Travelogue: Halifax and Fundy National Park

July 29- August 1
Earlier in the summer we watched a documentary called “Our Provinces” that was made to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary. In it, the filmmaker traveled across the country visiting the places and people who make up modern Canada. In Nova Scotia, he featured the Hadhad family, immigrants who fled their home country of Syria and settled in the town of Antigonish. They were experienced chocolatiers whose factory was destroyed by war, and Canada provided a welcoming environment for them to rebuild the family business, Peace by Chocolate. When we discovered we’d be passing Antigonish on the way from Cape Breton Island to Halifax, we planned some candy shopping. Driving down Bay Street we nearly missed the tiny chocolate shop hut next to their home. Upon entering we tried some samples and bought a large assorted box to take on the road with us. They were very happy to hear we had come from so far and decided to stop by. Currently they ship products throughout Canada, but as of December 2017 they are looking into shipping to the USA soon. The rest of the drive to Halifax was uneventful other than the rock that a minivan kicked up right into our windshield. We’d spend the rest of the trip with an annoying little chip directly in the driver’s line of sight.

A couple more hours down the road we entered the largest metropolitan region in Atlantic Canada. Halifax and its surrounding environs is home to around 400,000 people, which is just over 40 percent of the provincial population. As such, it’s the only part of Nova Scotia that could be described as bustling. After so many days of tiny villages and lonely roads, it was quite a change to burst through a fog surrounding the Macdonald Bridge and see a modern city skyline. Our lodging for the next two nights was the centrally located Hampton Inn. It may have lacked the charm we’d been experiencing at campgrounds and “mom-n-pop” motels, but it made up for it in comparatively luxurious comfort. We also reconnected with Nick’s parents for the first time since Yarmouth, as they had been exploring the western end of Nova Scotia at their own speed.

Tall ships in Halifax.

After settling in and enjoying our first quality shower since Chéticamp, we took a walk around the city. Central Halifax is located on a peninsula and draped over a large hill, with a steep incline between the harbor and the upper reaches. At the very top lies the landmark Citadel, site of military protection since the early days of Halifax. The place to be on that evening was the waterfront, as our stay unintentionally coincided with the visit of the Tall Ships. More than 30 large sailing vessels were docked along the boardwalk lining the harbour, it made a rather impressive sight. The entirety of the boardwalk contains museums, restaurants, playgrounds and vendors of all types. It was buzzing with activity as we walked from north to south. At the southern end near the Seaport Farmers Market, we stumbled upon Garrison Brewing. Actually I’m lying, we knew exactly where we’d find the brewery, and had already been drinking their beers elsewhere in Nova Scotia. We sat at an outdoor barrel table and drank a flight while killing time before our evening dinner reservation.

We ate well both nights we spent in Halifax. Immediately after our flights at Garrison Brewing, we walked back to the area of Grand Parade Park to The Five Fishermen, which specializes in seafood and steak. It was a great dining experience all around. The wood grilled fish menu, where you choose your type of fish and signature sauce, was a hit. On the second evening we walked a few blocks from our hotel to the North End neighborhood. We had scouted out a couple promising restaurants on Gottingen Street and selected EDNA for their unique menu. After dinner we hopped across the street to Field Guide for cocktails. These were our first proper cocktails since the manhattans at Glenora Distillery. It made me feel back in my element to have a boozy drink served in a coupe glass with an orange peel attached to the rim with a mini clothespin. Another drinking establishment we enjoyed was 2 Crows Brewing, conveniently located next door to our hotel. They focus on finely crafted modern beer styles and serve them out of a storefront facility on Brunswick Street that still has that new brewery smell.

The morning of our full day in town we made the short but steep hike up to the Halifax Citadel. This hilltop site has been home to some form of fortification since 1749 when Halifax was founded as Nova Scotia’s new capital. Over the years, four different defensive structures have protected the city and harbour, with the current one dating from 1856. After it became militarily obsolete, it fell into disrepair before finally being fully restored to its Victorian era appearance in the 1990s. Today it is managed by Parks Canada as a National Historic Site and features museum exhibits, presentations and re-enactments that define the role of the citadel and Halifax in North American history. For us it was especially interesting because we were now entering the British counterpoint to the Fortress of Louisbourg that we had just visited.

Heading up the hill near the stately town clock, we encountered a group of kilted 78th Highlander soldier re-enactors and a bagpiper on their way down from the citadel. If we’d learned anything thus far in Canada, it’s that bagpipers can appear suddenly and without warning. Once inside the walls, we watched the introductory video and wandered through the premises and various exhibits. Climbing the stairs to the top of the fortress wall highlights the hilltop’s obvious strategic advantage. Today the view includes eye-level office towers, but it’s still an impressive vantage point. One of the most popular displays at the citadel is the re-created World War I trenches. Walking through this small maze of two meter deep walkways provides an immersive experience of what it was like to be a Canadian soldier on the front lines in France. It is built to accurate scale and with the correct materials of wood planks, dirt and sandbags. Visitors could spend hours at the Citadel experiencing the full range of information, or if you’re just a fan of big bangs, show up for the daily shooting of the aptly-named “noon cannon.”

Army Barracks and WWI replica trench.

A great day trip out of Halifax is the town of Lunenburg. In 1995 it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site because nearly the entirety of the old town’s original British Colonial architecture is preserved. Colorful buildings line the Main Street that parallels the harbor that was home to the town’s famed shipbuilding industry. Quaint shops and restaurants fill the blocks closest to the water, while residential neighborhoods climb the hill behind them. The whole place looks like it should be on the cover of a puzzle box. It’s a good place to spend an afternoon eating fish and chips and doing some souvenir shopping or whale watching. The town also has a rich history of shipbuilding and is home to the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic.

Lunenburg from across the bay.

On July 31, we said goodbye to Nova Scotia after 10 wonderful and busy days. We also said goodbye to the parents, who were dropped off at Halifax Stanfield International Airport. We exited the province by car this time, crossing the short land border with New Brunswick. Our next point of interest was Hopewell Rocks, on the shore of the Bay of Fundy. This bay is best known as having the largest tides in the world, with the water level varying by up to 16 meters (52 feet). Twice a day this huge tidal surge enters and exits the bay, repeatedly exposing and covering large areas of sea floor. At Hopewell Cape, this constant erosional force has created bizarre rock features that are slender at the bottom and get fatter at the top. At low tide, the pillars are fully exposed, but at high tide, it is possible to kayak around them. We were there around the peak of low tide, so swarms of visitors, not water swirled around the base of the rocks. We descended the staircase to the rocky beach and observed the rocks from below. They look like they could tip over at any moment. Admission to the park allows access for two days, so you can experience both high and low tides at your leisure, but we had places to be, so we moved on.

Our sleeping arrangements for the night were the fourth and final night of camping on our road trip. Fundy National Park was just down the road and we’d reserved a site at Point Wolfe Campground. Our site was number 68, located on a quiet loop at the side of the woodsy campground. This turned out to be our favorite site because of its nice level tent pad, movable picnic table and proximity to restroom facilities. It was also near enough to the adjacent campsites that we didn’t feel like we’d be eaten by a wild animal in the night without warning, but separated by nice stands of trees so we didn’t feel like we were right up in everyone’s business.

