If you’re a lover of wildlife and incredible views, and don’t mind getting dirty and fighting through more bug bites than anyone deserves (aka do you have one tough bone in your body?) then do I have some great news for you!
Forget your relaxing, pampered trip that you plan to take to Cancun next summer, and dump that cruise ship to the Bahamas, because there is a place out there that mixes your love of the ocean with the beautiful sights and sounds of nature. A place where you can see breathtaking views of the coast in the afternoon, spot a moose or an eagle up close on your way back, roast a few marshmallows after dinner, and then see more stars than you can imagine before calling it a night. A place where everyone you pass will smile and ask you how you’re doing, and where you can drive along the mountains and the ocean at the same time with a cool summer breeze coming through your windows. And it’s in…Canada?
Ah yes, Canada. Our neighbors to the north. Not my home and half my native land, yet it still is my home and native land. You see, there’s a lot more to Canada than just maple syrup, Mounties, and their lack of Donald Trump (although all three are pretty great). In reference to their national anthem, God has done an excellent job keeping the Great White North glorious and free. Even Americans normally agree, when it comes to the landscape, Canada tends to have the upper hand on us. From the magnificent Canadian Rockies and Banff National Park in the west, to Niagara Falls in the east (granted, there’s 3,636 kilometres of nothing in between them, and no I didn’t spell kilometres wrong, that’s how it’s spelled in Canada), surely the United States has the upper hand on the east coast right?
Ehhhh…not so fast. You could make a very good argument that the Cape Breton Highlands top anything we have here on the east coast of the United States.
For those of you who love America and nothing else, chill, I’m not trashing the U.S., I’m simply boasting about my other country. How un-Canadian of me (only Canadians will get that reference).
There are two places that come to mind when I think of where the mountains meet the sea. The first is Rio, because I just heard about it ten minutes ago while watching the Olympics, and the other is the Cape Breton Highlands. Seeing that there is lack of Zika, poisonous water, and gangs in Cape Breton, I’d recommend going there. Also, I just saw Rio on the T.V. and Cape Breton is nicer.
If you’re wondering when I’m going to stop blabbering and start actually talking (writing?), that time is right now. If you read my moose article, which a good amount of you didn’t because I guess I posted it at a bad time or it just didn’t sound interesting enough, then you know that we went camping for three days in the Cape Breton Highlands, a side trip as part of our yearly Canada trip, and one that I had been looking forward to for quite a while. I hadn’t been to the highlands in years, and couldn’t wait to go back. There were three primary reasons why: 1) I really wanted to see a moose, 2) I knew there was an excess of photography opportunities there, and 3) I hadn’t been able to go on as many adventures as I would’ve liked this summer, for one reason or another, so I was longing for three straight days of nothing but the outdoors. Well I got all three. But this post isn’t about me, it’s not about those moose (that post is here), and it’s not about pictures. It’s about my new favorite place, and why you should ditch whatever other vacation plans you have and come here instead.
What is it that makes the highlands so great? First you’ve got the world-famous Cabot Trail, a road that spans throughout all of Cape Breton Highlands National Park and then some, and will give you some of the most incredible views you’ve ever seen. In fact, if you had no interest in getting out of the car because the seventy-degree summer weather of Atlantic Canada is too cold for you, you would still take in better views than you would at most other places. Want proof? Here you go:
There are views better than that, a lot better in fact, but they were so incredible that I spent so much time gawking at them that I left myself no time to take pictures of them. Plus, that would ruin the fun for those of you who like to experience things first-hand. The fact of the matter is, that’s basically the entire ride: in the beautiful mountains/hills of the highlands, along the Atlantic Ocean in the east and the Gulf of St. Lawrence (seen above) when you get to the west side. If you’re feeling up to stretching your legs a little, since the drive from side to side is a couple of hours, there’s more viewing areas than you can count where you can step out of your car, take five steps, and take in views like this:
If you’re feeling adventurous, pay close attention here, because the trailhead to practically every hiking trail in the highlands starts off of the Cabot Trail. My two favorites were also two of the most popular, and it’s easy to see why: Middle Head trail in Ingonish (east) and Skyline in Cheticamp (west).
Neither of them were excruciating hikes, but they were absolutely worth it. Middle Head takes you out to cliffs bordering the Atlantic Ocean, and if you’re a fan of birds, such as Cormorants or this eagle (below), then this trail is 110% for you.
If you are one of those Americans who gets infuriated when someone says America isn’t the best about literally anything, then you probably love bald eagles due to their symbolism of America (I guess?), and so you’ve probably been pretty angry at me and have hated this post so far, so hopefully that picture cheered you up.
That was a joke. In writing it’s known as satire. Relax.
