Ultimate Cabot Trail Guide (+23 Epic Things to Do)
Ready to discover all the things to do on the Cabot Trail? Plan your trip with this comprehensive guide – and be sure to bookmark it for later.
The Cabot Trail is located on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, where people speak of ceilidhs and buildings have signs with Gaelic words I can’t pronounce, such as Fáilte and a’bhrog dhearg (fortunately for those of us who don’t speak Gaelic, most of these buildings also have English!).
Cape Breton has an artist soul and plenty of natural beauty. It’s part of a region in southeastern Canada called the Maritimes, which includes Prince Edward Island and all of Nova Scotia (both of which were named among the top 5 places to travel in 2020 by in the Travel Lemming Reader Awards!).
Are you sold yet?
I hope so, and I’m going to give you all the details you need to take one of the most beautiful road trips of your life. Cue up your favorite driving tunes and I’ll share everything that you need to know to drive the beautiful Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island!
There’s a lot to cover in this guide, so use this table of contents to skip around:
Table of Contents
- What is the Cabot Trail?
- How Long Does it Take to Drive the Cabot Trail?
- Getting to Cape Breton & The Cabot Trail
- Where to Rent a Car or Motorhome
- When to Visit Cape Breton Island
- Cabot Trail Map
- 23 Things to Do on the Cabot Trail
- #1 – Eat your Weight in Seafood
- #2 – Hike or Ski Cape Smokey
- #3 – Stop to Eat Pannekoek at this Local Favorite
- #4 – Play a Round of Golf at Highland Links
- #5 – Enjoy a Drink and Local Music at Keltic Lodge Highlands Sitting Room
- #6 – Enjoy a Lobster Roll Picnic by the Turquoise Water at Ingonish Beach
- #7 – Explore the Beach and Waterfall at Black Brook Cove Beach
- #8 – Have an Ice Cream Cone and Take Photos at Neil’s Harbour Lighthouse
- #9 – Hike to White Point for Stunning 360 Degree Views
- #10 – Get Off The Beaten Path at Meat Cove
- #11 – Have a Bowl of Seafood Chowder with Crazy Views
- #12 – Go Chasing Waterfalls
- #13 – Eat your Dinner While Watching the Sunset Over the Ocean
- #14 – Hike Highlands National Park’s Most Famous Trail
- #15 – Find Serenity in the Forest along a Mountain Stream
- #16 – Get your Camera out for Stunning Gypsum Mine Lake
- #17 – Go Whale Watching on a Zodiac Boat
- #18 – Get Cultured with Celtic Music and Dance at Doryman Pub in Chéticamp
- #19 – Take the Macintosh Brook Hike
- #20 – Eat Really Fresh Lobster
- #21 – Snag a Sunshiney Table at Island’s Cutest Coffee Shop & Bakery
- #22 – Take a Last-Minute Detour for A Local Favorite
- #23 – Celebrate with a Pint at Big Spruce Brewing
- 12 Best Places to Stay on the Cabot Trail
- East Side Accommodations
- North Side Accommodations
- West Side Accommodations
Got your road trip music on now? Alright, here we go.
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What is the Cabot Trail?
Canadians grow up hearing the Cabot Trail referenced as one of the most beautiful places to visit in Canada. Once you visit, it is easy to understand why it tops most people’s list of things to do in Nova Scotia.
The Cabot Trail is a 185 mile loop of jaw-dropping beauty in the northern part of Cape Breton Island (roughly two-thirds of the Cabot Trail is Atlantic coastline). The drive passes through Canada’s Cape Breton Highlands National Park as well as a number of lovely fishing villages.
Though I am here in the low season, I can attest to the beauty of the Cabot Trail. It’s full of stunning mountain & ocean vistas as well as charming architecture and quaint cafes. It’s not every destination that can claim waterfalls, beaches, mountains, evergreens, great fall colors, great seafood, whales, Celtic culture, and charming architecture. With so much to do, it makes for the perfect Nova Scotia road trip destination.
I personally find any place impressive that is equally beautiful in the summer and winter. Thanks to David (Knotty Pines), Bricin (Highlands Hostel), Stephane (Blue Bayou Resort) and Sylvia (Cabot Shores), you get to see some photos of other seasons than winter!
