A few weeks ago, you may remember an April Fool’s story we ran about the Cabot Trail, which caused no end of misery for tourism officials in Nova Scotia. They spent the day answering phones and telling people, “No, the Cabot Trail is not closed to motorcyclists this summer.”
To help make it up to them, we’ve put together some tips for motorcyclists who might want to visit the world-famous road this summer. I just returned from several days on the Trail, and between all the CMG staffers and contributors we’ve visited many times, so here’s the definitive riding guide.
Why should I go?
There are lots of places to ride your motorcycle. Why go to the Cabot Trail, which is admittedly pretty far out there, at the northern end of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island?
A few reasons:
- The scenery around the island, particularly in the Cabot Trail section, is the best in the Maritimes.
- The whole Cape Breton region is still culturally distinct, and therefore interesting in our age of blah monoculture that’s piped in from Hollywood.
- While mainland Nova Scotia has many great motorcycling roads, they’re often hard to find if you’re not local, and the Cabot Trail is really the only place you can find cliff-edge riding in northeast North America. And once you’ve done the Trail, just about any other direction in Cape Breton has easy-to-find roads that seem made for motorcycles.
Is it really 300 kilometres of curvy asphalt paradise?
Parts of it are, but not all. Thirty kilometres of the Trail includes the Trans-Canada Highway. Click on the map below, or here, to zoom in and out and follow along.
Going counter-clockwise, head north from Baddeck for 20 kms on the Trans-Canada, and then the Trail starts properly at the turn-off for the Gaelic College. The stretch from here to Tarbotvale is pretty twisty, but then it straightens out a bit until you get to Wreck Cove. From there, it’s pretty curvy again until you get to the other side of Ingonish, and this section has a lot of cliff riding as well, especially around Cape Smokey.
There are curves as you continue along, but most of them aren’t as dramatic until you get to the North Mountain section, roughly in the middle of the Trail’s northern section. This is the true Trail: the stretch we think about when we talk about it. From North Mountain, it’s fairly twisty until you get to Cheticamp, with lots more cliffs. That stretch straightens out again as you ride south along the coast; although there are still plenty of curves, it’s not hectic.
When you turn east in Margaree Forks there are more curves, especially along the Margaree River, until you get back to Route 105, which is the Trans-Canada Highway that leads back up to Baddeck.
Which direction should I go?
The Cabot Trail wraps around the western side of Cape Breton in a loop, and one of the most common questions is, “Which direction should I run the Trail? Clockwise, or counter-clockwise?”
Supposedly, in the early days of the Cabot Trail, the generally-held wisdom among locals was to travel the trail clockwise, if possible, as that allowed you to keep to the inner lane around the tight edges. There, you were far less likely to skid off the edge of the road, down a cliff and into the ocean or a ravine, should something go wrong.
This still holds true today. Most of the tight corners will keep you to the inside, and therefore theoretically safer, if you’re traveling clockwise; you’ll still be on the outside edge of steep cliffs in a couple of noteworthy spots, particularly on North Mountain.
However, if you’re not worried about riding off the edge, then most locals will tell you the scenery is better if you travel counter-clockwise.
This is particularly noticeable on the eastern side of the trail. The views of the water are better along North River, up the stretch along Cape Smokey, and in the stretch from Ingonish through Neils Harbour.
After South Harbour, the mountains are much more visible than they are when traveling clockwise. The stretch along the sea just north of Cheticamp is also more scenic when you’re traveling counter-clockwise.
But what if you’re focusing on riding hard, instead of gawking at the scenery?
In that case, it’s not as big a deal, but there are a couple of decreasing-radius turns along the Trail that are probably best done in the counter-clockwise direction, especially on the eastern side of McKenzie Mountain just before Pleasant Bay. Going counter-clockwise, the corner gets easier instead of tighter as you go through, and you’re going uphill instead of downhill, so it’s a little less sketchy if your bike is loaded down or has iffy brakes. Same goes for the 90-degree corner halfway down North Mountain, after you pass Lone Shieling, if you’re heading clockwise; riders have been known to panic brake and shoot right over the guard rail and down the cliff here, as it looks much more scary if you’re going clockwise.
When should I go?
I rode the Trail in May this year. I’ve done it on two other trips right around the summer solstice in June, but I wouldn’t recommend going before then. This May, there was snow in the Highlands the day before I arrived, and it was still very chilly at high altitudes. Even June is no guarantee of good weather; ideally, you’d want to visit in July or August.
The trouble is, you’ve got loads of other tourists around then, too. You can get around this by traveling earlier in the morning, or later in the evening, but it’s very frustrating to get stuck behind an RV that won’t pull over on a curving road.
If you visit in September, there’s fall foliage and fewer tourists, and if you ride at mid-day you should be okay, but again, you run the risk of cooler temps. By October, it’s definitely going to be chilly, and you may even see some of Atlantic Canada’s first snow squalls.
Where should I stop?
It depends what you’re into. Along the Trail, there’s no shortage of places to eat, but only one of those places sells the Cabot Trail Biker T-shirts: the Coastal Restaurant and Pub in Ingonish. If you’re not fussed about getting the official T-shirt, or you don’t care for pub fare, you can find just about anything else you want along the way.
Cheticamp in particular has interesting Acadian fare at Le Gabriel Restaurant, as well as plenty of seafood. Most of the other towns have similar offerings, although you may find the eateries closed early if you’re riding through during the slack times of the tourist season. In July and August, though, everything should be running full-bore.
