycling is summer and fall. Ocean temperatures warm up by July and start to cool off in September, so beach activities are best during the summer. Although there is limited infrastructure during the winter, snowshoeing and skiing in the park can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience; valleys and plateaus become veritable winter wonderlands.

How to Visit

The possibilities at Cape Breton Highlands are endless. You can be as busy or as laid-back as you please. The best place to start is at one of the visitor information centers located at either end of the park. The views and vistas are spectacular no matter where you enter the park.

—Text adapted from the 2011 National Geographic book Guide to the National Parks of Canada