If you’re looking for the most beautiful landscapes in Nova Scotia, then you need to make Cape Breton Island part of your itinerary. Home to one of Canada’s most scenic road trips, Cape Breton has so much to offer. Winding roads through Cape Breton Highlands National Park, charming fishing communities, amazing restaurants, and endless opportunities for hiking, camping, and waterfall chasing! This guide will help you plan an amazing Cape Breton itinerary along the Cabot trail.
Visiting Cape Breton and driving the Cabot Trail has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. Yet even though I grew up next door in Newfoundland, it only happened this summer. But that’s what this year is all about – discovering what’s in our own backyard.
This trip was in partnership with the Nova Scotia Tourism board as part of the creator coast campaign. I am so grateful to them for supporting local creators during this time and allowing me the opportunity to explore this amazing part of Canada.
Where to Start Your Cape Breton Itinerary
Depending on what direction you are coming from, there are a few options for where you can start your Cape Breton itinerary.
If you’re doing an East Coast Canada road trip and coming from New Brunswick, PEI, or Halifax, you’ll take the Canso Causeway onto Cape Breton and be starting in the South of the island. From there, a great first stop on your Cape Breton itinerary is the town of Inverness. It’s just an hour’s drive from the Causeway.
If you’re traveling from Newfoundland on the ferry via North Sydney, I recommend starting your itinerary on the other side of the Cabot trail in Baddeck, as it is just a 40-minute drive from the ferry.
If you’re flying internally into Nova Scotia, you’ll likely be landing in Halifax. You can easily rent a car from the airport there, it’s about a two-hour drive to Cape Breton. There’s also a small airport you can fly into in Sydney, but I recommend renting a car from Halifax so you can explore other areas of Nova Scotia as well!
Best Places to Visit in Cape Breton
Inverness is a beautiful small town, not to be confused with Inverness Scotland. Although the two share strikingly similar landscapes along with unpredictable weather, and a love for good whiskey.
If you’re interested in discovering the whiskeys of Cape Breton, make a stop at the Glenora Inn & Distillery. When you enter Cape Breton Island via the Causeway, take the Ceilidh Trail/Route 19. It’s a gorgeous road, and you’ll pass right by the Glenora Inn which is about 10-minutes before Inverness. There, you can take a tour of the distillery which is home to North America’s oldest single malt whiskey. They also have a delicious restaurant on-site!
Golfing in Inverness
The Cabot Trail is home to some of the world’s best golf resorts, one of which is Cabot links where I stayed in Inverness. Honestly, I’ve never played golf before – but when in Rome, right?
I booked a golf lesson with one of the instructors there who patiently taught me as I swung (and missed) more than I’d like to admit. After the golf lesson, we took a drive along the many kilometers of courses at Cabot Links which is quite impressive. The golf courses go right along the coastline and some of them you are actually meant to hit the ball over the cliffs/ocean to the hole. My golf skills aren’t at that level yet, but I enjoyed the views.
Inverness Beach and Boardwalk
Inverness has one of the prettiest beaches I found while in Cape Breton. You can take a stroll along the charming boardwalk, which leads you down to the beach. At the time I was visiting there was no one on the beach because a thunderstorm was looming in the sky, but I’d imagine on a hot sunny day this place would be packed.
I didn’t even know we had beaches like this in Atlantic Canada, the golden sand is so soft to walk on. I managed to walk a good while on the beach and made it back to my hotel room just in time before the thunderstorm started! I love watching them, but it’s much more pleasant from the comfort of inside.
There’s also a beach hut here serving food which I really wanted to try, but sadly it was closed the day I was there. One of the other content creators on this campaign has written a review of it along with everything else you need to know about eating in Cape Breton.
I spent a lot of my time in Cape Breton chasing waterfalls but Egypt Falls was my favorite. It’s just a half-hour drive from Inverness and then a 15-minute hike down from the road. It’s a steep hike, but there is a rope there to help you get down. I saw families with small children while I was there, so it is accessible.
There were a couple of groups of people when I first got to the waterfall, but after a while, I had the entire thing to myself and managed to get my drone up where I discovered a whole other part of the falls. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Hiking back out is a lot harder, but the rope is very helpful!
Gypsum Mine Lake
Gypsum Mine Lake is another popular hiking trail/swimming hole in the Inverness area. It’s just a 20-minute walk to the lake from the parking lot, which is a stunning turquoise color. You can also climb to the top for a birds-eye view, but unfortunately, it started pouring on me and I had to make a beeline for my car. You may be sensing a theme here!
