For years, I have heard of a place in Northern Cape Breton Island that is home to wild horses along with moose, seals, bears and coywolves. When I turned 20, my mom and sisters and I drove up to Meat Cove – the most Northern tip of Nova Scotia to spend time with the cliffs and water. I dreamed of doing the long mythic hike with my family only to learn that it was a 2 day hike from there! The dream slowly faded away, just to reignite occasionally when I glimpsed what I really wanted in my life. Nature, connection and a union between body and spirit!
In June, Jamie and I decided to stay in Cape Breton for a week just to hike and detach from everything. Read books, listen to talk radio, make simple meals, sleep with tired bodies under a starry sky. Our plans for hiking were to go places that dogs were allowed and that we had never been before (Skyline Trail for instance, does not allow dogs and trust me there are Parks Canada employees all over the place at this very popular trail).
While browsing some blog posts about hiking in Cape Breton – we came across Pollett’s Cove – a 19 km (there & back again) hike to a cove of wild horses! The post discussed the difficulty level and advised camping over night, making it a 2 day trek. We started discussing seriously if we could do it in a day. Jamie and I have a record of really under estimating hikes. When we traveled to Ireland in 2017, wearing our jeans and regular shoes, we decided to hike up Croagh Patrick. Not even a water bottle on us, we began the ascent marveling at the view of the Clew Bay (seriously beautiful, definitely suggest getting up that mountain if you’re in County Mayo). Other hikers had walking sticks and decked out in full gear to climb the peak while we looked like we were going for a leisurely stroll! Once we got to the peak and you are literally climbing with rocks slipping out from under you and dozens of people around you trying the same thing – we were cursing our shoes and lack of water (we may have taken desperate measures with the water… lol). Anyway! Never will we not be prepared while hiking on mountains, even if we are coming back the same stretch.
So, we decided with some food, our pocket stove and some water we could do the 19km hike in a day. The sun was shining brightly, burning off the fog that continued to roll in off the Atlantic. After a breakfast, we drove out to Pleasant Bay, turned up the road that will take you up the coast rather than into the park. There are many cottages and homes along this road and it ends at the Gambo Buddhist Monastery. On a very bumpy dirt road, you will come to the parking lot for the trail. We read that a local who won the lottery bought the land to preserve it and keep it accessible to hikers (bless this very soul!). There are only 2 ways to reach the cove – you can charter a boat from Pleasant Bay or you can hike there.
There were 2 other vehicles parked. I love hiking in remote places, so this was extremely exciting for me! All this beautiful nature to explore and be one with! With our back packs and Henry on her leash (there are so many wild animals that you don’t really want to disturb them with a off leash dog which was tested on multiple occasions with Grouse protecting their young), we set off under the blazing sun – the mountains ahead were shrouded in a blanket of fog. The ocean and sky, a brilliant welcoming blue.
The trail is well marked – even though it’s not maintained in the same way that the park trails are (there are rivers to cross and fallen trees to bend under). At times it’s very narrow but never did we ever hesitate over where we were walking. The path took us along open areas, overlooking the ocean and then into the forest, to climb, up, up, up. It felt like a lifetime of climbing the steep mountain side. I love climbing because my mind focuses on the slow steady burning in my legs and my breath. It might sound strange, but it’s one of my favourite things. I feel a wholeness with my surroundings.
The 9 km in (I have read so many varying distances – some day it’s 20 k return, others 19, others 17 – so I’m not entirely sure!) took us over 2 mountains. One of these mountains had 2 peaks so it felt a lot more like 3 mountains. We counted the number of magical trickling streams – 7. There was one small rocky river that you have to cross. We actually took our shoes off. I’m use to hiking and wading through rivers to continue trails. At my Mom’s, there is a shallow river that we regularly cross. I normally just wear water shoes on the entire walk (it’s roughly an hour). I think this is why I underestimate hikes – when I think of myself wearing water shoes! The river on this walk that you cross is stunning! Walking through grassy pasture lands, you descend into this valley with a crystal clear river that empties into the vast ocean. I wouldn’t mind being the hermit and keeper of this river :D.
When we passed this river, we finally met up with one of the other hikers. He was heading back to the parking lot and told us about the horses, etc. Henry continued to bark and bark at him – she is extremely distrustful of camping packs! Any large inanimate object warrants a ferocious bark from our sweet girl – especially if it’s attached to someone’s back (whats hiding in there? – Can’t be good clearly).
The Forest was stunning. The further you get from accessible land, the more complete forests feel. Huge Maple and Birch trees covered the mountain sides. Trees that you rarely see reach that size due to human interference. It felt closer to what our East Coast forests should look and feel like rather than Conifers, Conifers everywhere.
The intensity of the hike and the length allows you to really just get lost in being present in the moment. Perhaps I shouldn’t refer to it as being lost because it’s the opposite – it’s a sense of your immediate environment and peace descending in your mind. We are lost when we’re addicted to our phones, social media and netflix. Our whole society thrives on us being lost.
