CABOT TRAIL BICYCLE TOUR
The Cabot Trail is by far the ultimate bicycle route in Nova Scotia,
in terms of scenery and challenging ride.
The Cabot Trail is a paved highway encircling the northern half of
Cape Breton Island. Much of it is in Cape Breton Highlands National
Park. The Highlands are the remnants of a very ancient mountain range.
It is a plateau about 400 m high which plunges abruptly to the sea
and is cut by deep valleys. The highway goes from the sea to the top of
the plateau several times.
The grades on the C.T. are much steeper ( long sections at 10%) than
in the Rockies. Sunwapta Pass ( claimed to be the toughest on the
Banff-Jasper route) is much easier ( 6 %) than the C.T. Granny gears
(30 x 28) are strongly recommended. Good brakes are a must. Grocery
stores are far apart. There are no real bike stores but you might get a
few parts in hardware stores ( tube, oil etc).
The weather can be "interesting". Snow can be expected in May or
October. Winds are the strongest in Canada. Although the prevailing
summer wind is west the worst wind is an easterly wind called "Suette"
which blasts down off the highlands on the west coast at over 100 km/hr
(near 200 in the big storm of March 1993) I've seen cyclists lifted off
the ground by it.
Early June to mid October is recommended. My preference is August
since I like to swim but traffic is heaviest then. I've gone
several times on Labour Day weekend and traffic is not too heavy since
most foreign tourists are on their way home then. Mid-October when the
leaves are in colour is nice but indoor accommodations are advised.
Thanksgiving Weekend ( 2nd week in Oct) motels are full so book well in
advance. I have gone a week before that and had no trouble finding
rooms but the leaves weren't in colour yet. After Thanksgiving a lot of
places are closed.
The BIG question everyone asks is " Clockwise or counter-clockwise?".
There have been many heated debates about that but after doing it in
both directions I much prefer counter-clockwise. You have the best
scenery on your right and can take advantage of switchbacks on hills.
There are several groups, most of them from out of province that run
group trips on the Cabot Trail. Velo Halifax Bicycle Club often has a
The Atlantic Canada Cycling Festival runs a group ride with some sag
support, usually Labour Day Weekend ( first of Sept) Address is
ACCF, PO Box 1555, Station M, Halifax, NS B3J 2Y3.
The following is based on a 3 day, group camping trip with Velo
Halifax on Labour Day weekend 1991 with some flashbacks to other rides.
However it is general enough to serve as a guide.
Day 0 Friday Aug 30
Friday afternoon finds me riding on the Trans Canada Highway ( Rt
105) from Little Narrows to Baddeck. This is the only nice section of
the TCH worth cycling. It has a wide shoulder and goes along the shore
of Bras Dor Lake, with mountains on the left.
I have been on a week long solo tour. Spending hours or days
traveling to Baddeck in a car, plane or bus, especially after having
spent weeks sitting at a desk, is not the best way to start the Cabot
Trail. I prefer to spend a few days preparing physically and mentally.
But not everyone has the time to do warm up like this.
At the Middle River Bridge in Nyanza I pass the Yankee Line road which
is a scenic alternate route. About 2 km later is the Herring Choker
Deli, bakery, and cafe and fortunately they are open now. A sign reads:
"CYCLISTS, carbo-load before the Trail". The owners are serious
cyclists , they sell a few bike parts ( tubes, cables etc). I pick up
some bread and pasta.
Another 2 km and the official Cabot Trail joins from the left. It's
about 10 km to Baddeck. I stop at a campground just outside town, set up
and go for a swim in the lake which is quite warm. A few of the group
start arriving . I ride into town to meet the main group who are staying
in a motel and receive instructions about tomorrow's ride. An
interesting eatery in town is the "High Wheeler Cafe" which has 2 penny
farthings on display.
Day 1 Baddeck to Ingonish
The morning is warm, humid with a south wind ( tail wind). Showers
are forcast but tomorrow calls for a sharp drop in temperature.
We head out of town on Rt 205 past Bell Museum and along a bay of the
Bras Dor Lake. The Bell summer residence can be seen on a point across
the Bay. Then we start a climb up to join Rt 105 (TCH)
9km Merge right onto Rt 105. Although this is a major highway there is
a wide shoulder. We climb the Big Hill which isn't very big and
descend to South Haven of St Ann's Bay.
