Canada is a big and beautiful country. With over 5,800 kilometres from Vancouver and Halifax, there are plenty of road trip options. Even so, few compare to driving the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island—with astounding natural beauty, and many unique stops along the way. This is one unforgettable road trip!
Canada boasts (humbly, of course) several scenic road trips—from coast to coast to coast. Some of my favourites include the Icefields Parkway in Alberta, the Lake Superior route in Ontario, and (you guessed it) The World Famous Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island. If you’d enjoy a coastal island road trip, then driving the Cabot Trail is an absolute must.
Driving the Cabot Trail—Quick Tips
Distance: 297 kilometres
Time: Approx. 5 hours (or multiple days)
Food: Grocery stores, farmer’s markets, seasonal restaurants, and more
Accommodation: Campgrounds, lodges, hotels, hostels, and more
Highlights: Trails, campgrounds, artisan shops, look-offs, and more
Q. How much time should I take?
A. Don’t rush your trip. I’d suggest 2-3 days, though it’s possible to drive around in a day (with few stops). I spent 5 days on the trail.
Q. Where should I stay?
A. You can take your tent and go, or book hotels, hostels, lodges, Airbnbs, cottages, and more. Accommodation options abound (but book early in the peak season).
Q. Where should I fuel up?
A. You’ll find gas stations in Ingonish, Cheticamp, and a few other places along the way. Also, be sure your breaks are in good condition—you don’t want to get caught on a steep hill without breaks.
Q. Do I have to do the whole thing?
A. Once you’re in, you’re in! You can either finish the loop or return the way you came. There’s no way to cut across.
Q. Is there cell service?
A. Cell service is spotty. There are areas without any service at all.
Q. Clockwise or Counter-clockwise?
A. If you travel clockwise, you’ll be on the “inside” lane around the trail. This might be better for those who don’t enjoy driving along cliffs. I’ve heard that fewer vehicles travel counter-clockwise, but I drove counter-clockwise and loved it.
Q. When should I go?
A. I would 100% visit again in October—highly recommend!
Why Visit The Cabot Trail?
Cape Breton Island is an outdoor lover’s paradise! There are so many hiking trails and beaches to explore. Whale watching is also possible. If you’re like me, you’ll love the artisan shops with locally-made products. You’ll find many restaurants with delicious seafood cuisine as well—lobster or clam chowder, anyone?
If you choose October, take in the Celtic Colours International Festival in Sydney (it’s incredible!). Last but not least, the fall colours of bright yellows, oranges, and reds will delight your eyes. Need I say more?
Plan Your Stops
Before driving the Cabot Trail, I’d recommend mapping out your stops to make the most of your trip. I planned multiple stops before spending 5 days on the Cabot Trail (which, to be honest, wasn’t enough time for me….). Here’s what I did:
Day 1: Canso Causway to Broad Cove Campground—Drive across the Canso Causeway and follow the Trans Canada to the beginning of the Cabot Trail. Continue to Ingonish where you can purchase a national park pass (and backcountry pass for Fishing Cove). Broad Cove Campground is very close by, where I stayed for 2 nights.
Day 2: Broad Cove Campground to MacIntosh Brook Campground—The drive from Broad Cove to MacIntosh Brook is less than an hour, so there’s more than enough time to visit White Point and Meat Cove (Nova Scotia’s northern tip!).
Day 3: MacIntosh Brook Campground to Fishing Cove Backcountry Campground—Fishing Cove, the only backcountry campground in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, is just minutes away from MacIntosh Brook.
Day 4: Fishing Cove to Cheticamp Campground—Cheticamp Campground is beautiful and is the end of the Cabot Trail.
I could’ve easily spent a few more days on the Cabot Trail, but I had a decent amount of time to visit a few campgrounds, hike some trails, and enjoy several artisan shops, cafes, and galleries. While I didn’t do everything I planned, it was definitely better than driving around in 1 or 2 days. If you can give at least 4-5 days to the trail, it’ll give you so much more in return.
Here’s a map with most of my stops:
Driving Up the Eastern Coast
To start, drive across the Canso Causeway and follow the Trans Canada to the beginning of the Cabot Trail. This will take about an hour. Don’t miss The Farmer’s Daughter market in Whycocomagh, and enjoy a bit of tradition at The Gaelic College in St. Anns (nice gift shop, too!). After all that, I continued to Ingonish to purchase my backcountry pass for Fishing Cove, as I had my national park pass already.
Broad Cove Campground is very close to Ingonish, so I spent 2 nights here to explore. There are several nice hikes in the area, including Broad Cove Mountain, Cape Smokey, and Middle Head. Come prepared for frosty nights if you plan to sleep in your tent.
After Broad Cove, I meandered my way to MacIntosh Brook Campground at the top of the Cabot Trail. Driving straight to the campground would have only taken an hour, so I stopped at White Point trail after a delicious lunch at Chowder House in Neils Harbour.
Detour to Meat Cove—Northern Tip of Nova Scotia!
Meat Cove is the northernmost settlement in Nova Scotia, at the tip of Cape Breton Island. There’s a worthwhile hike up Meat Cove Mountain for spectacular views of the wilderness and the Atlantic. If you’d like to stay awhile, there’s also a private campground overlooking the ocean in this remote area. Standing on top of Meat Cove Mountain really felt like the edge of the world. What a sense of wonder! If you have the time, take a break from the Cabot Trail to explore this unique part of Nova Scotia.
From MacIntosh Brook Campground to Fishing Cove
MacIntosh Brook Campground is part of Cape Breton Highlands National Park and has 10 unserviced campsites (first-come, first-serve). The online description said the campsites are in a field, which is basically the case. I found a couple of trees for shelter and made camp for the night. In the campground, you’ll find picnic tables, a lodge with a fireplace and sink, and a washroom on site. There are no showers here (but Cheticamp showers were amazing!). There’s a short trail nearby, but I didn’t venture out after a long day. Overall, MacIntosh Brook was a very pleasant spot to spend the night (even though the bathroom could have been cleaner…).
The drive from MacIntosh Brook to Fishing Cove was fairly short, and I was very excited to stay at the only backcountry campground in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. I drove down the nearby Skyline Trail in the morning, and then hiked 6 kilometres into Fishing Cove in the afternoon. It was 100% worth it, but be prepared for cold nights when tenting in October.
Read more: Fishing Cove Backcountry is One of the Best Cape Breton Campgrounds
Fishing Cove to Cheticamp Campground
In the morning, I packed up and hiked back to my car after a breakfast of oatmeal in Fishing Cove, one of the early Scottish settlements. After loading my gear into the car and changing my sweaty shirt, I continued along the Cabot Trail stopping at look-offs along the way.
Cheticamp Campground was my final destination along the Cabot Trail. It’s a beautiful spot, with much-needed showers. L’abri is a delicious restaurant nearby. Oh, and Flora’s gift shop is a must before finishing the journey. When I finished in the area, I detoured to Inverness Beach (lot of sea glass!) before making my way over to Sydney for the festival.
The Cabot Trail is a Special Place
The Cabot Trail is a truly special place. There’s so much deeply rooted tradition, and thriving local business to support along the trail. The Cape Breton Highlands has become one of my favourite national parks in Canada. However you choose to explore Cape Breton, there will always be more waiting for you. I cannot wait to return!
Have you explored the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island? What would you recommend as a must-do? Leave a comment below.
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