Dickson Falls and the view from Shiphaven Trail.

On our way into the park, we took a couple short hikes on the Dickson Falls and Shiphaven trails. Dickson Falls is a lovely 1.5 kilometer loop through a cool, shady forest with a moss-filled stream and the pretty waterfall for which it is named. Several parts of the trail are well-maintained boardwalks and there is a viewpoint right by the parking lot that looks out over the coastal bluffs. The Shiphaven trail is located just before the campground and is a leisurely stroll on boardwalks and stairs with views of the Point Wolfe River Estuary, which varies drastically in appearance depending on the tide. Panels explain the cultural history of the area and the trail ends with a view of the Point Wolfe covered bridge.

Lobster Cocktail.

After having gotten used to wonderful restaurants in Halifax, we were not about to grill brats that evening, so we took a drive back to the town of Alma at the edge of the park. This village has a good variety of restaurants, plus a general store to fill any other camping (beer) needs. We selected An Octopus’ Garden Cafe for dinner, it has a casual ambiance but the food is top notch. One of the most memorable dishes of the trip was their Lobster Cocktail, a tasty salad of lobster and avocado served on a lettuce leaf. Add to that entrees of homemade pasta and we were very happy with our fancy dinner decision. It was approaching 7:30, so we ordered dessert to go, so as not to waste any more daylight. Back at site 68 the fire got going and we started in on the case of beer we bought in town. While unpacking some more supplies from of the car, I decided to set our desserts out on the picnic table. I should have learned my lesson from the squirrel situation at the Cape Breton Highlands campground, but apparently it hadn’t sunk in. When I turned from the trunk to the picnic table, a little squirrel was furiously trying to unfold the paper bag containing my lemon bar with his tiny fingers. Everyone in the area probably heard me yell “NICK! SQUIRREL!” as I ran to chase off the perpetrator. Nick, meanwhile, was waist deep in the trunk fetching something and claims to only have been aware of “some commotion.”

As darkness descended into the woods and beer descended into our bellies, the evening was pure relaxation until our next unexpected visitor. It was a different form of wildlife this time, the species known as “drunk girls.” At the campsite just above ours, there were two young ladies having some kind of a girls nature weekend. We had earlier noticed them talking and receiving approximately 15,000 texts, but didn’t pay too much attention. Then as we sat staring at our fire, a shadowy figure stumbled between some trees onto the road right in front of our site. She opened by asking if we drank beer, and offered us some in exchange for firewood, as they had used up their supply. We politely declined the watery swill they were guzzling, but gave her a few spare logs. She thanked us profusely and returned to her friend who then proceeded to grill her with loudly whispered questions about the guys at the next campsite: “Did you offer them beer?” “Did they know what that is?” “Did they seem nice?” “Are they English?” We could barely contain our laughter. Shortly after, one of them could barely contain her alcohol and vomited in the woods behind their tent.

Morning at Site 68, Wolfe Point Campground.

The next morning we rose, made coffee, ate cinnamon rolls, took down the tent and hit the road. The day ahead of us would take us all the way to Montréal, by far the longest driving day of the trip. On the way out of Fundy, we took a quick walk around the Caribou Plain trail, a UNESCO “Fundy Biosphere Amazing Place.” There were no caribou out and about that morning unfortunately, so we set off to say bonjour au Québec.

Up Next: Home across Canada.
Previously: Fortress of Louisbourg
Previously: Cape Breton Island Part 2
Previously: Cape Breton Island Part 1
Previously: Nova Scotia – Annapolis Royal to Grand Pre
Previously: Nova Scotia – Digby to Keji
Previously: In & Around Bethel, Maine
Previously: Chicago to Maine

See the full gallery of images from the trip.

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Travelogue: Fortress of Louisbourg

July 28-29, 2017

Model of the full town in the museum.

The fortified town of Louisbourg served as capital to the French colony of Île Royale (present day Cape Breton Island), during a time of fierce competition for North American dominance between European powers. Having just lost control of their colony in peninsular Nova Scotia to the British, the French constructed this heavily fortified town in 1713 to maintain a presence on the Atlantic seaboard. Despite only existing for 50 years, it holds an important role in North American colonial history. The British permanently seized Louisbourg during the Seven Years War in 1758, and then meticulously blasted the buildings and walls down to nearly nothing. For 200 years after its defeat, Louisbourg was a rough, mostly forgotten ruin. Interest was rekindled in the early 20th century, which resulted in the construction of a memorial and museum building. Later, in the 1960s when Cape Breton was suffering a collapse in mining employment, a proposal came forth to re-create a portion of Louisbourg as both a signature historic site and a way to put unemployed locals to work in skilled trades.

About a fifth of the town site was eventually rebuilt on top of the original foundations and opened to visitors in 1974. Louisbourg’s extensive blueprints, records of land ownership and possession logs were instrumental in allowing the site to be recreated accurately. Original methods were used to fashion historically accurate materials for each structure, literally down to the nuts and bolts. Today the village is “inhabited” daily by costumed interpreters who do a great job of bringing the 18th century to life. Each character can talk knowledgeably about his or her life and their job and position in town. A baker prepares bread daily, the blacksmith gives demonstrations, a shepherd herds his flock down the street and the gardener let us taste the fresh spinach. Louisbourg is also still an active archaeological site, with exploratory tents set up on another part of the property during our visit. In the words of one Parks Canada employee, “You can hardly stick a shovel in the ground around here without coming up with an artifact.”

The authenticity of the site has been put to good use in several movie and TV productions. The 2000 film The Widow of Saint Pierre uses it particularly well as a stand-in for the French colony of Saint-Pierre circa 1849.

Most visitors arrive at the fortress via shuttle bus from the visitor center and spend a few hours browsing the site. We wanted to take it up a notch, so when we found out it’s possible to spend the night inside the fort we went for it. Our original plan was to camp, but the tents in the King’s Bastion grounds were already reserved. However, they ended up offering us something way better, the Lartigue House, the recreated home of a civil court judge who immigrated from Newfoundland amongst Louisbourg’s first settlers. This turned out to be one of the most unique and memorable lodging experiences we’ve ever had.

We were allowed car access to the site via a back entrance and met with a friendly Parks Canada ranger for the introductory tour. We were escorted to the Lartigue House expecting to find a rugged, simple dwelling, but were blown away to find a huge home with 18th century replica furnishings, a back yard with fire pit and a Keurig coffee maker in the kitchenette. It’s not luxury; there are only two rooms with electric lights, no shower (yet) and you have to bring your own bedding to place on the queen size mattresses, but it was way more civilized than the “camping with a roof” experience described on the Parks Canada website. A camp stove and electric lanterns are provided for cooking and lighting needs, and we purchased a bundle of firewood that was delivered right to our yard by a ranger.

The Lartigue House backyard, complete with lounging area and fire pit.