So, at this point, maybe you are wondering what’s the time commitment involved for this trip?
How Long Does it Take to Drive the Cabot Trail?
It is actually possible to drive the Cabot Trail in a day, but I deeply discourage it. Part of what’s great about this island is the relaxed pace of life. Also, there is such a stunning beauty here that I find it hard to absorb, even with months to try.
Take your time on the Cabot Trail. It will get under your skin, in the best possible way, and you will be better for it. The Cabot Trail makes the perfect 5-7 day road trip, and you can easily campground-hop with a motorhome or tent.
Alternatively, you could make your way around the loop staying in unique accommodations including yurts, geodomes, and cabins perched on cliffs overlooking the sea.
Whatever you choose, you will have a couple options for getting to the Cabot Trail.
Getting to Cape Breton & The Cabot Trail
The most convenient airport to the Cabot Trail is the Sydney, Nova Scotia airport (YQY). From this airport you can drive just shy of an hour to get to the Englishtown Ferry, the closest point on the trail to Sydney.
While Sydney is the most convenient airport to the trail, it’s not necessarily the easiest or cheapest airport to fly into. It’s not an international airport, so you would be coming in from Toronto, Halifax or Montreal.
Halifax airport (YHZ) is quite a bit farther from the trail, a 3 hour drive from the town of Baddeck on the eastern part of the loop. The benefit of flying into Halifax, Canada is that it’s an international airport, will have more car rental options, and plane tickets are generally cheaper. And, of course, you’ll have a chance to check out all the many incredible things to do in Halifax Nova Scotia!
Regardless of where you fly in, Nova Scotia is a beautiful & friendly place and any drive to the Cabot Trail is sure to be scenic of its own accord.
One option for arriving at the Cabot Trail from Sydney is taking the seasonal Englishtown Ferry across an ocean inlet, which is a brief ride of less than 5 minutes that cuts out 30 minutes of driving. It costs $7 CAD.
If you are coming from Halifax, you will have the option to take the ferry after you have already been driving on the trail. Be aware that motorhomes cannot take the ferry.
Where to Rent a Car or Motorhome
If you are looking to rent a motorhome, you can use use Motorhome Republic to compare rental options from many different companies. Especially if you fly into Halifax airport, you should find plenty of options.
A Class B motorhome would be preferable for the best experience on Cape Breton, due to the fact that there are campgrounds and roads that will be harder to access in a Class C.
That said, if you are in a Class C, just confirm that the campgrounds have what you need ahead of time.
When to Visit Cape Breton Island
As a whole, Cape Breton, Canada is an extremely seasonal place. I am currently sitting in one of the few cafes open this time of year; I drove 25 minutes to get here and it closes at 3 pm. While I am living in a town with a darling bakery and a famous pub, neither one of them will be open during the months I live here!
There is a definite charm to being here in the winter, though, as it is achingly beautiful and delightfully low-key during this season.
Still, most people will probably want to come during the months of June to October as you will find everything open, beautiful weather, and dry roads.
Cape Bretoners rave about fall on the Cabot Trail, and it’s not hard to see why. While the island has plentiful evergreens that make the winter beautiful, the colors in fall are unmatched.
Whenever you come, you will not have to search for incredible views. In my experience, I have to regularly restrain myself from pulling over for photos because otherwise I would never get where I’m going.
Cabot Trail Map
Here’s a map of the island and the trail to give you the lay of the land. I will be laying out the road trip by starting on the east side of the Cabot Trail around Baddeck and heading toward Cape North, west to Chéticamp, and finishing the loop by heading south through Margaree Valley back to Baddeck.
23 Things to Do on the Cabot Trail
#1 – Eat your Weight in Seafood
Kick off your trip at Baddeck Lobster Suppers with an incredible seafood feast at this beautifully located restaurant on the water. Recommended: Lobster (obviously) and Snow Crab.
#2 – Hike or Ski Cape Smokey
Cape Smokey Provincial Park is a great place for a picnic and taking in the sweeping coastal views in the summer and for skiing in the winter.
