This article was originally published in July 2016 and updated in August 2018.
With dramatic, rocky coastlines, waterfalls, vibrant bays and beaches galore, it’s easy to see why the Cabot Trail is considered one of the world’s best road trips. The 300 kilometre loop around Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton shows off some of the east coast’s best landscapes, while highlighting the history of the area’s Scottish roots.
The iconic Cabot Trail traces the island’s north shore, and has dozens of vantage points revealing panoramic views of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the beaches throughout Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Some sharp-eyed visitors have even been known to spot the likes of whales or eagles, so there’s no telling what spectacular sight one might be lucky enough to come across during a day on the trail. Regardless of whether your journey takes two days or two weeks, here are 13 stunning spots on the Cabot Trail worth stopping for.
One of the most developed spots along the Cabot Trail, Ingonish truly has something for everyone. Golfers will enjoy the scenic Highland Links Golf Course, those looking for R&R can relax at the charming Keltic Lodge which includes a pool and spa, families can camp at sandy Ingonish Beach and practice their surfing skills, while outdoor enthusiasts will be in heaven exploring the surrounding trails.
Popular hikes include the Franey loop which takes two to three hours, as well as Middle Head trail. The 3.8 kilometre pathway winds through a shaded forest before emerging along the coastline, and ends at an incredible lookout point where you’re surrounded by shimmering blue water and craggy cliffsides. The trail is not physically demanding, but there are loose rocks so good footwear is recommended.
Don’t miss: Main Street Restaurant and Bakery, which serves up the likes of seafood sandwiches and linguine overflowing with scallops, crab and mussels. So fresh, you’d think the lobster went straight from the ocean to your plate!
Insider tip: Head to the charming Keltic Lodge to pick up a delicious picnic before hitting the road again. The adorable set up includes a blanket and basket to take home as a souvenir, as well as sandwiches, drinks, fruit and desserts. Also available at the Harbour Restaurant in Chéticamp.
Heading counter-clockwise (which many consider the best route), your next stop will be Lakies Head. Massive reddish boulders are thrown up against the shoreline, creating a natural walkway for visitors to get out and explore the coast. A popular area for lobster fishing boats, it’s also possible to see whales breaching here.
Just one of many great spots to stop for a picnic, the Big Intervale day use area straddles the serene North Aspy river and isn’t frequented by tour groups, so chances are you’ll get to enjoy the whole place to yourself.
The Aspy Fault
This spectacular spot overlooks a lush valley where the Aspy Fault line runs for about 40 kilometres, and could prove that Cape Breton was once connected to Africa—so it’s understandably a popular spot for the geologists in the crowd. Not only does it hold scientific significance, but it’s also neat to see how tightly the highway hugs the cliffside from the North Mountain lookout point.
One of the more historical spots along the Cabot Trail, Lone Shieling is a stone shepard’s hut that pays homage to the area’s Scottish roots. Farmers often built similar structures in the Scottish Highlands to provide shelter for themselves and their livestock, and visitors to the Canadian version are able to tour the inside before wandering out to the surrounding pathways that wind through the lush Grande Anse Valley.
Remember that picnic you picked up in Ingonish? This is the perfect place to enjoy it. The day use area can be packed with tour groups, but all it takes is a 15 minute walk through the fragrant forest to let you escape the crowds. The shaded, leaf-covered pathways wind past a bubbling brook, leading to quite the spectacle: a gorgeous, gushing waterfall.
Known as the island’s whale-watching capital, this village was settled by Scottish immigrants back in the early 1800s. Today, visitors can head out onto the water in search of ocean life, watch the fisherman come back into the harbour, or simply relax and soak in the views.
Didn’t have time to stop in Pleasant Bay? Just a couple minutes down the road, you’ll head up a hill and come to a fantastic lookout point with MacKenzie Mountain on one side and the shimmering Gulf of St. Lawrence on the other. Not only does this stop have a great view of Pleasant Bay, but pilot, minke and fin whales can be spotted in the gulf between May and November.
