The Cabot Trail in scenic Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia is a world-famous road trip and destination for the avid outdoorsman.
Although it’s known primarily for its breathtaking Skyline Trail, there are many Cabot Trail highlights, hikes, and must-see vistas that peer off dramatic cliffs to the endless ocean!
After seeing countless photos of the Cabot Trail fall foliage online, Paul and I made it a bucket list endeavor to road trip the entire Cabot Trail in October of this year (2019).
I’m happy to say that after our impromptu 2-day adventure, we were able to find the best places to stop along our Cabot Trail drive (including hikes, worthy accommodations, trails, etc.) which I list here.
Below you’ll find everything you need to know to fully enjoy the Cabot Trail!
Planning Your Cabot Trail Road Trip Itinerary
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Driving the Cabot Trail in 1, 2, or 3 days?
First things first, decide how much time you have to explore the Cabot Trail.
I recommend you spend at least two days exploring the Cabot Trail fully, maybe even 3 if you really want to take advantage of the 26 hiking trails that dot the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
You can definitely drive the Cabot Trail in one day. And some people do end up driving the entire trail in one day, finishing the full 185 mile-loop (298 km). But, you’ll likely miss out on some cool hikes and highlights. (It’s better to split the road trip in two!)
The Best Way to Drive the Cabot Trail: Clockwise or Counterclockwise?
Next, decide on your Cabot Trail route. We personally drove the Cabot Trail counterclockwise (so, ending with the famous Skyline Trail).
I can vouch for this epic road trip. The views were amazing and I felt we saved the best for last. The drive incrementally became more beautiful.
However, we met lots of hikers who were driving the Cabot Trail clockwise (starting on the west coast with the Skyline Trail).
We decided to start on the east coast because we were in North Sydney just before (we just got off the ferry from Newfoundland). So it made sense to start this way.
When Is the Best Time to Visit the Cabot Trail?
The Cabot Trail is most enjoyable during the summer or during fall months. I’d say it gains in popularity in late September/October because of the fall colors. But even though we went in early October, fall colors were spotty.
Some parts of the route were loaded with colorful yellow and orange hues and even crimson-red leaves. But lots of the trees were still in the process of changing color.
Our expectations of the Skyline Trail fall colors, for example, weren’t as vivid as what we had seen from the smaller hikes.
Check out our Cabot Trail road trip!
Day 1 Cabot Trail Itinerary: Ingonish to Pleasant Bay
If you follow the Cabot Trail counterclockwise as we did, you will start your road trip on the east coast.
Your first destination will likely be Ingonish, as this is where a cluster of hikes is (just before and after).
Hiking on the East Coast of The Cabot Trail
Hikes around Ingonish:
Hiking Highlights: Middle Head and Franey are the two most recommended trails by the Visitor’s Center. However, we ended up doing Broad Cove Mountain and the views were amazing. The hike was short and sweet (with a bit of uphill).
The Broad Cove Mountain hike took us about 50 minutes round-trip. At the top of the trail, you get unhampered views of Middle Arm, Ingonish, and Warren Lake. Warren Lake, which we drove to after our hike, is a really nice and large park with a loop trail around the lake.
Buying Your Cabot Trail Pass
Speaking of the Visitor’s Center, this is where you will need to purchase your Cabot Trail Park Pass.
Although you entered the Cabot Trail miles before the center, to continue onward, you need a daily pass that costs $7-8 each.
The pass is valid for 24 hours from the time you purchase it! We didn’t know this at first. But because we bought it at 4 pm on Saturday, we had until 4 pm on Sunday to take advantage of the hikes.
East Cabot Trail Accommodations Near Ingonish
The most popular place to stay the night or play golf on the eastern part of the Cabot Trail is at the Keltic Lodge.
If you do the Middle Head hike, you’ll pass by the Keltic Lodge to reach the trailhead. It’s worth checking out!
Although we were able to sleep in our van along the Cabot Trail, I wish we could’ve spent a night at one of the remote chalets or campgrounds. They look cozy and comfortable with nearby golf, spas, restaurants, and more.
Looking at places to eat nearby? The Coastal Pub & Restaurant often features live Celtic music in the evenings. We heard from locals that they play so well!
Waterfalls + Best Vistas
Yes, there are many waterfalls to discover along the Cabot Trail. Two waterfalls, in particular, are worthy of your time: Black Brook Cove Beach + MaryAnn Falls.
Black Brook Cove Beach
Along your drive from Ingonish north to Neil’s Harbor, you’ll find a road-side beach and waterfall at Black Brook Cove Beach.
I didn’t even know of this waterfall until we were driving and just happened to spot the waterfall from the corner of my eye! We stopped, despite the light drizzle of rain, and enjoyed the huge pink rock beach with its scenic waterfall.
As we learned at the Visitor’s Center, the west coast and east coast of the Cabot Trail produces two very different types of rocky beaches:
The west is known for its small pebble rocks. And the east is recognized by its giant, dinosaur egg-like rocks that are subtly pink-hued.
We didn’t get the chance to complete the MaryAnn Falls hike, but I note it here just in case you get the chance to. Ideally, you’d start with this hike and then drive onward to Black Brook Cove Beach (I couldn’t find an alternative drivable route).