#3 – Stop to Eat Pannekoek at this Local Favorite
Grab breakfast or lunch at The Dancing Moose Cafe. Their specialty is Dutch Pannenkoek which are available in sweet and savory varieties.
#4 – Play a Round of Golf at Highland Links
While I don’t play, I would be remiss not to mention golf as an activity option for your road trip because the courses on Cape Breton are regularly awarded as some of the most scenic in the world. Highland Links is the course specifically on the Cabot Trail and if you are a golfer, you won’t want to miss it.
👉 Pro Tip: This location is the first on the list officially within Highlands National Park. Because this part of the Cabot Trail is in the park, you will need a daily pass displayed in your car from this point on in order to stop at many locations along the way.
#5 – Enjoy a Drink and Local Music at Keltic Lodge Highlands Sitting Room
An upscale place to catch some local music, you can enjoy a drink and some high end appetizers indoors or on the patio of the Highlands Sitting Room of this iconic lodge. This is a perfect stop after golf. It’s right next door. They serve food from 4 – 9:30pm and regularly have live music.
👉 Pro Tip: Call ahead to reserve a table.
#6 – Enjoy a Lobster Roll Picnic by the Turquoise Water at Ingonish Beach
When I ask locals their favorite spot on the island, Ingonish comes up time and again. It’s not hard to see why. Grab yourself some Lobster rolls at Brookside Take Out in Ingonish (cash only). Recommended: Fish & Chips, Scallops, Lobster Roll. Take your picnic bounty and drive 10 minutes south to Ingonish Beach.
#7 – Explore the Beach and Waterfall at Black Brook Cove Beach
Heading towards the north side of the loop, you will find possibly the most beautiful beach on the Cabot Trail.
Black Brook Cove beach in the northeast part of Cape Breton Highlands National Park has both rocks and sand in a cove with clear blue water. One end of the beach has a nice stream and waterfall and is a lovely place to explore. Looking from above at Black Brook Cove you might imagine you are in the Caribbean, until you jump into the frigid water.
#8 – Have an Ice Cream Cone and Take Photos at Neil’s Harbour Lighthouse
Neil’s Harbour is an idyllic summer stop with colorful boats and an ice cream shop. Its wooden lighthouse is brightly painted white & red, characteristics you will soon recognize as typical of the island.
#9 – Hike to White Point for Stunning 360 Degree Views
This trail packs a punch; it is short, only 1.4 miles total to hike to the point and back. The scenery is unrivaled, though.
Hiking to this windswept and rocky out-cropping, you will have a commanding view of the sparkling sea, and you might just think you have been transported to Scotland.
Depending on the season, you should be able to spot some wildlife, hopefully even minke, fin or humpback whales! Bring your binoculars, especially from May-October.
👉 Pro Tip: Park at the harbour by Two Tittle B&B to avoid potholes beyond it.
#10 – Get Off The Beaten Path at Meat Cove
Though it’s not right on the trail, Meat Cove is the farthest north point on the island, even farther than Cape North. If you are touristed out, this is your place. Meat Cove is a part of the island that an older Cape Bretoner wistfully described to me as desolate and rugged and a beautiful place that feels like the end of the earth.
#11 – Have a Bowl of Seafood Chowder with Crazy Views
Nova Scotia is famous for its fishing villages and so while you’re at Meat Cove, you’d better have some seafood. The Chowder Hut at Meat Cove offers not only tasty local specialties, but a scenic place to bask in rugged and untouched surroundings and views of both ocean and mountains.
👉 Pro Tip: There is more than one Chowder Hut on the island. Meat Cove is the most highly recommended.
#12 – Go Chasing Waterfalls
The Cabot Trail is famous for its plentiful waterfalls, so you’d better see several while you are here.
Beulach Ban Falls is an easy stop less than a mile off the Cabot Trail as you are driving from the North to the West. Follow the dirt track to the end and you will arrive at the quick trail to the waterfall.
#13 – Eat your Dinner While Watching the Sunset Over the Ocean
At the Rusty Anchor, you can watch the sunset over the Atlantic while enjoying dinner on the outdoor deck. Recommended dishes: Seafood Linguine & Lobster Roll.
