You've set your sights on the Cabot Trail, one of the most unique and beautiful drives in the world.
Note: We are constantly updating this post to reflect more and more experiences we have around the Cabot Trail. It's a long post, but it's jam packed with awesome ideas to make your trip the best it can be!!
A loop that spans 298km through scenic Cape Breton Island, the Cabot Trail has been the source of a lot of international attention in the past few years. And with good reason!
Spectacular panoramic seascapes, beautiful little fishing villages, fresh from the ocean seafood and legendary Cape Breton hospitality make this a trip for anyone and everyone - whether you love outdoorsy hiking and camping, or prefer golf, museums and fine dining.
Read on for some highlights of a trip around the trail, whether you're visiting for a few days, a week, or even just one day!
Clockwise or Counter-clockwise?
I opted to take a recent trip around the Cabot Trail in a clockwise direction, mainly because I was travelling by myself and am incredibly afraid of heights.
Just the thought of navigating my car around the hairpin turns in the outer (read: cliff-side) lane was enough to make me start sweating.
So, clockwise it was.
There are pros and cons to travelling in either direction, but to be honest, you really can't go wrong either way.
Here are some suggestions if you plan to visit the Cabot Trail on a clockwise itinerary:
If, like me, you're travelling up Route 19 to access the Cabot Trail, you'll pass through the little villages of Judique, Port Hood, Mabou and Inverness, each with its own unique blend of beaches, music, culture and history.
They are all lovely little towns worth a stop and a wander around.
Port Hood has five beaches, many of which are shallow, warm and perfect for families (or people who like calm beaches).
Mabou is home to the Red Shoe Pub - a fantastic place to catch some Cape Breton fiddle music - and a bustling Farmer's Market during the summer season.
Whether you travel up Route 19, or from Baddeck (which many people like to use as a jumping off point for the Cabot Trail), Margaree is a beautiful little stop.
Pull over at lookoffs to watch people in hip waders fly fishing on the sparkling Margaree River.
Stop for a delicious breakfast, lunch, or even just coffee and pastry at The Dancing Goat.
Stretch your legs and wander through a field of sunflowers for a beautiful road side photo op.
Then travel on, enjoying the windswept views as you make your way toward Cheticamp, an Acadian fishing village just outside the Western entrance to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
Just before you arrive in Cheticamp, you'll pass through St. Joseph du Moine, a tiny fishing hamlet that's home to the Centre Mi-Careme.
Mi-Careme is a traditional Acadian celebration that takes place mid way through Lent. To participate in this break to the solemness of the Lenten season, people would dress up in masks and costumes and visit neighbors and friends, who would try to guess who they were.
The Centre Mi-Careme pays tribute to this tradition and also includes a lovely little shop where you can browse masks and other souvenirs made right there, in the spirit of Mi-Careme.
We bought blank masks to take home for our three kids to decorate, which they really enjoyed 🙂
Walk along the Cheticamp waterfront and read the displays about the history of the Acadians who have made the area home for hundreds of years.
Outside the village, visit Flora's gift shop to browse for souvenirs, including hundreds of lovely rug hookings, made locally. There was a woman doing a rug hooking demonstration when we visited.
On my next visit I plan to visit Les Trois Pignons and its Museum of Hooked Rugs.
We also made a stop at the Freya and Thor Gallery and Cafe, for a quick coffee before entering the park. I loved the spacious white gallery, punctuated with pops of colour from vibrant folk art.
With lots of accommodation options and great places to eat, Cheticamp is a great place to spend the night before entering the park.
I haven't managed to eat lunch or dinner at L'Abri yet, but I've heard rave reviews from many people about how delicious it is.
I did pop in for coffee and a house-made honey cruller, both of which were excellent (I didn't know honey crullers could be so delicious!!) and can't wait to visit for an entire meal.
If you're a fan of hiking and beautiful natural scenery, don't miss the fairly easy hike to the old gypsum mine a few minutes outside Cheticamp.
We loved it so much I wrote a whole post on it, packed with tips for visiting this gorgeous spot! You can read our post on the Cheticamp Gypsum Mine hike here!
It's not a very intense hike - more of a walk on a dirt road, although there is a hill toward the end of the hike.
