The Cabot Trail in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia must be one of the most scenic bicycle rides in all of Canada, if not the world.
For a taste of the experiences that await you on this 300 kilometer road, set your mind on breathtaking sea vistas, framed by dramatic cliffs; curvy roads through timeless fishing villages; old-growth forests in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park and some truly epic climbs.
On a recent trip around the Cabot Trail, we picked up a few tips that may be helpful to anyone planning to ride this classic route.
#1. Prepare For Wind
We camped for a week in mid-August and experienced stiff winds every day, blowing clockwise around the trail. It’s true that the views are better if you travel anti-clockwise (with the sea on your right) but on balance we would recommend going with the wind. This was also the choice of most cyclists we saw during our visit.
The strong winds also meant that our camp stove quickly burnt through fuel, even though we used firewood and stones to build a wind break around our stove. Keep your fuel bottles topped up, and preferably take a stove that uses either white gas or fuel from gas stations. We could not find gas canisters anywhere on the trail.
Our stove surrounded by a make-shift windbreak.
#2. Pack Lightly
It almost goes without saying that when the hills are steep, it pays to travel as lightly as possible. We wouldn’t normally recommend dehydrated campers meals as they’re fairly expensive but it might be worth carrying a few on the Cabot Trail to save weight. Remember, sustained climbs at grades above 10% are common. Some grades even reach 15%. Ideally, you’ll get a bike with thin tires and a couple back bags. The exception is Meat Cove (see tip #7). In that case, you’ll want more robust tires for the dirt roads.
Rest stop on French Mountain. Photo by Bobcatnorth (flickr).
#3. Not All Campsites Have Water
There are campsites dotted regularly around the trail, including several in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Of the six main campsites in the national park, however, only those at Cheticamp, Broad Cove and Ingonish have water. The private campsites around the trail have all the services you’d expect (eg. wi-fi, water, showers). Expect to pay $25-30 Canadian a night for camping. Firewood and ice is usually available at campsites, for an extra charge.
#4. Reserve If You Plan To Stay In Hotels
Nearly every B&B, hotel and hostel we passed had a ‘no vacancy’ sign outside. If you don’t plan to bring a tent, you’d better reserve a room.
#5. There’s A Bike Shop In Cheticamp
We saw one good bike shop along the trail: Velo Max in Cheticamp. The owner does plenty of work preparing bikes for tour groups and should be able to help with any mechanical problems.
#6. Take Hiking Boots
Most cyclists breeze around the Cabot Trail in 3-4 days but there are so many world-class hiking tracks on the Cabot Trail it almost seems criminal to pass them by. If you can, lengthen your stay by a few days and stop to explore on foot. You’ll see a side of Cape Breton that isn’t revealed until you walk away from the road. You could easily spend 10-14 days doing a mixture of cycling and hiking on the trail.
We do realize that hiking boots are a heavy addition to your panniers. If the weather isn’t too hot, you might consider using your boots both for cycling and walking. We personally find hiking boots very comfortable for both activities.
#7. Meat Cove Makes An Amazing Side Trip
The most northerly community in Cape Breton is Meat Cove. It’s literally perched on the edge of a cliff, overlooking a sheltered bay.
Meat Cove view. Photo by Kaymoshusband (flickr).
Don’t kid yourself: this is a tough side trip. You’ll travel 30km off the Cabot Trail. The hills in the 15km leading up to Meat Cove are steep and relentless and the final 8km are on a rough dirt road. Still, your hard work will be rewarded by the stunning views and you can treat yourself to a bowl of chowder and a cold beer at the campground restaurant. There are also several hiking trails that lead up the hills and to hidden bays.
For an easier option, cycle the relatively easy (and entirely paved) 18km to the picturesque fishing community of Bay St. Lawrence. There you’ll find a campground, grocery store and delicious fish ‘n’ chips at the harbour.
#8. Be Aware of Bears And Coyotes
This is wild country, particularly in the national park. Bears and coyotes call the forests home, so if you are hiking or plan to wild camp, take appropriate precautions. Don’t eat near your tent or keep any food inside. More information is available on the national park website.
#9. Celebrate With An All-You-Can-Eat Lobster Supper
When you’ve completed the Cabot Trail, you deserve a treat! We very much enjoyed our meal at the Baddeck Lobster Suppers. With unlimited chowder, mussels, salads and desserts it’s the perfect place to fill up your hungry cyclist’s belly. If you don’t fancy lobster, they also roast salmon on a maple plank. Delicious!
These articles provide further tips and advice: