Driving the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia

Tips for making the most of your coastal island road trip

Cabot Trail/Cap Rouge, Presquile, Nova Scotia, Canada

Ron Garnett/Getty Images

The Cabot Trail, a scenic roadway that takes you around the greater part of Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island, is one of the most famous drives in Canada. Many visitors to Cape Breton Island set aside an entire day—or several days—to see the Cabot Trail's sights. Because there are so many scenic overlooks, cultural heritage sites and hiking trails on the Cabot Trail, spending some time planning your excursion will make your road trip much more enjoyable.

Choose a Direction

The Cabot Trail makes a loop around Cape Breton Island, cutting across the top of the island and closely following the western and eastern coastlines. If you travel in a clockwise direction, you'll be on the "inside" lane as you drive along both coasts. Because the road goes up and down steep grades and curves, the clockwise direction is better for drivers (and passengers) who dislike driving next to steep drops. Many of the turnoffs into Cape Breton Highlands National Park are right turns if you travel clockwise.

Driving counter-clockwise may give you a better view of some of the more spectacular ocean vistas along the way. While this direction is less popular (it's billed as the direction for the brave driver), it may be easier to handle if you dislike slow traffic, as fewer people travel counter-clockwise.

Whichever direction you choose, you need to be aware of a few essential facts:

  • Once you begin this drive, you have to finish it, either by completing the loop or by turning around and retracing your path. You cannot cut across the center of Cape Breton Island.
  • Tour buses and RVs move very slowly on the grades. Passing lanes are few and far between. Pack your patience.
  • If you are driving your own car, be sure the brakes are in good shape before attempting this drive. You do not want your brakes to fail on one of the 13 percent grades.

Understand the Drive

According to the Cabot Trail tourism map, available at Nova Scotia welcome centers and various museums and merchants on Cape Breton Island, the entire Cabot Trail drive takes approximately five hours. What the map does not tell you is that this time is calculated without any stops. If you plan to pause for meals, hikes or sightseeing beyond the occasional photo stop, you will need to allow an entire day, at a minimum, to drive the Cabot Trail.

Nova Scotia's roads are, for the most part, well-maintained. The Cabot Trail, however, has sections that could stand to be completely repaved. Nova Scotia's harsh winters and summer tourists' vehicles take their toll on the Cabot Trail. There are potholes, bumpy cold-patched areas and gravelly spots along the way. Take your time, especially on blind curves. You never know when you will come upon an accident.

The posted speed limits, particularly on sharp curves, are not meant to be mere suggestions. Slow down to the posted speed, even if you are an expert driver and the sun is shining. The curves are sharp, the grades are steep, and the other drivers may not be experienced mountain drivers. Use extra caution if you are driving the Cabot Trail in fog, mist, or rain, all of which are common on Cape Breton Island.

Plan Your Stops

Most visitors want to stop here and there along the Cabot Trail, not only to stretch their legs or take photos but also to more fully enjoy the Cabot Trail experience. If you are planning to stop along the Acadian coast, in the national park or near Ingonish's beaches, take a few minutes to think about how long you plan to spend at each place. Add this to your five hour drive time to determine when you should begin your Cabot Trail adventure.

Some of the more popular Cabot Trail stops include:

  • Margaree Harbour and villages in the Margaree River valley, for fishing, the Salmon Museum, and water sports
  • Chéticamp, the largest village on Cape Breton Island's Acadian coast
  • Pleasant Bay, for whale watching
  • Hiking trails and scenic viewpoints ("look-offs") in Cape Breton Highlands National Park
  • Ingonish and the surrounding beaches, for water sports, golf, and scenery
  • St. Ann's, for the Gaelic College and local art studios
  • Baddeck, for the Alexander Graham Bell Museum, golf and summer ceilidhs (Celtic music and dance events)

If you have extra time, plan to drive up to Cabot's Bay (the presumed site of John Cabot's landing in 1497) and Bay St. Lawrence. You can take a whale watching trip here (allow two to three hours) or enjoy the maritime scenery. If you plan to drive to Meat Cove, one of the northernmost points on the island, be aware that the road is a combination of gravel, dirt, and mud.

Allow for Delays

Build some time into your itinerary for unexpected stops, slow meal service, and traffic issues. Because there is only one road around the island, a serious accident can create traffic problems very quickly.

You may also find that the stunning coastal scenery and the gentle allure of local museums and shops might take more time than planned. If you plan and get an early start, you will still be able to complete your drive before sunset.

Visit Cape Breton Highlands National Park

You will need to bring cash for the Cape Breton Highlands National Park entrance fee. The Cabot Trail cuts right through the park, and you will not be able to avoid paying the fee to use the road. Daily fees (as of 2019) are Can$7.80 per adult, Can$6.80 per senior, Can$15.70 per family group (up to 7 in one vehicle), and under 17 free. The park ranger will give you a map of the park, marked with trails, picnic areas, and sites of interest.

In addition to traditional park activities, such as camping, hiking, and fishing, check the park's website for information about special events and programs throughout the year.

Cabot Trail Practicalities

The Cabot Trail is mainly a scenic drive. Choose the best weather days available to make this trip. This is easy if you plan to drive the loop in one day, but becomes more difficult if you are spending a couple of days on the Trail.

Gas stations are few and far between on the Cabot Trail. Gas up before you start driving. You should be able to complete the entire loop on one tank if you are in a car that gets 20-plus miles to the gallon.

If you plan to take a walk or hike, bring insect repellent and use it liberally. Put on some sunscreen, too.

Dispose of all trash in covered, designated containers, particularly in the national park. There are bears and other garbage-loving animals on Cape Breton Island. If you are camping, be sure to secure your food so bears cannot reach it.

Watch for moose. If you crash into one, the best you can expect is an extended hospital stay. Many drivers do not survive direct encounters with these large animals. If you do see a moose, stop and wait for it to go away.

The weather on Cape Breton Island can vary from moment to moment. You can be in a fog one minute and emerge into the sunshine the next. Bring appropriate clothing and be ready for abrupt changes.

Pay attention as you enter and exit the scenic look-off areas. Some drivers do not pay attention to opposing traffic; they pull off and swerve toward an available parking place.

Above all, take your time and enjoy the experience. Driving the Cabot Trail encompasses the best of Cape Breton Island. Savor this time by including a hike to a waterfall or spend a few moments at a scenic overlook. Find a local radio station and listen to the island's music. Stop at a bakery or restaurant and eat with the locals. You won't be sorry; in fact, you'll wish you'd planned more time for the Cabot Trail.