(If you opt to climb the rocky trail for spectacular views of the lake it's much more intense - think climbing up and down with the help of a rope - but check out our Gypsum Mine post for all the details!)
Read our post on the Gypsum Mine hike here.
When you're ready to move on, make a stop for tasty treats at Aucoin's Bakery.
The Parks Canada office is on your right before approaching the toll gates to the park. The Centre has maps, brochures and other helpful information, as well as a lovely little gift shop and public washrooms.
Then head into the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
Cape Breton Highlands National Park
Tip: There is an admission fee to the park - see the current fees here.
As soon as you enter the park the scenery starts to change dramatically. You wind your way up tall, green mountains, with expanses of green trees on your right, and the crashing Atlantic Ocean on your left.
There are tons of scenic lookoff spots, and I recommend stopping at as many of them as you can! They truly each have their own personality and beauty to enjoy. Many of them also act as departure points for fantastic hikes - with something for all ability levels.
I stopped at an early beach lookoff for an oceanside view of the spectacular crashing waves and it was very quiet and absolutely lovely.
The Cape Rouge stop is atop a mountain and starts to hint at the iconic Cape Breton vistas everyone knows and loves.
On French Mountain, be sure to stop at the Veteran's Monument for picture perfect photo ops of the trail and a spectacular view.
Then comes the Skyline Trail. This is a hike - not just a lookoff. When you pull in there is just an enormous parking lot to accommodate the hundreds of people visiting the Skyline Trail during the high season.
The hike itself is pretty reasonable - just an hour or so to get down to the viewing platforms and the same back (note: you can opt for an extended loop to make this hike longer if you want).
The trail is really well cared for and we saw people of all ages on it when we visited. While the hike itself is not particularly exciting, it is pleasant, with sections of different plant life and, if you're lucky, some wildlife. It's the views at the end that everyone is really here for, and they don't disappoint.
After the Skyline, the Fishing Cove lookoff makes a nice, breezy stop before you continue a bit of a drive to Pleasant Bay.
If you're feeling energetic, you can hike down to the ocean below, where an old Scottish settlement was once located (6km each way).
We haven't done this yet, but this excellent article from Off Track Travel does a great job of filling in all the details you'll need to know to hike the old Fishing Cove.
Just before you arrive in the small community of Pleasant Bay, make a stop at the lookoff on MacKenzie Mountain.
It gives you a spectacular panoramic view of Pleasant Bay and the surrounding ocean, as well as a large display with information about the local whales (pods of which which can sometimes be visible from up above).
Head down the mountain to Pleasant Bay, a tiny, beautiful community tucked into this remote corner of Cape Breton. This is a great place to stop for a meal, although there are only a few options.
The Rusty Anchor has a large dining room to accommodate everyone with the same idea. With beautiful views of the coast and a large patio (which sadly wasn't open when I visited), it's a great place to relax and enjoy some local seafood!
You can read my full review of the Rusty Anchor here.
Tip: I had asked around before hand and the Rusty Anchor's lobster poutine was highly recommended. I had to give it a try. It was FANTASTIC. The service was super friendly and the prices were reasonable, considering that it's directly in a popular location for tourism.
Other seafood dishes that were highly recommended were the fish cakes and the lobster roll.
Stuffed with poutine and a little bit sleepy, I drove around the little town looking for a place to get out and stretch my legs. I ended up in the harbour area, where I enjoyed the fresh salty air and waves crashing on the beach for a little while, before setting off again.
I definitely plan to come back to Pleasant Bay because there are several things I'd like to do there but didn't have a chance to on this visit: a whale watching tour, a visit to MacIntosh Brook to see the little waterfall, and a stop at Gampo Abbey, a Buddhist monastery outside town.
I'd also love to take our kids to visit the Whale Interpretive Centre, which looks so cool and educational!
Northern Cape Breton
After Pleasant Bay you leave the west coast of Cape Breton and head east.
Not too far a drive down the road is Lone Shieling.
I thought this was a lovely stop and it stood out to me for several reasons: it's VERY accessible from the road - just a few minutes' walk through a gentle wooded area full of beautiful sugar maple trees takes you to a replica of a Scottish crofter's hut (built in 1942).
