Everyone tells you that you should plan for 3 to 5 days on the Cabot Trail – a 185 mile drive around the tip of Cape Breton Nova Scotia passing along and through the scenic Cape Breton Highlands. Nova Scotia is beautiful, and most people vacation on the whole province of Nova Scotia, which means they only have a day or two to commit to one of the most beautiful parts of the province, Cape Breton. The average Nova Scotia traveler is not able to spend 3 to 5 days on the trail and more often than not people try to do Cabot Trail in a day.
When you look at the Cabot Trail on a map it looks pretty manageable; I can do that in a day – not a problem! But when you do actually take into account that it’s 185 miles to get around it and it’s full of scenic stops and activities you can do, you realize it’s not easily manageable in a day without some pre-planning and organization.
You need a plan if you are going to do the Cabot Trail in a day.
You’ll want a Cabot Trail itinerary that allows you to get a sampling of everything it has to offer; scenic overlooks, hiking, seafood, wandering quaint villages, some Cape Breton culture, and getting that perfect sunset shot. Yes – that is actually all possible in a day – it is a long day though!
Renting a Car
I have consistently found the best rental car prices on RentalCars.com (international and at home) and use them when I have to rent a car. They work with all of the major car companies; check out their prices and see what you think. They also offer free reservations and cancellations which I love as my plans often change!
Driving the Cabot Trail
On my recent trip to Cape Breton my friends, Pete and Dalene, and I set out to figure out the perfect one day strategy for driving the Cabot Trail. This was my second trip around the Cabot Trail, so I understood just how much of a challenge this was going to be; however, I think we did a great job pulling it off. It was a long day from sun up to sun down, but we packed a little bit of everything in and squeezed out every ounce of beautiful photography that we could.
If you want to go beyond Cabot Trail and do a road trip around Nova Scotia, then check out my Things to do on a Road Trip through the Province article. It includes experiences, food, lodging and everything is updated as of 2021!
What Direction Should You Drive on the Cabot Trail?
Before we even get started – the more important thing to decide first is clockwise or counterclockwise! Our goal was to see the sunset, so it only made sense we would start on the southeastern end and go counterclockwise to end on the western side for the sunset. This also means for the parts of the drive that go right along the coast, you’ll be on the outside lane of the road with the best views!
Accommodations for the One Day Cabot Trail Itinerary
Keltic Quay Bayfront Lodge & Cottages
To do the Cabot Trail in a day, you really need to wake up on Cape Breton as opposed to trying to drive from the mainland to the Cape and try to make it all the way around; that would be nearly impossible. I recommend you stay overnight in the cute town of Whycocomagh just outside of the start of the Cabot Trail.
We stayed at the Keltic Quay Bayfront Lodge and Cottages the night before. Our cottage was ‘picture-perfectly’ located on the Whycocomagh Bay looking out on Indian Island.
I suggest you make reservations at the Normaway Inn for the end of the day since it will be dark when you get done with the itinerary. The Normaway Inn is a lovely local place that also provides live music most nights.
The Ultimate One Day Cabot Trail Itinerary
Stop 1: Charlene’s Bayside Restaurant and Cafe
It’s a long day so you’ll want to fuel up for the journey. The best way to do that is to start with breakfast in Whycocomagh at Charlene’s Bayside. I implore you to get the East Coast Breakfast on the menu. This is not just any breakfast, this is seafood for breakfast!
I know it sounds a bit strange, but trust me on this. Charlene’s is known for serving up the best chowder on Cape Breton and they serve it up for breakfast along with a fish cake and a homemade biscuit. I was a little skeptical about having a seafood breakfast, so I ordered a side of Canadian bacon and a glass of OJ too – just to make it a bit more breakfast-y!
This breakfast blew me away, and it was by far my favorite breakfast I’ve probably ever had. The crab cake was peppery and had potatoes in it, and the chowder was packed full of seafood. Plus the atmosphere at Charlene’s is like having breakfast in your grandmother’s house, and who doesn’t love that! A great start to your day driving the Cabot Trail!
More Information: Charlene’s Bayside Restaurant Facebook
Stop 2: Wreck Cove General Store
Drive Distance from Charlene’s: 65 miles aprox 1 hr 15 min
Drive north and eventually you’ll see the Cabot Trail sign; make sure you stop and take a selfie, as all good road trips need selfies! This is a pretty long stretch to drive, but it is all very scenic.
However before you pop out onto the coastal cliffs, stop at the Wreck Cove General Store. This isn’t just a place to get fuel, fun tshirts, much needed wifi, and take a bathroom break; it is an iconic place to stop for your picnic lunch! You have to get a few of their famous fresh lobster sandwiches – they are packed with lobster meat and really not much else. As you might recall, I have a love affair with eating lobster! They don’t add anything to the sandwiches other than salt, pepper, and sandwich dressing. It may look very plain, but why disturb the taste of the lobster with lettuce and other tidbits?!
Take the sandwiches and some drinks to go and eat at the next stop!
Note: This is where my Canadian friends introduced me to Cheezies – which apparently is a Canadian drug masquerading as a cheese puff. Yum. Get a bag!
More Information: Wreck Cove General Store Website
Stop 3: Cape Smokey Picnic Park
Drive Distance from Wreck Cove: 9.3 miles aprox 15 min
Once past the General Store you’ll start to climb the cliffs along the coast and the views become pretty incredible. This is when the ooh’s and aah’s start. You see a few little places where you can pull over and take a picture, however don’t be temped by these places, they are crowded and the view isn’t as good as what is to come. Remember, you don’t have time to waste on so-so views if you only have a day. What is to come is the entrance to Cape Smokey Picnic Park. There is plenty of parking and the views are even better in this little park than along the highway. There are little hiking trails that will take you right to the edge for some spectacular pictures. There are also restrooms and picnic tables here where you can sit and have that giant lobster sandwich while taking in the view!
