Cape Breton Highlands National Park – Rugged coasts & rare wildlife

The drive to Cape Breton Highlands National Park 
As one drives from the serene fishing village of Grand Etang and approaches the inviting hills and jungles of Cape Breton Highlands National Park, it seems one is leaving civilization. 

Driving a few minutes away from Cheticamp village, the sharply declining vehicular and human traffic, the increasing vegetation cover and the gradually undulating terrain, all indicated that the road ahead lead to a wilderness. I was excited. And I had reasons aplenty do so. I was driving on Cabot trail, so often described as North America’s most scenic highway. The sun was lucky on me even today, as it had been for the past few days, as I drove through countless pristine lakes, rolling farmlands and stunning mountains from southern Ontario to this edge of Atlantic Canada. And I was now approaching the most spectacular portion of this scenic Cabot trail drive - the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Postcard-like pictures in magazine after magazine depicting this trail, situated along the rugged coastline of Gulf of St. Lawrence, with stunning views of the Atlantic waters on one side and beautiful woods clothing the mountains on the other side, had inspired me. From coast to tall cliffs, the terrain and vegetation of this 950 square km national park of Canada is varied. It adds to the thrill by offering visitors a chance to glimpse many beautiful and endangered wildlife species in their natural surroundings.

By late afternoon I was at the entrance of Cape Breton Highlands National Park, just before the bridge over Cheticamp river, where the helpful park volunteers informed me the places where that I could take good pictures. 

As I entered the park after purchasing the permit, I gazed in awe at the tranquil water of Chetticamp river. It emerged magnificently from the deep, densely wooded mountain valleys, which extended to the farthest horizon. Towering cliffs clothed with lush green forests welcomed me. 

The bridge over Chetticamp river offers excellent views of the hills clothed with some beautiful and dense forests. To me this looked similar to the views of the Nilgiri hills from the Thepakadu forest reception centre.

Steep cliffs and spectacular highlands
Every inch of Cape Breton Highlands National Park is sheer wilderness. The park's most outstanding feature is the plateau with its steep cliffs and forested highlands. Many of the wildlife species found here are rare across Canada. The park is criss-crossed by steep river canyons, which make it an excellent place to trek and camp. One third, about 106 kilometres, of the Cabot trail runs through the national park.

As I drove on the trail through the park, sometimes along the coasts and some times over highlands, I realised why Canadians claim it be among the most spectacular highways in the world. One can marvel at the sea and the cliffs along the series of 24 look outs, specially created besides the highway for the tourists to park their vehicles to enjoy and photograph the sceneries.

The road - Cabot Trail mazes north through the forested hills. One can take a pair of binoculars to the lookouts, as they are ideal to spot the beautiful bald eagle gracefully soaring overhead or even pods of leisurely migrating whales, which this coast is famous for. In the distance, the shoreline sparkles with beautiful beaches and sleepy coastal villages.

Driving up on the highway, I stopped at the first scenic outlook near Grande Falaise. The view was beautiful helped by the fact that the sky was very clear. The cliffs gradually rose above the vast expanse of Atlantic waters of Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The views of Gulf of St. Lawrence from the look out at Grand Falaise, my first stop, were sweeping. The southern view of the delicate shoreline, dotted with picturesque beaches and open spaced communities, contrasted the northern one, which offered unending views of cliffs and forest clothed hills, stunningly contrasted by the sapphire skies above and dark blue waters below. I edged closer to the cliff in search of marine wildlife. I had mixed results though. While whales, which are commonly found here at this time of the year were not to be seen, I could occasionally come across that beautiful hunter bald eagle, a bird whose grace is matched by few others on earth.

As I drove ahead stopping by other scenic outlooks, the inviting road wound delicately, playing hides and seeks with the coastline and mountains. It rose above the coast one last time as it entered the mountain forests on the plateau above. I stopped to take pictures all along the way as the trail turned away from the ocean waters, into the dense forests atop the French mountain. Up the French mountain, the feeling of being away from a human jungle and in real wilderness was so welcome. I drove on the plateau through dense forests and stopped frequently to catch a glimpse of the wildlife, particularly moose, a deer like animal.

I stopped by to see a scene, which so strikingly reminded me of the action in the famed jungles of Indian subcontinent. A mother moose was standing guard of its fawn besides the road, as the young one grazed blissfully unmindful of the tourists who had stopped by to photograph it. Be it the moose here or the spotted deer of south Asia, half a globe away, the incomparable love and protective attitude of a mother was undiminished. There were many tourists who had stopped their vehicles to take pictures of these pretty mammals and dispersed as the animals went inside the vegetation.

The views from the scenic outlook near French Lake are very different from the ones along the coast. They provide an inside look into the forests in the interiors of this park, apart from far away views of the coast. I took some pictures of the fast setting sun from the scenic outlook near Mackenzie mountain. It offered very good views of huge forested valley opening into the Atlantic coast at the Fishing Cove hundreds of feet below. 

The drive on the plateau and mountain ridges was much different from the one on the coastline. The views here provide an inside look at the heart of this park’s forests. From the Mackenzie mountain, deep, densely wooded valleys could be seen from the top, sometimes opening into the ocean.