From there you can choose to take a leisurely stroll through this serene wooded area, past the brook that runs through it in several locations, and back to the parking lot.
I found it a really nice, peaceful interlude to the dramatic scenery that punctuates most of the rest of the Cabot Trail, and well worth a stop.
About a twenty minute drive from Lone Shieling, make a stop at The North Mountain Lookoff, to view the Aspy fault.
A great viewpoint of the visible gap between the soft green mountains, it's an especially significant part of Cape Breton Island from a geological point of view.
Then head down North Mountain and follow the signs for Beulach Ban falls. This lovely waterfall is not to be missed. You can actually drive to within a two minute walk to the falls!
Once you take the turn off to the falls, you'll come to a large parking lot, but you don't have to park there. You can actually drive the few kilometers down to a second parking lot, which is just a 1-2 minute, easy walk from the falls.
This 65 foot high waterfall is lovely during the summer, and I expect would be even more spectacular when surrounded by fall foliage.
Tip: You can drive to within a two minute walk to the falls! Don't miss this easy stop!
(Please note: the smaller road down to the falls is quite narrow, so it's not suitable for RVs or any really large vehicles.)
Not far from Beulach Ban you'll find Arts North, a gorgeous gallery and gift shop filled with art made by Cape Breton artisans. It was well worth a stop and would be a beautiful place to find souvenirs or gifts.
Continue across the top part of the park until you pop out at Cape North/Dingwall. If you have lots of time, explore this area - it's very beautiful.
If you have the time, I highly recommend the Coastal Loop that passes through White Point.
The views are spectacular and the tiny village of White Point has an easy, fairly quick hike that takes you out onto a dramatic spit of land that is almost surrounded by ocean. It's gorgeous.
We have a full post on this awesome hike coming soon!
Neil's Harbour has a beautiful ice cream shop housed in an actual lighthouse that's well worth a visit (NOTE: The ice cream shop did NOT open for the summer of 2022. We will update when we find out if it opens for 2023). Have a stroll around and enjoy the windy coastline behind the lighthouse with your ice cream.
Just next door is the Chowder House, where the chowder is rumoured to be excellent. I made it back to try this past summer and it was delicious! Mild, full of seafood and very fresh!
Ingonish & Surrounding Area
Mary Ann Falls makes a gorgeous and very accessible stop on your way down the coast toward Ingonish.
When we visited Ingonish this summer (2022) the trail to Mary Ann Falls was closed, due to being washed out in a big storm and ongoing repairs. Guess we'll have to save that for our next visit!
Not far past the falls you'll come to the Lakies Head lookoff which was really unique and quite impressive in its own way. Interesting rock formations in a lovely, rosy orange colour spill over the coastline, just begging to be admired.
There's also a great informational display here about the area - which looks particularly dramatic as the sun sits lower in the sky during the golden hour.
Follow the beautiful coast down to Ingonish - a gem of a little community.
Bustling during the busy summer tourist season, the village of Ingonish can be very quiet outside that time.
Some attractions close for the off season so it's best to call ahead and make sure they're open.
Our kids' favourite thing to do in Ingonish was visit the beach for the rough and tumble waves!
Tip: Over the three days we spent in Ingonish, the waves at the beach were huge (to us) - around 6-8 feet, and the undertow was very strong.
Be very careful swimming at this (and any) beach.
If you like burgers you might want to try The Ringer at The Coastal Restaurant and Pub. It's been featured on The Food Network's show, "You Gotta Eat Here!" and Laurier liked it.
A fantastic Ingonish stop if you have kids is the Groovy Goat Farm and Soap Company. The kids LOVED feeding the goats and it was super cute. The farm is also home to a donkey, her newborn donkey baby, some ducks and a lot of beautiful chickens.
There's no official entry fee to the farm, just a donation to help with the maintenance of it.
Tip: There are small machines that sell feed, (and trust me, you'll want to feed these adorable animals) and they only accept loonies ($1 coins), so either plan ahead of ask for some change in the soap shop.
There is also a handwashing station available so you can wash up with some of their fantastic smelling soap after petting/feeding the animals.
The Groovy Goat also has a shop selling all kinds of beautiful smelling soaps and bath products. (In fact, this is the main part of their business and the farm is just a happy extra.)
