Epic Drives: The Cabot Trail

Cabot Trail, Cape Breton Island NS

Recently the web site Cape Breton if Donald Trump Wins has been making headlines, inviting Americans seeking to flee a potential Trump Presidency to move to Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. It’s actually much more difficult than that for an American to emigrate to Canada, but that doesn’t mean we can’t visit. And politics aside, the roads and scenery there are worth visiting no matter who you vote for. In fact, I’d say it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, and the Cabot Trail is the best way to see it.

The Cabot Trail is a 185 mile (or 298km, as they measure it there) loop around the northern part of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. I’ve heard it called the Pacific Coast Highway of the east coast, and one of the most fun roads in the entire northeast. It’s a pretty lofty claim, but I wanted to see for myself someday. In July, 2013, a somewhat expected loss of a job suddenly gave me a lot of time, and my planning for that loss gave me a fair bit of savings. I decided to take a trip out there to see it for myself before diving into the search for a new job, since I was unlikely to take a summer vacation after I started one.

Rather than taking the 2003 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor that I drove at the time I decided to take my 1998 Honda Pacific Coast 800. Yes, it’s a motorcycle, not a car. I didn’t have my BRZ at the time, so the bike seemed the most fun way to go, plus it’s much better on gas mileage. You can read all about the motorcycle related details of the trip over on my bike travel blog, Two Wheel Tripping. But since this web site is Right Foot Down, not Right Wrist Down, I’ll focus here on the Cabot Trail itself, which can also be thoroughly enjoyed by car.

Getting There

No ferry from Portland, ME to Yarmouth, NS

At the time I took my trip, there was no ferry between Portland, ME and Yarmouth, NS. This has been a troubled on-again, off-again relationship for many years, with a recent change in service providers followed immediately by the seizure of the former ferry for unpaid debts. Details on the new ferry service aren’t available at the time of this writing, so use the Googles to look it up.

For the moment, you’ll have to do what I did and make the entire journey by land, all the way across Maine and New Brunswick. There are two main routes you can go. You can either take I-95 all the way to Houlton, ME, then take Trans-Canada Highway 2 across NB. The speed limit on I-95 has increased to 70mph through most of southern and central Maine, and 75mph north of Old Town (the canoe place just past Bangor). If you want to make good time on deserted highways, this is the place to do it, and do it legally. It’s the highest speed limit in the US east of the Mississippi River. Or you can do what I did, take Route 9 out of Bangor through the middle of nowhere to Calais (pronounced “KAL-us,” just to annoy the French speakers), and take secondary roads across NB from there. These roads are not in very good shape, so I eventually changed course toward T-Can 2 and took the superslab.

However you get there, T-Can 2 becomes T-Can 104 after crossing into Nova Scotia. The difference is night and day. Pavement quality improves, and so does the scenery. The views that revealed themselves over the crest of every hill took my breath away.

Canso Causeway from Cape Breton Island

T-Can 104 takes you all the way across the Canso Causeway and onto Cape Breton Island. Back in the 1950s you didn’t need a billion conservation studies and building permits to blast half a mountain away, dump it into a strait, and make a road. They also didn’t understand the disastrous effect it would have on fish migration. The answer to the terrible joke “Why did the fish cross the road?” is “They can’t,” but people were surprised when the area’s once strong fishing industry collapsed after the causeway was built.

Just after the Canso Causeway, change to T-Can 105 at the traffic circle, which joins the Cabot Trail near Nyanza. You may notice that the bilingual town name signs here are not Canada’s typical English and French, but English and Gaelic!

The Road

Cabot Trail signs

There’s some debate as to whether it’s better to drive the Cabot Trail clockwise or counter-clockwise. Most people seem to prefer clockwise, so I decided to take it counter-clockwise to cut down on traffic. It also put me closer to the shore and many of the pull-offs. The general concensus seems to be that it’s best to drive it in both directions and decide which you like better.

I don’t function well without coffee in the morning, so I stopped at a Tim Horton’s soon after I set off from my campsite in Baddeck, which is pretty much at the center of Cape Breton Island. A Harley parked next to me, and the rider turned out to be a local school teacher who enjoyed riding the Cabot Trail during summer break. He advised me to stick to the posted speed limits. Most of us are used to doing 60mph around highway on-ramps posted at 25, but when the Cabot Trail posts a corner at 40km/h (25mph), they mean it. It really is that tight. And it has nothing to do with police. I saw a grand total of two cruisers during my entire week on the road in Canada, and neither was running a speed trap. The main concern is wildlife. Taking a corner too fast and finding a moose standing at the apex will ruin your day, as well as your bodywork.

In stark contrast to most of New Brunswick, the entire Cabot Trail has excellent pavement. This amazed me, since Cape Breton Island sits at the same latitude as northern Maine, which does not have good pavement. My native Massachusetts has terrible roads, and so did New Brunswick, yet somehow the Cabot Trail remains delightfully intact despite being further north and open all winter.