When you finally reach the Cove – there is no question that this is your destination. After hiking through bush and dense conifers near the end you come out into a wide hillside pasture. Horses graze balanced between earth and water. The waves cut out a half moon beach and the clearest river divides the cove. We steered clear of the horses and decided to set up on some drift wood to make beans and coffee and just rest a little while before heading back. It only took us 2 – 2.5 hours to hike into the cove – really not that bad!
We spent a whole 2 hours sitting in the cove. We brought some fuel and a pocket stove – ate a can of beans, some trail mix and drank some black coffee. I knit the sweater that I was working on and we just rested while watching the horses. A mother horse and her foal were grazing near us, this was so special to see! I took my socks and shoes off and actually just lay down for a while. I could have fallen asleep and drifted further into the hills.
The campers started to pack up while we were sitting and hike the journey back. While they were crossing the river, we decided it would be a good time for us to explore the other side of the cove. So as they crossed, so did we. In the above photo, we hiked to the other side just looking at the views, imagining what life must have been like for the people who once lived there. We were startled by a very loud neighing of a horse (perhaps one in the photograph) and watched in amazement as it charged down the hill at the 4 hikers!! We both just stood there frozen watching as every horse (there were about 7 not counting the mom and the foal) in the cove charged at the hikers. They all grabbed sticks and looked genuinely frightened (I can’t really imagine, I love horses but if 7 wild horses were charging at me I think I would think this is the end) while the horses surrounded another who was lying down. The 4 hikers walked as far away from the horses as possible and left the cove. It was an amazing sight for us with a full view of the scene and incredibly moving to see that they were protecting the sick horse that was lying down very close to the hikers chosen path.
Now, I just dream and plan to go back! I would love to do what the campers did. We spoke to them on the trek back (all while Henry barked at their packs relentlessly) and learned they stayed in the cove, camping for 2 nights.
The walk back really wasn’t that bad and felt shorter than the trek in. As I lay in bed that night, my legs were burning but what hurt more was my upper back from my heavy backpack (yes, I did need to bring my knitting and a heavy camera that I didn’t even use! ). I was surprised though because, hiking the next day in Clyburn Valley and I felt completely alive and well!
During our research, we came across this website https://www.seawalltrail.com/ I am so hopeful that we can do this trial in the near future. I hope that this may inspire you to just google Pollett’s Cove or Cape Breton Island. It’s a beautiful piece of this planet and one that I personally feel so honoured that I can tread on.
Thank you so much for joining us for this trek, Peace!
**Update September 2019**
A local hiker found his way on this blog and left some very insightful comments that I felt the need to add to clear up any misgivings about the horses at the cove as well as the difficulty after Hurricane Dorian, Thanks so much Peter!:
21 thoughts on “Hiking Pollett’s Cove, Cape Breton Island”
Spectacular & Awesome, Julia! This is the kind of hiking 🥾 and countryside I love to explore. I’ve ALWAYS wanted to travel to cape Breton. It might be the next place for my husband and I to travel to. (Iceland is the big one for us this year) Thank you for taking us on this trek and sharing all the wonderful photos. Wild horses 🐴 – I didn’t realize you had them in Canada! Blessings, my kindred spirit!
You will come to Cape Breton and hike these trails, I am sure of it! But in the meantime, I am sure there are such beautiful spots in upstate New York! When I was little, we use to camp in the Adirondack Mountains. I loved it there so much and really hope to be able to do some hiking as an adult!
Can’t wait to hear about Iceland ❤ ❤
Yes, the Adirondacks are gorgeous. They stole my heart ❤️ as a little child when my parents would take us camping there and have remained important to me throughout my life. We have traveled there every year for the past few years but haven’t done so yet.l this year. But, I’ll be in the Catskill Mountains in October at an herbal retreat weekend. I’m SO excited – herbs, medicine making, ceremony, water blessing, song, etc. It promises to be a transformative experience! I’m taking my time with the letter – there is so much I wish to write you. So much that I know you will understand. It may be more of a little book by the time I finish and post it!
Thank you for sharing your magickal hike. It sounds and looks amazing! I know the feeling of getting “lost” in the journey and just be one with nature – might just be the very best feeling I know of.. after love, of course 💕
I wonder, if the horse lying down might have been in labour, I have heard of horses protecting a mare in labour just as you described. Must have been quite frigtening for the hikers!
Here in Denmark there is a very tiny, privately owned Island near the Isle of Møn. The tiny Island is called Tærø and back in 1964, 25 wild Exmoor ponies were released on the island as and experiment. When I lived on Møn 10 years ago, I used to dream of owning Tærø just to live close to the wild ponies. 🐴
Hope you had a lovely birthday!
We had the very same thought – that perhaps the mare was in labour. It was quite honestly an amazing thing to witness – the horses racing down the mountain side to create a circle around this one resting horse. I am hopeful that it was rather than our other thought that maybe it was sick (especially with your input – I’m glad to hear that that is what horses do for their vulnerable).