Where to stay in Inverness: If you want to treat yourself, book a room at the Cabot Links golf resort. I was hosted here and it’s one of the nicest hotels I’ve stayed in. If you’re into golf, even better. This luxury resort has two acclaimed world top 100 courses. But even if you’re not into golf, this place is a treat to stay in. It’s got award-winning accommodations, private beaches, and three delicious on-site restaurants.
Chéticamp is an excellent place to base yourself if you want to enjoy the many activities in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. It’s just a couple kilometers away from the entrance of the park and has all the amenities you need including some excellent accommodation and dining options. Cheticamp also has a wonderful Acadian culture and many activities to offer itself.
Cheticamp Whale Watching
You can go whale watching in Cheticamp which is something I really wanted to do, knowing that Cape Breton has some of the best whale watching in the world. However as you may have picked up on, the weather was not on my side during this trip.
After six days of whale watching tours being canceled due to high winds, I managed to get on one on my last day in Cheticamp. However because the seas were so rough, we didn’t find any whales. I’ve been spoiled with whales and puffins in Newfoundland all summer, so I guess I can’t complain too much!
On the bright side, we did find some seals which are just so cute bopping their heads in the water. And at least I can say I’ve seen Cape Breton from land, sea, and sky now. The coastline of Cape Breton is stunning to see from that viewpoint.
Also, the whale watching tour operators here are so confident that they will offer you a refund you for your trip if you don’t see any whales. So, what’s the harm in trying?
Helicopter Tour from Cheticamp with Celtic Air
One of my favorite activities from the trip was taking a helicopter tour with Celtic Air Services from Cheticamp. The sun finally came out for me that day and the views were unreal.
What made the ride even more exhilarating was that we decided to take the side doors off the helicopter before flying! I’ve been in helicopters before but this was an entirely new experience. We flew right over the park and got incredible views of the Cabot Trail, Cheticamp, and the breathtaking landscapes of Cape Breton including some secret waterfalls. We even flew over Gypsum mine lake!
It was such an amazing experience to get a birds-eye view of one of the most beautiful places in Canada. I can’t recommend this experience enough!
Must eat: Visit L’abri Cafe Restaurant for brunch/lunch/dinner/all the meals. This place is so good I went here twice.
Where to stay: I was hosted at Auberge Bay Wind Suites which are these quaint seaside self-contained apartments. The inside isn’t luxurious, but it has everything you need for a comfy stay, and the location is perfect. It’s right in the center of town next to the ocean, which you can see from your bed. There’s also a cute lighthouse just outside of it, and a nice restaurant attached to the rooms.
Cape Breton Highlands National Park
Cape Breton Highlands National Park has been on my bucket list for so long and it was well worth the wait. Not only is this park home to one of the most beautiful road trips in the world, but it’s also full of opportunities for outdoor adventure including some of the top hikes in Cape Breton.
You need to have a valid Parks Canada pass when you’re inside the park. You can buy them at the entrance which is shortly after leaving Cheticamp.
Hiking in Cape Breton Highlands National Park
There are 26 hiking trails in Cape Breton Highlands National Park so you could spend weeks just hiking the trails here. If you’re interested in doing that, a great time to visit is during the Hike the Highlands festival which takes place every September when the beautiful fall colors are in bloom.
The most popular hike in the park is the Skyline Trail. Hiking the trail at sunset has become a signature experience in the park, so I went to see what all the fuss is about. I was running late that day, so I actually got there just after the sun had gone down, but it was still stunning. The trail itself is easy. It’s a mostly flat, 8.7km gravel loop. There is a boardwalk and stairs at the main viewpoint, where you get incredible views of the Cabot Trail.
If you’re looking for a short trail with fewer people, check out La Chemin du Buttereau. It’s a 4.6km path that takes you through a beautiful forest with glimpses of the Chéticamp River. The trailhead is near the turn off for the Cheticamp campground.
Parks Canada even has a 10 hikes in one day challenge, which will earn you a souvenir magnet if you show proof at one of the visitor’s center! There are so many gorgeous hiking trails in Cape Breton, I wish I could have done them all.
Viewpoints in Cape Breton Highlands National Park
You’ll be wanting to stop for photos every two minutes while driving through Cape Breton Highlands National Park, and luckily, they’ve done an amazing job building lookout points for you to do just that. One not to miss is the Cape Breton Highlands Lookout which is shortly after the entrance coming from Cheticamp.
Another fun thing you can do in Cape Breton Highlands National Park is book a Perfect Picnic. You place an order the night before and then pick up the meal which will be prepared by a local restaurant. Then you can bring your picnic to a scenic location in the park! Unfortunately, they weren’t running the picnics this year due to COVID, but hopefully next year they will be back. I think this would be such a cute way to enjoy the scenery of the park!