18km Here there is a decision to take the official Cabot Trail to the
left which goes around St. Ann's Bay or go straight on RT 105 and take
the Englishtown Ferry. The former is 27 km , the latter 17 km. The
left route has some nice scenery and a Gaelic Museum. There is a sign
at this corner saying that the ferry is operating today so I stay on Rt
105 which begins a climb of Kelly Mountain but turn off before the big
climb. If you were coming from the Sydney area you would climb the
whole hill, descend and turn right on the ferry road (Rt 312)
22 km Turn left on Rt 312 and descend back to the Bay and about 6 km
down to the cable ferry. The ferry runs on call so there shouldn't be
much of a wait but you might have time for a quick snack. The crossing
is less than 5 minutes and free for cyclists and pedestrians. The road
then follows a narrow spit, in the distance you may get a glimpse of
Cape Smokey. One nice thing is that there will be NO traffic until the
next ferry comes in. One bad thing is that if the wind is North-East it
is very exposed here. It is about 7 km to the junction of the main Cabot
35 km. Merge right on to Cabot Trail. There aren't any more optional
routes after this . About 6km at Indian Brook, there is a campground,
general store and restaurant. I pick up a few bananas. About 4 km
farther there is a nice Provincial picnic area where most of the group
has lunch. A few showers threaten but pass.
The road has some rolling hills. We start to get a glimpse of the big
climb on Smokey, the forests on the hills ahead have still not recovered
from the big fire of 1968. To the left is the access road to the Wreck
Cove Hydro Electric Site. The water outlet can be seen entering the
ocean on the right. Then I stop the Wreck Cove General Store where
there is covered picnic shelter if the weather is bad.
There are a few false climbs where first timers think they are
starting the big one . Then we swing to the left, descend a little and
make a 180 degree turn on a narrow bridge ( this is real scary coming
the other way) and the big climb begins. The sign exaggerates the climb,
the bridge is about 70 m and the top is 260 m so it's only about 190 m
(620 ft) climb but sections are more than 10% grade. There are several
switchbacks, most of which have parking spots so you should stop and
admire the fantastic view ( and maybe catch your breath). At the top is
a short dirt road on the right to a Provincial Picnic area with drinking
water and a great view.
Then it is a wonderful, long but gentle downhill for about 7 km to
the south side of Ingonish Hbr. Then it's about 7 km around the harbour
to the major village of Ingonish Beach where there are stores and
restaurants. I stop at the hardware store and get some work gloves,
expecting some cold weather tomorrow.
85 km Enter Cape Breton Highlands National Park. There is no fee for
bicycles . There is an information center here. About 1 km right is the
entrance to the beach and the Keltic Lodge resort, the entrance to a
campground is the next right.
The road leaves the National Park for about 10km , passing through
Ingonish Centre and Ingonish which have motels and restaurants. There
is a good grocery store (IGA) which will be the last major store for a
while, so I stock up now. There is a smaller convenience store just
before entering the Park again.
96 km Right to Broad Cove campground, biggest in Park. We have made
reservations to stay at the Marrach Group Campground about 1 km further
on the left. Gravel roads lead of to Mary Ann Falls and Warren Lake.
There are no showers at the group campsite so some people make a stop at
the main campground to avoid backtracking. The group site is 1 km up a
steep gravel hill on the Mary Ann Falls road but there is a shortcut.
We continue on the highway for about 1 km and turn off left at the cross
walk sign and walk in a very short path to the campsite. Later I walk
back across the highway, down the path to the beach and go for a swim in
both the ocean and the fresh water pond. From the beach a path
continues into the main campground. On another trip I biked 2 km to
Warren Lake for a swim.
The group campground is in a semi-wilderness setting with basic
facilities but has a cook shelter with wood stove and food storage
lockers ( for bear protection). All of the National Park campgrounds have
I avoided the rain all day. In the evening the sky clears up and the
wind shifts to north-west, a signal of colder weather. Sensible people
go to bed early, knowing that tomorrow will be a long, hard day.
If cyclists on a flexible schedule reach Ingonish early it might be
wise to push on to the Cape North area which would shorten the next
BTW I lost my notes but I think the first day my Avocet 50
recorded a total climb of 1000 m. in 100 km.
CABOT TRAIL TOUR :DAY 2 (The Long Hard Day)
Broad Cove Campground, North Ingonish to Cheticamp.
Note: the Mary Ann Falls Road, which passes the Marrach Group campground, is
the Old Cabot Trail . The first 6 km to the falls is a good gravel road
with some steep hills . The next 6 km to near Neil Hbr is not so good.
I know several people who took ( not rode!) their bikes over it. I
skied it a few winters ago and it was overgrown in places, I had to step
over fallen trees. Except for the falls it's not as scenic as the
coast and the black flies would be really horrible.
