Cabot Trail Road Trip: 3 Days in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Cabot Trail Road Trip: 3 Days in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

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Perhaps you’ve recently heard about Cape Breton Island.  After all, it has gained a reputation for being one of the top travel destinations in North America. This tiny but beautiful island just East of mainland Nova Scotia on Canada’s East Coast has always been a popular destination for history buffs, culture lovers and outdoor adventure seekers.  However, in the last few years, the island has been getting some recognition. Travelers come for the island’s renowned hospitality, the world-class museums and the popular cultural events but most of them come for one thing; an epic road trip along what is said to be one of the most scenic drives on the continent. 

Cabot Trail Road Trip: 3 Day Itinerary in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

The unofficial capital of Cape Breton Island is the city of Sydney and this is likely where you will start your Cabot Trail road trip. First things first – get onto the 125 highway, drive for about 20 minutes and take the exit to the Trans Canada Highway near Sydney Mines.  Keep going over the big bridge at Seal Island and over Kelly’s Mountain. Partway down the mountain, you will see the first exit to the Cabot Trail via Englishtown. There are 3 exits in total and there are two ways to do the Cabot Trail; counterclockwise or clockwise. For this itinerary, we will travel clockwise and take the third exit past Baddeck. 

Once over Kelly’s Mountain, keep driving until you see a big red barn called The Red Barn.  The exit to the Cabot Trail is right next to it.

Every trip around the Cabot Trail since I was a kid always started with a stop at The Red Barn. Back then there was a mini-putt and petting zoo. Those things are gone but the gift shop has some great Cape Breton souvenirs and there is a nice little restaurant on site. 

Day 1 – Onto the Margarees

This long, windy section of the Cabot Trail passes through an area of rolling hills and deep valleys along the famous Margaree River. Lake O’Law Provincial Park is a nice spot to stop and take a break but if it’s coffee and sweet treats you are craving for the drive ahead, The Dancing Goat Cafe is a must-stop.

As you drive along this country road, you will notice there are a lot of roads going off to the right and left. They are not part of the Cabot Trail but I strongly suggest that you take a few of them and explore the beautiful Margaree Valley and area.  I must warn you though; you might get lost but it’ll be worth it. During your detours, you will find notable attractions including Egypt Falls and The Margaree Salmon Museum.  This area of the island is very remote and not many tourists venture off the main road but you’ll always be able to find your way back to the Cabot Trail. 

Where the Land Meets the Sea

If you’ve been wondering where the ocean is during the first leg of your journey, you’ll find it at Margaree Harbour. Go over the bridge and head towards Cheticamp.  With rolling hills and valleys on one side and the ocean on the other, this stretch of road is one of my favorites along the trail. Pass through pretty little villages such as Cap LeMoine, Grand Etang and Saint Joseph du Moine before arriving in Cheticamp.

The Heart of Acadian Culture in Cape Breton

You may have heard that Cape Breton is a mix of several cultures and the French Acadian culture is proudly displayed in the town of Cheticamp.  Don’t worry, most of the townspeople can speak English as well. 

As you approach the town, you will see a sign pointing to Cheticamp Island.  Once again, this will take you off the Cabot Trail for a while but it’s well worth it.  Cheticamp Island is a beautiful, windswept stretch of land with a long sandy beach, a gravel road leading to a scenic lighthouse and a nice walking trail leading around the top end of the island.  The beach is great for swimming and is known for its warm, shallow waters. 

Back on the Cabot Trail, you’ll start noticing a variety of restaurants.  It must be that time so might I suggest you grab a bite to eat at one of the Restaurants (they are all fantastic – I love the Nachos at Le Gabriel) and enjoy your meal outdoors on a picnic table along the boardwalk at Quai Mathieu in the center of town?  If you care for dessert, Wabo’s Pizza is situated right on the boardwalk and has deep-fried cheesecake. Yes, you heard that right. There’s such a thing as deep-fried cheesecake and it’s delicious. After your meal, stretch your legs with a walk through the vibrant little town and perhaps you will find some live entertainment The Doryman Pub. Cheticamp is the perfect half-way point to stop for the night and rest up for the day ahead and there are two campgrounds and a number of hotels, bed and breakfasts and cabins.  

Day 2 – Cape Breton Highlands National Park

As you leave Cheticamp, you will arrive at the entrance to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.  You will need a permit to use the facilities and amenities in the park and it can be purchased at the visitor’s center or in the booth at the entrance to the park.  This next stretch of road is what many people consider to be “the real Cabot Trail”. This is the section you see in pictures, TV commercials, and guidebooks. This is where the mountains really meet the sea. 