#14 – Hike Highlands National Park’s Most Famous Trail
Cape Breton Highlands National Park has some mind-blowingly beautiful trails and Skyline Trail is famous for a reason. It is doable for beginners and has sweeping views of the Atlantic and the park’s beauty.
Likely the trail Cape Breton is best known for, this 5.9 mile trail can be hiked as a loop, or if you are short on time, you can take a left at the fork for the most breathtaking views and then backtrack.
The trail is open in the winter for snowshoeing.
#15 – Find Serenity in the Forest along a Mountain Stream
Highlands is beautiful for its vistas as well as its quiet forest beauty. Truly a trail for every season, Salmon Pools Hike is great for fishing (regulations for Highlands National Park here), rock-hopping or even snowshoeing in winter.
#16 – Get your Camera out for Stunning Gypsum Mine Lake
This short trail ends with an amazing view of a beautiful hidden lake. The emerald hue of the water is incredible and somehow people manage to get down to the lake for ice-hockey in the winter.
This trail has a mild elevation gain and is beautiful all year, but it’s most spectacular during peak fall foliage, when the surrounding hills are aflame with red, gold and oranges mixed with the evergreens.
#17 – Go Whale Watching on a Zodiac Boat
Seeing wildlife is a popular activity on the Cabot trail and whale watching, in particular, can be incredible. I recommend joining Captain Zodiac whale tours based in Chéticamp in order to get a small tour experience and the ability to get up close to the whales.
👉 Pro Tip: Whale watching tours (and all boat tours) are obviously dependent on weather. Based on this, the companies recommend having a plan B. Thankfully since you are doing a slow circuit of the Cabot Trail, you won’t have driven multiple hours to get to your whale watching tour anyway and can be a bit more flexible than many.
#18 – Get Cultured with Celtic Music and Dance at Doryman Pub in Chéticamp
Cape Breton is famous for Celtic music & dancing and the best way to experience this part of the culture is to attend a ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee). At a ceilidh, you will hear lively fiddle music and watch (or bravely attempt?) Scottish step dancing. A ceilidh would be a great option for a rainy day.
#19 – Take the Macintosh Brook Hike
Macintosh Brook Hike is a one mile loop in Cape Breton Highlands National Park that follows a creek and leads to a waterfall. It is a lovely forest walk or snowshoe excursion. You will find the trailhead at the bottom of the MacIntosh Brook Campground Loop in the National Park.
#20 – Eat Really Fresh Lobster
On the Belle Côte side of Margaree Harbour, drive down to a jetty where you will see a large sign that says Lobster Pound. Island Sunset Lobster Pound Bistro is a casual eatery where you can pick your own seafood and they will cook it while you wait. Open during June, July, and August.
#21 – Snag a Sunshiney Table at Island’s Cutest Coffee Shop & Bakery
The Dancing Goat is an establishment well-loved by locals and tourists alike. It’s a casual bakery, restaurant and coffee shop with a bright dining area filled with natural light and views of evergreens.
Even in the winter it’s busy, with some customers arriving by snowmobile!
Everything I have tried there is delicious; soups, desserts, quiche, sandwiches & coffee were all great.
👉 Pro Tip: The Dancing Goat checks all the boxes for a digital nomad: fast wifi, plenty of natural light, plenty of outlets and long opening hours, even in February.
#22 – Take a Last-Minute Detour for A Local Favorite
Uisge Ban Falls, named after the gaelic for “white water,” is a 52 foot waterfall 9 miles off the main road. Cape Breton is covered with waterfalls, but the locals are always pointing me to Uisge Ban Falls because of its beauty. This particular waterfall will be the perfect last hike on your Cabot Trail Loop.
#23 – Celebrate with a Pint at Big Spruce Brewing
Once you’ve completed the Cabot Trail Loop, it’s time to celebrate. Stop by this well-loved Nova Scotia organic craft brewery. You’ll find it on a farm that overlooks Bras D’Or Lake, which is part of a UNESCO Biosphere.
During May to October, there is live music from Thursdays to Sundays and you can get local food from the Big Spruce food truck that you can enjoy at one of their picnic tables.
