Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island is easily one of the most beautiful places in Canada. It offers a great mix of stunning views, beaches, hiking trails, small towns, and so much more. It’s also one of the best places to see fall colours in Canada.
In this travel guide, we’ll fill you in on the best way to explore Cabot Trail, including things to do, where to stay, where to eat, and more!
What is the Cabot Trail?
The Cabot Trail is a world-class Canada road trip that consists of a 298-kilometre (185 miles) loop around the northern tip of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Most of the Cabot Trail lies within the beautiful Cape Breton Highlands National Park, which means you will need a parks Canada pass. Parks passes can be purchased here.
Although the drive only takes 3-4 hours, we highly recommend spending at least two nights to really enjoy the incredible sights. If you really want to enjoy a variety of hikes in the area, spend time on the beaches, and visit the towns, you may want to stretch your visit to 4 nights or more.
Cabot Trail Map
The Cabot Trail loops in either direction, starting from Baddeck along the Trans Canada Highway. Many wonder what driving direction offers the best views, but in all honesty, both ways are stunning. If you can, we recommend driving one way and then coming back the other way. That way, you see it in both directions.
Things to Do along the Cabot Trail
One of the things we love about the Cabot Trail is that it’s not just scenery. There are loads of hiking trails, scenic lookouts, whale watching excursions, beaches, helicopter tours, and more. Below are some of the top things to do on the Cabot Trail.
Enjoying the Views
Without a doubt, the top things that people enjoy along the Cabot Trail are all the scenic lookout points. All of them are spectacular but some of our favourites stops include Veterans Monument, which is where one of the most classic images of Cabot Trail is taken, the various viewpoints along the “twisty” road near Wreck Cove, and Sunrise viewpoint near the top of the trail. However, it’s hard to keep track of them all. Other great ways to get stupendous views include hiking the many trails or jumping on a helicopter for a sightseeing tour.
Nova Scotia Hiking Trails
Cabot Trail is within one of Canada’s most stunning national parks, which means there are a variety of hiking trails that lead to beautiful views. Some hiking trails take you through the forest, some take you to the top of the mountains, and some lead you along the coastline. We’ve done a number of hikes in the area and highly recommend them:
Skyline Trail: The highlight of this trail is the spectacular views of the ocean and parts of Cabot Trail. The hike takes about three hours but we recommend at least four or five if you want to take your time and really take it all in. We’ve done this hike twice now and can’t get over the ocean views. Parks Canada has built wooden walkways and viewing platforms that take you partially down the side of the mountain and it almost feels like you could reach out and touch the ocean.
Franey Trail: This is one of the best hikes in the park for those wanting to reach a summit that includes ocean views. It’s also one of the best hikes you can do to see fall colours. It doesn’t take too long and is very straightforward, although all uphill. We recommend four hours to take it all in.
Aspy Trail: This is another nice trail that starts near the popular Beulach Ban Falls. The first half of the hike leads through a forest that’s wide enough for a vehicle. Eventually, you’ll start making your way up the mountain. The trail sorts of ends on the trail with one bench at the top. What makes this hike great is the views of the valley. It is truly spectacular in the fall.
Jack Pine Trail: This short trail actually joins up with another trail and gives you the opportunity to hike through the forest and along the stunning coastline. What we did was start at the Jack Pine Trailhead and then made our way towards Black Brook Cove Beach. Not only did we get to stop by some stunning coves along the way, but we also ended up at the top of a waterfall, climbing down to eventually reach the beach itself. The hike was very easy and took just one hour.
These are just four of many, many hiking trails in the area. We found these to be very good trails to get a wide overview of the area as well as both ocean views and fall colours (if you’re visiting in early October). For more trails, check out the Parks Canada guide.
Cape Breton Beaches
With so much coastline, there’s a number of beaches you can enjoy along the way. We loved hanging out at Black Brook Cove Beach, which is a rocky beach near the popular Jack Pine Trailhead. However, there are many other beaches in the area, including Ingonish Beach (probably the most popular beach in Cape Breton), Cheticamp Island Beach, Indian Beach, West Mabou Beach, Point Michaud Beach, Port Hood Beach, and many others.