In the past, I’ve eaten at the Dancing Moose and Clucking Chicken cafes near Wreck Cove, and found both were pretty good.
What about non-food stops? There aren’t many tourist trap-style attractions along the Trail, but there’s plenty of beautiful nature to see, with pull-outs everywhere to take in the view. There are several notable hiking trails, but you’ll want to make sure you’ve paid for your National Park pass if you’re going down these (if you’re just riding through, you’ll be okay without it).
The Giant MacAskill Museum in Englishtown is worth checking out if you have a few minutes to kill, as he’s definitely one of the most interesting figures in Cape Breton history (TripAdvisor reviews here). There’s also the North Highlands Community Museum, the Margaree Salmon Museum, and just off the Trail in Inverness, the Inverness Miner’s Museum. None of these museums are what you’d call massive, but they do offer an insight into local culture.
If you’re more interested in nature than history, you can take in whale-watching tours or bird-watching cruises along the Trail.
What if I need repairs?
What, you went to the Cabot Trail and you ran into bike trouble? How could you be so careless?
Just kidding! Last time I ran the Cabot Trail, I ended up needing a rear tire, as the Shinko 244 mounted on my DR650 was too far gone to ride home. The time before that, my riding partner had the same problem, when his Honda 919 burned off its rear after a particularly vigorous romp around the island.
Both times, Mackenzie Motorsports in Middle River bailed us out; the owner sold me a tire and mounted it on the rim. The year before, my buddy had to buy a tire in Sydney, and had Mackenzie Motorsports install it.
Jim MacKenzie told me he has 250 tires in stock for 2019, in most sizes. No matter what the need is, when someone calls him in a panic, “I don’t often get caught with my pants down.” You may have to ride home on a Kenda instead of a Metzeler, but it’s better than no tire at all.
Other towns on Cape Breton also have places that can help in a pinch, particularly Sydney, which has Cabot Powersports, Membertou Motorcycles, City Motorsports and Gord’s Sports Centre Racing. There’s also Redline Sport & Cycle just off the island, in Antigonish.
What side trips should I take?
When you’re on the Cabot Trail, it’s worthwhile detouring through White Point/Neils Harbour, which offers beautiful views while avoiding a mostly soulless stretch of road. But the real treat is the Bay St. Lawrence turn-off, in Cape North. This fun little road takes about 20 km to reach Bay St. Lawrence, a scenic little fishing village, and then takes another 10 km (mostly unpaved) to reach Meat Cove, the northern-most town in Nova Scotia. The ride into Meat Cove is rough, but the scenery looks straight out of the Lord of the Rings films, and when you run out of road, you truly know the feeling of isolation.
The Englishtown ferry ($7 fare) can be a fun diversion if you’ve already run the road to the west, along North River, but with the fresh pavement (as of end of 2018), the North River route is an absolute hoot, and I’d recommend that first.
What condition are the roads?
The sections of road that go through the national park are mostly in very good shape, and the province seems to have renewed interest in restoring much of the rest of the Trail. Some sections that were pretty bad in recent years (the twisties through Wreck Cove, the North River run) have been repaved, and are excellent fun.
However, the stretch between Margaree Forks and Exit 5 off Rt. 105 (the “bottom” of the Cabot Trail) is absolutely execrable in parts. Much of the scenery here is your basic Canadian rocks and trees, except for the sections that follow the Margaree River, so many tourists skip this section. It’s understandable why the province put less priority on fixing it. However, the locals have started erecting protest signage along the road, and in 2019, there are several major repair projects along this section.
There’s also a major project underway to repair the busted-up section on the south side of Cape Smokey, which means you may not be able to rail through here at high speed until it’s finished (hopefully sometime in the summer of 2019). When I went through at the start of this year’s trip, I was able to cruise through, but later in the week, the road crews were out and I had to follow a truck through this serpentine section.
Where should I stay?
There are dozens of accommodation opportunities in the area, maybe hundreds if you count Air BnB. I’ve stayed at everything from resort-style rooms at the Silver Dart Lodge in Baddeck (highly recommended) to basic motels just off the island (Cove Motel, right before the Canso Causeway, also highly recommended for its view of the island and the Strait of Canso).
This year, I also stayed at the Dancing Moose cabins, and found them comfortable, with an excellent on-site cafe and some beautiful shoreline only a short walk away. The last night of my trip, I stayed at the Mabou River Inn, which not only has a great pizzeria on site, but is a short walk away from the Red Shoe Pub; the pub is owned by the famous Rankin Sisters, and it’s a great spot to get a condensed taste of Cape Breton culture in a couple of hours. Plus, the River Inn has the best coffee I’ve ever had at any hotel in Atlantic Canada.
Staying at a central location like Englishtown or Baddeck offers the advantage of not only making sense for running the Trail in either direction, but also allowing for quicker side excursions into Louisbourg, Sydney or anything else on the east side of the island. Your sunrises will be epic if you stay on the eastern coastal section of the Trail, and your sunsets will be best if you stay on the western coastal section.
What else do I need to know?
If you have any other questions, Daniel Ross is the man to ask. Better-known online as the Cabot Trail Biker, Daniel acts as a sort-of motorcyclist ambassador for the Trail through his website and Facebook page, and also offers guided tours through the Cabot Trail. If you’ve got specific questions, his Facebook page is a great way to contact him.