I had to descend on low gears as I drove down another scenic outlook, towards Pleasant Bay village, my destination for the night. But the sceneries were equally enchanting as the road hit the coastline again. Located just across the boundaries of the park, this picturesque village is mainly used as a resting place by people who don’t camp within the park. It is also the starting place for many organized whale-watching tours, where tourists venture into the Ocean to observing pods of migrating whales.

It was evening and the long day's drive made me stop at the first available restaurant. The youth hostel was my place that night. It is a nice little place of shared accommodation which means one can get to interact with fellow tourists. This village, like most others along the island's coast, are fishing communities and tourists can savour a variety of seafood. I had my share, with home-made rolls.

As the sun went down peacefully into the Atlantic waters, I spent the evening interacting with my host at the local Bed and Breakfast. My fellow guests were a couple from North Carolina and a hiker from British Columbia who were here, half way across the continent, attracted by the park's beauty and to trek its beautiful trails.. Halting at one of the many Bed and Breakfasts, North America's version of India's home stays, in the villages along the trail, is a good way to learn about the local culture and food.

Day 7; A morning, as glorious as it can get
Up early before next dawn, though the wind was blowing furiously, the thought of not enjoying the sunrise was too strong for me to be hunkered under the covers. I preferred the drive uphill to enjoy the sunrise, rather than visit the 'Whale Interpretive Centre' located in the village. The interpretive centre is very popular with those who come here to take the boat tours into the ocean to sight whales. I drove this time along the park's northern part. As I carried my photographic gear to my car, I saw a shadowy wolf-like figure at the village edge, its body half lit by the dim village lights. The wild animal disappeared in the jungle before I could observe it further. By its looks my most probable guess was that it was a cayote, among the main predators of the park. 

Intending to drive to the sunrise scenic outlook, I missed the way and drove straight into Cape North village instead. I turned around and drove back a few km and parked the car by the road to take pictures of the sunrise. Some how the place was not the best to sight he sunrise. 

Hence I drove up the hill again. I drove with caution as the winds on occasions was very strong. Aided by the fact that I did not have to drive on any open ridges on my way to the sunrise look out, the powerful standard transmission of my low clearing sports car gave me the steady drive I needed to wade through the mountain roads against the violent winds that often threatened the car’s stability.  
On a ridge parallel to the densely forested valley of North Aspey River, among the longest rivers in this park, I pulled off my car by the view point of Chutes Beulach Ban Falls in time to see the dawn. In time to photograph the sun rising above the forested ridge, I watched as the sun had kissed goodbye to the far away lands and was dawning slowly over the Atlantic Ocean, just behind the tall mountains ridges. And as it did, it cast its soft, early rays on the green vegetation and the beautiful birds and beasts of this remote corner of continental North America, creating a magnificent view. As the orange ball of sun rose over the mountain ridges in the east, it drove the darkness across the length of this huge canyon as far as the eyes could reach. There was no sign of any other human for miles and the environment was unadulterated. It was only mother nature and I. The only sounds were the melodious bird notes, the tapered waters of the river flowing in the valley, hundreds of metres below, and my heaving, to grasp as much of pure air as I could. Spending as much solitary time as I possibly could with mother nature I drove back to Pleasant Bay village and picked my stuff to drive back. It was day 7 of my trip and was the farthest point from Toronto. Everything had gone for me the way I wanted till now.

When to go: For those not used to the Canadian cold, the best time to visit would be between May and September. October is excellent to watch fall colours, while the winter is good for cross-country skiing. Allow at least a week to explore the island's different communities and Cape Breton National Park.

Nearest Airport: Sydney Airport connects with all major cities in Canada and is about 175 km from Cheticamp, near the park’s western entrance.

Where and what to eat: There are many good eating-places in every city and village along the trail. The menu includes delicious Atlantic seafood. Shrimps, clams, crabs and haddock, there is plenty of seafood to accompany fresh homemade rolls and bread. Don't miss the Atlantic Snow Crab, one of the specialities of the area.

Where to stay: For those interested in staying with a local family and learning more about the local culture there are many Bed and Breakfast accommodations akin to the Home stays of our own Western Ghats. For more information, please visit the official tourism website of Nova Scotia province at

Quick round-up of the attractions:
 - Cape Breton National Park: This 950 sq. km. large park consists of one of North America’s most scenic drives.
 - Canso Causeway, at the entrance of the Cape Breton Island is built over the Strait of Canso. This 3.2 km causeway is the world’s deepest.
 - The whale interpretive centre located at Pleasant Bay village is a must for those who come here to see whales.
 - Keltic Lodge offers nice views and also ‘Tern Rock’, a breeding site of Arctic tern, which migrates the longest distance for any bird in the world.
 - St. Ann’s bay scenic outlook offers panoramic views of St. Ann’s Bay. 

An Indian immigrant's eight-day, 5300+ km solo driving adventure from Toronto to Canada's Atlantic coast and back, in Aug. 2005 - Post 8 (of 10).

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