Situated on the northern end of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Highlands National Park is home to an imposing plateau where jagged rock and lush green landscapes meet the Atlantic Ocean. The western side of the Island is also home to the world-famous Cabot Trail, available to cyclists and road-trippers alike. Veer off the road to explore a myriad of trails, lakes, beaches, vistas, and rare wildlife.
Consider this your outdoor guide to Cape Breton as we dive into the best hiking, accommodations, camping sites, and more on this Nova Scotian playground!
Nova Scotia is one of several regions of the Mi’kmaq nation of Mi’kma’ki (mi’gama’gi). The territory of the Nation of Mi’kma’ki also includes the Maritimes, parts of Maine, the island of Newfoundland and the Gaspé Peninsula. The Mi’kmaq have lived here for over 10,000 years, living off of the land, and the sea, building shelters and forms of transportation such as birch-bark canoes. Spring and summer were spent on the coast before migration inland was necessary to withstand the cooler fall and winter temperatures. Hunting and fishing sustained their economic relationships with surrounding nations before European arrival. Today, the Mi’kmaq Grand Council (their traditional government) continues to advocate for the flourishing of Mi’kmaq people, language, and culture.
There are a number of sites to experience the Mi’kmaq culture in person, such as the Membertou Heritage Park, a five-acre site that offers a living history of the people of Membertou along with a large indoor exhibit and program area that offers the visitor full immersion to an ancient culture. Experience the stories and oral history of the Membertou Community through enactments and cultural presentations. Walk with a tour guide or an Elder through the Membertou Heritage Park and learn about the unique history, heritage and culture through educational and interactive experiences.
The Cabot Trail
Experience the natural beauty of the Cape Breton Highlands as you drive the famous Cabot Trail. This 298 km (186 mi) highway weaves through The Cape Breton Highlands National Park, rewarding travellers with spectacular valley and coastal views all along the way. The Cabot Trail loops in either direction, starting from Baddeck or the Trans Canada Highway. This will give you time for some stops but we recommend at least 4-5 days to enjoy all of what the Cabot Trail has to offer.
Looking for more ways to explore the Cabot Trail? Hike and camp within the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, play a round of golf at Highlands Links, peruse artisan shops along the trail, or book your spot on a sea kayaking, cycling, or whale watching tour. In the winter months, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, winter hiking, snowmobiling and more will continue to bring you back to experience adventures around the Cabot Trail.
Cabot Trail road is a paved road on which cyclists and automobile users can tour the Cape’s perimeter. Be sure to pull into turn-offs on your drive and enjoy panoramic views of the mountains and sapphire waters. For more experienced cyclers, book a five-night cycling tour that will challenge you with the occasional elevation gain and reward you with the lush valley of the Margaree river, whale-watching, charming inns, golfing, and swimming in waterfall pools along the way.
Hiking in Cape Breton offers visitors the opportunity to experience the vastness of Cape Breton’s oceanic border with evolving perspectives along winding mountain trails. Here are a few of the most popular trails.
Climb up and up to your reward at the top! Large flat rocks give you a nice place to sit and enjoy the 360-degree views of the entire Clyburn Brook canyon and the Atlantic coastline from Cape Smokey to Ingonish. Gaze back at the mountains, the sheer rocky face of Franey Mountain, or the river winding through the valley, 425 m below. Keep an eye out for wildlife – moose like this habitat too. Caution: Keep young children away from the steep cliffs.
Trailhead: Turn off the Cabot Trail just north of the Clyburn River and follow the fire access road for about 1 km to a small parking lot.
Significant Feature: Transition from Acadian to boreal forest; beautiful views.
Length: 7.4 km (4.6 mi) loop
Hiking Time: 2–3 hours
Elevation: 95–430 m (310–1410 ft.)
Steep climb. Rugged sections.
Trail Rating: Difficult
Situated on the eastern side of Cape Breton Island, Franey Trail leads hikers up from Ingonish Beach and beside McDougalls lake. Enjoy forested views overlooking the ocean and bluffs.
A dramatic headland cliff overlooks the rugged coast from the end of this level trail. You can
enjoy an eagle’s view of the Cabot Trail as it winds its way down the mountain and vehicles look like toys. Watch for whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the viewing decks. Moose, bald eagles, bears and numerous boreal birds
live in this habitat. The headland plants are very fragile and easily damaged by trampling, so stay on the boardwalk. Dogs are not permitted here for their own safety and the safety of wildlife, as they disturb wildlife, especially moose and bear.
Trailhead: On the Cabot Trail on the top of French Mountain
Significant Feature: Headland cliff, ocean
Length: 6.5 km (4 mi) return; 8.2 km (5.1 mi) loop
Hiking Time: 1.5–3 hours
Elevation: 290–405 m (950–1330 ft.)
Main trail suitable for most skill levels. Boardwalk with steps at headland.
Trail Rating: Easy
You are 355 metres (1165 feet) above sea level! Hike from the top of the mountain about 6 kilometres down to a small ocean cove and grassy clearing – the only designated wilderness camp site in the park. This was once the site of a Scottish fishing community and these settlers traded with the French for supplies. Explore the beach, roam the hills or swim in fresh or salt water. You must register at a Parks Canada visitor centre prior to camping.
Trailhead: On the Cabot Trail at the top of MacKenzie Mountain.
Significant Feature: Acadian forest, ocean cove and headlands
Length: 12 km (7.5 mi) return
Hiking Time: 5–6 hours
Elevation: 0–355 m (0–1165 ft.)
Steep descent. Some muddy sections. No potable water on site. If camping, bring your own toilet paper.
Trail Rating: Difficult
Just a ten minute walk from the Atlantic ocean and a freshwater lake, Ingonish Beach Campground is equipped with everything you need for a simple family campout. The site is wheelchair accessible and provides the convenience of showers, flushing toilets, kitchen shelters with wood stoves, fire pits, a playground, and Wifi so sleeping under the stars is no hassle. Those who prefer an upgrade can book an A-frame cabin/tent hybrid, called oTENTIKs to avoid the fuss of their own tent. Surrounded by beautiful hiking trails and golf courses, and offering nature presentations and other programming in July and August, you’ll never run out of things to do. This lightly wooded campground gives the illusion of seclusion while being conveniently close to grocery stores, gas stations, and restaurants.
For more campsites, visit this site.
Seascape Coastal Retreat offers views of Ingonish from above with a path leading down to the water. The Retreat itself is named as such for the tranquil atmosphere maintained by an enclosed garden, relaxing spa tub, and courtyard where birds accompany visitors. Choose from ten luxury, air-conditioned cottages with a whirlpool tub on a private deck. Relish in fine linens and robes, cozy up by a fireplace, and enjoy a warm breakfast delivered to your door. This is the perfect escape for adventurers who want to slow down after a long day outdoors.
Located on the western edge of the Cape, True North Destinations is Nova Scotia’s only 5-star eco-resort with luxury dome lodging. This resort is a page ripped right out of a travel magazine. Each futuristic dome conjures ocean views with a large bay window and is equipped with a kitchen, lounge area, queen-sized bed, flatscreen TV, wrap-around deck with a BBQ and outdoor furniture, and a private hot-tub. Enjoy a smoothie from True North’s onsite micro-shop Smoothie and Juice Bar, or some oysters at the nearby Rusty Anchor Restaurant. Signature experiences and excursions include a spa dome experience, starlit skyline hike, a highland haven luxury package, wellness glamping weekends, and whale watching. I think it’s safe to say it’ll be hard to leave True North once you’ve settled into your dome!