The next 9 km of the C.T. hugs the coast. Today there is a cold
north headwind but there is a raw beauty to the heavy surf crashing on
the rocks. There are a few short but steep hills here. At Black Brook
Cove there is a nice beach and picnic area and a small waterfall. Other
times I have stopped for a swim but not today with a strong wind and
temperature now less than 10C. The wind actually warms things up a
little since it is coming of the warmer water. Now the road turns
inland for 5 km before coming to Neils Hbr.
14 km - Neils Hbr. Here one can take the main highway or the more
scenic coastal route which is 6 km longer. It's cold with a headwind
and there's a long day ahead so I take the shortcut. First I check out
the village for some hot coffee for warmth and a caffeine boost.
Nothing is open; be warned! The road climbs the South Mtn. about 230 m
in 7 km then descends in another 6 to the Aspy Valley , joining the
Scenic route at South Hbr. There is little to see except for a slight
view of the North Mountain Range and Cape North.
The scenic route first passes several scenic coves, then climbs about
120 m . There there's a great view of Cape North and the mountains. Then
there's a roller coaster section as you descend to a cove and climb back
up again several times. Then the roads levels out along the shore of
Back on the main road it is about 5 km to Cape North village. The
actual cape is about 15 km north , the village is at the junction of the
road to the cape. Just before the junction on left there is a good size
general store which has been open every time I've been by. Today
I'm cold so I stop have TWO cups of coffee and some cake. Most of the group
has the same idea. Those without gloves buy work gloves here.
32 Km ( via short cut) If you have time the road right at least as far
as Bay St Lawrence ( 20 km one way) is nice. The masochists can bike
another 10 km on a rough steep road to Meat Cove.
There is a picnic ground at Cabot Landing where legend has it that
Cabot landed in 1496. Hence the name "Cabot Trail". Near it is a steep
hiking trail to the top of Wilkie Sugarloaf (400m) where you get a great
view, maybe even to Newfoundland.
The main road goes for about 11 km before the real climbing starts.
First it climbs the Sunrise Ridge where there is a great view down Aspy
Valley. Just about all cyclists stop here to take pictures . Then it's
back down into the valley . Straight ahead we can see the road climbing
North Mtn. At the first of 2 bridges over the North Aspy River is a
small National Park campground and picnic area. Today this is the
official lunch stop where the sag wagon has stopped. It's a nice place
to camp if you can face a big climb the first thing in the morning. It
has very basic facilities but there is a cook shelter with a wood stove!
An optional side trip is the 2 km dirt road to scenic Beulach Bann
43 km and the real riding hasn't started yet! At the second bridge,
breath deep and shift into your granny gear. The road climbs from 40 m
to 450 m in about 6 km, there are some 10% sections and there are no
real switchbacks. There are several scenic pulloffs but they are on the
left side of the road so exercise care pulling over.
Today the temperature has now dropped to about 5 C but this section is
now in the lee in the mountain. About half way up the road swings around
to the North and I brace myself for the strong wind which often happens
here. Strangely it is less strong than I expect. The road climbs along a
steep gorge then swings back to the west onto the plateau. There is an
emergency shelter with a wood stove if the weather is really bad.
The road is relatively flat before beginning the 4 km rapid descent
which can be wild at the best of times. This time I've been warned that
the road is under construction and some people told me that it would be
impossible to go down this on a bike. There is a highway crew stopping
traffic waiting for oncoming traffic to come. They say they can take 2
bikes down in the guide truck but we can ride down if we are careful
and pull off when we meet the oncoming traffic. I do this and the reward
is that there is no traffic except for the minute when the oncoming
convoy passes. The road is hard packed gravel but steep . I'm braking
hard and it is very cold. When I get to the bottom my hands are
practically frozen to the brake levers! The construction has now been
completed so cyclists should have a better run down here.
There a picnic area at the bottom but usually you will be
zooming by . Farther on there is another National Park Campground. It's
about 7 km of relatively flat riding to Pleasant Bay where there is a
small store and a few restaurants and motels. (The village is outside
the Park boundary). Today I stop for hot drink.
62 km Start of MacKenzie Mountain. The road is flat for about 3 km
until the MacKenzie River Bridge. I like this climb ; it has many
switchbacks with great views. At most of the turns there are pulloffs
with viewing areas and descriptions of points of interest. So the
procedure is : pull in, read the signs, take some pictures. Catching
your breath is incidental ! Quite often I've seen bald eagles sitting on
trees near the road.
Now I'm getting the first tailwind of the day which helps the climb.