The next town you’ll come across driving through on this Cabot Trail itinerary is Pleasant Bay. It’s a small quaint fishing village that you can take whale watching tours from. I didn’t get to spend a lot of time here, but there are some nice places to stay here as well as restaurants. Rusty Anchor is a good one. If you want to stay further in the park then Cheticamp, Pleasant Bay is a good option.
Top of the Island – Cape North / Meat Cove
If you want to get off the beaten path from the traditional Cabot Trail itinerary, turn left at Cape North and head up the most Northerly point of Cape Breton. At the very top, there’s a town called Meat Cove, which is home to one of the coolest camping spots I’ve seen in Atlantic Canada. It’s right on the cliff!
The views here are fantastic, but the road to Meat Cove is rough. It’s a dirt road, and it’s filled with potholes in classic Canadian fashion. I did drive this in my tiny Chevrolet Cruze, but I was nervous!
Tenerife Mountain Hike
There’s a hike on the way up to Meat Cove called the Tenerife mountain trail. It’s a short but extremely challenging hike that will give you 360-views of Cape Breton Island. This hike is not for the faint of heart – it climbs almost 200m at the very end, and it’s a scramble up rocks to get to the top.
I hiked this solo and had to give myself a lot of encouragement to make it, but felt so rewarded when I got there. The views are unparalleled to anything else in Cape Breton. There’s even a guest book you can sign at the top!
The entrance to the hike is a bit confusing, as there’s no sign. You turn off at Cape North onto Bay St. Lawrence Road and drive for about 4km. You will see a small parking area to the right, and the entrance to the hike is across from that. It’s also marked on Google Maps, although that will take you slightly past the actual trailhead.
On the other side of the Cabot Trail is the town of Ingonish. It’s a great place to stay if you want to feel like you’re inside the park while having the amenities of a town.
Ingonish has beautiful beaches, whale watching tours, golf courses, and hiking trails. It’s home to the Franey Trail, which I’ve heard is stunning. Middle Head Hiking trail is another popular one nearby. It seems like I’m going to have to make a trip back to Cape Breton, there just wasn’t enough time for all the hikes!
If you do anything in Ingonish, go to the beach here. It’s absolutely stunning! You’ll have to be here at sunrise if you want to see it over the beach, but even the light from the sunset on the other side was gorgeous. The castle-like building you can see in the background of the above photo is the Keltic Lodge at the Highlands which is a great option if you want to stay in Ingonish.
Mary Ann Falls
Mary Ann Falls is another beautiful waterfall you can visit in Cape Breton near Ingonish. I stopped here on my way from Cheticamp to Ingonish while driving along the Cabot Trail. The turn off is well marked with a sign, and then you just follow a dirt road to a parking lot. From there it’s just a short walk to the falls. There’s a viewpoint to see them from above as well as from below. This is another waterfall I had all to myself!
Baddeck is considered to be the beginning and the end of the Cabot Trail, so no matter where you’re coming from it’s the perfect place to start/end your trip. It’s a charming town that was founded in the 1900s. Although it’s small, there are many great accommodation options and restaurants for tourists here.
Water Sports on the B’ras D’or Lake
Situated along the shores of the stunning Bras d’Or Lake, Baddeck is the perfect place for water sports such as sailing, kayaking, and paddleboarding. You can rent kayaks and SUP from the Inverary Resort adventure center and paddle over to Kidston Island Lighthouse. Do this in the morning so you can see the reflection of the lighthouse in the water – it’s gorgeous!
Uisge Ban Falls
Another waterfall? Of course. I never stop chasing them! This waterfall is inside Uisge Ban Falls provincial park which you can get to from Baddeck in about twenty minutes. There’s a parking lot inside the park and from there it’s a half-hour easy walk to the waterfall. There’s a lower waterfall you can easily access but you can also get to the top part by climbing up. It’s very steep but doable!
Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site
Baddeck is the hometown of Alexander Graham Bell, a renowned inventor best known for inventing the telephone. To commemorate his genius, Parks Canada established the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site. Inside the museum, you can learn about the fascinating life of this inventor and see original artifacts, films, and photographs that highlight his scientific and humanitarian work.
Must eat: Baddeck is home to many excellent restaurants but one I loved was The Freight Shed. It’s right on the water and they have delicious seafood options including of course the iconic Nova Scotia lobster roll.
Where to stay: I was hosted at Inverary resort which is a lovely place to stay in Baddeck. If you want to feel like you’re at a cottage – this is the place! The interior of the rooms could use some updating, but the facilities are gorgeous. It’s set right on Bras d’Or Lake and there’s a private beach with chairs to relax on which is the perfect place to soak in the sunset.