During regular visiting hours, our status as overnight guests was indicated by pink wristbands. When the costumed interpreters noticed we were spending the night we replied “We’re in the Lartigue House.” We felt fancy. At 4:50pm, the soldiers march down Toulouse Street to the waterfront where they shoot a (crazy loud) cannon and then everyone except the pink wristband people are shuttled back to the visitor center. From then on, we had the whole town almost to ourselves, only occasionally crossing paths with the six camping guests. We were allowed to drive our car to the front of our house, which felt kind of surreal. At sunset we strolled through the village unattended and kept commenting on how surprising it is that we’re allowed to do this. It was like being in our own super nerdy theme park after it closes. We drank wine from our camping mugs, visited the sheep multiple times, and then sat by our backyard fire to watch the stars come out.

Making use of the props available for photos around town.

I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little bit creepy sleeping in an unlit period home in an empty town. There were some clunks and creaks emanating from the upstairs and the wooden shutters that got my attention, but I managed to drift off. The next morning we had to have our car out of the town by 9:00am so as not to ruin the illusion for the first guests arriving via shuttle bus. The most fun part of being there before opening hours was seeing the costumed interpreters before they were in costume. We took one last stroll around “our” town and said goodbye to the sheep before the whole place was all overrun by the masses.

After five days on Cape Breton Island, it was time to head back to mainland Nova Scotia. The drive took us back up past Sydney and then southwestward along the gorgeous Bras d’Or Lake that sits in the center of the island. In just under two and a half hours, we were exiting Cape Breton on the Canso Causeway just like we had entered. We had saved Nova Scotia’s largest city for last. On to Halifax.

Up Next: Halifax and New Brunswick
Previously: Cape Breton Island Part 2
Previously: Cape Breton Island Part 1
Previously: Nova Scotia – Annapolis Royal to Grand Pre
Previously: Nova Scotia – Digby to Keji
Previously: In & Around Bethel, Maine
Previously: Chicago to Maine

See the full gallery of images from the trip.

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Travelogue: Cape Breton Island Part Two

July 27-28, 2017
On our second morning on Cape Breton, we awoke at the cozy Albert’s Motel in Chéticamp and planned the day over coffee on the porch. Our next accommodations were reserved at the Broad Cove campground near Ingonish on the eastern side of the park. In between, there was much more of Cape Breton Highlands to explore. On our way out of town, we stopped by the docks to look at the picturesque fishing boats. Across a narrow channel on Chéticamp Island, we noticed a herd of cows taking a morning stroll on the beach. Some waded in the water as others milled around an Acadian flag flying from a branch planted in the sand. It looked like their own happy little cow nation. Chéticamp is a pleasant place to live for both man and beast apparently.

We drove the Cabot Trail up and over the high plateau of French Mountain. Beyond our previously-visited Skyline and Bog trails, the road traces a narrow ridge called Boar’s Back and then shimmies down to the ocean in a series of switchbacks. A little farther ahead in Grande Anse Valley, we hopped out of the car to see Lone Shieling, a replica Scottish crofter’s hut. A man who left the surrounding 100 acres to the park in 1934 requested that it be built to honor the local Scottish heritage. This type of stone-walled, thatch-roofed structure is where a tenant farmer would take shelter while tending a herd of sheep on grazing grounds away from his village. A short trail loops through the surrounding old-growth forest. The towering maple trees here are up to 350 years old, as a result this area is one of the most protected parts of the park.

We decided to take a 2.2 km, unpaved side road to see Beulach Ban Falls (Gaelic for “white gorge”). This 20 meter waterfall occurs where water spills from the highlands down into the Aspy Valley, a strike-slip fault that makes a diagonal gash across the park. The parking area at the end of the road is the trailhead for the 9.6 km Aspy Trail, but the falls themselves are just a short walk away. Recent weather had been dry, so Beulach Ban wasn’t the rushing torrent seen in photos, it was just a trickle dripping down the rocks, but it was still pretty.

Approaching the northernmost point of the Cabot Trail, it briefly leaves the park and passes through the settlement of Cape North. Here the hyper-local North Highlands Community Museum celebrates the history and culture of Cape Breton Island’s northernmost peninsula. Well-designed interpretive exhibits display the early life of settlers on the island. Re-created interiors show what home life was like, while other displays focus on education, commerce and industry. As always in Nova Scotia, the ocean plays a major role, with fascinating stories of fishing, sea transportation and shipwrecks. Some claim that Aspy Bay is where John Cabot, a Venetian explorer and namesake of the Cabot Trail, first set foot on North America in 1497 (most historians now think he was actually in Newfoundland). Today this area seems remote, but there was a time when it was a center of global communication. Between 1859 and 1866 an underwater cable across Cabot Strait at Aspy Bay created a direct telegraph link from New York City to Cape Race, Newfoundland. This sped up the transatlantic passage of news by several days because ships bearing information could drop a message overboard at Newfoundland and have it telegraphed directly to New York. With electrical pulses passing through Cape Breton on a wire, it then “only” took around six days for news to travel between the continents. This link is how news from the American Civil War was relayed to Europe.

All morning, billboards hawking plaid products had beckoned us forward, so at South Harbor we pulled into the little shop called Tartans and Treasures. Clearly we were back in Scottish country. Upon entering, the owner asked if either of us had any Scottish or Irish ancestry. When I answered yes, she pulled out her little reference book and pointed out the family name origin, clan and what tartan applies. My mom’s side of the family falls under the MacBeth clan, so the owner pulled out a fabric sample. Anyone who knows me is aware I love a good plaid, and since I was in need of a Cape Breton souvenir anyway, I had her wrap up a nice Scottish wool scarf for me. Not sure I can pull off a kilt just yet.

Neil in Neil’s Harbour.

Just beyond Tartans and Treasures the Cabot Trail was barricaded closed for construction, so we were detoured onto White Point Road instead. It twists right along a rugged shoreline and then cuts across a peninsula to the seaside fishing village of Neil’s Harbour. Months earlier, when I saw a town that shares my name on a map, I knew we’d have to stop there for lunch because you don’t run into a lot of places called Neil. I feel like I should get a discount there or something. I’m happy to report the town is pretty and unpretentious, so it receives this Neil’s seal of approval. We walked to a narrow peninsula jutting into the ocean that is home to a lighthouse ice cream shop and the Chowder House restaurant. Both the indoor tables and the outdoor picnic area were hopping at the Chowder House, so clearly it was the place to be in Neil’s Harbour. We’d already eaten our weight in seafood on this trip, so what’s one more lobster sandwich?

View from the summit of Franey Mountain, overlooking Ingonish and the Atlantic Ocean.