I love to hear about these islands! We have a very, very similar story here in Nova Scotia. There is a thin crescent island off the coast called Sable Island – it hosts many wild horses! Sable Island has a history of countless shipwrecks so the belief is that they came to the island from wrecks back in the 18th or 19th century! It’s another belief that during the Acadian Expulsion (1700s) the horses of the Acadian people were just dropped off and left there. It’s hard to say exactly where they came from but it looks like a beautiful, beautiful place with such a violent history of wrecks.
Thanks so much for some Danish history <3! And of course the birthday wishes!
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Just discovered your beautiful blog! Thanks for taking us along for the hike! Absolutely gorgeous country. Have never heard of Cape Breton but looks like a place I would enjoy. Also the horses charging the hikers would have terrified me too!
Thank you so much Elise!
I’m so happy to hear that Cape Breton interests you! It’s not too surprising to me that you have never heard from it – it’s a pretty small place with a small population. But it’s a living gem!
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Just discovered your blog and it’s truly beautiful! So glad you haven’t resorted to Instagram shorthand – please don’t! I am charmed by both your simple, creative, purposeful life, and the joy you take in living it that way. You are a Buddha – stay enlightened…
Thank you so much! I have had a really strange year so haven’t posted much, but will hopefully get right back around to it this fall! Honestly, this sentiment makes me very happy and reassures me that this is my path! Sometimes I long to just get rid of my smart phone and only blog, there is something so much more therapeutic in both writing and reading.
Thank you ❤
ohhhhhhh…..i want to do this soooo bad! 🙂 and you have just intensified by longing! 🙂
Awesome! Hope you get to!! ❤
We just passed through Cape Breton. This hike was on our list to do, but at the last minute, we changed our minds. Now I’m sad we missed it. Thanks for the post and the photos!
You can save it for next time!! I think it’s good to do a bit of planning before this one, so next time you will be ready and know what to expect 😀 Hope you get to come back and enjoyed your time in CB!
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I am a native Cape Bretoner ; my people come from Dunvagen which is a short distance from Pleasant Bay where the Polletts Cove trail begins . Thank you for capturing the beauty of this , my favourite hike on Cape Breton Island .
I just returned on Sunday from 3 days hiking and camping in The Highlands with my trusty Blue Heeler , Mr Boidheachd where again we got to spend one night in Polletts Cove .
I would like to caution that this trail is becoming more of a challenge owing to time and usage . we had a hurricane ( Dorian ) a week ago and it left two spot in particular sketchy ; hiking up out of Otter Brook is bad as well as getting down into Otter Brook on the return trip . Be Careful .
The horses are not in fact wild . They are taken in at Spring time and removed in the late fall .They are however little thieves , taking anything they can lift from your pack hahaha.
I will be 68 on my next birthday and I hope to still be hiking to Pollets for many years to come .
Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving a comment. It has not only so much useful information for potential hikers, that I think I’ll add your info to my original post 🙂 I hope that is okay with you.
How lucky you are that you get to regularly hike in Cape Breton Island. I long for the day I can have a tiny cabin in the highlands so that hiking is much more easily accessible. Where else did you go on your 3 day hike?
Thanks so much for sharing your story! These are the type of comments that make me come back to blogging 🙂 Thank you!
Hears to you hiking Pollet’s Cove for many years to come 🙂
This is incorrect information that keeps getting past around. The horses are indeed free roaming but they are not taken in and out every Spring and Fall, that is the Money Point horses that often get confused with the lore of Pollets horses. It would be an impossible trek for 7-9 horses at once, and no one is making that hike that many times in a row, nor would these horses be on a boat. The horses move up into the valley for shelter in the winter season then come back. Heard many versions of their origin story but the in and out thing every year is not accurate. If someone has proof and I’m wrong then by all means let me know. Correct about Dorian and worse than Dorian is the garbage people are leaving behind and the tent city parties that happen on the beach. The area needs to be protected. Cheers.
Thanks for the correction Phil, I was wondering how that would work with the horses, seemed a little far fetched.
We just hiked and camped at Fishing Cove nearby. It was so beautiful and very clean because of the national park status. It’s really unfortunate how much garbage gets left behind in Pollett’s Cove – it’s strange you would think that people willing to do that hike and be close to nature would have the decency to take their trash back out with them.
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My grandmother and her family grew up in Pollet’s Cove. I grew up hearing the stories of her life there and have always wanted to go see it. Her maiden name was Katherine Moore and she was the oldest of 10 children.
Thank you so much Susan for sharing your story! That is Amazing, she actually grew up in the cove itself? I think I rememeber hearing that there were once houses – it’s a very remote place and just so incredibly beautiful.
I hope you get to visit it some day ❤
What a beautiful experience! We are headed to Cape Breton this summer and hope to hike into Pollet cove one of the days. We’ll be there a week. Love your photos and your writing style!