Other great eats in Ingonish included a fantastic meal at The Main Street Restaurant - the fish tacos, fish and chips and seafood chowder were all excellent.
Just beyond Ingonish, you'll find Cape Smokey - a more than 300-metre-tall mountain with a spectacular lookoff at the top!
Cape Smokey made me happy I drove the trail clockwise on my solo trip- even from the inside lane the views made me sweat a bit 🙂
In general, though, I felt comfortable.
Just last summer a gondola opened on Cape Smokey - the very first gondola in Atlantic Canada! It's also home to a pretty extensive ski resort, and there are plans to open a tree walk there as well (which will be the first of its kind in North America!).
When I visited last year the gondola had just opened and the on site amenities were still under construction, but I'll definitely be visiting again for an update!
South of Ingonish
As you wind your way down the east coast of the island, don't miss a quick stop at Wreck Cove General Store. It looks like something straight out of the wild west or an Alaskan frontier town, which is kinda cool to see in the middle of Cape Breton island!
I made sure to stop here because I had heard great things about the lobster sandwiches, and I wasn't disappointed!
As a native Cape Bretoner, I've eaten my fair share (probably more, actually, haha) of lobster sandwiches, and this one was excellent.
Nice, soft white bread envelops a generous amount of very fresh and meaty lobster. The beautiful chunks of lobster are pretty much unadulterated - only combined with just the right amount of mayo, and possibly a bit of salt. It was delicious and made for a really great quick meal on the go.
The Wreck Cove General Store also acts as, well, a general type store.
They've got lots of souvenirs, some groceries, fresh ground Nova Scotia coffee, clothing, ice cream, gas, and pretty much anything else you'd be looking for in this area. As an added bonus, it's open year-round (hours vary - you can check their hours here).
About ten minutes past Wreck Cove is a tiny little restaurant/bakery that I've heard amazing things about: the Clucking Hen. Plenty of people, including foodies whose opinions I trust, have recommended this place to me.
EVERYTHING is made from scratch and it's all so delicious!
We stopped there for a gorgeous outdoor dinner this summer - and the lobster club sandwich and Double D Burger were excellent!
We couldn't help but have dessert - since we heard so many good things about their baked goods. The butter tart was AH-MA-ZING and I can't stop thinking about it. Everything we tried was fantastic, and the Clucking Hen is definitely a must!
Near the Clucking Hen, I made it to Cabotto Chocolates before they closed up shop for the night, and I'm SO glad I did. It's a beautiful little gift shop, filled with art and fine, hand made chocolates that are made on site.
I picked up a few different options to bring home as treats, and they were all stunningly good. What a lovely place to shop for unique and enjoyable souvenirs or gifts!
St Ann's Bay Area
The Englishtown Ferry is a cool experience and a throwback to a different, slower time.
One of only four cable ferries in all of Nova Scotia, it offers 24 hour, on demand service to vehicles crossing St Anne's Bay.
There's no charge for using the ferry, and crossing only takes a few minutes.
A twenty minute drive from the crossing will land you in Baddeck. Often seen as both the start and end of the Cabot Trail, you've made it! Baddeck is a beautiful little town, set on the Bras d'or Lake.
Baddeck is lovely just to wander around if the weather cooperates. Check out the little giftshops that make up this quaint little town and grab a coffee or an ice cream at one of the little cafes.
When you're ready, make your way down to the waterfront to enjoy the beautiful boardwalk overlooking the sailboats in the lake and the Kidston Island lighthouse in the distance.
The boardwalk is peaceful and just a wonderful little stroll very near to the centre of town. If you're down there, don't forget to visit Alexander Graham Bell and his wife Mabel for a cute little photo opp!
We definitely hope to come back and enjoy some of the local sailing tours, which look amazing!
We spent a night last summer at the Inverary Inn and found our room very nice and the grounds of the inn absolutely lovely.
You can read our full Inverary Inn review here!
Just outside town, perched high on a hill overlooking the lake, you'll find Big Spruce Brewing - well worth a visit whether you're a beer drinker or not.
If you are into craft beer, there are some excellent options here, with two separate bars (indoor and outdoor) serving up flights of a huge range of organic beer made right on site.
