How to: Ride the Cabot Trail

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.
Even when the road straightens out a bit, there’s lots to see, like this angry sign.
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.

I’ve done the Trail in both directions, and prefer counter-clockwise. However, if you’re picking up the pace and not watching the scenery, it doesn’t really matter, especially if it’s your first time around.
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.

Editor ‘Arris powers through the Trail back in 2011.

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.

In this lovely photo, kindly provided by Destination Cape Breton (have they forgiven us for April Fools?), you can see it’s not always yucky and cloudy and cold on the Trail. You’ll have a better chance at good weather if you visit in July or August.
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.

If you want all of Cape Breton culture summed up in one stop, try the Red Shoe Pub.
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.

Tut tut, Mr. Kurylyk! This is what happens when you’re too cheap to change your tire out before a tour. Thankfully, McKenzie Motorsports once again came to the rescue, this time with a Shinko 705.
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.

You can get a good look at the Bay St. Lawrence wharf in the title photo above. This is a shot of the road on the way back from Meat Cove. To me, it sums up the riding experience of the Trail in a single shot.
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.

A lot of the Cabot Trail is in excellent shape, thanks to an ongoing road repair program. However, the stretch between Margaree Forks and the 105 is in awful condition, and the locals are not happy, as you can see by their sign.
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.

My groovy digs at the Dancing Moose. This is an affordable roof over your head, and a cool location with a good restaurant as well.
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.

If you have any more questions, Daniel Ross, also known as the Cabot Trail Biker, is the man to ask. Visit his website or Facebook page for more details.
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.

14 thoughts on “How to: Ride the Cabot Trail”

  1. Forgot one place along the way… Cornerstone Motel… tour riders get special amenities in Cheticamp at the Cornerstone Motel like boot and glove dryers, extra power outlets for charging devices, complimentry bike wash kits, helmet racks in rooms, communal fire pit for groups and everyone gets free bike parking right at your front door! Ideal for motorcyclists as the owners have been riders for over 30 years and so they know what riders need when traveling and made it happen!

  2. I’ve ridden the Cabot Trail a few times, both solo and with my wife aboard. My suggestion is to ride it both directions. Once you’re there you should enjoy it to the max. If you ride both directions in the same day you will hardly know it’s the same road.!

    1. Totally agree! Lived on the Cabot Trail for 5 years now and try to do it both ways, cause it’s a new road going the opposite direction! Twice the fun, same road!!

  3. Love it! Also second above comment that a visit to The Dancing Goat is worth the stop. Add a day to your trip and spend some time riding by the sea on Isle Madame on the south coast of Cape Breton. Picturesque Acadian fishing villages, great roads, places to eat, and the only hotel/motel on the island, The Clairestone Inn, offers motorcyclists a sweet deal at $99/night.

  4. As an ex-Nova Scotia lad my favourite riding time was always September. Aug/Sept usually the driest months, although an August visit last year was very wet, but still warm. September is much less busy on the roads, although as Zac mentioned some of the smaller places, ie clams and chips stands, will close Labour Day weekend. Most places are open until Canadian Thanksgiving, mid Oct. October rides can yield the most beautiful fall colours, but the timing of the peak colours changes yearly, and October can be cold/wet/windy. If you like Ocean swimming then August is best (I love all swimming), if fresh water then July-Sept is fine. There is also world class golfing in Cape Breton, I seem to be one of the rare golf and motorcycle lovers. You can rent clubs. I only wish there were bike rentals in NS, but that would be a costly undertaking for a 2-3 month season. Perhaps I can/will fly my bike from Calgary, just need to save a few shekels for that. All of NS is worth it though, 2 weeks would be ideal. Cam

  5. A great write up. As a former resident of Cape Breton I can attest to the enjoyment of a ride on The Cabot Trail. I will be heading to Margaree tomorrow for a week off work and a full trip of the trail is in order. I’ve also had the pleasure of stopping at MacKenzies and getting two tires for my former ride which was also a DR650. My ride this time will be a more comfortable BMW R1200CL. I would especially like to recommend The Dancing Goat Bakery and Cafe in Margaree. The best sandwiches, soups and desserts around and it’s all homemade. If you are into certain beverages, Big Spruce Brewery is located in Nyanza just before you turn onto The Cabot Trail. They have a unique selection of organic beers and this year they even have Oatmeal Cereal Killer Stout ice cream.
    All in all I would suggest that if you want to take one of your best rides ever, then head for The Cabot Trail.

    1. I’ve heard the Dancing Goat is fantastic, never had the time to stop and try. I do plan on trying to get back up there again soon, hopefully this year but more realistically next spring, and I’ll check it out then.

    2. I’ll also add that there’s a lot of wildly gyrating animal-themed restaurants on the Trail–chickens, goats, moose, and others I’m forgetting!

  6. You could also follow the Motorcycle Tour Guide Nova Scotia & Atlantic Canada. Written and published by 2 bikers (Harold & Wendy Nesbitt) they have been providing visitors with detailed routes, maps and ideas on Where to Eat, Stay & Play for 20 years! Visit their facebook page or website for information. https://motorcycletourguidens.com/

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