Departing Neil’s Harbour, we intended to go to the Mica Hill Trail, but the road was closed from the other direction as well. Instead, we continued southbound to our other preferred option, Franey Mountain Trail. This 7.5 kilometer trail with its 335 meter elevation gain is known as one of the more difficult hikes at Cape Breton Highlands. The trailhead is accessed via the short, steep and gravel Franey Road at the town of Ingonish Centre. The route is a loop with the two ends departing different sides of the parking area. We weren’t sure which one to choose, so we randomly started down the left path into dense forest. The first couple kilometers are typical immaculately maintained Parks Canada crushed gravel. It’s a constant incline, but not overly strenuous. Moving along, the trail gradually becomes more rugged, passing through hardwood Acadian forest. About a kilometer in, a viewpoint gives the first clear panorama into the beautiful Clyburn Brook canyon. As far as the eye can see, a green carpet of uninterrupted trees blankets the land. Above this point some of the trail is rough, rocky and barely wider than a single footpath. Toward the top it crosses a pretty fern-filled bog and even climbs a few stairs. We emerged from the vegetation onto the broad, flat summit to find a panorama of the shoreline and the open Atlantic Ocean. On a rock outcropping we found the red Parks Canada chair and took a seat to admire the view. A small side trail leads down to another rock ledge that overlooks Clyburn Brook from a higher angle. We spent some time resting at the summit enjoying the day before turning around to hike back down. At this point, we could have returned via the same route we’d taken up, but we chose the other side to complete the whole loop. It looked a little longer on the map, but we were surprised to find that it was entirely a wide service path passable by an ATV (so that’s how they got that chair up there). It was smoother and descended in a more gradual fashion, but was also less interesting as a result. We were happy we chose the left path at the beginning, but it’s surprising the difference in the routes didn’t seem to be indicated at the trailhead or in the park brochure. We’d say Franey Mountain makes a perfect hike to take up most of an afternoon. It was secluded during our visit as well, with only about 7 people crossing our path.

Overlooking Clyburn Brook from the top of the Franey Mountain Trail.

All is well.

Squirrel on the table!

After returning to the car we stopped by the local NSLC (Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation) store and Ingonish Freshmart to stock up the food and beverage department for our evening of camping. The night’s menu would consist of cheese-filled brats, pasta salad and potato salad with cookies for dessert and Breton Brewing beer selections. The Broad Cove campground was a slight backtrack along the Cabot Trail. We checked in and purchased firewood at the entrance station and then proceeded to spacious Site 159 to set up camp. Soon the fire was raging and the beer was flowing. We sat near the fire box to roast the brats, but with the picnic table about 5 meters away, a vigilant local squirrel saw an opportunity and made a run at the potato salad. Luckily Nick’s quick reflexes chased him off. Crisis was averted, but we knew we couldn’t leave the table unattended with the squirrel chattering at us from the trees. After dinner a young parks employee stopped by to let us know there would be a sunset beach gathering beginning shortly. Upon arrival we found people sitting on the sand and our ranger friend playing a guitar and singing folksy songs in a circle. The catchy hit “Bring Back the Boreal Forest” still pops into my head from time to time. Other than some early morning crow wake-up calls, we slept well at Broad Cove. After a breakfast of coffee, dehydrated eggs and cinnamon rolls, we made use of the campground’s wash facilities. Our favorite feature was the communal outdoor sinks for cleaning dishes and camp accoutrements, a great idea that should appear at campgrounds more often.

Sunset beach gathering at Broad Cove Campground.

Back on the road, we exited Cape Breton Highlands National Park for the final time. The rest of the Cabot Trail twists south-southwestward along the shore. The Gaelic College provided a good stopping point to browse more Scottish souvenirs. After crossing the giant Seal Island Bridge we entered more inhabited territory than we’d seen in a few days. Before long, we were on a four lane freeway that links the towns of Cape Breton Island’s major metropolitan area. It was approaching lunch time, so we headed to the downtown Sydney waterfront and found some good food at the Old Triangle Alehouse. We also paid a visit to the world’s largest fiddle that stands outside the visitor info center. We didn’t sit still too long though, because we were eagerly anticipating our next destination. Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site was waiting for us just a half hour down the road, and it would prove to be one of the most unique nights we’ve spent anywhere.

Up Next: Fortress of Louisbourg
Previously: Cape Breton Island Part 1
Previously: Nova Scotia – Annapolis Royal to Grand Pre
Previously: Nova Scotia – Digby to Keji
Previously: In & Around Bethel, Maine
Previously: Chicago to Maine

See the full gallery of images from the trip.

Posted in Destinations, Travelogues | 3 Comments

Travelogue: Cape Breton Island Part One

July 25-26, 2017
While Cape Breton Island is part of the province of Nova Scotia, it has a look and feel all its own. European influences arrived early in these eastern extremes of North America. The Mi’kmaq natives reportedly traded with European fishermen as early as the 1520s. From 1713-1763 the French were in control and temporarily renamed Cape Breton “Île Royale,” and from 1784 to 1820 it was its own British colony administrated separately from Nova Scotia, so its unique identity has deep roots. We’d be lying if we said the website didn’t partially inspire this whole trip. The cheeky marketing campaign went viral in summer 2016 and was our first introduction to the island’s allure. As we discovered, their words and photos need no embellishment as Cape Breton Island is truly wonderful. This would also mark the farthest points from home on our entire journey.

Getting into the Gaelic spirit.

Cape Breton Island makes up about a fifth of the land area of Nova Scotia and has been connected to the mainland by the 1,385 meter Canso Causeway since 1955. We passed under the welcoming green archway and turned left up the western coast on the Ceilidh Trail (Pronounced “kay-lee”, more on that shortly). It wasn’t the only unpronounceable sign we came across, as Scottish Gaelic is spoken by enough people that the road signs are bilingual accordingly. The first permanent Scottish settlement on the island was the town of Judique, and it would be our first stop as well. It is home to the Celtic Music Interpretive Center, a museum dedicated to the history, culture and music of Cape Breton Island. It also contains a pub presenting live music every day from mid-June through mid-October. Our favorite part was the interactive displays that teach visitors basic step dancing and fiddling. Needless to say, both our stepping and fiddling could use some practice, but we had fun trying. The best bit of trivia we learned is that the bagpipe scale only has nine notes … no wonder it sounds like they’re always playing the same song.

Our first overnight stay on the island was booked in the tiny village of Mabou, just 25 minutes down the road from Judique. The 10-unit Mabou River Inn offers motel-style rooms or larger apartment/suites. Our narrow, single-queen room was located on the lower level with a private bathroom just across the hall, a minor inconvenience but not a deal-breaker. A short walk across the river and into the “center” of Mabou led us to the Red Shoe Pub, a long-standing, family-run food, booze and music establishment that is a favorite of locals and visitors alike. The place was already hopping at 6:00, with all tables full and the duo of Donna Marie DeWolfe & Amanda MacDougal rocking out on piano and fiddle for the nightly ceilidh. Historically, a ceilidh was simply a casual Scottish or Irish social gathering, frequently in a home; we saw the term “kitchen party” get used from time to time in Cape Breton. Today’s versions are usually provided as entertainment in restaurants and bars and feature Gaelic folk music and sometimes dancing. It’s hard not to be in a good mood with traditional music and home cooking being served up. It was a perfect welcome to Cape Breton Island.

Glenora Distillery ceilidh at full strength.