Seeing that MaryAnn Falls isn’t on the main Cabot Trail route, it’s easy to miss unless you know about it! The hike down only takes 15-20 minutes. So if you’re willing to take a detour to see some gorgeous falls, make sure to stop here.
As for other vistas, Lakies Head is indicated on Google maps. I don’t remember if we stopped at this spot exactly, but it’s true there are scenic stops virtually every few miles. So make sure to get out and snap a few pictures along the way!
Exiting/Entering The Cabot Trail and National Park
Remember that your park pass is required for all activities within the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
If you choose to visit small towns as we did at Neil’s Harbor, you’ll meander off the trail and your park pass isn’t required (but the time limit still applies).
At the end of our 1st night along the Cabot Trail, we camped in our van at Neil’s Harbor near the quaint lighthouse. There are available washrooms and even showers at the local fire station. The 15-minute hot showers cost just 2 loonies!
Cape North to Pleasant Bay
Optional: If you entered the east side of the Cabot Trail earlier in the day than we did (4 pm), you’ll have more time for hikes and journey time. You can continue the drive from Neil’s Harbor toward Cape North and even onward to Pleasant Bay.
There are three hikes in between this curvy route – Aspy, Lone Sheiling, and MacIntosh Brook Trails.
Day 2 Cabot Trail Itinerary: Pleasant Bay to Skyline Trail and Chéticamp
For the second day of your Cabot Trail itinerary, you’ll experience increasingly dramatic coastal and cliff views. The drive this way climbs up steep slopes, so go slow and take in the views.
As our goal for the day was primarily the Skyline Trail, we didn’t take advantage of the 10 other hikes in the area. But here’s another list if you wish to check them out!
Hiking on the West Coast of The Cabot Trail:
Hiking Trails Between Pleasant Bay – Chéticamp
As you see, there are more easy-level hikes on this side of the Cabot Trail compared to the east. Among them is the world-renown Skyline Trail (which I imagine you’ve already heard about!)
Cabot Trail Highlight: Skyline Trail
Since the Skyline Trail is so popular, I’ll mention a little more detail about our experience hiking this trail.
First, it takes a good 2-3 hours to hike the Skyline Trail, but it remains fairly level and easy.
And second, it gets extremely busy with tourists. The Skyline Trail is definitely a picturesque hike, but the overcrowdedness really sours the experience (in my opinion).
We arrived at mid-day, and it was already crowded (but not as much as it could have been).
I recommend you plan your park pass so that you can either hike the Skyline Trail in the morning or in the evening during sunset. We were just too early for the yummy golden hour.
You can hike directly to/back from the main highlight of the trail. Or, you can hike the larger loop trail. (The loop portion was closed when we went due to an aggressive moose).
Along the way, there are viewpoints and signs explaining the unfortunate loss of Boreal and Acadian forests due to the moose overgrazing. This has resulted in the loss of biodiversity in both plant and animal species that once thrived here.
Other Notable Hikes and Trails on the Cabot Trail
As our park pass expired at 4 pm, we couldn’t take advantage of the other hikes on the west coast. We passed by the trailheads and was only able to stop briefly at a small-pebble beach.
- Le Buttereau Loop
- Le Chemin du Buttereau
- Bog Trail
- Le Vieux Chemin du Cap-Rouge
These are some popular trails on past the Skyline Trail. Across from the Buttereau trailhead/parking lot is also the Grande Falaise (you can’t miss it). This makes a nice, scenic spot for a picnic!
Once you pass the remaining Cabot Trail hikes, you’ll quickly reach Cheticamp. Cheticamp is a quaint, traditional Acadian fishing village. It’s very cute with French-Canadian flare and worth stopping at.
Cheticamp also doubles as the official western entrance for the Cabot Trail. Nearby you can pick up park passes (if you’re driving clockwise).
West Cabot Trail Accommodations in Cheticamp
Considering the Skyline Trail is the most popular destination on the Cabot Trail, there will be lots of options for places to stay in nearby Cheticamp.
Hiking the Cabot Trail Safety Tips
You’ll quickly notice BEWARE signs all over the Cabot Trail warning you about wildlife in the area. Specifically, moose, bear, and coyote.
You should always practice caution while hiking on the trails. Never approach wildlife and give moose ample space (at least 30 ft). Moose can become quickly aggressive and charge. (Exactly why the Skyline Trail loop was closed).
Driving at night is also more risky than driving during the day. Especially when it rains, the Cabot Trail isn’t as safe to drive as there are lots of steep curves, hills, and bends.
Also, remember to take out all the trash that you bring in. There are bear-proof trash bins along the trail to properly dispose of your garbage.
Final Thoughts: Cabot Trail 2 Day Itinerary
Roadtripping the Cabot Trail in 2 days is ultimately a grand adventure!
Whether clockwise or counterclockwise, the Cabot Trail affords the outdoor enthusiast rugged cliffs and pristine ocean vistas, majestic mountains and tranquil lakes, wildlife watching, and so much more.
So, when are you planning your trip around Nova Scotia’s picturesque Cabot Trail?
Watch our Cabot Trail Highlight Reel
Find more adventures in Nova Scotia here!