The national park has many look-offs, picnic areas and hiking trails that are well-marked so there are plenty of places to stretch your legs, snap some photos and admire the stunning scenery. Wildlife is plentiful so keep an eye out for moose, coyote, bobcat, fox, deer, and black bear.

Along this stretch, you will climb three mountains; French Mountain, MacKenzie Mountain, and North Mountain. On French Mountain, you will come across a sign for the Skyline Trail.  It’s the most popular trail in Cape Breton and is well worth the two-hour hike. Don’t blink coming down MacKenzie Mountain or you will miss the spectacular views!

Pleasant Bay is the next village along the trail and I must say, it’s quite pleasant. The views are spectacular and this is where you’ll find the only monastery on Cape Breton Island.  Keep a lookout for Red River Road on the left and drive for about twenty minutes. The peaceful grounds at Gampo Abbey, which is a Buddhist monastery in the Shambhala tradition, are open to visitors.  There’s a pretty little walking trail and a Stupa of Enlightenment.

At the base of North Mountain, you will come across a seemingly ill-placed hut along the highway.  This is actually a replica of a Scottish crofter’s hut. I personally love stopping here. Not only can you learn about the Scottish settlers and their heritage, but you can also take a stroll along a short trail through a beautiful old-growth hardwood forest featuring 350-year-old sugar maple trees.

As you continue over North Mountain, you will see more beautiful scenery consisting of deep valleys.  At Cape North, the road splits and you have the option to continue along the Cabot Trail or take a side trip to the northernmost reaches of Cape Breton Island where you can explore the villages of Bay St. Lawrence and Meat Cove.

If time doesn’t allow you to venture north off the Cabot Trail, you can get a glimpse of some of the scenery from across the way when you take the Alternate Scenic Route near South Harbour. I know this is a Cabot Trail road trip but I highly suggest taking this alternate route as it’s a lot more scenic than the stretch of highway ahead.  This alternate route takes about 45 minutes and loops right back on the Cabot Trail at Neil’s Harbour. There’s less traffic along this road which winds through quaint little villages along the ocean. Keep an eye out for the mountainous scenery across the way! 

As you pass through Neil’s Harbour, you will see a lighthouse to the left but this isn’t any regular lighthouse; it’s a lighthouse-turned-ice-cream-parlour.  If I remember correctly, the flavor I had the last time I was there was of the salted caramel variety and it was delicious. 

The next stretch of the Cabot Trail after you leave Neil’s Harbour is a long stretch of pristine, natural lands with beaches, look-offs and hiking trails.  Black Brook Beach is known for its soft sand and big waves and to the left of the beach, a little trail will take you to a waterfall with a pool at the bottom. 

Be sure to stop at Lakies Head and Green Cove to take in some of the coastal scenery before heading to Mary Anne Falls.  The gravel road to the falls travels up Broad Cove Mountain for about six kilometers and the walk from the parking lot to the falls is only a few minutes.  If you prefer freshwater swimming over saltwater, the pool at the bottom of these falls is as about as clean and refreshing as it gets. 

When departing Mary Anne Falls, make sure to take a right onto the gravel road that leads to Warren Lake before heading back to the Cabot Trail. There is a nice hiking trail around the lake.  Dusk is peaceful at the lake and, if you are lucky, you may spot some wildlife as I usually do. 

Ingonish is the perfect spot to end a long day. I personally love camping at Broad Cove Campground because you can hear the waves crashing on shore at the beach nearby. Before turning in for the night, grab some grub from Brookside Takeout and enjoy it on a picnic table in one of the parks or sit down to a meal at Coastal (which was featured on the widely popular Food Network show “You Gotta Eat Here”) and enjoy live music on select nights.  Before you head to wherever you are staying for the night, take a stroll along the breakwater near the fishing wharves at The Point. The panoramic view from here is one of the best on the island as it’s almost entirely surrounded by water and mountains. You’ll have quite the treat if it’s a full moon!

Day 3 – Ingonish and the Rest of the Trail

Ingonish is known for its beaches and an abundance of outdoor activities.  Start your morning with some hiking at Broad Cove Mountain, Franey or Middle Head before it gets too hot.  Come afternoon, you will want to hit the beaches to cool off. North Bay Beach is the longest beach in the area and an afternoon can be spent walking the long stretch of sandy coastline or swimming in the warm waters.  Ingonish Beach is the most popular beach in Ingonish and if you don’t mind crowds and it also has a fairly long stretch of soft sand and warm waters perfect for swimming. I always like to end my day in Ingonish with a trip to the Bean Barn Cafe.  Their baked goods are to die for, especially the cinnamon rolls and carrot cake. I make sure to grab a hot coffee to go and I enjoy it while watching the sun go down at Ingonish Beach.

