A Guide to Cruising the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia

As we drove onto Cape Breton Island, I didn’t know what to expect. I had heard about how beautiful it was, but I wondered if the actual place would live up to the hype. Two days later, I drove away from Cape Breton Island convinced it was the most breathtakingly beautiful place in all of Canada.

Cape Breton Island is part of the province of Nova Scotia, and its residents can be grouped into five main cultures; Scottish, Mi’kmaq, Acadian, Irish, and English. Culturally, it’s a very unique place, and geographically, it’s where the highlands and mountains meet the sea on Canada’s East Coast. There’s hiking, cycling, golfing, camping, swimming, kayaking and much, much more to do and explore on Cape Breton Island, and it’s all accessible thanks to a roadway that encircles the highlands of the island called the Cabot Trail.

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The Cabot Trail winds along the coastline, and brings you through Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The Cabot Trail is unquestionably one of the most scenic drives on the planet, but it’s also much more than just a drive. To truly experience the splendour of the Cabot Trail, you’ll need to venture off the main road onto spectacular hiking trails, and off the beaten track into colourful fishing villages.

Map of the Cabot Trail
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Map courtesy of capebretonisland.com

How to Drive the Cabot Trail

There are many different strategies of how best to drive this scenic roadway. We took one full day, and two nights to explore the trail and everything is has to offer. We both agree now we should have given the trail more time – something more like 2-3 days. We drove up through Sydney, Nova Scotia, starting our adventure on the West coast of the island and looping around to the East coast. You could, of course, do the opposite.

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Where to Stay

For the best Cabot Trail experience, I suggest camping in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. There are six front country campgrounds and one backcountry campground to choose from –  some of these sites are located on the West Coast, some to the North, and some on the East Coast. We stayed our first night on the West coast of the island at Broad Cove Campground. Looking back now, we should have stayed here for three nights. Situated between lush forest and a long, sandy beach on the Atlantic Ocean, Broad Cove was the most beautiful campground we stayed at on our entire East Coast journey. There’s lots to do close to this campsite as well, including exploring the nearby hiking trails and spending a day at nearby Ingonish Beach.

Our second night, we spent at Chéticamp Campground, nestled in the Chéticamp River valley amongst the river and mountains. This was a nice campground as well, but nothing in comparison to Broad Cove on the East coast.

Map of Campgrounds in Cape Breton Highlands National Park
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Map courtesy of capebretonisland.com

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The Beach at Broad Cove Campground

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Our Campsite at Cheticamp.

There are also small inns and bed and breakfasts scattered throughout the Cabot Trail and it’s small fishing villages that you could explore if camping isn’t your cup of tea. For those feeling the desire to splurge, there is the Keltic Lodge at the Highlands on the West Coast. Prince William & The Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, stayed here during their tour of the East Coast. It’s a beautiful, Scottish-style lodge, complete with wonderful dining, a spa, and a gold course.

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Keltic Lodge at the Highlands. Photo courtesy of kelticlodge.ca

The Highlights & Things to Do

Bring your hiking shoes and explore the 26 scenic trails, from easy forested walks to sloping coastal hikes in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Enjoy an outdoor picnic or experience the local culture in the fishing villages that dot the park’s edges. There are sandy beaches and plenty of ocean and freshwater swimming. Enjoy cycling, ocean kayaking, camping, golfing, and fishing; you might even see minke and humpback whales breaching off shore, wild moose grazing on one of the scenic trails or friendly seals bobbing in the surf.

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Driving over the Smokey Mountain: The Smokey Mountain is a beautiful high mountain point on the West coast of the island, close to Ingonish, where the driving, and the views are incredible. There are steep switch-back roads, and you drive at such a high elevation you feel like you can almost touch the clouds… hence the name Smokey. The Smokey Mountain is surrounded by Cape Smokey Provincial Park on the outskirts of Cape Breton Highlands National Park, and is a popular rest stop and lookout for visitors to the Cabot Trail and the Cape Breton Highlands National Park area.

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Looking back from the top of the Smokey Mountain

Middle Head Trail Hike: On our first morning, we hiked the Middle Head Trail. The trail follows a long, narrow peninsula separating two ocean bays, ending on cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Cape Smokey and Ingonish Island. The hike takes about 2 hours in total, and starts behind Keltic Lodge at the Highlands, so you also have the chance to see this beautiful resort hotel. There are lots of lookouts, and the terrain is mostly level with just a few short climbs and rocky sections. At the edge of the trail, as the sun shone down, we sat and watched a seal surf through the soft waves. It was a wonderful, beginner trail, and a great way to start our first day.

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Skyline Trail Hike: The Skyline Trail is one of the most famous hiking trails on the whole of the Cabot Trail. It’s an almost 10km hike in total, and the lookout is a dramatic headland cliff overlooking the picturesque coast. You can also enjoy an eagle’s view of the Cabot Trail as it winds its way down the mountain – as you stand on the edge looking out, you almost feel like a giant, and all the vehicles look like toys. The terrain is fairly level, but make sure you have good walking shoes. There’s also a great opportunity to see wildlife on this trail. During our hike, we saw wild moose (Yes… WILD MOOSE) multiple times on the trail. It was incredible! This trail was the highlight of our time spent on the Cabot Trail, and an absolute must-do!

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A wild moose on the Skyline Trail

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Forest lookout

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Our view from the headland cliff of the Skyline Trail

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Other popular trails in Cape Breton Island National Park are Broad Cove Mountain, MacIntosh Brook, Fishing Cove, Benjie’s Lake, and Salmon Pools.

Cabot Trail Tips

  • In keeping with the Gaelic/Scottish theme of the highlands, there is a whisky distillery on Cape Breton Island as well – the Glenora Distillery. They have tours and tastings available, and also operate an inn onsite, so you can stay overnight and indulge.
  • The hours at grocery stores and pharmacies can be spotty – it’s best to plan on not finding food or supplies on the trail, and instead bringing your own – camping style. Food-wise, we weren’t as prepared as we should have been on our camping adventure. On our second night, a family-size can of beeferoni (given to us somewhat as a joke) ended up saving our life!
  • You can drive around the whole trail in one day and not stay over, but where’s the fun in that?!
  • Scott’s Cabot Trail tip is drive a fast car… it’s way more fun that way!

Cape Breton Island and the Cabot Trail is a outdoor lovers paradise, but it’s also a place for visitors like me, who aren’t crazy outdoorsy, but enjoy getting away and experiencing natural landscapes and appreciating what the world has to offer. It’s a beautiful pristine Canadian treasure, and a must-visit for anyone and everyone visiting Canada’s East Coast!

*all photos and opinions are my own unless otherwise noted.

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