Something that’s relatively new to the area is helicopter tours. We were lucky enough to take a helicopter tour during the fall and it was an incredible way to witness the fall colours around the area of Ingonish. The helicopter tours depart near the Cape Smokey gondola and are operated by Breton Air.
Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site
During our last visit to Cabot Trail when we took a helicopter flight over the mountains, they were telling us how cool the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site was. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to see it on that visit but it’s now high on our list for the next time we explore Nova Scotia.
This is your chance to step through Louisbourg’s fortress walls and feel what it was like to live in the 1700s. This is one of those costumed living history sites where French soldiers march down the streets of the town as ladies dance in formal parlours. You’ll be able to hear the Cannon firing and smell freshly baked bread aromas from the stone bakery. With fishermen, sailers, and servants to talk to, as well as rum to drink and 300-year-old games to partake in, this historic site truly feels real.
Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site
You’ve probably heard of Alexander Graham Bell? The inventor, scientist, teacher, and devoted family man lived in Baddeck, Nova Scotia! Now you can visit the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site and witness the spirit of innovation through diverse experiences, as you explore his inventions that helped shape our modern world.
You’ll find full-scale replicas of the Silver Dart airplane and HD-4 watercraft, engaging multi-media displays, a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the genius of Bell, and beautiful water views of Baddeck Bay.
Whale Watching Tours
This is one thing we haven’t done yet in Cape Breton but it’s something on our Nova Scotia bucket list! We’ve been whale watching near the Annapolis Valley region of Nova Scotia as well as in many parts of Newfoundland and we can confirm that this area of Atlantic Canada is known for its spectacular whale watching opportunities.
Ride the Gondola
Imagine skiing with ocean views! If you happen to be visiting Cape Breton and Cabot Trail in the winter, you can now go skiing at Cape Smokey. However, in the summer, the gondola becomes a popular sightseeing attraction and a great way to do some hiking at the top of the mountain without actually having to hike to the top! Plus, in 2022, they’ll be opening North America’s first Treewalk and you’ll be able to sip award-winning Pilsner at the one-and-only brewery at the base of a mountain along the world-famous Cabot Trail. Sign us up!
For golf enthusiasts, there are a whopping 8 beautiful golf courses within Cape Breton Island. Perhaps the most scenic of them all is Cabot Cliffs, which features postcard-worthy panoramas of the dramatic coastline. From cliffs and rolling sand dunes, this is a wonderful golf course located in Inverness on Canada’s Musical Coast. It’s also a walking-only course, which makes it a great opportunity to get some exercise and truly take in the vistas.
Other golf courses include Cabot Links, The Nest, Le Portage Golf Club, Cape Breton Highlands Links, Bell Bay, Lakes at Ben Eoin Golf Club & Resort, and Dundee Golf Club.
Celtic Colours International Festival
As someone with Celtic heritage, I was so excited to witness this Canadian Signature Experience when we visited Cape Breton for the fall colours in 2021. Unfortunately, Covid canceled the experience for the second year in a row so we hope to return one day.
The Celtic Colours International Festival is a unique celebration of Cape Breton Island’s living traditional culture. Held over 9 days during the incredibly beautiful fall season, it’s truly a sight to behold. It’s also one of Canada’s premiere musical events and a cultural highlight in Nova Scotia as it showcases the musical culture of Cape Breton. This is your chance to witness Celtic musicians, singers, dancers, and storytellers while surrounded by some of the best scenery Canada has to offer.
Cape Breton Miners Museum
If you’re looking to go underground, this is a great place to do it. Located on one of the most picturesque coasts of Cape Breton Island, this museum pays tribute to the region’s long and rich history of coal mining. You’ll be able to join a retired miner and go on an underground tour as well as learn about the life of the miners with modern exhibits and a historic village. There’s even a restaurant where you can enjoy delicious home-cooked meals.
