Of the more than two dozen hiking trails in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Skyline Trail is consistently rated in the top three. It’s often called the “can’t miss” hike along the Cabot Trail. Makes sense: it’s fairly short, relatively scenic (especially at sunset), is frequented by moose and allows visitors to choose between a 6.5 km (4 mile) out and back or 8.2 km (5.1 mile) loop route. So of course we had to go!
Trail head parking is a short distance off the Cabot Trail at the top of French Mountain, between Petit Étang and Pleasant Bay. On a mid-July weekday afternoon, the parking lot was very full, adding more than a km to our total hiking distance. Parks Canada personnel were on site, systematically checking for park passes and writing up tickets for those without.
From the parking lot, a broad, hard-packed trail accommodates strollers and conversation. Strollers are not a common sight on hiking trails in the Canadian Rockies, so we were surprised to see more than one on the Skyline Trail. 🙂
At the Y-intersection, head left for the out-and-back or right for the loop. We headed right. The trail immediately narrowed, but was still hard packed with a fresh gravel top dressing, at least for a few km. Then it abruptly changed; we figure the top dressing project was still in progress, because we saw the tamping machine, shovels and a wheel barrow just off the trail.
There are few open views to the sea along the loop portion of the trail. This very basic bench invites hikers to stop for a few minutes to enjoy one of the rare sea views.
Pretty much every trail report we read for the Skyline Trail mentioned moose. Sure enough, we saw a few. This “moose jam” formed as hikers tried to get “the perfect” photo to share.
The moose was completely indifferent to the small crowd and remained intent on grazing.
Finally, more than an hour on, we reached the top of the boardwalk and stairs that are consistently featured in photos from the Skyline Trail. We couldn’t help but notice how many hikers ignored the signs asking visitors to stick to the boardwalk to allow nature to reclaim the boot-beaten – but unofficial – trails in this area.
Parks Canada has put down some kind of netting (jute?) off the end of the boardwalk, to lend Mother Nature a helping hand with trail reclamation.
This section of the trail has great views of the sea, is a prime sunset viewing spot and offers a great perspective on the winding Cabot Trail.
We asked a stranger to take our photo at one of the platforms along the boardwalk. It’s clear that sun angles are a challenge on mid-summer mid-afternoons!
Then it was time to climb the 200+ stairs back and return to the parking lot.
We stopped briefly to check out the platform viewpoint inside the moose exclusion zone (no better than the boardwalk) and to find a geocache. Then it was full speed ahead back to the parking lot, our rental vehicle and more sights and stops along the Cabot Trail.
Total hiking distance = 9.2 km
Total elevation gain = 205 meters (140 net)
Total hiking time = 2 hours 30 minutes (including 40 minutes for photography and moose watching)
This is a popular, crowded trail. We recommend going for the out and back trail to the boardwalk/stairs/viewpoint. There were almost no views on the loop section (but it was the stretch where we saw two moose). And it’s worth planning your day to avoid midday sun. Some of the sunset photos we’ve seen suggest it’s worth planning your day to be at the Skyline Trail boardwalk at sunset.
What’s your favourite hike along the Cabot Trail? Links to blog posts or photos welcome.
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