Having checked the area ceilidh schedules, we knew the Red Shoe Pub’s ended at 7:00, so after dinner we made it a double header by continuing to Glenora Distillery for their 8:00 to 10:00 ceilidh. Glenora is one of only four Scottish-style whiskey distilleries in Canada, and it’s surrounded by gorgeous green hills, so there are plenty of reasons to go there anyway. The ruckus from the dimly-lit bar was audible as we approached the distillery complex. Upon entering the Washback Pub we found a full house and two young guys playing the piano and fiddle. Being later in the evening and with boozier guests, this one was even more high-energy than the Red Shoe Pub. We each had a Manhattan cocktail and an ounce of Glenora’s 14 Year Whiskey while we took it all in. At one point, a man got up from the bar and wildly accompanied the musicians with a set of spoons. He later introduced himself to us as Jerry DaVoe, a local celebrity famous for his spooning skills. Shortly after, when we noticed a girl applying rosin to a fiddle bow, we knew there was about to be a duet. It’s like everyone in Cape Breton has a musical instrument ready to go at any moment’s notice. The highlight of the evening was when the fiddle player seemed to be taking a break, but was actually assembling a bagpipe to keep the party going. Piping in any enclosed room is loud, but a bagpipe at two meters is pretty deafening. We loved every minute of it. If you want, you can stay in a hotel room or cabin right on site at Glenora Distillery, but we headed back to our accommodations in Mabou to turn in.

Inverness Beach.

The following morning we stopped for a walk on scenic Inverness Beach while continuing north on the Ceilidh Trail. North of Mabou, the landscape of Cape Breton becomes increasingly rugged and hilly. The whole island generally tilts upward from low hills in the southwest to the highland plateau of the northern peninsula. Near the town of Margaree, we reached the end of the Ceilidh Trail and joined the Cabot Trail. This highway loops around the northern highlands and features some of the most stunning views in Nova Scotia. It was originally built to provide a reliable road connection across the nearly impenetrable highlands, but today it’s best know for its scenery and access to one of eastern Canada’s premier national parks, Cape Breton Highlands. This park is known for unique geology, major biodiversity and excellent hiking on its 26 trails. 90 percent of the park is made up of the highland plateau, but around its edges, it descends abruptly all the way to sea level. Vegetation is defined by elevation, with lush Acadian forests down low, Boreal forests in the middle and sparsely covered taiga topping out around 530 meters.

The Cabot Trail hugs the shoreline of Cape Breton Highlands National Park.


We got our bearings at the main visitor center on the western side of the park near Chéticamp, and made a plan for the first afternoon. We doubled back to the edge of town to pick up sandwiches at Boulangerie Aucoin, a French-style bakery that has been serving breads, sandwiches, pastries and tea since 1959. With lunch and dessert in our backpacks, we drove along the coast to the Corney Brook trailhead. This 6.5km out-and-back hike took us deep into a river canyon with a nice waterfall at the end. It has 140 meters of elevation gain spread out over a gradual incline. A simple bench facing the waterfall made a perfect secluded picnic spot with a soundtrack of falling water. (Aucoin’s flaky blueberry turnover will appear on 2017’s best-of list.) After the hike we stopped at a few of the scenic pullouts along this dramatic section of the Cabot Trail. The road clinging to the steep bluffs looks awesome from any angle, and at Presqu’ile we scrambled along a rocky beach with sea stacks. Next it was time to check in to our accommodations at Albert’s Motel back in Chéticamp. This town has been a center of Acadian heritage since they returned to settle here on land unclaimed by the English after their deportation in the Grand Dérangement. It’s a great base for exploring the western side of Cape Breton Highlands. We sat on our front porch at the motel and briefly rested before our next hiking adventure.

Bog Trail plant life.

Months prior to our arrival in Cape Breton, we reserved slots in the nightly ranger-guided Sunset Hike on the Skyline Trail. The hike begins 2 hours before sunset, so on July 26th that meant we had a bit of time to kill before the 6:45 departure. We traversed the seaside section of the Cabot Trail for the third time that day, and made our way to the Bog Hiking Trail high atop the French Mountain plateau. This boardwalk trail is just a half kilometer in length, but it passes through a fascinating highland bog landscape. Orchids, dragonflies and carnivorous pitcher plants inhabit the squishy ground along the route, and moose are said to frequent the area (though we didn’t see any). The quick 20 minute walk was the perfect time-filler, as we arrived back at the Skyline Trailhead at just the right time to meet our ranger guide. After some basic introduction talk, he led us  into the woods on the 7 kilometer round trip hike. The first couple kilometers are pretty flat, passing through varied boreal forests. Just as we stopped to discuss some trees, hikers coming from the opposite direction told us they had just passed a moose near the trail a few minutes prior. Our guide polled the group on whether to sidetrack to try to see the moose or continue on our normally planned route. We’ve found the goofy animals to be extremely elusive, so we were happy it was a unanimous decision in favor of the moose expedition. About five minutes down a branch of the trail we came upon a 2-year-old female grazing at the edge of a grassy clearing about 20 meters away. Everyone came to a halt and went silent other than the clicking and beeping of cameras. She didn’t seem to mind having an audience as she calmly enjoyed the greenery. In the book “The Tent Dwellers,” author Albert Bigelow Paine states “I may say here that no expedition in Nova Scotia is a success without having seen at least one moose.” This marked the first time we’d seen a moose in the wild since 2014 in Alaska.

Continuing on the Sunset Hike, we reached a point where the views start to open up. Off to the left we looked into the deep valley where the Cabot Trail snakes along the hills toward the sea, and straight ahead the ocean began to fill the horizon. Soon after, we emerged from some low trees onto an open, rocky ridge, and a breathtaking view spread out before us. The last few hundred meters of the Skyline Trail consist of a series of boardwalk stairs and platforms cascading down the ridge with panoramic views over the Gulf of St. Lawrence. As the sun lowered, it cast a changing reddish glow on the landscape. It would prove to be one of the defining images of the whole trip. This view features prominently in Cape Breton marketing materials, but the real experience of standing on the edge of that island simply cannot be recreated in photographs. We put our cameras in our pockets and stood quietly while recording it in our minds.

The guided portion of the hike was finished at this point, and guests could hike back to the trailhead at their own pace if they chose. We lingered until the sun disappeared completely and it was fully dark by the time we arrived at the car and drove back to Chéticamp. Late evening activities in remote areas often mean reduced dining options, so our best bet was to order a giant to-go pizza from Wabo’s to enjoy back in our hotel room. We were justifiably carbo-loading, as we had much more to discover on Cape Breton Island.

Up Next: Cape Breton Island Part 2
Previously: Nova Scotia – Annapolis Royal to Grand Pre
Previously: Nova Scotia – Digby to Keji
Previously: In & Around Bethel, Maine
Previously: Chicago to Maine

See the full gallery of images from the trip.

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Travelogue Nova Scotia: Annapolis Royal to Grand Pré

July 24-25, 2017
Crossing Nova Scotia is like traveling through a giant museum exhibit of North American cultural history, with intertwined nationalities and time periods. We began our visit to Annapolis Royal with some present-day Canadian poutine at Ye Olde Towne Pub, but the area is famously an early center of European colonization. Originally settled in 1605 as Port Royal by the French, the town was the capital of Acadie from 1632 through 1710, when a British siege took power and renamed it in honor of Queen Anne. Annapolis Royal then served as the capital of British Nova Scotia until 1749 when administration was moved to Halifax. The village settled into its status as a quaint small town with an impressive stock of National Historic Sites.