My favorite part about Inverary resort is that there’s an adventure center onsite, where you can rent kayaks, paddleboards, jet skis, and boats – you can even rent a floating picnic table! There’s also an on-site spa where you can treat yourself to a massage, pedicure, or manicure. It was raining one of the days I was in Baddeck, so this was the perfect thing to do. Inverary also has a restaurant on-site which serves delicious food as well as live music daily.
Another absolutely gorgeous spot to visit in Cape Breton is the North River, which is in between Ingonish and Baddeck. There’s not a lot to do here, but the scenery is spectacular and it’s the perfect place to go if you want to experience kayaking in Cape Breton. I booked myself a room at these extremely cozy cabins on my last night, which is basically my dream home!
Sydney is the capital city of Cape Breton. If you’re coming from Newfoundland off the ferry, then you’ll be arriving in North Sydney which is right next to it. Sydney has many accommodation options and restaurants, so this can be a good option to stay if you need to catch the ferry the next morning.
Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site
If you have some extra time on your Cape Breton itinerary, another great place to visit is the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site. It’s a 40-minute drive from Sydney.
There, you can step back in time to see French colonial life between 1713 and 1758. The original site was destroyed, but Parks Canada rebuilt it to 1/4 of its size. It’s the largest reconstruction of it’s kind in North America, offering visitors a unique and fun way to learn about this period of history. There’s also a beautiful lighthouse you can visit in Louisberg!
How long to spend on the Cabot Trail?
I spent a week in Cape Breton driving along the Cabot Trail and still didn’t have enough time to do everything that I wanted! Even though the Cabot Trail is just under 300km, most people recommend spending 3-5 days driving it as there is so much to do. In my experience, I was stopping every two seconds for photos because it’s so gorgeous. While it is possible to drive in one day, this would feel very rushed. I’d recommend spending at least 2 nights, and more if possible!
Cabot Trail Itineraries
Cape Breton/Cabot Trail One Week Itinerary
If you’ve got a week to explore Cape Breton Island, here’s a sample itinerary leaving from Halifax:
- Day 1: Leave Halifax for Inverness, stay overnight in Inverness
- Day 2: Explore Inverness in the morning, Depart for Cheticamp in the afternoon (1 hr drive), stay overnight
- Day 3: Explore around Cheticamp, stay overnight
- Day 4: Head into Explore Cape Breton Highlands national park, stay overnight in Ingonish
- Day 5: Explore Cape Breton Highlands National Park, head to Baddeck in the evening
- Day 6: Explore Baddeck, stay overnight
- Day 7: Depart for home
Cabot Trail 3 Day Itinerary
If you’ve only got a few days to explore the park, I recommend spending one night in either Cheticamp or Plesant Bay, and then another in Ingonish or Baddeck. This will give you time to see both sides of the park. You can drive from Cheticamp and Baddeck through the Cabot Trail in three hours, but it’s so beautiful that you’ll want to give yourself a full day to do it because you’ll be stopping so much!
Best Time to Visit Cape Breton
Cape Breton is a destination that can be visited year-round but the most popular time to visit is during the summer when the days are long and weather is warm, making activities such as swimming and kayaking accessible. Although in the maritime, you are never guaranteed good weather. I visited the last week of August and got quite a bit of rain and wind!
Another great time to visit Cape Breton is during the fall when the leaves change color. It’s actually one of the most beautiful places to see the fall colors in Canada! And don’t discount visiting Cape Breton during the wintertime. It’s a perfect place for winter sports such as snowshoeing and cross-country skiing given all the wilderness.
What to Pack for Cape Breton
If you plan to enjoy the great outdoors while road tripping in Cape Breton, here’s what I suggest packing.
- Light hiking boots for the trails. I use La Sportiva Hiking Boots.
- Small backpack for carrying water & hiking essentials on the trail
- Car phone mount so you can see directions easily while driving (there is no service many parts of the trail, so download them offline on Google Maps, or bring a GPS.
- Optional: GoPro and car mount for capturing the epic drive!
- Sunglasses – essential for when you are driving into the sun
- Rain Jacket/Wind Breaker – based on my experience, this is essential
- Parks Canada Discovery Pass – This will get you unlimited admission for 12 months at over 80 parks across Canada. This may be worth it if you plan to visit a lot of the national parks, which I highly recommend!
- Insect Repellant– they are fierce in the summertime
- Roadside emergency kit
- Canada Road Map
- First Aid Kit
- Blankets and Pillows – Just in case. It can get cold in Canada, even in the summertime!
- Audiobooks for the road. I love Audible for this!
- A car charger for charging your devices
Visiting Cape Breton and driving the Cabot Trail is definitely something that should be on your Canada bucket list. It’s such a beautiful part of the country, I can’t believe I didn’t get here sooner. And with so many hiking trails left to explore, I have a feeling I’ll be back again.
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