How to Visit Cape Breton Highlands National Park This Year

* This site contains affiliate links, where I get a small commission from purchases at no extra cost to you.

If you are lucky enough to visit Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia, you will be rewarded with a breathtaking scenic drive, secluded beaches, and stunning hikes. 

We made the trip from Maine to Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia in our RV in July. It was our first time crossing the Maine-Canadian border in the RV and first time RVing in Canada. 

I want to share everything we wish we knew so you can make the most out of your trip to Cape Breton Highlands National Park and the Cabot Trail. 

Where is Cape Breton Highlands National Park?

Cape Breton Highlands National Park is at the very north-east part of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. It’s a relatively quiet national park with only 300,000 visitors annually, making it the perfect escape for anyone seeking a nature-based vacation. 

Nova Scotia is already off the beaten path but when travelers come to Nova Scotia, most will stick to the capital city of Halifax and the surrounding area. 

If you’re thinking of combining both regions on your trip to Nova Scotia, just know that the drive from Halifax to Cape Breton Highlands National Park is over 5 hours. But it’s very possible if you have enough time!

Read More: 9 Best Tools for Planning a Unique International Vacation

Our Experience Crossing the Maine-Canadian Border in an RV

We crossed into Canada through the Calais, ME border crossing.

Our experience at the Canadian border was quick and easy but we learned a tip…

Don’t bring mace or pepper spray into Canada! 

Officials at the border will ask you what you have on board such as any weapons, alcohol, etc. 

We didn’t realize that pepper spray was prohibited in Canada – whoops!

We were asked to pull over so officers could check our RV because we thought we had put the pepper spray somewhere in the RV. Turns out, we couldn’t find it, and really confused the poor border patrol agent!

Always be sure to check the document and/or visa requirements of entering Canada. 

When we were returning back into Maine, we came back through the Houlton, ME border because we had to go towards Bangor, ME to pick up our dogs that Ben’s parents were watching for us. 

Houlton border was very similar to a highway, and we didn’t have to wait long at all. They quickly looked in the RV and we were free to go. 

Crossing the Maine-Canadian Border

Maine to Cape Breton Highlands National Park

This road trip requires a lot of driving! We were so surprised at how big New Brunswick and Nova Scotia felt driving from Maine to Cape Breton Highlands National Park. 

It felt very reminiscent of driving through Nebraska or Iowa in the US with large open highways and fields as far as your eyes can see.

If you have already been traveling through Maine, continuing on to Canada is a great choice if you have the time! 

Portland, ME to Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Nova Scotia – 12 hours

Bar Harbor, ME to Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Nova Scotia – 10 hours, 45 minutes

There is also an option to hop on a ferry from Bar Harbor to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. This would skip New Brunswick on your road trip and significantly cut down on driving time. 

The CAT ferry ride is around 3.5 hours and runs from late May to early October. 

We drove from Maine to Moncton and stayed the night in the Bass Harbor parking lot. We did ask the Bass Pro Shop management if this was okay and they were fine with it. But I’m not sure if they always will be so be sure to check boondocking options or plan a campground ahead of time. 

We had tried to find a camping spot for the night in the Fundy National Park but not surprisingly, they were booked full for the night. 

If you had even more time I would extend your road trip and spend 2-3 nights in New Brunswick, particularly in Fundy National Park. We plan to take a similar trip soon!

Read More: How to RV in Maine on a Limited Budget

Nova Scotia Visitor Center

Before entering Canada, Remember:

Bring Canadian money or go to the ATM as soon as you can.

You’ll want Canadian money for the tolls. 

We were so fortunate that when we approached our first Canadian tolls we realized we hadn’t gotten any Canadian money yet. The toll booth operator was so kind and let us pay in American money. 

Your Debit Card Might Not Work at Every ATM

We tried our debit card at multiple independent ATMs and found they wouldn’t work. It finally did work when we went to the Royal Bank of Canada, so if you can find one of their branches! 

Don’t Forget to Call Your Bank

Whenever you leave your home country, you’ll want to let your bank and credit card companies know that you will be traveling. 

Where to Stay While Visiting Cape Breton Highlands National Park?

We would highly suggest staying as close to the Cabot Trail as possible. Anything north of the towns Ignoish and Cheticamp on Cape Breton Island. This way you’re close to the Cabot Trail and Cape Breton Highlands National Park. 

We sadly picked a not so great RV campground, so instead of suggesting that one here’s two we’re considering for our next trip. 

Waves End RV and Campground in Cheticamp, Nova Scotia

Hideaway Campground and Oyster Market in Dingwall, Nova Scotia

We chose a campground positioned in the middle of Cape Breton Island and it was a few hours’ drive from the Cabot Trail. 

