Photos by Trish Joudrey
I’m always on the lookout for a lightly trafficked trail with exceptional beauty. So, when three phrases kept popping up to describe one particular trail—spectacular views, wilderness, and old-growth forest—my interest was piqued. The Cape George Heritage Trail proved true on every point and provided an unexpected adventure.
“We call it a wilderness trail because of the isolated nature of the forest paths,” says Velma MacEachern, a member of the Cape George Trail Committee. “It’s special: the only spot in Nova Scotia where there’s a panoramic view of the Northumberland Strait and St. George’s Bay together.”
The Cape George Trail, sometimes known as the Mini Cabot Trail, is a three-section system of 33-kilometre looped trails of various difficulty on an isolated headland jutting out on the North Eastern coastline about 15 kilometres north of Antigonish. It’s part of the Cape-to-Cape trail system linking two exceptional lookoffs, Cape George and Cape Chignecto.
Armed with a map designed by local trail builder Peter Jackson, water, tick spray, and snacks, I set out to walk the northern loop from Trail Head #2 to Trail Head #3, ending close to the dramatic Cape George Lighthouse. My goal was to sit at the first look-off bench, about halfway around the loop, have a picnic, and admire the views.
“There’s a splendid view at the top,” says John Cornell, a local resident who stopped to chat. “You can see Livingston Cove and P.E.I. Haven’t been up there for a few years, but it’s a view I always love.” Gesturing with his hand he cautions, “Take a left up ahead. The right’s a dead end. Just want to save you time.”
“Thanks for the tip, John,” I replied. He was the last person we saw for the next six hours.
Thinking we were following John’s directions correctly, my walking partner and I turned left at the first signpost M, taking us unknowingly south to TH#1 instead of north to TH#3. We were to find out later, we should have gone right at M and then a left. Consequently, what should have been a 10km jaunt around the headland ended up being 16.5km.
But no matter, it was a beautiful walk, well-marked with orange ribbons through a grassy meadow to a boardwalk crossing a flowing brook, and then to a single path through the forest. The shade from stands of tall coniferous trees provided relief from the sun.
Ducking under low lying branches, I remembered Velma’s words, “The trail won’t be groomed until the end of June. It’s a bit overgrown before then. By summer, people come from all over just to listen to the sound of birds, savour the tranquillity and hear the brooks running. That’s what it’s known for, natural wilderness.”
We realized when we started to descend, we were on the wrong trail.
“Better check the Alltrails App and the map,” I said. Sure enough, we had strayed over 3km on the wrong side of Marsh Road. “Let’s assess what to do,” echoed my partner.
We both felt strong. We had enough water and food to last the day, even if we got lost again, a possibility we had to consider. We decided to return to signpost M where we reasoned we had made the wrong turn. is not easy for an avid hiker to do, but is nevertheless, sensible. It was a lesson well learned: always consult the map, even when following someone’s directions.
Returning to M signpost junction, we rewarded ourselves with a good rest, snacks, and water on a well-positioned shady bench, marked with a plaque: Honouring the Memory of Ella and Alex Adams.
“Benches have been positioned along the trail by families in memory of their loved ones,” says Velma. “They stand on the spot where they once lived many years ago.”
More orange ribbons directed us to the first lookoff without incident. John Cornell was right about the view. The clear day brought P.E.I, some 50 kilometres away, into focus. We congratulated ourselves for reaching the goal, and for eating our snacks at the bottom of the hill because the ticks loved the grassy crest just as much as we did. Luckily, we had prepared ourselves earlier by tucking our pants into our socks, sealing them with Duct tape, and then wrapping a layer of double-sided tape to catch any critter that dared venture up our legs. After a dose of tick spray and a few photos, we headed for TH#3.
The panoramic views Velma had described soon came into view at subsequent lookout spots: Ballantyne’s Cove, the western cliffs of Cape Breton and the PEI shoreline surfaced in concert over St. George’s Bay and the Northumberland Strait. It was a photographer’s paradise.
I told myself: I must return here in autumn to witness this view amid the colourful splendour of the changing leaves.
An easy descent along Hwy 337 brought us back to Ballantyne’s Cove where we picked up the car for the short drive to the Lighthouse. Heralding safe harbour to vessels since 1861, this stately red and white octagonal structure was a timely reminder that even well-marked routes require necessary precautions and safeguards… just
in case you make a wrong turn.
Five Important Precautions to Take Before Setting Out on a Wilderness Hike
- Give the exact location of your walk and estimated time of return to a reliable person who can be reached that day.
- Carry more water and food than you think you will need on your walk.
- Find a hiking partner of equal or better ability than you to accompany you.
- Pack a map of the trail area, matches, compass, first aid kit, whistle and a battery charger in your backpack.
- Bring an extra pair of socks. Keeping feet dry prevents blisters.