The hike begins in the woods. If you are like me and don’t come from the super rich, you’ll probably be a little envious on your way there as you drive past the beautiful Keltic Lodge, standing on top of a cliff overlooking Ingonish Beach. It’s beautiful. Anyways, the most excruciating elevation gain you’ll go through is the stairs at the beginning of the hike that rise about twenty feet and bring you to the start of the trail. You’ll pass a sign warning you about bears and coyotes in the area, so if you get anxious about getting eaten by a bear you might want to keep your eyes shut going up the stairs or invest in some bear spray. I didn’t see any bears there, but we did see a bear print along a different trail. FYI, the bears in the park are black bears, and there are roughly 750,000 of them in North America, and they kill less than one person each year (according to bear.org), so I wouldn’t worry too much about it, but it doesn’t mean you should try to pet one if you stumble across the furry beast. While the vast majority of Canadians are friendly and may only give you a strange look if you try and pet one of them (because are Canadians actually humans or just friendly, cold loving primates?), I doubt Canadian bears would reciprocate. Canadians will not eat you, Canadian bears might.
Back on track now, you stay in the woods for the majority of the hike, with a few short spurs that take you to overlooks, and you’ll probably stumble upon a few surprisingly friendly red squirrels, before you’ll come to a grand opening in the trees revealing the Atlantic ocean. You can walk down to the cliff and take in the views, and then continue on probably around one hundred yards to your left for more and more beautiful views. This is where I got up close with that eagle (about 40-50 feet away), which was a very cool experience. It’s not every day you get that close to a bald eagle.
If you’re actually going to heed my advice and book a trip to the highlands, I’m going to throw some tourist information at you real fast. If you want to camp, Ingonish Beach is a great campground to stay at, and I’d highly recommend it. Just call in advance to reserve, because they fill up fast. They’re also only a short walk through the woods to Ingonish Beach, which is a nice place to relax and soak up some sun if you’re in to that sort of thing. If you’re a golfer who has $150 to blow, Highland Links golf course was voted one of the most beautiful courses in the world, and is only a few minute drive from the campground. If you’re in to wildlife, check out Warren Lake, as well. It’s generally a good place to see moose, and while we didn’t see any, we did see another eagle and got a quick glimpse at a bobcat (super rare). This is also where we saw the bear print. Make the two-hour drive (it’s longer with stops to take in the views) from Ingonish to Cheticamp. Along the way, I’d recommend stopping at the Bog, where you can see orchids and the carnivorous pitcher plants up close, and occasionally a moose. The roads here are big time moose country, so keep an eye out. Eventually you’ll get to Skyline, and I promise you it will be crowded. This trail is a must do during your stay.
When you get to the beautiful vista of Skyline trail, it’s obvious to see how it got its name. From one side to another, you have beautiful views of the highlands, the Cabot Trail, and where the mountains meet the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The pictures do not do it justice, it’s one of, if not the best, view that you’ll ever take in.
It’s a perfect place to pose for pictures, relax and take in the views, propose to your girlfriend, or grab a snack and drink. If I was alone, I probably would have stayed there all day. Just please be sure to stay on the boardwalk trail and not damage the plants by going off trail!
As far as the eye can see, you get beautiful views of the hills colliding with the water, like I said before, something you don’t see very often. By the way, that road in the picture above is the Cabot Trail, showing some more of the beautiful views you’ll have on your drive. This is also where we (finally) saw a couple of moose, as Skyline and Cheticamp in general is big moose and bear country, so just proceed carefully so that you don’t startle anything. Because the majority of people there are Canadians, they’re going to be friendly, so if there is a moose on the trail, after they ask you how you’re doing they’ll probably tell you that there’s a moose coming up and how far away it is, so you should do the same to other people you pass by. It’s just friendliness; we could use a little more of that this way.
If you do get to see a moose, be quiet and for God’s sake don’t try to approach it, because it will probably charge you and you’ll probably die, and while it’s a hell of a way to go out, death by moose probably wasn’t on your list of “Things to do in Canada.” Enjoy the experience, though, because while the park lists them as abundant, the odds of you seeing one still aren’t favorable, as it took us until the very end of our trip to see one and many people don’t see one at all while they’re there. Furthermore, the way back is fairly wooded on either side, which means if you do see a moose, you probably won’t be too far from it (I was about 50-60 feet away), and it’s not every day you get to be that close to a moose.
The only downfall to this trail is that due to the abundance of wildlife, dogs are not allowed.
In short, unless your vacation plans involve going to Alaska or the moon, cancel them and go to the Cape Breton Highlands. You won’t regret it, unless you try to approach a moose and die, and it will probably change your perspective on our scary neighbours (Canadian spelling) to the north. It’s a must-see for photographers and outdoorsmen/women alike, and even the most patriotic Americans will enjoy experiencing another country due to its abundance of bald eagles, which you’re almost guaranteed to see a few of. I would encourage you to go on this trip sooner rather than later, however, because only 7% of Canadians like Donald Trump (according to CTV News, and I’m convinced half of that 7% only like him because they think it’s hilarious that he’s actually a presidential candidate), which means the other 93% of them are probably pushing for Prime Minister Trudeau to build a wall to keep all of us out, so time is short.
But yeah, go to the highlands. For more on the park, click HERE.