Now for the long drive back to the city.  Be extra careful while traveling this stretch of the Cabot Trail especially at night because there are lots of moose and sometimes they come out onto the road!  Your first hurdle is Cape Smokey Mountain. If it’s still bright enough, you will appreciate the scenic views as you navigate the hairpin turns up and down the mountain.  If you’re lucky, you will have the lonely stretch of Cabot Trail along the North Shore to yourself so you can enjoy the leisurely drive through the rural countryside. If you need some snacks for the road or just want to stretch your legs, stop at the Wreck Cove General Store which is an iconic, long-standing business offering delicious lobster sandwiches and anything else you need for the road.

When you reach the intersection that gives you the option to turn right towards St. Ann’s or go straight to Englishtown, you need to decide whether you would like to take another long drive through the countryside or cut some time off your trip and take a small car ferry across the bay at Englishtown.  Both are nice but I usually like to take the long way around to delay going home. Whether you take the long way or the short way, you will soon be back on the Trans Canada Highway and the end of your Cabot Trail road trip. 

The Best Time to Travel The Cabot Trail

The Cabot Trail is stunning in every season but the best time for a road trip is between Late June and Mid-October.  If you wish to swim in the ocean, mid-July to mid-August is the best time and if it’s the spectacular fall colors you wish to see, the first two weeks in October are when the leaves are at their brightest.  A winter road trip is possible but the weather is very unpredictable in the highlands. Ski Cape Smokey in Ingonish is the main draw for people who road trip around the Cabot Trail in Winter. The Cabot Trail can be done in one day however, I suggest you don’t attempt this!  The best way to experience all it has to offer is to put aside at least three days or more.   

Highlights Overview

Best Hiking Trails

  • Acadian Trail in Cheticamp at the entrance to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. 
  • The Skyline Trail between Cheticamp and Pleasant Bay
  • Franey in Ingonish
  • Middle Head in Ingonish
  • Broad Cove Mountain in Ingonish

Provincial Parks

  • Lake O’Law Provincial Park
  • Cape North Provincial Park
  • Cape Smokey Provincial Park
  • St. Ann’s Provincial Park

Restaurants

  • The Dancing Goat – Margaree
  • Belle View Restaurant – Belle Cote
  • Le Gabrielle Restaurant – Cheticamp
  • Wabo’s Pizza – Cheticamp
  • The Rusty Anchor – Pleasant Bay
  • Coastal Restaurant – Ingonish
  • The Seagull – Ingonish
  • Main Street Restaurant – Ingonish
  • The Bean Barn Cafe – Ingonish
  • Clucking Hen Cafe and Bakery – Englishtown

Campgrounds

  • The Lakes – Lake O’Law
  • Live Life in Tents – Margaree Forks
  • Plage St. Pierre – Cheticamp Island
  • Cheticamp Campground – Cheticamp
  • Corney Brook -Petit Etang
  • MacIntosh Brook – Pleasant Bay
  • Big Intervale – Cape North
  • Hideaway Campground – Dingwall
  • Broad Cove Campground – Ingonish
  • Ingonish Campground – Ingonish
  • Joyful Journeys – Englishtown

Whale Tours

  • Seaside Whale & Nature Cruises – Cheticamp
  • Captain Zodiac – Cheticamp
  • Pleasant Bay Whale Watching – Pleasant Bay
  • Oshan Whale Watch – Dingwall
  • Dixons Zodiac Seafari – Dingwall
  • Keltic Express Zodiac Adventures – Ingonish
  •  Ingonish Whale Watching Tours – Ingonish
  • Beulach Ban Falls near Pleasant Bay
  • North River Kayak
  • Cheticamp Gypsum Mine Swimming Hole
  • Cheticamp Church
  • Tubing the Margaree River with Live Life in Tents in Margaree
  • The Gaelic College in St. Ann’s
  • Giant MacAskill Museum in Englishtown
  • Whale Interpretive Centre – Pleasant Bay
  • Les Trois PIgnons Cultural Center – Cheticamp
  • The Keltic Lodge Resort – Cheticamp

Conclusion

Whenever you decide to visit the Cabot Trail, there will be not only natural wonders waiting for you but exceptional hospitality as well. There is a lot to take in so be sure to set aside enough time to fit in everything you want to hit on your list.

Happy road trip travels!

Let us know in the comments what you think of this road trip idea and if you plan on trying it out!

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