Monday, September 23, 2013

Hike – Skyline Trail, Benjies Lake Trail, and Bog Trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia

View of Skyline Ridge from the Cabot Trail
The Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia is a 185 mile driving loop that is famous for its views, especially the northern third that traverses Canada’s Cape Breton Highlands National Park.  For those people who are familiar with the Kancamagus Highway in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Park Loop Road in Acadia National Park in Maine, the Cabot Trail is a combination of the two – many curves, scenic turnouts, and fantastic views of both mountains and ocean.

You may want to do more than just sit in a car, though.  Maybe you want to take some easy hikes (walks, really) that will allow you to explore some of these views at a more leisurely pace.  That is what this post is about.

Directions – Drive about 9 miles north of the Park entrance above Cheticamp on the Cabot Trail.  As you near the summit of French Mountain look for signs on the left for the Skyline Trail.  Turn in and drive about one half mile to a parking area.  There are bathrooms here.  For the entrance to the Bog Trail drive about two miles further north on the Cabot Trail and there will be a sign and parking on the left.  For the Benjies Lake Trail drive another half mile north on the Cabot Trail.  There will be a sign and parking on the left.  The trailhead is across the road.

Skyline Trail:

This is a very popular trail in the park.  This is due to a combination of being relatively easy, well maintained, easily accessed, and very scenic.  The first few tenths of a mile are a wide, almost flat trail.  You will come to a junction where a trail leads off to the right, allowing you to loop out through the foliage for possible views of wildlife.  For now stay on the main trail.
My brother-in-law George with the Cabot Trail to the south

The end of the Skyline Ridge.  The worn trail is no longer open to hikers.
It will start to slowly descend as you move along the ravine to the left.  There are places where you have spectacular views to the south.  As you continue along the main trail you will come to another junction.  This is where the trail that left early on now reconnects.  Turn left and continue along the now combined path.  The trail will be replaced by boardwalk and stairs that were put in place to protect the vegetation on top of the Skyline Ridge.  You will see where some trails have been worn by footsteps prior to the building of the protection.  These are no longer active trails.  Do not step off the boardwalks.  There are no railings on these boardwalks (so as to not block the view), so if you have small children or dogs with you keep an eye on them to ensure they stay on the trail.  This is not just to protect the vegetation, but also to keep them from harm.  There are some steep slopes just off this boardwalk and once someone started to fall they might not stop for a while.
Tourist on the steps leading down to the end of the Skyline Trail
The land falls away to both the right...
...and left
Looking back into the interior as the Cabot Trail winds its way north
Looking down the coastline as the Cabot Trail winds its way south
There are several benches and places to sit when you reach the end of the trail.  There are many viewing platforms.  There were a couple dozen people there on what was a crystal clear day.  There was also a Park Ranger and she was answering questions.  I asked about some land I could see way out in the ocean.  I knew that the Magdalen Islands were out in the Gulf of St, Lawrence, but I thought they had to be way too far away to see.  She assured me that we were high enough up that those were what I was seeing.  She did remark that she might not ever have seen them better than that day.  They were sixty miles away and the air was so clear I could even make out two distinct land masses.  My camera was not good enough to pick up what my naked eye could, though.
The end of the Skyline Trail with the many viewing areas for visitors

While whale watching is another thing that some do at the end of the Skyline Trail, I did not see any that day.  On the way back I did see a bull moose with its horns in velvet, though.  My brother-in-law George is actually the one who spotted it and pointed it out to me.  We had chosen not to do the other path to get back to the start because we were going to do a couple of other trails right after this one.  We headed straight back the trail we came in on for a cumulative distance of about 4.5 miles.  If we had taken the other trail back it would have added about 1 to 1.5 more miles.
It's a little tough to see, but there is a bull moose with his horns in velvet in the center of the picture
This trail does drop a couple hundred feet from start to finish, so on the way back you will be walking uphill.  It’s not too bad, though, and the trail is very well maintained and wide enough for side by side hiking.  If you are going to walk only one trail on your trip to this area then I recommend you do this one.

Bog Trail:

This is the next trail you come upon about two miles north of the entrance to the parking for the Skyline Trail.  It is a quarter mile boardwalk loop through a bog.  There are several panels explaining what you are seeing and the ecology and science of the bog.  As with the Skyline Trail, there are no railings on the boardwalk so you will need to attend to small children and dogs if you have them with you.  Someone in a wheelchair can traverse this boardwalk.

On another day this walk might have been quite fascinating, but after the beauty of the Skyline Trail it just seemed to pale in comparison.  I did not even take any pictures here.  The one I have accompanying this section I found online.  If you are the owner of this picture and would like me to remove it, please let me know.  If you are thinking of doing this walk in addition to the Skyline Trail then you may want to do this one first.

Benjies Lake Trail:

About a half a mile north of the parking for the Bog trail is the location of the Benjies Lake Trail.  You may choose to walk the gap in between or you can drive and park on the left.  The trailhead is across the road.  It is a fire road for the first half mile or so.  It rises gently at first, and then descends a little more rapidly to Benjies Lake Brook.  Look for a sign on the right for when the trail leaves the fire road.
A plant growing near the shore of Benjies Lake
This final section is a combination of regular trail and some boardwalks over wet areas.  It descends to the shore of Benjies Lake.  Like the Skyline Trail, this spot also has a reputation for chances to see wildlife, but this day all we saw were a family with small children that had arrived there before us.  Their noise would have scared off anything that might have wanted to approach.  There is a bench here for you to sit and look at the view.  The kids were constantly in the way, so I did not get a picture looking out over the lake.  I found this one of the moose in the lake online.  If you are the owner of this picture and would like me to remove it, please let me know.

Once you are done taking in the view, simply return back out the trail that you came in on.  The roundtrip is about 1.5 to 2 miles, with elevation changes that are not too bad.  It’s still more a walk than a hike.

Cumulative distance:             6.5 miles
Cumulative elevation gain:   300 feet
Cumulative duration:            3.5 – 4 hours (including time for photos)


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