It’s only a quick pit stop unless you’re up for the eight kilometre trek that winds down MacKenzie Mountain into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but this viewpoint is a gooder. The roadside stop looks down on Fishing Cove, which is nestled in a bay 335 metres below and was once home to a thriving farming and fishing community. Today, it’s a gorgeous vantage point where leafy green forests contrast the piercing blue water, making it impossible to not want to run down and take a dip.
If you’re going to do one hike along the Cabot Trail, make sure it’s the Skyline Trail. Located about 20 minutes away from Pleasant Bay the 7.5 kilometre pathway hugs the coastline around the Gulf of St. Lawrence, affording a spellbinding view of the famed roadway. Moose sightings are frequent, and other wildlife in the area include bears, whales and eagles.
While the well-groomed Skyline Trail is mostly flat, it can be a bit of a grind due to the distance, and takes more than two hours to do even at a quick pace. However, the hard work pays off when you get to the viewing platforms perched 250 metres high on French Mountain, where you can enjoy the iconic view of the Cabot Trail winding along the steep cliffside. The scene is particularly spectacular at sunset, and Parks Canada also offers guided walking tours during the summer months.
Insider tip: Tight on time? Head straight to the viewing platforms which are on the left side of the trail at the fork, since the rest of the lookout points along the loop aren’t much different than what you’ll see on other parts of the Cabot Trail. It takes about 45 minutes to get to the platforms from the parking lot, and once you’ve had your fill of scenery you can hightail it straight back—saving yourself at least 45 minutes.
Those who aren’t up for tackling the Skyline Trail can enjoy the next best thing at the Cap Rouge lookout point, located just a short distance farther along the road. Be sure to have your selfie stick ready for this pit stop!
One of the larger towns along the Cabot Trail, Chéticamp has lots of accommodation options, restaurants and offers sightseeing cruises. The Acadian fishing village is also the gateway to the Chéticamp campground in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, where visitors can pitch a tent or relax in an equipped camp site or oTENTik. During the summer, Parks Canada also offers a learn-to-lobster boil right on the beach—an experience which is not to be missed!
Since no visit to Cape Breton would be complete without hitting the water, carve out some time in Baddeck for a cruise around the Bras d’Or Lakes with Amoeba Sailing Tours. Their beautiful sailboat glides through the piercing blue water as you keep an eye out for Alexander Graham Bell’s mansion, admire the shoreline, and squeal with delight as massive bald eagles circle the boat.
Insider tip: Have a bit of time to spare? Head to Big Bras d’Or which is about half an hour from Baddeck, and book a Bird Island Boat Tour to get a glimpse of some adorable puffins.
Cabot Trail accommodations
With towns situated all along the trail, there are many places to stay on the Cabot Trail including hotels, inns and hostels in Pleasant Bay, Baddeck, Ingonish or Chéticamp. However, one of the best ways to enjoy the scenery is to stay outdoors, and do some Cabot Trail camping in Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
No gear? No problem! Parks Canada has equipped campsites in both Ingonish and Chéticamp, along with oTENTiks which are sort of like Canadian glamping. The canvas structures have a table and chairs, heater, fire pit, power and enough bunk beds to sleep six to eight people.
For a super unique experience, get on the wait list for one of the cocoons in Ingonish, which debuted in 2016. Nestled high among the trees with a clear view straight to the ocean, it’s safe to say that sleeping in cocoon with nothing more than a thin canvas between you and the great outdoors is one of the most memorable nights you’ll ever have.
Cabot Trail itinerary
Which Cabot Trail route is best? Popular opinion states that driving the Cabot Trail in a counter-clockwise direction provides the best views—plus, the coast will be on your side of the road so nothing can block your vantage point.
How long does it take to do the Cabot Trail drive? As the route is only 300 kilometres, it’s possible to drive the whole trail in about five hours. But what’s the fun in that? The best part about the Cabot Trail is getting out of the car to enjoy the lookout points, hike to waterfalls or relax at the beach, so try to budget at least three nights for the journey.
Cabot Trail map
This map of the Cabot Trail outlines the suggested route above.
What’s your favourite viewpoint? Share your secret spot in the comments below!
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Globe Guide explored the Cabot Trail in partnership with Parks Canada. As always, hosts have no editorial influence on articles.