The sun comes out and I'm getting warm so I strip down to shorts
thinking the bad weather is over. HA! The road levels off at 370 m.
Then it clouds over and I notice that although there is precipitation,
the road is not getting wet. It is snow pellets on Sept 1 ! Yesterday
the temperature was 25 C! Fortunately there is another emergency shelter
here. I go in , put on some clothes and have a snack while waiting for
the weather to clear. I was lucky! There were several cyclists about an
hour behind me that were coming down the gravel North Mtn. in the snow!
There were many people, myself included, on this ride that didn't expect
cold weather this weekend. Most did not have gloves.
The road goes along a narrow ridge. On the right you can look down
to Fishing Cove. On a clear day you can see the Madelene Islands which
are part of Quebec! The plateau here is basically Arctic tundra and
winds can be fierce. There is a Bog Exhibit here with outdoor privies
if you need them, the bushes are very short !
There is a big dip then a final 75m climb to the top of French Mtn at
460 m , the highest point on the Trail. It's hard to see where the
actual top is but there is a sign where just about all cyclists take a
picture of their bikes. There is also another emergency cabin just
before the sign warning of the steep descent.
First you descend along a steep valley with some curves. Then at one
curve there is a vast view of the ocean. In late afternoon this is very
impressive with the sun sparkling on the water. There are no
switchbacks but some caution is required on the curves. Cyclists can go
safely down here much faster than cars.
The road curves some more and you get a great view down the coast
past Cheticamp. Trouble is it's hard to stop to take pictures. After
about 5 km you reach sea level at Corney Brook where there is a small
The next 3 hills get people by surprise, they think the climbing is
done ! We are riding along the coast aren't we? The biggest climb is
about 150m. However at the top of each there is a great view!. Now I
have a great tailwind. At one flat section along a beach I see I'm
going 50 km/hr! I get pushed right over the last hill. We turn off at
the Park Information Center and go to our reserved group campsite in a
large campground with all facilities ( hot showers, cook shelters etc).
Just across the Cheticamp River bridge from here are many motels and
restaurants. The town of Cheticamp is about 5 km more.
With the Neils Hbr shortcut I recorded about 100 km this day and
about 1800 m of climbing.
CABOT TRAIL TOUR :DAY 3 ( and encore)
Cheticamp to Baddeck
Cheticamp is a French Acadian fishing town. The big church can be
seen as you come down from French Mtn. The downtown area with stores,
restaurants and museums is about 5 km from the National Park campground.
Since I have been through the town many times before, I turn left at
about 2 km on the road to Belle Marche. I was hoping that this road
would give a panoramic view of Cheticamp but small hills cut off the
view. There is a bit of a view at Plateau before going down to the main
road on the south side of the town.
The narrow coastal plain between here and Margaree Hbr. is
practically treeless. This gives great views of the ocean and the
mountains but the winds can be fierce. Today I have a tailwind. This
is the area where cycling becomes very dangerous when the hurricane
force Suette blows.
In a yard on the left I see a large crowd of people, no it's a bunch
of scarecrows, one is even on a bicycle! Each year there are more on
40 km Margaree Hbr Bridge: Here one has the choice of 3 routes. 1:
before the bridge at the Cross-Road restaurant turn left along the east
side of the river. 2: cross the river and go down the west side of the
river (the official Cabot Trail). I prefer to take the east side when
going south and the west side when going north. 3: across the bridge at
the Schooner restaurant ( it's on a real ship) turn right on Rt 219 for
an extended trip. ( see below)
Today I take the east side of Margaree River, at first it's tidal,
then a meandering stream through meadows. Near Margaree Forks ( 52 km)
I cross the North East Branch and turn left on to the official Cabot
Trail. It's a nice bucolic valley, the river is famous for its salmon.
There a no more big hills.
70 km At Lake O'Law there is a restaurant where I have stopped when
the weather is bad. Today it's nice so I go another 1 km to the
Provincial Picnic area on the lake where the sag wagon is stationed. On
hot days it's nice to go swimming here. A little farther we enter the
Middle River valley which is also quite flat.
85 km At Lower Middle River the main road steeply climbs Hunter Mtn
(150m). However to the right is the flat and very scenic, quiet Yankee
Line road. It runs right along the river which at one point goes
through a narrow gap in the hills. It only adds about 4 km.
91 km The junction to Rt 105 is very abrupt, suddenly I'm back on the
busy highway. My loop is complete since I passed here 3 days ago. The
Herring Choker Deli is closed ( they are probably biking). At the
official Cabot Trail junction there is a store where many of the group
are having icecream. Then it's another 10 km back to Baddeck.