During the warm months there's a food truck on site and we had a great meal from the truck along with our tasting flights, sitting at a picnic table overlooking the view.
It was a beautiful sunny day and there was live entertainment.
If you're interested in science or history, you'll probably want to make a stop at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site in Baddeck as well. (Note that the interactive displays that will especially appeal to kids have been temporarily closed due to Covid.)
The museum is on the smaller size but filled with interesting exhibits on the life and career of Bell, as well as a good amount of information about his wife, Mabel.
If hiking and enjoying the beautiful of the great outdoors is more your thing, Baddeck makes an excellent jumping off point for the hike to Uisge Ban Falls (pronounced Ish-Ka Ban).
This is a family friendly hike to a 50-foot tall waterfall that we highly recommend.
Our full post on this gorgeous spot is coming soon.
We're hoping to take in one of the Baddeck Gathering Ceilidhs this year, along with the Baddeck Lobster Supper and a sailing tour (and I think Laurier is secretly hoping to golf at Bell Bay)!
Well that's a wrap of most of the things we've enjoyed around the Cabot Trail!
Really, there are a ton of things to do, see and eat in every tiny little village and hamlet along the trail - beautiful views, famous Cape Breton friendliness, super fresh seafood, interesting cultural activities and excellent excursions into nature.
Cape Breton really does have it all, and the Cabot Trail is no exception!
Tip: If you're having trouble finding affordable places to stay on the Cabot Trail, I highly recommend checking out gorgeous Isle Madame on the southern coast of Cape Breton.
Surrounded by ocean and full of beautiful scenery, the island is home to a lovely inn, The Clairestone, a smaller inn, The Groundswell Pub & Inn and a growing number of Airbnb accommodations.
Isle Madame makes an excellent jumping off point for exploring the rest of Cape Breton!
What was your favourite stop along the Cabot Trail? Where are you hoping to visit next time? 🙂
Cabot Trail FAQ
The Cabot Trail is 298 kilometers long and technically you could drive it in under 5 hours, if you drove non-stop. However, it wouldn't be much fun.
To have an enjoyable trip, eat some good food, stop at a few gift shops, lookoffs and short hikes, you need an absolute minimum of one full day. Longer is obviously better and will result in a more relaxing trip where you get to see and do much more.
Yes, you can definitely do the Cabot Trail in one day, if that's all the time you have. It will be a long and tiring day, and you'll likely have to skip some of the things you would like to do, but I have done it in one day before and still had a good time. You'll need to be strategic and plan what you'd like to see and do to make sure you can fit it all in.
I will say that it would be much tougher (although not impossible) to do the trail in one day with small kids.
The Cabot Trail is famous because it combines spectacular scenery (wide open ocean vistas and rolling green mountains that plunge dramatically to the sea) with Cape Breton charm, friendliness and hospitality. The amazing seafood doesn't hurt either 🙂
The Cabot Trail forms a complete loop, so it doesn't technically begin or end in any one spot. Good starting points would be either Baddeck, or Cheticamp (having come up the beautiful Route 19 from the Canso Causeway).
If I had three nights to do the trail, I would spend the first night in Cheticamp having explored the west side of the island, the second night in Ingonish, having travelled the north and north east side of the island, and the third night in Baddeck, having made my way down the east side of the Cabot Trail and experienced the Baddeck area (or, those three spots in reverse, if you choose to travel counter-clockwise).
The best way really depends on your personality. If you're not scared of heights or driving along cliffsides, I would recommend travelling counter-clockwise for the best views over the guardrails.
If you are a little intimidated by heights (I am), you will have just as nice a trip travelling clockwise. You can still access all the lookoffs and enjoy the panoramic views that way, while feeling a little more comfortable with the drive.
I had no idea that all these amazing places existed along the Cabot Trail. What an absolutely wonderful job you did in showcasing a small part of our beautiful Cape Breton Island. This exposure is sure to entice tourists and even locals who are not even aware of all the beauty the island possesses Congrats Myra and Laurier on a job well done can’t wait for your next trip!
Thank you so much for the kind words Karen! You absoliutely made my night! Glad you're enjoying the blog so far :). -Myra