August 2002: Cape Breton Highlands National Park


Ignonish Beach, Nova Scotia

Stretching from coast-to-coast across the northern tip of Cape Breton Island, the national park embraces 366 square miles of highland wilderness and dramtaic coastlines. Cape Breton Highlands is known for its scenic kinship with the coastal regions of Scotland. The Cabot Trail, one of the world's great driving roads, tickles the edges of the park from the eastern shore to the western sea and travels along the picturesque Margaree Valley in the south. When the Canadian government decided to establish the first national park in the Atlantic provinces, Cape Breton Highlands was a natural choice.

Canine hikers accustomed to the restrictive policies of American national parks will encounter a dog-friendly paradise at Cape Breton Highlands. Of the 26 marked and named hiking trails in the park only one, the Skyline Trail, is off-limits to dogs. (This trail, restricted due to heavy concentration of moose, is a flat two-mile walk to exposed headland cliffs and well-worth giving the dog a rest in the car in the normally cool weather). Some of the highlights include:

* L'Acadien Trail. The marquee trail of the park's west side, the 6-mile loop climbs steadily beside the Robert Brook to an elevation over 1,000 feet to a windswept landscape of stunted trees and panoramic views of the Gulf of St. Lawrence coast to the west and the highlands to the east.

* Bog. A chance to stop and experience the interior plateau of the park, this trail is a half-mile boardwalk around a nutrient-starved alpine bog where specialized plants, including several carniverous ones, have adapted to a hostile life.

* Lone Shieling. This is a quiet half-mile descent into a 300-year old hardwood forest where more than 90% of the trees are vibrant sugar maples. Highlights include a replica of a Scottish sheep-crofter's hut and a rushing stream that makes an excellent doggie whirlpool.

* Coastal. A short wooded hike leads to a generally deserted sandy beach for good Atlantic Ocean dog swimming (dogs are not allowed at the main swimming beach in Cape Breton Highlands National Park) and then heads along the coast for three miles. A good place to turn around on this linear trek is a large beach covered with smooth, egg-shaped cobbles.

* Jack Pine. This 1.7-mile loop travels through a forest of pioneering jack pines that grow tenaciously on the hard rocky surface and pops out onto the rocky Atlantic coast with several dramatic blowholes.

* Franey. One of the star trails on Cape Breton, the Franey trail climbs 366 meters (almost 1200 feet) in 3 kilometers, ending on rocky summits with the best overlooks of the Atlantic Ocean, Middle Head and Ignonish Beach. The descnet is totally on an old access road and uninspiring in comparison.

* Middle Head. An easy-walking 2.5-mile loop leads out into the Atlantic Ocean where spurce woodlands give way to grassy headlands. You'll get surf and mountain views on both sides of the loop.

Cape Breton Highlands National Park is home to the Highland Links, a masterpiece by legendary course designer Stanley Thompson. He called this 1939 creation his "mountains and ocean course" and is currently ranked the top golf course in Canada and the 69th top course in the world. Since it is in the national park, the same rules apply for the golf course as the hiking trails and your dog is welocme to join your foursome as you play.

Cape Smokey Provincial Park (Cabot Trail, 8 miles south of Ignonish Beach). Beginning on the southern edge of the national park, this seaside trail skirts the 900-foot granite cliffs for three miles along the Atlantic Ocean.
North River Provincial Park (Highway 105 from Exit 11 of the Cabot Trail, North River Bridge). This is an out-and-back return trail of 11 miles that leads through foundations of century-old farmsteads and old-growth forest to a 104-foot waterfall on the North River, an active salmon stream.
Uisge Ban Falls (Highway 105 from Exit 9of the Cabot Trail, Baddeck). From a Gaelic name meaning "white water," the Falls Trail runs 1.8 miles through thick forest to the sheer 500-foot gorge walls at the falls.

Park entrances are located on the Cabot Trail north of Cheticamp and at Ignonish Beach.