The route to fossil hunting at Arisaig and Cape George’s ruggedly beautiful eastern coastline lies along Highways 245 and 337 between New Glasgow and Antigonish, via a 110-kilometer, two-hour drive. From Exit 27 east of New Glasgow, allow half a day to reach Antigonish, which is enough time to visit the sights.
Like many other places in Nova Scotia, Arisaig, 57 kilometers northeast of New Glasgow, is an unassuming place that is much more interesting than the casual visitor might imagine. The cliffs on the west side of the village tell the story of a 4-million-year period of life on earth 400 million years ago—one of the only places in the world where such a long period of time is exposed in a single layered cliff line.
Four hundred million years ago, this area was a shallow sea, and as the layers of sediment built up on its floor, brachiopods (shells), nautiloids (related to squid), trilobites (ancient crabs), crinoids (filter-feeders that attached themselves to the sea bed), and bryozoans (coral) were buried. As ocean levels dropped, cliffs were formed along the shoreline, and as erosion broke the sediment down further, fossils from the Silurian Period were exposed, perfectly preserved in bands of rock that represent specific time periods all those millions of years ago.
Added to the mix is the upper cliff face, which is topped with up to four meters of sand and gravel left behind when glaciers retreated across the area at the end of the last ice age. Geologists have studied the site since the mid-1800s, and as the erosion process continues and more fossils are uncovered, interest continues.
You can walk to the cliffs from the harbor at Arisaig, but the official access is from Arisaig Provincial Park, on the west side of the town. The advantage of using the park access is that there are interpretation panels beside the parking lot, which help visitors appreciate the geology down at sea level. From these panels, steps descend to the beach far below, from where it’s a short stroll westward along the beach to Arisaig Brook, where the largest concentration of fossils is found. It is illegal to dig at the cliff face, but scavenging through fallen rock is permitted.
At Malignant Cove, Highway 337 branches north from Highway 245 and climbs steadily before peaking at an elevation of 190 meters at Cape George. The setting is a bicyclist’s favorite scene and a just reward after the steep coastal climb. The panorama from the lighthouse at the cape’s tip takes in the manicured farmlands of the Pictou-Antigonish highlands to the south as well as the misty vision of Prince Edward Island across the strait.
Along Cape George’s eastern side, Highway 337 peels down from the peak alongside St. George’s Bay. Nestled below the cape is Ballantynes Cove. From the town wharf, a rough walking trail climbs back to the lighthouse. The 1.8-kilometer route takes less than an hour each way and makes reaching the cape more satisfying than simply driving to its summit.
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