12 Best Places to Stay on the Cabot Trail
This is the really fun part – seeing all the incredible accommodations you could choose from when you make your Cabot Trail Road Trip. I am highlighting accommodations in this section that can be considered a destination in their own right, due to their uniqueness or beauty of location – hopefully both. They are broken up into geographic areas. Where you stay depends on whether you are camping or not. I will highlight beautiful places to stay either way you go.
*I have starred places that are open in the winter.
East Side Accommodations
Stay in a yurt, a geodesic dome on a platform with ocean views or in the lodge. Bedding and towels are provided.
The outdoor activity options here are plentiful and it’s a real respite from the rush of daily life.
A bonus, is that many of the accommodation options allow your furry friend to join you!
Broad Cove Campground
For those tent-camping or driving an RV, this campground will be your best bet on the east side. The facility is tucked in a bend of the Cabot Trail and is not directly on the ocean, but close enough to walk.
In addition to the RV or tent option, you can rent one of their oTENTiks, which is a structure that can be found at many National Parks in Canada. It is a heavy tented structure including beds for 6 that have foam mattresses without bedding.
Flush toilets and showers are available at this National Park campground. Reservations can be made here.
River Nest Wilderness Cabins
These cabins are so inviting, aren’t they? They are a little tucked away from the main drag, which is also nice.
Knotty Pine Cottages*
Cottages, Cabins and Motel Rooms with breathtaking views over Ingonish Harbour and a location convenient for both Cape Smokey and Ingonish beach. They also have a private rocky beach and the water in the harbour is great for kayaking.
North Side Accommodations
Meat Cove Campground
This campground has wilderness cabins, campsites and RV sites. While there are no hook-ups at this campground, there are flush toilets and showers available.
Blue Bayou Geodesic Domes
These gorgeous domes offer the chance to experience glamping with beautiful views of the stars while sleeping on a bed (my preferred method of camping!). Some of the domes also have a bay view. Don’t they look cozy? This type of structure is pretty popular on Cape Breton and there are ones all over the island, each with a unique view.
Hideaway Campground and Oyster Market
A strange combination, perhaps, but this is a good alternative to Meat Cove if your rig can’t make it down that road. Hideaway campground offers ocean and mountain views, along with the opportunity to order freshly prepared seafood on a tray to take back to your site for dinner, or to buy and cook yourself. This large campground accommodates RVs with full and partial hook-ups.
A fantastic budget option that offers family and bunk rooms. Guests completely rave about this hostel which is housed in a renovated 100 year old church. Highlands is known for welcoming & friendly hosts, endless outdoor activity options and stellar recommendations for hidden gems like a local swimming hole and a lobster feast on the beach.
The Markland offers one and two bedroom beach cottages as well as hotel rooms.
This higher end option on the north side of the island is on a 50 acre private property with its own beach access, a swimming pool, and an excellent restaurant on the property.
West Side Accommodations
Pilot Whale Chalets*
This cluster of two bedroom cabins in Petit Étang are walking distance from the ocean and right off the Cabot Trail.
Some of the cabins have more of an unobstructed ocean view than the others, so be sure to ask for the ones farthest from the street and closer to the ocean.
Hi-Cabot Trail Hostel
For a budget option that’s not camping, this Pleasant Bay hostel has 10 bunks and 3 private rooms. The hostel is right on the Trail, near the Atlantic and is a good base for hiking on the west side of Highlands National Park.
Located on the Chéticamp River, you can camp with a tent, a motorhome, or rent one of their oTENTiks. Flush toilets, showers and hook-ups are available at this National Park campground. Reservations can be made here.
Well, that’s a wrap! I hope I have successfully piqued your interest enough to come drive the Cabot Trail for one fantastic road trip. The Cabot Trail has just the right amount of road involved to leave you plenty of time for the actual trip!
If you liked this article, be sure to check out all our Nova Scotia Travel Guides. And get pumped for your trip by reading our 12 Reasons to Visit Nova Scotia!
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My 16 year old grandson and I will be driving the Cabot Trail mid-June and will check out some of your suggestions.