Skyline Trail – No Better Place To Watch A Sunset

Skyline Trail, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Nova Scotia - Wednesday, July 6th, 2016

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Cape Breton Island is justly famous for its amazing scenery and perhaps no area is more famous than Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The park protects a great variety of ecosystems including hardwood forested river valleys, the tundra like highlands plateau, some of the tallest cliffs in Canada and of course the rugged coastline. While you can experience the park from behind the wheel of a motor vehicle on the legendary Cabot Trail, the best way to really get to know the place is by hiking. There are no less than twenty-six hiking trails in the park that can help the adventurer to experience every aspect of the park. Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to hike most of them, some many times. While I can think of at least a dozen trails that I would rate as world class hikes, none stands out in my mind more than the Skyline Trail.

The Skyline Trail

I’d venture to say that there is no more photographed view from near the end of any trail in Canada. The combination of the Cape Breton Highlands with the Cabot Trail clinging to its side and the vast expanse of the Gulf of St. Lawrence hundreds of feet below is an unbeatable payoff for hiking the two and half miles to get there. Here is a photo from Hike the Highlands , a great organization that promotes hiking in Cape Breton.

The end of the Skyline Trail
Skyline Trail

While you certainly don’t need a specific reason to hike the Skyline Trail there is one that attracts people from around the world to experience at least once in their lives – to watch the sunset. I’m sure that long before we evolved into the species homo sapiens that our forebears were as fascinated as we are today by the simple phenomena of the setting sun. The best sunsets are generally considered to be the ones where the sun sets directly into the water, or at least I think so. A quick check reveals dozens of them from all over the world on this website.

If you look at a map of the Maritimes it quickly becomes apparent that there are a lot more places to watch the sun rise from the sea than there are places to watch it set into the sea. The western side of Cape Breton Island is one such place and Parks Canada has specifically made improvements to the Skyline Trail to enhance the sunset experience.

A few words about the trail itself. Here is a map to start with.

Map of Skyline Trail
Skyline Trail Map

While if you were hiking here in all daylight hours, it would be sensible to hike the entire 9.2 km. (5.7 mi.) loop, for the sunset watchers simply going straight in and out is the best option. To go to very end and back is 7.5 km.(4.7 mi.), but there are vantage points that are just as good or better well short of the end of the trail. The Skyline Trail is probably the best maintained in the park. It is wide and a combination of gravel, earth and wooden stairs and landings which are perfect for setting up a tripod. The walk is not taxing, but it is a gradual descent to the viewing platforms so remember the farther down you go, the further up you must return. Remember to take a flashlight or head lamp as you will be walking back in less than ideal light conditions. Also, do not travel alone. Unfortunately this the trail upon which the only known fatal coyote attack in Canada occurred in 2009. Fortunately, that was a tragic anomaly and there have been no attacks since.

For photographers, bring a tripod or monopod. The best settings for getting the setting sun are longer exposures that create blurs if the camera is just hand held. I should know, 90% of my sunset shots are crap.

My recent trip to watch the sunset with a group of fellow TMACers was special because we did it on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Most of the Sklyine Trail is pretty ordinary until you emerge from the forest and finally get a view of the water and the trail snaking down to the cliff’s edge. By the time we arrived there were already quite a few people waiting in anticipation as the sun seemed to grow larger and redder as Helios drove his flaming chariot closer to the horizon.

Skyline Trail Sunset Watchers
Waiting for the Sunset on the Skyline Trail

We had two professional photographers along, Gary Crallé and David Lasker. I am sure when they post on this topic you will get to see some stunning photos, but until they do you’ll have to settle for my rather ordinary shots. Here’s Gary setting up for the sunset.

Gary Cralle on the Skyline Trail
Gary Cralle Shooting the Sunset at Skyline Trail

As is often the case, what appears at first will be a totally cloudless sunset, turns out not to be. However, wispy clouds like these can actually add to the picture.

Sunset on the Skyline Trail
Skyline Trail Sunset
Setting Sun on the Skyline Trail
Going, Going
The Sun is Gone from the Skyline Trail

Simply breathtaking, even if there was no green flash.

Even though the sun had set there was an unusual illumination in the sky which I couldn’t explain until about a third of the way back and suddenly this brilliant strawberry moon started rising from over the crest of highlands almost exactly 180° from where the sun had set.

Strawberry Moon on the Skyline Trail
Strawberry Moon

I later learned that it had been seventy years from the last time there was a full moon on the summer solstice. I had witnessed a once in a lifetime event on the Skyline Trail. Thank you Parks Canada and Mother Nature. We were truly blessed tonight.

  • Sunsets

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