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Driving the Cabot Trail

Tips for Making the Most of Your Cape Breton Island Road Trip


Driving the Cabot Trail

Acadian Coast, Cabot Trail

Photo © Nancy Parode

See It Now: Take a Photo Tour

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 two, three or four days – to see the sights along the Cabot Trail. 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 are traveling 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 important 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 do make this drive, and they move very slowly on the grades. Passing lanes are few and far between. Pack your patience in addition to your snacks and memory sticks.

  • If you are driving your own car, be sure the brakes are in good shape before attempting this drive. You don't want your brakes to fail on one of the 13 percent grades.

Understand the Roads

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 doesn't tell you is that this time is without any stops whatsoever. If you plan to stop 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 the vehicles of summer tourists 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 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 basic 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 (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 just 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 gravel / dirt / mud combination.

Allow for Delays

No driving plan works out perfectly. 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, as many visitors do, that the stunning coastal scenery and the gentle allure of local museums and shops might just eat up a little extra time. If you plan ahead and get an early start, you'll still be able to complete your drive without finishing after sunset.

Next: Cape Breton Highlands National Park and Cabot Trail Practicalities

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