By Jason Nugent
Special to SaltWire Network
As a landscape photographer, Cape Breton Highlands National Park has always fascinated me.
Images of the world-famous Cabot Trail winding its way through rugged coastline provided motivation for me to get out and explore my own parks and special places here in New Brunswick, long after I moved back here from Nova Scotia.
When the COVID-19 Atlantic Canada bubble formed earlier this summer, my partner and I decided that it was time to venture back to Nova Scotia. Oceanside cliffs, rugged mountain peaks scraped bare by the famous Highlands wind, and lush, forested ravines just waiting to be explored? Yes please, where do we sign up?
I am drawn to remote places. The art that I exhibit in galleries tends to focus on places with few signs of civilization, and for this reason we decided that it was time to visit Fishing Cove campground.
Fishing Cove is the only backcountry campground in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, with few available sites and nearly no amenities. This sounded perfect to us, and so we began to plan our visit. Because we were coming from Fredericton and had a nearly seven-hour drive ahead of us, we decided that the best course of action was to plan a night in Cheticamp campground, then leave early for Fishing Cove the following morning.
Getting to Cape Breton Highlands National Park is easy. There is pretty much only one way onto Cape Breton Island - drive to Port Hastings and cross the causeway - and then decide which way you want to take to get up to the park. As you drive, you’ll see signs for the Cabot Trail, and this is your big clue that you’re on the right track. The trail is Trunk 30 and if you stay on the Trans-Canada Highway, you will eventually have no choice but to turn onto it. Once you do, you can follow it all the way up to the park. Since this is one of the most beautiful drives in the world, I encourage you to take your time.
For us, our ultimate destination lay a half hours’ drive into Cape Breton Highlands National Park, at the top of MacKenzie Mountain. This is the trailhead for the six-kilometer hike down the mountain to Fishing Cove, which lays at the base. Since this is an unserviced backcountry site, you will need to bring in all of your potable water.
The trail is nearly completely downhill in this direction. This, of course, implies that the hike back to your car is nearly completely uphill. Since this is a backcountry site, you’ll also need to register with park staff before you can hike in to your site. When you do that, you’ll be given a bag for your garbage. Leave no traces, please.
The trail down to Fishing Cove follows Fishing Cove River nearly the entire way. The river valley in which you hike is densely wooded, with dappled light filtering in through the trees. The path is well-maintained, with occasional boardwalk sections over the wetter sections.
I liken the hike down to the cove to the three parts of a good magic trick. From the trailhead, the hike offers a pledge - you have a sense of where you will go but not how you’ll get there. The turn follows, with the ocean disappearing from view as you move down the trail through the highland forest, and then ultimately, the prestige, when the full splendor of the view reappears and you emerge onto the rocky beach by the shore, with a perfect grassy hillside for watching the sun set. It’s an amazing reveal; I think about it often and would do it again in an instant.
The campsite itself features eight sites scattered around the cove. Each site has a tent platform, and that’s the extent of it.
Choosing site number one - the site with the best view of the ocean - was tempting, but we opted for a slightly more sheltered spot and are glad we did. We were treated to a most authentic highland wind once the sun set and spent the bulk of the night wondering if we were going to blow away. It was a perfect authentic Cape Breton camping experience. By dawn, the wind had completely died down, giving us time to make breakfast and enjoy our coffee in peace.
Camping numbers are down in Cape Breton Highlands National Park right now, and we had the entire Fishing Cove campsite to ourselves.
On the hike out, we stopped often to look around. Fishing Cove was once a Scottish fishing community and one visit leaves no doubt why. Perhaps they came for the abundance of sea life in the ocean, but I know that I would have stayed for the view. We are already planning our return.
Where to Stay
- Details on the camping available in the park
- Staying in Fishing Cove requires an over the phone reservation. You can’t book this spot online, so give the park office a call at 902-224-2306.
Where to Eat
If you’re camping in the park you’ll need to bring food with you, but there are some wonderful restaurants in nearby Cheticamp. We loved L’Abri and the Frog Pond Cafe, which is attached to the Sunset Art Gallery.
What to Bring
If you’re planning on a stay in Fishing Cove, bring your tent, sleeping bag and pad, and sturdy boots for the hike. Trekking poles are recommended. You’ll obviously need a backpack, clothing for varied weather, and something to carry enough food and water for the duration of your stay.