My mom and I turned into the French Mountain parking lot in Cape Breton’s Highlands National Park. After pulling into a parking space I walked over to the Skyline Trail sign. I had been told hiking the Skyline trail was one of the best things to do on Cape Breton. This was supposed to be the best hike in the park for views. I had heard about it, seen pictures, and read about it. I had drunk the Skyline Trail Kool-Aid, and I wanted to do it.
Looking at the map we determined it didn’t look too hard, but it would take a couple of hours to complete. We looked at each other and realized we didn’t have time to do it; we had to keep going.
If we stopped to hike all of the incredible trails in the park we’d never make it around the Cabot Trail in a day and to our hotel! I reluctantly got back in the car and we kept going with a sinking feeling.
Cape Breton Island in Canada is known for outdoor activities and adventures, and I didn’t really have time to do any of them. The only solace I could muster up was making a pact with myself I would come back again so I could do all of the best things to do on Cape Breton.
Fast-forward four years and I’m back on Cape Breton Island to fulfill that plan. I spent a week on the island with friends Pete and Dalene of Hecktic Travels. We focused on getting outside each day on a different hike, adventure, or experience. This way we were able to see and experience the variety of activities the island offered.
The Best Things to do on Cape Breton
Skyline Trail Hike
Difficulty: Easy – well marked and there isn’t much elevation change. The trail itself is well-groomed and easy to walk. The loop section is a bit more rugged, but still in the easy category.
Distance: 4 miles return or 5.1-mile loop
Location: Located in Cape Breton Highlands National Park along the Cabot Trail at the top of French Mountain. There are signs for the parking lot.
The terrain is fairly average for the first two-thirds of the walk as you wind through the forest and get teased by views of Cabot Trail through the trees. But it’s the last third that will have you oohing and aahing.
You suddenly leave the forest area behind and are high on top of a headland cliff overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence. A boardwalk with stairs leads you down to a viewpoint with benches. Keep your eyes peeled for whales and enjoy the view. This is also a great place for a picnic lunch or sunset hike.
Mabou Western Coastal Hike
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate – well marked, but in spots, you’ll need to watch your footing as there are tree roots in some parts. However, the short distance of this trail also makes it pretty easy.
Distance: 1.8 miles if you go all the way to the end and back
Location: Trailhead and map are near the parking lot before you head down to the beach.
This is a short little hike but I was slowed down by the beach views. This can be a simple out-and-back hike, or you can go along the bluffs on the way out and follow the trail down to the beach and walk back along the beach.
You’ll start out in a dense area of Spruce trees and rolling green hills and then pop out on top of the sand dunes where it’s more of an open field. We walked back along the beach and enjoyed the crashing waves and meeting locals along the beach.
Stroll on the Inverness Boardwalk
Difficulty: this is a simple walk anyone can do.
Distance: Nearly 1 mile to the end of the boardwalk
Location: 158 Beach No. 1 Road, Inverness – head towards the ocean until the road ends, and you’ll be at the beginning of the boardwalk. There is parking by the beach.
This really isn’t a hike, it’s just a nice little walk where you can soak up the sea air and a lovely place for sunset. The boardwalk begins at the public beach, runs above the beach, and ends overlooking the Cabot Links Golf Course.
If you are tired of watching the ocean, you can watch golfers tee off on one of the best courses in the world. There were a lot of locals out walking their dogs along the beach and swimming in the shallow waters.
Middle Head Hike
Difficulty: easy to moderate. There is some rolling up and down – but nothing steep. The trail is well-marked and groomed. There are some places where you need to watch your footing.
Distance: 2.4-mile loop
Location: Parking is located at the trailhead behind the Keltic Lodge in Ingonish.
Hike out the narrow peninsula separating two ocean bays and end on cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. You’ll wind through the forest and then out a slight uphill to the end of the peninsula. Here you can sit and watch the sea birds soar overhead and take in the beauty of Cape Breton Island. There is a loop trail that will take you back a more forested way, or go back the way you came.
Find the Best Views in Cape Breton Highlands National Park
This is one of the crown jewels of Cape Breton Island. This National Park has a number of wonderful hiking trails, restaurants, small towns, and so many incredible coastal views!
One of my favorite and most clever uses of the Adirondack chair in Nova Scotia Canada was by the Cape Breton Highlands National Park in their “Red Chair Challenge”. The mission was to find and sit in ten red chairs scattered around Cabot Trail. At each chair, there’s a unique view of the landscape and seascape.