Highland Village Museum / Baile nan Gàidheal
If you’re looking for a truly Gaelic experience, there’s none better than the Highland Village Museum, a living history museum and cultural centre in Iona. This 40-acre site is dotted with 11 historic buildings that depict the life of Gaelic settlers in Nova Scotia and offers the chance to see a blacksmith in action, costumed interpreters doing things like spin weaving and wool-dying, and even traditional livestock. You’ll also get to smell the lovely aromas of cooking on an open hearth and admire the stunning views of the panoramic landscapes.
LeNoir Forge Museum
Built between 1780 and 1800, this is a great chance to visit one of the oldest stone buildings in Cape Breton. The LeNoir Forge Museum offers the chance to see what it was like when shipbuilding was a flourishing industry in these parts as well as experience a working forge, admire a collection of tools and artifacts and learn the stories of Isle Madame. You’ll also find a genealogy centre, community archives, a boat barn containing displays and information on their seafaring past, a gift shop, and other shanties used for exhibits.
Cabot Trail Restaurants (Where to Eat)
Outside of the winter months when tourism slows dramatically, there are lots of choices for delicious food and cold drinks. We’ll list some of the ones we’ve tried personally below.
Coastal Restaurant & Pub: If you’re looking for delicious pub food that’s served in big portions, this is the spot. From their famous Ringer burger with onion rings and ringer sauce to their delicious Chicken Alfredo with tiger shrimp, we loved every bite. Conveniently located in Ingonish, it’s a popular place to go for food, drinks, and dessert.
Danena’s Bakery & Bistro: If we had to select only one restaurant to visit when we return, Danena’s would win. This small restaurant offers gourmet food cooked by Danena herself. The atmosphere is cute and the food is delicious. In fact, our meal was so good, I had to ask how they cooked the vegetables because the squash was to die for. I wish I could replicate it at home. The menu changes but everything was very, very good. It’s also a bakery, so you can also swing by for a latte and a baked good.
Harbour Restaurant & Bar: It’s been a few years since we made it over to Cheticamp to go back to this restaurant but I’ll always remember the massive lobster dinner I had here while admiring the ocean views right from the window.
Where to Stay on the Cabot Trail
In general, we recommend staying around Ingonish on the east side, Chéticamp on the west side, or anywhere north of those locations. We find most of the activities and sights are north of those two towns. Plus, those towns have the highest concentration of restaurants.
Castle Rock Country Inn: Located near Ingonish, this is the only place open year-round, making it a convenient place to stay throughout the year. We stayed here during the fall and thought it was good. The rooms aren’t fancy but they have everything you need, including beautiful views in some of the rooms that face the ocean. Breakfast is also included here and typically includes eggs, toast, meat, juice, and coffee or tea. It’s only a few minutes’ drive from the Inn to the Helicopter tours, gondola rides, and one of the top hikes in the park.
If you’re looking for something fancy, the Keltic Lodge really caught our eye when we flew over it in a helicopter. It’s located on a slice of land that has water on both sides. It’s widely regarded as the premier resort in the Maritimes and has 120 rooms.
Maison Fiset House: This beautiful bed and breakfast is a great place to stay in Chéticamp. This was our accommodation during our Road to 150 road trip back in 2017. What we loved about it is that it’s a home from 1895 and was built for the village’s first doctor. Each room has a private in-suite bathroom, a balcony, and comes with a full hot breakfast. This place is located quite close to the famous Skyline Trail.
Camping on the Cabot Trail: If you’re looking to RV in Canada or pitch a tent, there are plenty of options for camping along the Cabot Trail as well, including Broad Cove Campground (also home to the Parks Canada oTENTiks), Chéticamp Campground, Ingonsih Beach Campground, Blue Bayou Resort (also home to domes), Two Rivers Wildlife Park Campground, Corney Brook Campground, and many more. Find all the options here.
After the Cabot Trail
Although the Cabot Trail is truly an incredible place to explore, there’s much more to Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada in general. If you’re looking for more ways to enjoy the laid-back east coast, check out our other articles below: