Winter on the Cabot Trail

Cape Smokey


It's February now, here in Cape Breton, the hordes of cars and summer heat are a distant memory as the island sets it's eyes on recovering from a record winter storm.  Over a meter of snow has blanketed much of the island, shutting down roads, and pushing our systems to the maximum. Once we clean up from the storm, we know a lot of people will want to get to Cape Breton to experience the snow. Many of the hotels and restaurants on and around the Cabot Trail remained open this winter and once they dig our are ready to greet you.   

In winter, deserted beaches, with huge storm waves pounding the coastline are calling you and our gorgeous rolling hills are blanketed with fresh snow are awaiting your arrival. Couple some winter storms and snowy hills, with an outdoor hot tub overlooking the open Atlantic and some fine food and now you are starting to have the makings of an amazing get away - with some pretty amazing off-season rates to boot!

When you make your way up to the Cabot Trail in winter you can do as little as you want, (storm watching will sipping wine anyone?), or as much as you want (ski, sledding, snowshoeing, surfing - and that's just the "s" activities). So let's take a look at some of the more popular winter activities in these parts and maybe look at a few ideas that might not be on your radar. We can guarantee that you can find an excursion or diversion that is just right for you.  


One of the most popular winter activities by far on Cape Breton island is snowmobiling.  But for those in the know, it is not "snowmobiling", but rather for the true aficionados it is always "sledding". With apologies to dog sleds and huskies everywhere. And the Highlands of Cape Breton are ground zero for some of the most dramatic sledding in Atlantic Canada. Though Cape Breton Highland National Park is obviously off-limits to any motorized recreation, there are ample opportunities to access the Highlands, from several points along the Cabot Trail.

To access the Highlands, there are two main entry points; the first being in the Middle River area, about 15 minutes north of Baddeck and the second access point is in the Margaree Valley, about 45 minutes past Middle River. The Margaree Valley is truly a mecca for sledders, with ready access to dozens of trails that traverse the whole of the Highlands and take you right up to the edge of the National Park.




For a particular treat, both in terms of accommodations and top notch cuisine there is no better option for the sledding set than the Big Interval Lodge, a remote lodge nestled deep in the Margaree Valley, with quaint cabins and hearty Swiss influenced cuisine. They revently announced this is their last winter of operations.  So, we highly recommend getting out their for a visit before they close in April.  For those folks that either don't have a snowmobile of their own and would like a guide to help them navigate around our huge number of trails, you would be well advised to check out TNT Adventures. Based out of the Baddeck area, they offer numerous guided sledding adventures, deep into the backcountry.


Snow Shoeing


For those folks who want their outdoor recreation a little slower and a little quieter, it is worth looking into the many, many snowshoeing opportunities that can be accessed from around the Cabot Trail. On the Ingonish side of the Trail, there is quick and easy access to the high boreal plateau that forms the vast majority of the National Park from the top of the gondola at Cape Smokey. For the price of a gondola ride, you can be whisked from sea-level to one thousand feet up and save a whole lot of time and energy. And just in case you forgot your snowshoes, the public libraries in both Baddeck and Ingonish rent them out, as does Cape Smokey (only for use at the resort), and with an advance reservation, the Park headquarters in Ingonish.



Downhill Skiing and Snowboarding

If backcountry snowshoeing isn't exciting enough for you, there is always downhill skiing. Here on the Cabot Trail, that means only one place, Cape Smokey. Skiing Cape Smokey, will give you the highest vertical in Atlantic Canda, at a thousand feet.  With the only ski gondola in Atlantic Canada you have quick and easy access to tonnes of exciting and varied terrain. Fifteen runs and over ten kilometers of ski-able terrain are waiting for you in Ingonish. Also, we would be remiss if we didn't mention that "The Slope Bar and Grill", at Cape Smokey, is a great location for all of your après ski food and beverage needs.

Cross Country Skiing and Telemarking

If the thought of hurtling your self down a steep slope with skis attached to you, fills you with fear and dread, there are some other skiing options for you. We refer of course to the wonderfully calming and calorie burning act of cross-country skiing. There are a few key locations for cross-country skiing that need to be mentioned.

Tucked away in picturesque St.Ann's Bay,  you will see a discrete, almost hidden sign that simply says "Tuonela" - what is this strange word? what mysteries abound in the steep hills beyond the parking lot? Well, its no mystery, a four kilometers ski in, will take you to the Tuonela Ski Village, the location of some of the best cross country and telemarking trails and hills in the whole of Cape Breton. Cozy cabins and a wood fired sauna seal the deal.

In the far north of the Cabot Trail, towards the top of Cape Breton, you will pass through Cape North, home of the Cabot Trail's other major cross country ski operation, the North Highlands Nordic Centre. Now, they may not have a sauna, but they have full rentals, 12 km of groomed trails and plenty of wide open spaces.

With a little imagination and maybe a little bit of daring, there are also a number of other wintertime activities to keep you warm! As an example, among a tiny group of die hard winter surfers, the breaks off Ingonish Beach in the wintertime are considered some of the finest on the island. If you want to explore some hiking trails in winter, more and more folks are putting the big winter tires on their mountain bikes and enjoying some winter time mountain biking.

If all this snow talk is a bit too much, we should probably look at some of the amazing dining and accommodation options that are open for you in the winter on the Cabot Trail. Whether you need somewhere to lay your head after a day of vigorous activity, or somewhere to lay your head after a day of doing nothing at all, the Cabot Trail has you covered.  

Places to Stay on the Cabot Trail in The Winter

On the Cabot Trail in Baddeck, the Inverary Inn, with its Narrows Cafe, is the preferred hotel in Baddeck, and towards the rugged North Shore and Wreck Cove area, the Cabot Shore Wilderness Resort, with it's Mongolian Yurts and a sauna is the place to be.


Past the North Shore,  we tackle the fifteen percent grade that takes us to the top of Cape Smokey (the Cape, not the ski hill!) and down into picturesque Ingonish, where there are two particularly enticing options to stay, the Keltic Lodge with its full service Arduaine Restaurant and Lounge and a spa to boot, or the cozy cabins with the killer views at Lantern Hill and Hollow. With both properties there are stay and ski packages available, or you can just kick back and relax.

Making our way over the northern tip of Cape Breton, we go through one of the more remote parts of the Cabot Trail and though there are not as many options for food and lodging, one of the options that is available is in the upper echelons of luxury. The Sidanna Retreat near Aspy Bay will take your breath away, both in regards to the raw beauty of the setting and the beauty, inside and out, of the property. Though there are some catering options available for special occasion dining, this is primarily a place to channel your inner Gordon Ramsay - just remember to hit the grocery store beforehand as only a few small convenience stores remain open in this remote area.

Rounding the top of the island and heading down the west side of Cape Breton island you'll be blown away by the views, as the roads twist and turn and wind their way through the hills. If you really want to capture some Instagram worthy shots, plan your drive down this side of the Cabot Trail for the afternoon, as the setting sun makes for some pretty dramatic scenery.

You  may want to break up this part of your journey, so you should consider a stay in either Pleasant Bay or Cheticamp. In Plesant Bay you would be well advised to check into the Cliff Waters Vacation Property, at the very end of the Red River Road. With its position on the edge of dramatic sea cliffs and right next to a Buddhist Monastery, you will be positioned for some dramatic rest and relaxation. Be sure to come back in the Summer to challenge the world-famous Pollett's Cove Trail, which begins just a few hundred feet down the road! In Cheticamp, the Masion Fiset House comes highly recommend as a place to stay and for food you could either have the down home food of Le Gabriel  or the modern and elegant cuisine of L'Abri Cafe.

As you drive the Cabot Trail this winter, know that the Trail is kept in top-notch shape. With a large portion of the Cabot Trail passing through the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Parks Canada makes the clearing and maintenance of the Cabot Trail their priority. Even in the worst storms, in the worst years, the Trail will only close for a few days each winter and there is ample warning of any closures or concerns in Cheticamp and Ingonish, long before entering the Park. Considering that the snow drifts on the Cabot Trail near Cape North can exceed fifty feet and in parts the snow can linger till early July, it is a testament to the amazing work done by Parks Canada.

So gas up, pack lots of warm clothes, jump in the car and start driving (once the weather allows). Those of us who live here know that winter is a great time to be on Cape Breton island, but you need to discover this for your self! We hope to see you up here this Winter.

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