Cape Breton Highlands National Park, the first national park in the Maritimes, situated in the northern section of Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island, preserves 950 square kilometres of wilderness. Almost half of the Cabot Trail, completed just four years before the opening of the park, encompasses it on three sides. On the western edge, the rugged coastline is exposed to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, while the eastern shores that slope more gently to the Atlantic Ocean curve to form more hospitable little coves and bays. The landscape abounds with diverse plant life and wildlife: 229 categories of birds, several rare animal species and marine mammals that can be seen from shore. Once the sole domain of the Micmac people, the island shows many influences of the Acadian, Scottish and French settlers and pioneers whose descendants still constitute a large proportion of the population.
Originally, the Micmac fished along the Gulf at Ingonish, and there are some historical references to Norsemen landing on the shores of Cape Breton in the 10th century. John Cabot reputedly made his first landfall in the New World at Aspy Bay off the east coast of Cape Breton in 1497. In 1521 we know that Portuguese fishermen camped on the Atlantic side. Early settlement at major centres such as Louisbourg, Sydney and Ingonish were fishing communities.