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Majestic vistas, incredible wildlife, and an easy hike that will take your breath away? The Skyline Trail in Cape Breton has all this and more. It is one of the most exciting hikes along one of the most gorgeous stretches of highway in the whole world. If you are planning a trip to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the one thing you won’t want to miss is a hike on the Skyline Trail.
Our family hiked the trail on a Saturday afternoon in July. Yes, it was crowded, but we wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. We hiked with people from all parts of the world and from all walks of life, including toddlers taking their first steps and senior citizens, assisted by canes. The Skyline Trail is a trail for everyone, including you!
Where is the Skyline Trail on Cape Breton Island?
The Skyline Trail is located on the western side of Cape Breton Island in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, between the towns of Chéticamp and Pleasant Bay. Cape Breton Island is part of the province of Nova Scotia in Canada on the Atlantic coast of North America. The island is separated from mainland Nova Scotia by the Strait of Canso, but is connected by the Canso Causeway. Once you cross the causeway, it’s a two-hour drive to the trailhead, but you won’t want to drive all this way without a road trip around the coast on the world-famous Cabot Trail. A leisurely road trip will take you between three to five days.
Hiking the Skyline Trail, Cape Breton Highlands National Park
Distance: 5.4 mile (8.7 km) loop or 4.3 mile (7 km) out-and-back
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Suitable for Kids: Definitely – there are some drop-offs near the coast, so be sure to stay on the boardwalk.
Dogs: Dogs are not allowed on the Skyline Trail, but are allowed in other parts of the national park.
The Skyline Trail begins near a huge parking lot just north of Chéticamp on the Cabot Trail. The size of the parking lot will give you an idea of how popular the trail is, but don’t be discouraged, there’s plenty of room to spread out once you get walking.
The trail is fairly flat, gaining 377 feet in elevation as you head toward the coast. The loop is best hiked counterclockwise, so when the trail forks about a half mile in, stay to the right. As you begin, you will pass through a thick, boreal spruce forest. After the junction, the trail becomes a bit more difficult. You will find yourself picking your way among rocks in the path. It still remains level, taking you through lush meadows, ripe with wildflowers and intermittent spruce forests. If you hike early in the morning or late in the evening, you have a very good chance of spotting wildlife, including coyotes, bears, eagles, and moose.
As you get closer to the water, you’ll notice that the trees become more stunted and windswept, until they finally disappear altogether, opening up to incredible views of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The highlight of the trail, and the reason thousands of visitors hike it each year, is the boardwalk down to the headlands with spectacular views of the Cabot Trail, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and the town of Chéticamp in the distance. This is where the crowds convene, but sharing a sunset moment with nature lovers from around the world, is one of the finer things in life — even for me, who generally detests crowds.
Guided sunset hikes are offered daily in good weather, so if you’re not a fan of hiking back to your car in the dark, do it with a ranger and a friendly group of strangers. After drinking your fill of the views, retrace your steps back to the beginning of the boardwalk, and stay right at the fork. There is a port-a-potty at the trail junction if you need it.
From here, the trail is wide, smooth, and well marked back to the parking lot. You will pass through a gated and fenced area that was created to protect tender saplings from moose damage. There is a low lookout tower within the fenced area. It’s a quiet spot to reflect, with a decent view, but it won’t compare to the one you’ve just witnessed on the headland.
If you are short on time or hiking with small children and want an easier walk, stay to the left at the first fork.and hike out to the headlands and back. This is a much easier, 4.3-mile hike, on gravel and wooden boardwalks. Once you have soaked in the vistas on the headland, simply retrace your steps back to the parking area.
Where to Stay near the Skyline Trail
Chéticamp and Pleasant Bay are just about equidistant from the Skyline Trail, but Chéticamp is bigger, with a better selection of hotels. We have great luck using Trivago to find deals on hotel rooms, and we use AirBnB when we need more room.
Of course, our favorite way to explore Cape Breton Highlands National Park is by pitching our tent, which saves money and allows us to spend more time outdoors. The nearest full-service campground is Chéticamp, with 122 sites. If you want something more rustic, there is a very small campground nearby that is right on the water called Corney Brook Campground. This is a first-come, first-served campground with no potable water. For more on camping in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, read our complete Cape Breton camping guide.
Getting to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia
The nearest international airport is the Halifax Stanfield International Airport. From Halifax, it’s a 4 hour drive to the Chéticamp entrance to Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The best way to explore Cape Breton and the Cabot Trail by car. Public transportation is spotty on the island, and would only make sense if you were going to spend your time in one place.
Hiking the Skyline Trail is definitely one of the highlights of a trip to Cape Breton. If you’re ready to plan your trip, check out these resources:
- Destination Cape Breton – The official tourism guide for Cape Breton, with great information on the Cabot Trail and outdoor adventures, as well as where to stay and eat.
- Cape Breton Highlands National Park – A website dedicated to Canada’s national parks, with great info on hiking trails, camping, and beaches in Cape Breton Highlands.
- The Cabot Trail – An overview of this fantastic road trip, as well as detailed intineraries for your Cabot Trail road trip.
Need more hiking and road-tripping inspiration? Here are some of our favorite books to get you started (click on the photo for more info):
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