Take a Sea Kayak Adventure
If you are looking to give your legs a break and give your upper body a workout, then try a kayak adventure on Cape Breton. This isn’t just a paddling trip, you will also be treated to gourmet local food and wine.
We actually went on a full moon tour and kayaked at night. As the sun went down we left the shore in Baddeck and did a golden hour paddle around Kidsten Island. Keep your eyes peeled for seabirds around the island. Right before the sun disappears you’ll end up at the Kidsten Island lighthouse where you can beach your kayaks and get photos of this idyllic setting.
We paddled up to the shore where there were platters of food being prepared at our own private gazebo. The food was prepared by chef Brian Pickard of the popular local restaurant, the Bite House, and paired with Nova Scotia Canada wine and beer. Our guide surprisingly got out a guitar and we had live entertainment. I loved the vibe of this whole evening; it was like a gourmet camping night.
They only run this nighttime tour during the full moon so be sure to check the North River Kayak website for the dates, and as of 2023, the tour may not be available. But no fear – you can still have an incredible kayak adventure during daytime hours. North River Kayak offers a number of different tours and paddling classes.
Play on a Top Ranked Golf Course
The Cabot Cliffs Golf Course is ranked 19th in the world’s top 100 golf courses, so why not stop and get in 9 holes? And if you can, do an entire 18 as the last 3 holes of the course are some of the most spectacular views on Cape Breton Island! And be sure to bring plenty of extra balls to replace all of the ones you are going to lose off the cliffs!
For the first time in 20 years, I stepped onto a golf course to watch Pete play this famous course. Needless to say – I felt a little self-conscious. We weren’t even completely sure they’d let me walk along on such a renowned course, but they didn’t seem to have any issue with it.
Be aware, a caddie is required on this course. There are no carts on the course, only caddies.
I was having so much fun that after hole 3, I decided to stay a few more, and then a few more, and suddenly I was in for the whole thing! We got beers, put on sunscreen, and made a day of it. This wasn’t the stuffy game of golf I was expecting.
Make sure you savor the last 3 holes, which are the ‘famous’ holes right along the cliffs, and somehow Pete actually got par hole 16!
And if your pocketbook can afford it – get a room at The Lodge at Cabot Cape Breton resort too – it’s pure luxury.
Whale watching on Cape Breton
One of the best times to go whale watching in Cape Breton is during the summer months when these magnificent creatures migrate to the area in search of food. The most common whale species spotted here include humpback whales, fin whales, minke whales, and occasionally even orcas. With their impressive size and graceful movements, witnessing these majestic mammals up close is an awe-inspiring sight.
Several tour operators offer guided whale-watching excursions in Cape Breton, providing visitors with knowledgeable guides who can share interesting facts about the different whale species encountered during the trip. These tours typically take place aboard specially designed boats that prioritize passenger safety while minimizing disturbance to the marine environment. So if you’re looking for an unforgettable wildlife encounter in a stunning natural setting, don’t miss out on experiencing whale watching in Cape Breton!
Visit the port town of Sydney
Sydney, located on the beautiful island of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, Canada, is a charming port town that offers a unique blend of natural beauty and rich cultural heritage. The downtown area is a bustling hub filled with unique shops, delightful restaurants, and historic landmarks. Explore Charlotte Street – lined with charming boutiques selling local crafts and souvenirs – where you can find everything from hand-knit sweaters to traditional Celtic music CDs.
The world’s largest fiddle is located in Sydney. Standing at a staggering height of 60 feet (18 meters), this colossal fiddle is hard to miss. Erected in 2005, it holds the Guinness World Record for being the largest playable violin on Earth. It has become a notable landmark in the area, attracting both locals and tourists alike.
Drive the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island
Nova Scotia is known for its spectacular driving routes, but the queen of them all is the Cabot Trail. This scenic drive is typically littered with superlatives such as best, and greatest. It certainly deserves praise as it provides a whole different feel of Nova Scotia than the other routes. The road hugs the cliffs and winds around forests on the Northwest side, and the Eastern side provides a rocky coast dotted with fishing villages and sandy beaches.
There are plenty of scenic lookouts along the world-famous Cabot Trail giving you many photo opportunities or just a place to sit and take in the magnificent views and eat lunch.