Earthen walls at Fort Anne.

The best place to learn about the area is Fort Anne, the location of a defensive fort since the French first constructed one in 1636. The British made many additions and renovations on the same site over the following decades, resulting in much of the design that is visible today. Only a handful of buildings remain, but the star-shaped earthworks are intact. The officers’ quarters serves as the interpretive center, with in-depth displays and artifacts laying out the complicated history of the region from French, British and Mi’kmaq perspectives.

Our next overnight stopping point was Wolfville, just over an hour northeast via highways 1 and 101. This is the center of a popular Nova Scotia wine region, so there’s no shortage of choices for imbibing. We wanted to be as close to the vino as possible, and booked a night at the Old Lantern Inn Bed & Breakfast. It’s a beautiful location on the crest of a ridge adjacent to the Landscape of Grand Pré World Heritage Site. A grassy path through the vineyard leads directly to the Domaine de Grand Pré winery, tasting room and Le Caveau Restaurant. We made dinner reservations for later in the evening, but in the meantime were warmly welcomed by our hosts and got settled into the comfortable upstairs “L’Acadie Blanc” room.

We then made the short trip back to the main street of Wolfville to explore a bit. After strolling the street, the Annapolis Cider Company gave us a perfect spot to relax while sampling more locally produced beverages. The fertile soils that initially sustained the colonists continue to provide a bounty. In addition to wine grapes, orchards are big business, and Annapolis Cider uses all locally-sourced fruit at their downtown Wolfville cidery. For a reasonable price, we were given three generous pours that introduced us to their signature products. The breadth of styles represented will satisfy cider aficionados and newbies alike. One of the best meals we had on the trip was at the previously mentioned Le Caveau Restaurant at Domaine de Grand Pré, and their entrance displays the awards and recognition to back that up. The charcuterie, pork, rabbit and chocolate mousse plus a bottle produced on-site were all top notch. The following morning we also ate well at the B&B, where the house specialty french toast was amazing.

L to R: Annapolis Cider, Le Caveau Rabbit, Olde Lantern Inn french toast.

Just over the hill, the Landscape of Grand Pré World Heritage Site that celebrates Acadian culture in the region from its beginnings as a French colony through their expulsion from Nova Scotia by the British, all the way to their present-day diaspora. Within a couple generations of arriving in North America, the Acadians had become a distinct culture, self-identifying with the land and forming ways of life separate from France. The particular landscape of Grand-Pré is special because of how colonists ingeniously used a system of dike walls and valves to hold back the Bay of Fundy tides and make use of the rich marshland soil. They lived here peacefully for decades by farming, having good relations with the Mi’kmaq natives and remaining neutral in conflicts of European powers.

When the British seized Annapolis Royal and peninsular Nova Scotia in 1713, the king demanded they pledge loyalty to the crown, but that would have put them in opposition of their Mi’kmaq friends and French ancestors, so many stayed and pledged neutrality instead. Between 1755 and 1763, cornered by the demands of their land’s new government and still unwilling to be loyal, they were expelled from Nova Scotia in a series of deportations called the Grand Dérangement. Acadians were insensitively scattered to other North American colonies where it was hoped they would assimilate and reduce the threat of future opposition. Some settled permanently in other regions like Louisiana, where they formed the Cajun ethnic group, but many others eventually returned to their homeland in the Maritimes after tensions eased in 1764. Against all odds, their unique culture survived and remains vibrant to this day as evidenced by the Acadian flags we saw flying proudly all over Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Maine. Our next leg of travel would take us deep into Nova Scotia’s Scottish realm, but we hadn’t seen the last of Acadian culture.

The Landscape of Grand Pré from the viewpoint on Old Post Road.

Up Next: Cape Breton Island
Previously: Nova Scotia – Digby to Keji
Previously: In & Around Bethel, Maine
Previously: Chicago to Maine

See the full gallery of images from the trip.

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Travelogue Nova Scotia: Digby to Kejimkujik

July 22-24, 2017
As we drove across the Midwest on the first day of the trip, Nick received a call from Bay Ferries in Nova Scotia. They were informing us that due to maintenance requirements, the ferry we had booked from Portland, Maine to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia on July 22nd was cancelled. Departing Maine a day earlier or later than planned would have negatively impacted our plans and cost us an extra night of lodging on either end. This briefly threw our plans into question, but luckily they gave us 10 days notice so we were able to come up with alternate arrangements. After some schedule searching we found availability on another of their routes that connects St. John, New Brunswick with Digby, Nova Scotia. The only problem is that our planned 90-minute drive to Portland followed by a relaxing 7-hour boat ride turned into a 6:00am departure from Bethel plus a long 5-hour drive and a shorter 2-hour ferry crossing. We were also transporting Nick’s parents to Nova Scotia, so the trunk was full and luggage was stacked to the ceiling in the center back seat. Not ideal, but we made it work. (They were getting their own car in Nova Scotia and touring the province at their own pace, so the crowding was only temporary.) We visited our first Tim Hortons franchise in Bangor, Maine before we even touched Canadian soil, and headed through rolling forests toward the crossing at Calais/Saint Stephen. The Canadian border agent was slightly confused by the combination of passport nationalities and last names in the car, eventually saying “Wait … just tell me how you’re all related.”

All aboard the Fundy Rose, ship food, tallest wooden church in North America.

Just over an hour later, we were lined up to roll on board the 124 meter (400ft) Fundy Rose. She can carry 774 passengers, has free WiFi, two movie lounges and free panoramic views of the Bay of Fundy. We naturally started in the cafe to have some lunch (lobster rolls, poutine and Moosehead beer) and then settled in the lounge area where a girl was playing celtic tunes on a fiddle to raise funds for a trip to Ireland, perfect mood music. Two hours later the rocky shore of Nova Scotia crept into view, and soon we were entering the Annapolis Basin and pulling up to the Digby Ferry Terminal.

Yarmouth was still about 100 kilometers to the southwest, so we drove the scenic Evangeline Trail that hugs the coast instead of the main highway. Along the way stands the Église Sainte Marie, the tallest wooden church in North America, which is the most notable landmark on the way. Yarmouth itself has a charming Main Street and picturesque harbor. Our lodging was just north of the center of town at the Lakelawn Motel and B&B. This extremely well-kept establishment contains bed and breakfast rooms in the historic main house, plus motel rooms in the side wings. A nice continental breakfast was included the next morning. That evening we went downtown to Rudders Seafood Restaurant and Brewpub for dinner on the waterfront. There was a live band, good house-brewed beers and a wide menu featuring some traditional Nova Scotian fare.

