Your Complete Guide to Nova Scotia’s Cabot Trail
Tuesday, 29th March 2022
Read our guide to planning the perfect road trip on Nova Scotia’s Cabot Trail, including the best hikes in Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
What is the Cabot Trail?
Casting a loop around Cape Breton Island in the northeast of Nova Scotia, the Cabot Trail is a 298km touring route. One of the world’s most scenic coastal drives, it weaves around rugged headlands with spectacular views of the North Atlantic and Gulf of St Lawrence. Although you could complete the Cabot Trail in a long day, we recommend at least two days to enjoy all it has to offer.
What can you do on the Cabot Trail?
As well as soaking up the incredible views, there are plenty of attractions where you’ll want to stop and explore. The drive links several coastal villages where you can sample fresh seafood, browse local art or learn about the region’s Acadian and Gaelic heritage. The Cabot Trail also provides access to hiking trails in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, ranging from clifftop boardwalks to forest rambles. Other activities include whale watching and kayaking – and you won’t want to miss a White Glove Tour at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site or a céilidh at the Gaelic College in St Ann’s.
What is the best way to drive the Cabot Trail?
You can join the Cabot Trail at several points. One of the most popular options is to head to Port Hastings at the southern tip of Cape Breton Island and then drive north on Route 19 to Whycocomagh. From there, you can either continue north towards Margaree Forks with a view to driving the Cabot Trail in a clockwise direction, or head northeast towards Baddeck and St Ann’s, which will take you counter-clockwise. It doesn’t really matter which way you travel – either direction has amazing views and places to stop. Just remember that counter-clockwise puts the passenger on the ocean side of the vehicle, closest to the breathtaking, sometimes seat-clutching, vistas. Many of the viewpoints (or ‘look-offs’) are on the right side and easier to access if you are driving counter-clockwise.
Where are the best viewpoints or ‘look-offs’ on the Cabot Trail?
Pretty much around every corner… take your time, keep your eyes on the road if you’re driving and plan to pull off at some, if not all, of the following (listed in order when driving counter-clockwise):
- Cape Smokey: great for sunrise if you’ve set off early.
- Lakies Head: rugged coastline with views of Ingonish Island and a chance to spot whales.
- North Mountain: several look-offs with views of dense forest, waterfalls and the Apsy Fault.
- MacKenzie Mountain: sweeping panoramas across Pleasant Bay and the Highland Plateau.
- Cap Rouge: far-reaching views along the entire Atlantic coastline of the Cabot Trail.
Where should I stop on the Cabot Trail?
As well as the ‘look-offs’ described above and the hiking trailheads, below, we recommend adding the following attractions to your itinerary:
The former estate of the Scottish-born inventor and engineer, the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site at Baddeck holds the largest collection of his inventions, including a replica of the Silver Dart aircraft and a model HD-4 Hydrofoil. As well as a ‘virtual walk’ through the scientist’s life, you can go behind the scenes on a small-group White Glove Tour to see and touch precious artefacts.
Dedicated to the culture, music, language and traditions of the Scottish settlers who arrived In Cape Breton over 200 years ago, the St Ann’s Gaelic College hosts lunchtime céilidhs on most weekdays throughout summer. You can also find out about the region’s strong Gaelic heritage at the Great Hall of the Clans Museum.
One of the main gateways to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, and an excellent spot to spend the night if you’re breaking the Cabot Trail into two or more days, Ingonish has everything from sandy beaches to a freshwater lake. Several hiking trails probe the surrounding mountains and forests, while whale watching and lobster fishing boat trips operate from the harbour. Don’t miss a ride on the Atlantic Gondola for fine views from the summit of Cape Smokey.
The seas around Cape Breton Island are a magnet to around 12 species of cetacean. Find out more at the excellent Whale Interpretive Centre in Pleasant Bay on the northwest tip of the Cabot Trail where exhibits include a life-size model of a pilot whale.
Having settled in Nova Scotia over 400 years ago, the French Acadians form a rich part of the province’s diverse heritage. Located in the small fishing community of Chéticamp, the fascinating Les Trois Pignons Acadian Cultural Centre & Museum offers an insight in their history – and you’ll be able to see a demonstration of a traditional hooked rug. Also in Chéticamp, Acadian folk artist William Roach has work on display at the Sunset Art Gallery.
What are the best hikes in Cape Breton Highlands National Park?
Covering an area of some 950 square kilometres, this diverse national park is a mixture of wave-pummelled cliffs, sandy beaches, river canyons and thick forest. Small wonder it’s become a favourite hiking spot for wilderness lovers. The 26 trails include hikes through Acadian or boreal forest (home to black bear, moose and lynx) and coastal jaunts across dramatic headlands. The most popular hike is the Skyline Trail (6.5km return or 8.2km loop) which gives you a superb view of the Cabot Trail from a clifftop boardwalk. We also recommend the 4.5km Middle Head Trail (which straddles a narrow peninsula) and the 9.5km Acadian Trail, a forest hike accessed from the western side of the Cabot Trail.
Where are the best places to eat along the Cabot Trail?
If you’re heading clockwise on the Cabot Trail, be sure to stop at The Dancing Goat Café & Bakery in Margaree Valley for freshly-baked muffins or a bag of cookies for the road. The Aucoin Bakery at Petit Étang near Chéticamp makes a great lunch stop for homemade pastries, pies and rolls, while the nearby seafood restaurant Le Gabriel has a mouth-watering menu of scallops, lobster, crab and fish. Baddeck Lobster Suppers is also renowned for its maritime Cape Breton fare – as is the Rusty Anchor in Pleasant Bay – you have to try the lobster buns, drizzled with melted butter and served with fries and coleslaw.
Any other tips for the Cabot Trail?
Don’t rush it – consider breaking it in two, spending a night or more at Ingonish. And don’t forget to pack your walking gear – you’ll definitely want to stretch your legs on some of the incredible trails!
Our week-long Cape Breton Explorer self drive holiday takes in the highlights of Nova Scotia and includes an in-depth exploration of the Cabot Trail. If you want to spend longer delving into this beautiful corner of Canada, we can tailor make your trip.
If you have any questions about any of our Canada holidays or want to start planning your own trip, call our Canada Travel Specialists on 01737 214 250, or send an enquiry to start discussing your options.