First-timers are elated. I congratulate them. On a hot day I like to go
for a final swim in Bras Dor Lake in the park by the marina.
This day was about 105 km with about 500m of climbing.
Since we are in the area let's go back to Margaree Hbr for an
SHORE ROAD AND LAKE AINSLIE.
40 km Right at Margaree Hbr. on Rt 219 ( Ceilidh Trail).
For the first 10 km the road is very close to the shore with several
beaches. There is bit of a climb, then a downhill to Dunvegan on Rt 19.
You can turn right on Rt 19 to Inverness and go down the rest of the
west coast. The Marsh Point Road leads to a campground with a nice beach
where you can watch the sun set over the sea.
60 km Turn left on Rt 19 , about 4 km along there is a picnic ground.
66 km Turn right on Rt 395 . The road goes along the west side of the
South West Margaree River. The road actually climbs quite high above
the river then descends to cross the river at Gillisdale. From the hills
you can see an interesting road following the east bank. So let's go
back to the corner of Rt 19.
67 km Keep going on Rt 19 another km ,cross the river, and turn right
on the first road ( East Side South West Margaree). This road turns to
gravel after a bit but it's usually pretty smooth. For most of the way
it is right down by the river. Don't try this in a flood! It is a very
pretty road under a canopy of trees. There may be people fly-fishing
75 km Join paved Rt 395 again ( if you took the ESSWM). The road
follows the river, goes up a steep but short hill then descends to
Scotsville on Lake Ainslie where there is a general store at the corner.
79 km The North Ainslie Rd. to the right is hilly but gives great
views of Lake Ainslie, the largest freshwater lake in Nova
Scotia. Today we'll stay on Rt 395 on the east side of the lake which
also has some pretty views. There is a Youth Hostel up the Twin Rock
Valley Rd. At Trout River Bridge there is a small beach. About 1 km
past the bridge is a picnic ground with a path down to a very nice
beach. There is a campground near the south end of the Lake.
98 km The West Ainslie Rd enters at left. You can make a loop of the
lake by following this to Strathlorne and Scotsville. After 4 km Rt 395
merges with Rt 252 , then it's only 5 km to Whycocomagh where there are
restaurants, motels, campgrounds and a general store.
107 km Turn left on Rt 105 (TCH) at the flashing lights. To go to the
general store go straight across here to the main street of Whycocomagh,
this street merges back onto 105 about 1 km later. A little farther is
the Provincial Park ( camping and picnic grounds). The TCH has heavy
traffic but a paved shoulder and nice view along the Bras Dor Lake.
118 km Rt 223 on the right goes to Little Narrows ferry , then to Iona
and then to Sydney. It is the shortest, quietest and most scenic way to
Sydney. But today we are going back to Baddeck, which is only 28 km
This route from Cheticamp would have been 146 km or about 40 km
longer than the official route. I highly recommend a trip to Lake
Ainslie, you could do the loop before or after the Cabot Trail.
Extras for Cabot Trail-Cape Breton
A nice connecting route from the Canso Causeway to The Baddeck area
is to follow the West Shore of Bras Dor Lake. Take Rt 4 to Cleveland,
then turn off to West Bay. At Marble Mtn there is a white beach formed
from marble chips. In 1990 there was still a 5 km unpaved gap near
Malagawatch but it may be finished by now. From Orangedale you can go
out to the TCH ( Rt 105) near Whycocomagh and on to Baddeck or Little
Narrows. There are also unpaved roads leading form Orangedale to Little
Narrows. The north most road( on the south shore of Whyc. Bay) may be
Rt 223 from Little Narrows, via Iona to near North Sydney used to be
very nice. Last year the Iona ferry was replaced by a bridge so traffic
has increased. There is still a ferry at Little Narrows. At Barachois
Hbr. the road via Georges River is slightly longer but more scenic than
the road to Leitches Creek.
A new ferry service is planned to run this summer(1994) from June 25
to Oct 1 It goes from Cheticamp NS , on the Cabot Trail, to Magdelan
Islands Quebec. Leaves Cheticamp at 0730 for a 4 hour crossing to
Havre-Aubert. It returns at 1500. I will carry 200 passengers plus
bicycles, has a restaurant on board.
There already is a ferry service between Havre-Aubert and Souris PEI so
this makes an interesting option for touring Cabot Trail , Mag. Is. and
PEI. You might even see whales on the crossing.
Nova Scotia Touring Index
Wolfville Ridge , Nova Scotia, Canada