One of Yarmouth’s most popular destinations is the Cape Forchu Lightstation Museum, the site of a lighthouse since 1840. The busy harbor and frequency of shipwrecks created the necessity for a string of lighthouses along the southwestern Nova Scotia coast. The current light dates from 1962 and is a distinctive, concrete “applecore” style lighthouse. The old keeper’s dwelling displays area historical information and artifacts. Working on the ocean is still a major way of life here, and can be best witnessed by watching the boats head out into the ocean for the opening of lobster season on “Dumping Day,” held in late November each year. Forty percent of Canada’s lobster catch comes from the rich waters in this region. At the very tip of the cape just beyond the lighthouse lies Leif Erikson Park where a short, half kilometer walking trail winds through rugged rocks that frame postcard views of the water and lighthouse. The park is named after Erikson because a runic stone found in the area is speculated to have been carved by Norse visitors hundreds of years ago. Whether or not the Norsemen visited this lovely spot, it was just the first of many spectacular viewpoints in Nova Scotia.

Leif Erikson Park just beyond the Cape Forchu Lighthouse

Passing back through Yarmouth, we stopped at the trendy Sip Cafe for beverages and to pick up a sandwich we planned to eat at our next stopping point an hour down the road. Our trips frequently feature a lot of local beer, which can be seen in this post. One that caught our eye early in planning was Boxing Rock Brewing right along our route in Shelburne. It turned out to be one of our favorite breweries of the whole trip. Housed in a quaint wood-sided building surrounded by trees, they produce some truly delicious and unique brews. We each selected a flight of five and enjoyed them at a picnic table under the sun with the sandwiches we bought in Yarmouth. Afterwards we returned to the bartenders to buy big to-go bottles to drink that evening at our campsite in the first Canadian national park of our trip.

Kejimkujik National Park (known usually as Keji for pronunciation purposes) contains two sections, the main portion in the remote interior of Nova Scotia and the smaller Seaside Adjunct section about 90 minutes to the south. We approached the seaside section first, so planned to make a quick visit. This section protects beaches, bogs, and lagoons, along with an abundance of coastal wildlife. There isn’t a visitor center at this outpost, but there are some nice trails that lead a few kilometers to the shoreline. Nearing the end of the Harbour Rocks Trail, a stunning view of tranquil, turquoise water and sandy beaches spread out before us. Just off shore, seals relaxed on rocks jutting out of the water. We were glad we didn’t skip this section of the park.

View of the Atlantic from the end of the Harbour Rocks Trail at Kejimkujik Seaside.

Continuing on, we made a left onto Highway 8 at Liverpool and headed into the center of Nova Scotia. It’s here that it becomes apparent that most settlements in the province are located on the coast while the interior is largely wild. The main portion of Keji is a 381 square kilometer area of thick forests and numerous linked waterways. It is probably best known as a site for fantastic canoeing and backcountry camping opportunities. Its charms were immortalized in the 1908 book The Tent Dwellers, by Albert Bigelow Paine, in which he documents a two week trout fishing excursion into the wild. It’s a good read for anyone planning to visit, as its colorful descriptions of the landscape are still accurate more than 100 years later.

Welcome to Campsite 1.

We were intent on experiencing Keji in an authentic way, so we reserved a backcountry campsite back in January of 2017 when the reservation books opened. There are some really cool canoe-only access sites located on islands in Kejimkujik Lake, but they were booked immediately, so we selected a site in the northeastern section of the park. Ours was Campsite #1, just a kilometer walk from the Big Dam parking area. It was easy to get to but still nearly a kilometer from the nearest other campers, giving it the secluded feel we were looking for. There are 46 backcountry sites to choose from along more than 100 kilometers of trails, so it’s possible to hike deep into the woods and not see another human for days if that’s what gets you going. We found all Parks Canada campsites to be very well maintained. Each Keji site is equipped with a couple possible tent spots, a fire box, cut firewood supply, private pit toilet and a pulley system for hoisting supplies into the trees for bear avoidance purposes. Site 1 sits right along Big Dam Lake, so we had some waterfront property for lounging with our Boxing Rock beers after setting up the tent. Keji’s status as an International Dark Sky Park meant that as the sun dipped below the horizon, millions of stars appeared above. The light show was doubled by their reflection in the completely still water, a truly stunning sight.

Starlight replacing sunlight from our campsite on the shore of Big Dam Lake.

With the loss of the last bit of sunlight, we retreated to the glow of our fire. The utter silence became apparent and we started to notice every slight rustle of leaves around us, convinced that it was an animal paying a visit. At one point Nick caused brief panic by saying “What the HELL was that?! Something just walked by!!” I responded by shining my phone flashlight in the general direction and aggressively throwing a wood chip into the trees. It was probably a tiny squirrel moving on the ground … clearly we were not yet at one with nature. Throughout the night, various crazy noises kept us from achieving deep sleep. Loons are the major culprit here, as their vocal stylings can result in sounds not at all associated with birds. One was wailing an intermittent lonely wolfish cry throughout the night. Then at 3:30 am, two loons decided to have a loud conversation across the lake that sounded like monkeys screeching at each other. Our assessment is that loons are basically idiots. When daylight finally returned we decided that while true backcountry camping is fun, we do generally like being somewhat near other campers. There’s a fine balance between being crowded next to families in a big campground and feeling completely alone in the dark. On a multi-day outing I think we could get accustomed to the wilderness. In the meantime, we had future campgrounds to test our theory.

Morning mist on Big Dam Lake.

Which way is up?

We retrieved our gear from its perch in the trees and prepared to start the day. One of the great pleasures of camping is camp stove coffee, which we enjoyed with our freeze dried “just add boiling water” biscuits and gravy from Mountain House. It’s shocking how good these meals taste, we highly recommend them for their ease of use and packable nature. With a lovely fog just skimming the surface of the lake, we packed up our site and trekked 20 minutes back to the parking area. Our next must-do in Keji was canoeing on Kejimkujik Lake, the largest body of water within park boundaries. Canoe and kayak rentals are available from Whynot Adventure at Jake’s Landing by the hour or day. We grabbed a double canoe and spent two hours paddling the waters around a cluster of islands a couple kilometers off shore. The waters are so dark it’s almost like canoeing on black ink. The stillness from the night before continued into the day so that the sky and trees were reflected in the water in a near perfect mirror image. Back on land, we returned to Highway 8 and pointed toward the northern Nova Scotia Shore and a former colonial capital.

Up Next: Nova Scotia – Annapolis Royal to Grand Pré
Previously: In & Around Bethel, Maine
Previously: Chicago to Maine

See the full gallery of images from the trip.

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Travelogue: In & Around Bethel, Maine

July 15-21, 2017
One of the determining factors for this summer’s route was Nick’s Dad’s 80th birthday celebration. The whole family descended upon Bethel, Maine from three continents for seven nights. Finding lodging to satisfy the needs of 14 is not an easy task, but after scouring listings on, the historic Bingham House mansion emerged as the best candidate. The house was large enough that every family got their own quarters and there was a variety of rooms to hang out. The enormous kitchen made it easy to cook for up to 16 people and the hot tub just off the back deck was a great place to relax under the stars after a day of hiking. The Bingham House is adjacent to the Bethel Inn Resort, so use of the pool and a lake house on nearby Songo Pond is included with the Bingham House rental.