The Gaelic College

Soon after heading north from Baddeck, I made a stop at Colaisde na Gàidhlig / The Gaelic College in Saint Anns. I’m a history buff. My persona in the Society for Creative Anachronism is Scottish, and since Nova Scotia (literally “New Scotland”) was the destination for many Scots during the Highland Clearances, there is a vast amount of Scottish culture cherished and preserved here. I was able to research and learn quite a bit about my own persona’s clan – Clan MacRae. (See? We’re getting back to cars eventually.)

Smokey Mountain, Cabot Trail

The Cabot Trail’s complexity hits the sweet spot between enjoyable and technical. The steep climb up Smokey Mountain was one of the most technical climbs I’ve ever made, but the vast majority of the Cabot Trail is curvy and hilly without taking your attention away from the awesome scenery around you. But there are also plenty of places to pull off, take a break, and take in the scenery.

The Cabot Trail passes through the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. You are not required to pay park admission if you’re passing straight through, but if you so much as set a foot down in the park you’re expected to pay admission as you enter. There are convenient little booths just off the side of the road so you can pull off and pay easily. I highly recommend that you do it. There are many beautiful places to check out in the park, and it’s worth not having to worry about getting ticketed for not having a pass (the rangers do check). It was $7.80 when I went. And in 2017 it won’t cost you anything, celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary.

Green Cove, Cabot Trail

Green Cove, on the eastern side of the island, is a great place to stop and explore. It’s a rocky outcropping into the Atlantic Ocean, covered with scrubby looking trees and bayberry bushes. The reddish granite caught my eye as being quite similar to what I’ve seen at Acadia National Park in Maine, hundreds of miles away.

Bay St. Lawrence off the Cabot Trail

There are some enjoyable scenic detours off the Cabot Trail as well. I missed one down to Neil’s Harbour (when in Canada, spell as the Canadians do) which would have taken me on an enjoyable twisty cruise along the shore, as well as fed me a good cup of chowder at Murdoch’s Rock. I did take Bay St. Lawrence Road all the way to the end, and watched some lobster boats come and go from the bay. I was too chicken to try Meat Cove Road because it was gravel, but in a car I’d definitely give it a try for even more spectacular views.

After rejoining the Cabot Trail, it soon dives back into the park, leading to even more swerves and curves among the lush green forests. You end up along the coast again in the aptly named Pleasant Bay, then gain altitude rapidly through a series of switchbacks up the side of Mackenzie Mountain. Unlike the somewhat chaotic climb of Smokey Mountain, which tend to follow the terrain, the climb (or descent, depending on your direction) up Mackenzie is organized and methodical.

Mackenzie Mountain

Though the road doesn’t take you to its 1,366ft peak, it takes you plenty high enough to look back for miles from whence you came. While admiring the view myself, a BMW motorcycle with a distinctive exhaust note went by. Though reasonably quiet, I could still hear it nearby for the next five minutes or so, and saw it emerge from the trees not very far from me as far as horizontal distance was concerned.

Cabot Trail

As you cruise down the east coast of Cape Breton Island watch for whales mucking about in the water nearby. I didn’t see any myself, but according to the park ranger I talked to this is a very popular area for them. Indeed, as I left the park and rolled into Chéticamp, I noticed numerous whale watch rides available. Clearly they didn’t have far to go to give their customers a good show.


Speaking of Chéticamp, this area of Cape Breton Island has a strong Acadian population. The island bounced like a ping pong ball between France and Great Britain through treaties and wars until finally being reunited with British Nova Scotia in 1820. (I told you I’m a history buff.) French replaces Gaelic on road signs in this area, and the Acadian flag is as visible as the Canadian flag, if not more so. This fishing village is quite proud of their culture. The Cabot Trail becomes less twisty and curvy, so just slow down and take in the culture for a while before turning back inland at Margaree Forks and returning to the trees. Alternately, you can take the Ceilidh Trail south through Inverness (why yes, Scottish culture takes over again) and all the way back down to Port Hastings and the Canso Causeway.

Cabot Trail

Even before I left Cape Breton Island, I vowed that I would return someday to explore it some more. There are many places, like the Alexander Graham Bell Museum, right along the Cabot Trail that I’d like to see, and others, like the Fortress of Louisbourg, not far off the trail. Next time I’d like to take a fun sporty car, like my BRZ or something else, try the Cabot Trail clockwise, and explore some areas I haven’t been to yet. Regardless of who becomes our next President, I doubt I’ll be fleeing to Canada anytime soon. But I definitely plan on returning to Cape Breton Island.

[brid video=”29810″ player=”4063″ title=”Doctor Who The First Doctor One day I shall come back.”]

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