While most tourists have folded up their tents and gone home by the end of October, Cape Breton is actually a hidden gem at the height of winter — especially for hiking in snowshoes.
“The snow is there,” says local hiking ambassador Steven Rolls about why the island is such an ideal snowshoe destination. “There is something about that natural belt of land in the highlands (and) the whole Cabot Trail area — you are going to find quite a bit of snow there almost seven months of the year.”
The owner and operator of Moosebait.com, a long-established website dedicated to doling out Cape Breton hiking information, Rolls says that while most are not maintained, the trails make for excellent winter expeditions in snowshoes.
“It can be a workout,” adds Rolls, about hiking with the wintery footwear believed to have arrived to Canada during ancient migrations more than 10,000 years ago from Siberia.
“I think the big thing is that it’s totally different than any other movement that you’re used to. So a lot of it is about getting some half decent equipment and taking your time — enjoying it rather than feeling that you have to get somewhere.”
With no shortage of trails on Cape Breton, the island makes the ideal spot for seasoned snowshoe pros or even beginners looking for a new outdoor adventure.
And people seem to be catching on as well. Rolls says that he’s noticed more hikers over the past couple years and many park officials are beginning to extend and make services accessible to winter tourists.
“Even though our services are limited in the winter, being able to plow the Cabot Trail or being able to plow some of the parking lots for some of the more popular trails for wintertime is something we try to do,” says Julie Cossette, acting visitor experience manager for Parks Canada.
In fact, she adds that the Ingonish Visitor Centre began providing snowshoe rentals last year for tourists looking to hike around the area. Each rental includes snowshoes, poles and a carrying strap and there are daily and weekend rates that range anywhere from $7.90 for children as young as four to less than $15 for adults.
“We ask people to book 24 hours in advance because the Visitors Centre itself is not open to visitors over the winter but we’ll make sure to plan in advance to have someone there when people come to pick up their gear,” adds Cossette.
Rolls notes that there are several places that also rent snowshoes throughout Cape Breton, including libraries. He notes that Hike Nova Scotia usually posts a list of locations that supply gear on their website.
Of course, it is still winter in Cape Breton so those interested in heading out to explore snowshoeing should not go unprepared.
“It’s good to plan in advance and know what’s open, know what’s in operation and maybe know where the washrooms are,” says Cossette, adding if people rent gear through the Ingonish Visitor Centre, staff can open washrooms and assist with maps or other information.
“The trails are not maintained or groomed over the winter (and) the weather can change fast in the area,” adds Cossette. “So (people should) bring layers, enough food and water for their snowshoe adventure.”
Rolls adds that ski poles will also make hiking in snowshoes easier and that good winter boots are a must.
“There’s a lot of time you’re flipping up snow and it’s kind of falling into your boots and stuff so it’s always good to have either a snow pant that goes over your boots or a pair of gaiters or something like that,” adds Rolls.
A longtime backpacker who has explored much of Cape Breton’s many trails via snowshoes, Rolls says that as laborious as treks can be in the wintertime, the real secret to snowshoe hikes is simply soaking up the beauty of it all.
“Especially if you’re new to it, don’t set any exuberant goals. Just enjoy the hike as you’re hiking,” says Rolls. “The other part is go with some friends. You’ll laugh, you’ll kind of joke around, enjoying yourself — it kind of keeps your mind off the actual work.”
Additional info for your Cape Breton snowshoe trip, courtesy of Steven Rolls:
Where you can find marked trails:
Clyburn Valley - 8.5km
Uisge Ban Falls - 5km
Dalem Lake - 2.5km
Celtic Shores (Great Canadian Trail), Inverness to the Train Trestle 4km - 92km
Gypsum Mine Trail - 5km
Where you can find organized snowshoeing:
Cape Breton Nordic Ski Club (Cape North)
Ski Cape Smokey (Ingonish)
5-Day Cross the Highlands (organized through Live Life in Tents) - 60km
Middle River Baddeck Old Time Commute Trek Guided Snowshoe (occurs at the start of March) - 11.5 km
Where you can find winter accommodations:
Keltic Lodge (Ingonish)
Iron Mountain Wilderness Cabins (Whycocomagh)
Valley View Chalets (overlooking Margaree Valley)
Soleil Chalets (Cheticamp)
Highlands Hostel (Cape North)
Cabot Shores Wilderness Resort (between Englishtown and Wreck Cove)
The Luckenbooth Bed & Breakfast (St Ann’s)