The village of Bethel is located in western Maine, remote enough to be relaxing, but close enough to civilization that there’s never a shortage of activities. The permanent  population is only about 2,600, but tourism supports a larger shop and restaurant industry than you would expect. The area is a year-round destination, with the Sunday River ski resort just 15 minutes away. In summertime it is busy with people riding the gondola and mountain biking the slopes. We were particularly drawn to the area for Sunday River Brewing, a brewpub just off the main road to the resort. When we needed some away time, we headed there to enjoy a flight of eight beers, and when we needed a quick breakfast, we picked up a dozen of their famous fresh-baked donuts. The well-stocked local market in Bethel supplied everything we needed for cooking and when we felt like eating out, there were plenty of options.

Sunday River gondola, Sunday River Brewing, kayaking on Songo Pond.

One of the highlights of any vacation for us is hiking, and this region didn’t disappoint. There are trails of all lengths and for all abilities nearby. For the first hike of the trip, we chose a little warmup route to Bucks and Lapham Ledges just east of Bethel along highway 26. Mostly gentle grades with just a couple of steeper sections led us first to Bucks Ledge and then a spur trail to the south led to Lapham Ledge. Both feature rock outcrops with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and lakes. At 3.5 miles it was a good way to prepare for the longer hikes in our future.

Holding on tight on the way up to the Eyebrow.

The very next day we scouted out some more mountainous terrain a half hour north of Bethel at Grafton Notch State Park, one of Maine’s premier pieces of public land. This 3,129 acre park and adjacent Mahoosic Public Lands have a ton of hiking options, from mini loops just off the road up to a rugged 12-mile portion of the Appalachian Trail. We were looking for something in the 2-3 hour timeframe, so chose the 2.5-mile Eyebrow Loop. From the parking area, this trail first rises gently, but then climbs an extremely steep route up a mountain. Chains, metal rungs and ladders are anchored into the rock to assist the climb. It gains about 1,000 feet in just over a mile to the loop’s highest point. A point atop the exposed rock “eyebrow” gives a fantastic view down into Grafton Notch, with Old Speck Mountain rising to the right and Baldpate Mountain to the left. To complete the loop, we continued on the Eyebrow Trail a bit farther until it intersected the Appalachian Trail and followed that back down to the parking area. A stream with several small waterfalls and cascades flows alongside this portion of the trail.

If we’d been able to do a longer day hike, taking the Appalachian Trail to the summit of Old Speck, Maine’s fourth highest peak, would have been a great option. Instead, we joined the rest of the group to visit some of Grafton Notch’s more family-friendly sights. Just off the main road there are lots of things to see that require minimal walking. The best is Screw Auger Falls, where the Bear River has cut a narrow, twisting gorge through granite. The main drop is 23 feet high, and above and below are a series of smaller cascades. There is a lot of smooth, exposed rock for lounging and several people were wading in the cool water when we visited. It’s a great picnic spot as well. Just over a mile further north is Mother Walker Falls, where the Bear River tumbles over several small cascades at the bottom of a gorge. It’s not as impressive as Screw Auger, but worth a quick stop if you’re not in a hurry. Nearly back to the Appalachian Trail parking area is Moose Cave, a 0.4 mile loop through a mossy forest to a place where a slab of fallen granite has created a “cave” that the river flows through. This was a great one for the kids.

The rock area just above Screw Auger Falls at Grafton Notch State Park.

Our mid-week plans involved a day trip to nearby Mount Washington in New Hampshire. At 6,289 feet, its summit is the highest point in the northeastern United States and the most prominent (base to summit) east of the Mississippi River. The mountain is also famous for having some the most erratic and extreme weather on Earth due to the Presidential Range’s location at the convergence of several common storm tracks. The Mount Washington Observatory has been collecting climatic data from the summit since 1870, the first such station in the world. On April 12, 1934 instruments observed a wind speed of 231 miles per hour, which is still a record for straight line winds not associated with a tropical system. If you’ve ever seen videos of meteorologists being blown around, there’s a good chance they were on the observation platform on top of Mt. Washington. We planned an early arrival to have the best chance of having clear visibility as the summit is notoriously cloudy later in the day. The Mt. Washington Auto Road is just 40 minutes by car from Bethel. This route climbs 4,618 vertical feet to the summit over the course of 7.6 miles of twisting asphalt and can be driven in private vehicles for a fee. Upon arrival at the summit, it was much cooler and windier, with some fast-moving clouds just skimming the top. By the time we browsed the museum and assorted buildings, the clouds had blown away and we had a perfect, sunny day with views extending 100 miles in all directions. Another popular option for reaching the summit is the Mt. Washington Cog Railway, which makes a three mile ascent up the opposite (western) face of the mountain. Colorful trains carrying hundreds of visitors arrived and departed constantly during our visit.

View from the top of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail on Mount Washington, NH.

By far our most serious hike in the Bethel region was here at Mt. Washington. We parked our car at Pinkham Notch and hitched a ride to the top with others in our group since we planned to hike down via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Many miles of hiking trails crisscross the slopes of Mt. Washington, so there’s no shortage of options. Tuckerman Ravine is a convenient option for a day hike since both ends are easily accessible. The trail starts right from the parking lot at the summit and crosses a boulder field for about the first half mile. Cairns mark the way across large, craggy rocks and down a steep decline. This portion was fairly crowded because lots of people hike down just a short distance and then climb back to the top. By the time we got to Tuckerman Crossover, we had lost most of the crowd and were beginning to meet people who had started at the base earlier in the day. Seeing their expressions reaffirmed our decision to only hike down and not up.

Looking down Tuckerman Ravine. “This is the high-fatality part.”

A little further along, we arrived at the lip of Tuckerman Ravine, a yawning, U-shaped valley of rocks and trees. The slope went from steep to nearly vertical. Nick commented “This is the high-fatality part,” referring to the sign at the museum that marked all deaths on Mt Washington. For a half hour, we made our way down with waterfalls splashing down the rocks adjacent to the trail. Nick had one minor slip and was nearly taken out by a falling rock knocked loose from a girl above, and we saw a man with blood running down his leg, so there are definitely hazards. Nearing the lower portion of the ravine, the trail flattens out to a reasonable slope and passes through beautiful evergreen forests before arriving at the Hermit Lake Shelter at mile two. Checking our watches, we realized we’d left almost exactly two hours prior. One mile per hour is definitely not a hiking pace we’re accustomed to. While eating our packed lunch and resting our feet, we chatted with a few hikers traveling both directions, but we’d mostly achieved solitude on the busy mountain. The next two miles are less steep than the upper two, but it’s still a surface of large rocks that requires careful foot placement with each step. Approaching the home stretch, the 100ft Crystal Cascade can be viewed from a small rock overlook. The 50 steps to get up to it are worth it. In total, the hike covered 4.1 miles and descended an incredible 4,239 feet. That’s one of the most consistently steep hikes we’ve ever done. We also lucked out on having a completely clear, sunny day as we hiked.

Mt. Washington was the literal high point of the trip, but the highlights were just getting started as we departed Bethel and headed toward Canada.

Previously: Chicago to Maine
Up Next: Nova Scotia

See the full gallery of images from the trip.

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