“You know all the best trails are closed, right?”
I shrugged in reply. A friend had heard about my plans to go hiking along the famous Cabot Trail in Cape Breton and wanted to ensure I knew about the many trail closures. And it was true – my trip was planned for June 2020. Due to COVID-19 impacts, a number of the trails were late to open, along with countless restaurants and shops. Government regulations allowed us to tour our province – but would we still have a good time, given all the closures?
I needn’t have worried. I set out to enjoy a birthday weekend of hiking and visiting beaches and supporting the few open local businesses. With restrictions on local travel having been lifted, I was scouting for the best of the best things to do when I visit again during the fall colours season with my three children. Which hikes could they handle? What beaches would they love? I was on a mission, and a few trail closures were not enough to deter me from exploring my province. Here are my must-visits when touring the trails and beaches of Cape Breton.
Get a Move On
Gaelic for “white water”, Uisge Ban (ish-ka-ban) Falls is your reward for tackling a roughly 4km out and back trail which passes through a hardwood forest. Bring your suit to take a cooling dip at the bottom of the 50-foot-high waterfall. Definitely a doable hike for kids used to some minor elevation.
A more strenuous hike, Franey Mountain is a 7.5km round trip trail with pretty decent elevation gain, for Nova Scotia. It is the Highlands, after all. The view at the top is spectacular. Large flat rocks are the perfect seating to enjoy a panoramic view of the Clyburn Brook canyon and the Atlantic coastline from Cape Smokey to Ingonish. The river winding through the valley 425 m below is especially pretty on a clear day. While we didn’t see any moose, we saw plenty of fresh moose droppings. Wearing a bear bell and carrying an air horn is recommended on all hikes, but especially this one. A few groups of young teens had no problems powering past us up this climb, but I’d probably take a pass on this one if my youngest were in tow.
Broad Cove Mountain is a lovely stretch compared to Franey. At just 2.6km out and back, it’s a switchback trail through a dense forest of softwood to the top of Broad Cove Mountain. Great views of the Atlantic coast, with Middle Head and Cape Smokey in the distance.
Judging by the delighted squeals of the little ones in the water, Gypsum Mine Quarry and Trail is a family favourite. This easy 2.6-kilometre out-and-back trail ends at a former old gypsum quarry. Bring a swimsuit, towel, and your courage if you want to jump off the cliffs into the turquoise water.
Not a hike per se, but more of a wandering spot, White Point is an absolute must-visit. This coastal meander starts on a dirt road in an old French fishing village and finishes at White Point, and alpine tundra and meadow on a stony coastline. Stop at the edge to view White Point Island and its hundreds of sea birds, then continue to traverse the meadow to discover the lovely flora and fauna. You’ll want to keep a close eye on your children if you’re near the edges, but there’s plenty of room to roam in the middle.
Relax and Explore at the Beach
When driving into Cheticamp, we spotted a gorgeous beach where the ocean and river met with just a long connecting line of land. Our map identified it as Petit Etang Beach, and we made a note to visit after we checked into our AirBnB. To our surprise, our Riverside House AirBnB was connected to the beach via a beautifully developed walking trail on the expansive property. We roamed the beach collecting shells before enjoying a lovely private fire, then walked the ridge again to see the sunset over the ocean.
There are few places you can enjoy a rocky and sandy ocean beach steps from a warmer freshwater lake, but Ingonish Beach is one of them. Though it was deserted when we visited, it has the amenities of a large provincial park (playground, washrooms, tennis courts, walking trails), and is usually much busier.
At the popular Black Brook Beach, there’s a waterfall on one end, and a freshwater brook intersects the beach. Children will love the soft sand and large rocks for climbing, and there’s a gentle walking trail with ample picnic tables set up on the path overlooking the beach.