Cape Breton & The Cabot Trail

A rugged coastline surrounds a mountainous interior resulting in endless views. A small population on this large cape means that there is a lot of wilderness to discover. Connected to mainland Nova Scotia by a 1.3 km causeway, Cape Breton Island feels very remote.

Since it’s such a large island with a lot to see, we are recommending a few of our favourite spots for your next trip to Cape Breton.

Nova Scotia’s Scottish Heritage is visible in many places in the province, but nowhere is it more obvious than Cape Breton. The first highway you’ll take after passing over Canso Causeway is called Cellidh Trail (Hwy #19). The Gaelic word translates in English to ‘party’ or ‘social gathering’, which feels like a welcoming name for a road. Ceilidh Trail offers amazing views of the Gulf of St. Lawrence as it passes large sandy beaches, small towns and cute fishing villages. The first stop we suggest is Mabou Beach. A lovely sandy beach is spread out in front of a calm bay. Just before the beach is a small fishing harbour with a lighthouse.

The town of Inverness is another clue to their Scottish heritage. The popular golf course in this cute town has spectacular views of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

One of the cutest views on Cellidh Trail is Margaree Harbour. The town’s placement at the mouth of the Margaree River as it enter the Gulf of St. Lawrence makes it very scenic.

North of Margaree, Cellidh Trail becomes Cabot Trail. The 298 km long Cabot Trail is named after Italian explorer Giovanni Caboto. His name was anglicized to John Cabot. He arrived on Canada’s shores in 1497, sailing on a mission for King Henry VII of England.  

The road has a lot of steep climbs, descents and sharp corners as it follows the outline of the coast. The further north you drive on this famous roadway, the cliffs get larger and larger until it enters Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

There are 26 hiking trail inside the park. Most are short, day hikes. One of the most popular is Skyline Trail. This easy 6 ½ km trail can be done as an out and back or as a loop if you add another 1 ½ kms. We hiked the loop in a CCW direction. Most people take the left branch of the trail so they can walk directly to the lookout. Taking the right branch meant we missed most of the crowd on the way up.  Both directions spend the first 3 or 4 km in the trees, although the CCW loop brings you to more open areas.

Once you arrive at the lookout, a long wooden staircase that takes you down the hill to better and better views of the long coastline and the Cabot Trail. It was a nice view, but not as spectacular as some we have already seen.

As you drive through the park you’ll pass 24 viewpoints. A few require short hikes, but others are along the side of Cabot Trail. After Skyline Trail, the first viewpoint you’ll reach is Fishing Cove. From the highway you look down to see a small cove, far below.

As its name suggests, there are a lot of mountains in the interior of Cape Breton Highlands National Park. You can get a nice view of these highlands from Pleasant Bay Viewpoint.

From here, Cabot Trail cuts across the mountainous interior to reach the coast on the eastern side. The drive takes you through pine forests, offering few views. Once at the coast though, the views are lovely. Plan to stop for a short, 2 km, hike on Jack Pine Trail. The hike meanders through a Jack Pine forest until it reaches a gorgeous rocky inlet. We walked out onto the granite rocks of this tight inlet watching the Atlantic Ocean crash up to their sides. It is one of the prettiest spots we found in the park.

The next few stops come one right after the other but offer slightly different views of the rough coast. A short hike brought us to the pretty MacKinnons Cove. Shortly after we reached Green Cove where we could walk out on to the rocks to the edge of the rough water. Our final stop in this stretch was Lakies Head where we could see all the way down the coast to see Stanley Point in the distance.

Many places in Nova Scotia reveal their connection to the Mi’kmaw people. Towns such as Ingonish, Tatamagouche and Antigonish are examples of this.  Just inside the park gates you’ll find the cute beach town of Ingonish. Sheltered in South Bay, Ingonish Beach is a popular summer spot.

Outside of the park, we had one of the best views on the entire Cabot Trail. From the top of Cape Smokey, the undulating south coast appeared to go on forever beside forested green hills. It is a breathtaking view. From this spot we had a long drive down. The road here has a 13 percent gradient, one of the steepest descents we’ve ever had.

After leaving the highlands we wanted to visit the scenic area around Bras D’Or Lakes. To reach this area from Cape Breton Highlands National Park, you can follow the inland trail, or do as we did and take a small ferry at Englishtown. Since we enjoyed the small LaHavre Cable Ferry a few days earlier we knew we wanted to ride on another. The free ferry holds 14 cars so there may be a wait but it’s still faster and more interesting than driving on the inland highway. It’s a short ride at only 3 minutes to go 150 m to the other side. The ferry is open 24/7 during high season and there are signs on the road letting you know if it’s open or closed.

Bras D’Or Lakes is a large estuary that takes up much of Cape Breton’s interior. On the edge of one of the lakes is the cute village of Baddeck. There are a few short hikes in the area and a lot of options for boating in the estuary.

Tips for visiting Cape Breton

You can drive through Cape Breton Highlands National Park for free, but if you plan to stop, which you most likely will, there is a fee. You can purchase a day pass or use your Annual Discovery Pass at the park gates.

We drove around the island and the park in a clockwise direction, so that’s how we’ll describe it. Either direction would allow you to see these sites, and I don’t think either direction makes it better than the other.

Although the views were lovely, Cape Breton wasn’t as spectacular as we had hoped. Sometimes having low expectations is good when traveling.

Where to stay on Cape Breton

There are many small towns on the island with bed and breakfasts, small hotels and campgrounds. Popular places to stay include Inverness, Ingonish, Baddeck or of the many campgrounds in the park.

Coming Next – Louisbourg – Canada’s Atlantic Fort

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