More Information: Cape Smokey Picnic Park
Stop 4: Middle Head Hiking Trail
Drive Distance from Cape Smokey Picnic Park 8.3 miles aprox 16 min
Now you are all fueled up for a short hike. Time to get out and stretch those legs! This 2.4 mile easy hike out the narrow peninsula separating two ocean bays ends on cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
You’ll wind through the forest and then out a slight uphill to the end of the peninsula. Here you can sit and watch the sea birds soar overhead and take in the beauty of Cape Breton. There is a loop trail that will take you back a more forested way, or go back the way you came. There is plenty of parking at the trail head and don’t forget your camera!
Need ideas for more hikes around Cape Breton? – check out these Cape Breton Hikes!
More Information: Middle Head Hike
Stop 5: White Point Harbor
Drive Distance from Middle Head Trail: 22.3 miles aprox 35 min
Cape Breton culture centers around fishing villages. The whole cape is filled with little fishing villages that once were booming, busy ports of fishermen and locals. Now many of these towns have changed more into touristic towns. However at the north end of Cape Breton just slightly off the Cabot Trail you’ll find White Point Harbor.
Here you’ll find a small dock filled with small fishing boats, a few stone foundations, one B&B, and a few locals walking dogs. This is all that is left of a booming fishing village in 1922. There was a lobster factory, church, and school there at one point but they are long gone now. Park by the docks and take a little walk around the town. You will find a few local fisherman there and a piles of lobster traps, but this sleepy little town has virtually no tourism and that’s what makes it so great. It’s just a nice stop with beautiful views of a bygone era; a real look at local life on this remote part of Cape Breton.
Note: On your way to White Harbor, keep your eyes peeled for ice cream shops! You deserve an ice cream after that big hike!
More Information: White Point Harbor
Stop 6: Rusty Anchor Restaurant
Drive Distance from White Point Harbor: 35 miles aprox 1 hr
You’ll do a drive around the northern most tip of Cape Breton going through some pretty decent mountain climbs and forest. But then you’ll pop out on the other side by Pleasant Bay, a cute little town worth a stop for a few pictures. But don’t waste too much time because you are on a tight schedule!
It’s now time for the quintessential Nova Scotia dinner – lobster. And there’s no better place for this than family owned Rusty Anchor Restaurant in Pleasant Bay. It’s right along the Cabot Trail so you can’t miss it especially with the giant fisherman statue outside! Take a seat on the outdoor patio and do some whale watching as you wait for your lobster feast.
Sitting outside gazing out on the ocean eating Nova Scotia lobster and drinking beer – it really doesn’t get any better than this. The wait staff is super friendly and the whole place has a relaxed atmosphere. But don’t get too carried away with the atmosphere because for the next stop, timing is everything!
More Information: The Rusty Anchor Website
Stop 7: Sunset Point
Drive Distance from Rusty Anchor Restaurant: 18 miles aprox 31 min
We came across this perfect sunset spot on accident actually – but sometimes accidents are meant to happen! The drive from Rusty Anchor to this secluded point is gorgeous as the sun is going down. This is some of the most scenic parts of the Cabot Trail and they are glowing in golden sunlight at this time of evening.
You’ll really want to follow the map above to find this point. There is a little turnoff between two little lakes/ponds and there’s room for a few cars to park. If you end up at the Cheticamp Visitors Center you’ve gone too far!
Park and walk out on this secluded little beach and watch the sun dip down behind the rock formations. Perfection! There may be a few other people sitting on the beach watching – but this really is a hidden little gem to watch sunset.
Stop 8: The Normaway Inn and the Barn Music Center
Drive Distance from Sunset Point: 36 miles aprox 1 hr
You’ll leave the National Park after sunset and continue along the Cabot Trail through a few little towns. As you get to Margaree Forks continue following the Cabot Trail inland to the Normaway Inn; it is a great place to stay for the night. The sun will be down as you pull in and get ready to rest your weary head after a long day!
But wait…it’s not over yet! Now it’s time to make this the quintessential Cabot Trail day and finish it off with some live Celtic music at the Barn Music Center next to the Normaway Inn! They have live music most nights for you to relax and wind down with a beer.
Congratulate yourself because you just made it around the Cabot Trail in a day! You experienced the best it has to offer in a short amount of time! This little taste will no doubt make you want to come back for more hiking, food, and exploring on another trip!
Find lodging options at the start and end:
What to Pack for Cabot Trail
Since this road trip itinerary includes driving, hiking, and photography – you’ll need a little of everything! You can check out my Amazon travel gear recommendation lists for hiking, photography, and road trips – but here are some key items you won’t want to forget!
- Light hiking boots for Middle Head Trail. I love the OBOZ Sawtooth II for short hikes and walks!
- Small photography backpack for the trail
- Car phone mount
- Sunglasses – a must for the afternoon when you are driving into the sun!
- Dramamine – the Cabot Trail is full of twists and turns!
- A roadside emergency kit
- Extra SD cards for your camera!
- What’s a road trip without beef jerky – this is my favorite and it’s organic!
- Rain and wind coat…because you just never know!
How do you get to Cape Breton Nova Scotia? It’s easy!
It’s easy to get to the Cabot Trail with daily direct service from the NYC area to Halifax! There are several flights a day via Air Canada/United direct to Newark and via Delta direct to LGA. Its just a 2 hr flight and you have US Customs pre-clearance at the Halifax Stanfield International Airport for the return trip! PLUS…you can carry on and carry home fresh lobster from the Halifax airport!
I was a guest of Nova Scotia Tourism however my desire to go back to Cape Breton for a second time was all mine so that I could have more time in this lovely place. All opinions expressed here are mine.