If you’re looking to explore the entire Cape Breton Island, I would suggest picking two campgrounds to stay at, one located on the northern side near the national park and the other on the south end of Cape Breton Island. This way you’re not driving hours between sights. 

If you prefer to be in the middle of Cape Breton Island there is a KOA campground right on the water. 

What is the Cabot Trail?

The Cabot Trail is a scenic drive around Cape Breton Highlands National Park. This trail is 186 miles of pure beauty! 

You can definitely drive the whole Cabot Trail in a day or even a few hours, but it’s best enjoyed slowly. 

There are numerous overlooks and hidden gems to discover along the way, so be sure to factor in extra time to take it slow. 

South Harbor Beach, Dingwall, Nova Scotia

Things to do Along the Cabot Trail

To drive along the Cabot Trail, you’ll need to pay the Cape Breton Highlands National Park entrance fee. It’s only a few dollars and can be used for multiple days. 

There are countless hikes, hidden gems, and outlooks to experience while driving the Cabot Trail and exploring Cape Breton Highlands National Park. 

One interesting thing to note is that there are parts where the Cabot Trail dips outside of the national park. But don’t discount exploring those areas of Cape Breton Island area as well. 

For example, you’ll see below, we found a beautiful, secluded beach just off the Cabot Trail. 

Hike the Skyline Trail Loop in Cape Breton Highlands National Park

Get to the trail head as early as possible. If you’re feeling super adventurous, go for a sunrise hike!

The trail warns you may see wildlife including black bears along the trail. We didn’t get so lucky, but that’s just another reason to go back!

Because we went so early we got to experience the beautiful summit all by ourselves. 

This view is beyond beautiful and is basically the whole reason we chose to visit Cape Breton Highlands National Park. 

The Skyline Trail Loop is a little over 6 miles, with an elevation gain of 900 feet, rated Moderate on Alltrails.com. But I would say it was more of an easy-moderate trail because it was really well maintained and pretty flat throughout.

Read More: How to Plan an Unforgettable Two-Week RV Road Trip

Skyline Trail has Black Bear Warnings
Skyline Trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Nova Scotia

Explore a Hidden Beach in Cape Breton National Park

Located slightly off of the Cabot Trail, you’ll want to search for Shore Road in Dingwall, Nova Scotia. Here you’ll find Burton’s Pond and South Harbor Beach

Continue on Shore Road all the way to the end and you’ll see a wooden sign saying, “Beach Parking, Road Rough”. Park there and continue to walk the rest of the way. 

Here you’ll find a hidden beach, most likely to yourself. It can get very windy here so leave your beach umbrella at home. 

South Harbor Beach, Dingwall, Nova Scotia
South Harbor Beach, Dingwall, Nova Scotia – completely empty!

Another Quiet Beach in Cape Breton Island

Located off of the Cabot Trail but still worth mentioning is Chimney Corner Beach. 

It’s a small but relaxing beach, located close to restaurants so you could enjoy the morning at the beach then hit the town for lunch. 

A Quick and Easy Coastal Hike

We spontaneously hiked the Jack Pine and Coastal Loop Trail and loved our time!

The hike takes you through wooded forest to a beautiful rocky coastline. Highly recommend!

The trail is a little under 2 miles and rated easy.

Jack Pine and Coastal Loop Trail, Cape Breton Highlands National Park
Jack Pine and Coastal Loop Trail, Cape Breton Highlands National Park

Learn about Whales in Cape Breton

I really enjoyed the Whale Interpretive Center. This is a local museum, perfect for families who are looking for a quick educational experience, or a whale enthusiast like me! One feature that I really enjoyed was listening to the different whale sounds.

We were also told it was possible to see whales off the coast of Cape Breton Island so we tried to keep our eyes peeled. I hope you have better luck than we did!

If we had more time, we definitely would have gone whale watching in Cape Breton Island. 

Whale Interpretive Center, Cape Breton Highlands National Park

How Long Do You Need for Cape Breton National Park and Cabot Trail

I would give yourself at least 3 days to enjoy the area but you could easily spend a week here. 

When we visited in July we planned to spend a whole week exploring the area, but sadly we got Covid two days into our trip. So we’re planning a redemption trip in the future! 

We barely got to explore and there is so much to do in this area! From hikes, to beach days and whale watching adventures, you’ll have a blast!

July was the perfect month to visit Cape Breton Island. There were hardly any crowds and the weather was perfect. 

Average temperature for July and August is mid 70s, perfect weather in my opinion!

Final Thoughts

A visit to Cape Breton Highlands National Park and the Cabot Trail should definitely be on your bucket list. 

We were so impressed with the natural beauty and hiking options in the area, I can see us returning multiple times!

I hope these tips help you plan your trip to Cape Breton Highlands National Park and Cabot Trail.