With its craggy, rugged coastline, sweeping views, and thick forests, Cape Breton Highlands National Park is an outdoor-lover’s paradise. A visit to this northern island will put you in touch with secluded sandy beaches, cascading waterfalls, and mountainous hiking trails. Moose and bear are plentiful within the forest, and whales and eagles are often spotted from the coast. Cape Breton Highlands was the first national park created in the Atlantic Provinces, and although it receives more than 300,000 visitors every year, there is plenty of room to spread out across more than 366 square miles (948 km²).
There are five front-country campgrounds within the park, with more than 400 unique campsites to choose from. Camping in Cape Breton Highlands is one of the best ways to explore the park’s varied terrain, and it’s the perfect way to road trip on the world-famous Cabot Trail, which runs around the perimeter of Cape Breton Island. The Cabot Trail is a 185-mile road that connects all of the Cape Breton Highlands campgrounds, as well as several beautiful coastal communities. The Cabot Trail is known far and wide as one of the world’s most spectacular scenic roads. Ready to explore the beautiful Cape Breton Island? Start by figuring out where to stay. Here’s our complete camping guide for Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
Where is Cape Breton Highlands National Park?
Cape Breton Highlands National Park is located on northern Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Canada. The best way to explore Cape Breton Island is by embarking on a multi-day road trip. The nearest international airport is the Halifax Stanfield International Airport. From Halifax, it’s a 4.5-hour drive to the park entrance.
This post will focus entirely on camping in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. For help planning other aspects of your trip, please check out the official travel website for Cape Breton Island.
Cape Breton Highlands National Park Camping: Which Campground is right for you?
There is so much to do and see in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. It’s a is a fabulous destination for families who love the outdoors, and the best way to explore the park is by setting up camp at one of five unique campgrounds. Sites at three of the campgrounds are reservable, and two smaller campgrounds are first-come, first-served. Over the summer, our family had the pleasure of camping in Broad Cove, Ingonish, and Chéticamp campground. While all the campgrounds provide great amenities, and access to a variety of hiking trails, we have a definite favorite.
Of course, there are benefits and drawbacks to each campground, depending on your camping style and what type of adventures you’re looking for. Hopefully this campground guide will help you find the perfect Cape Breton National Park campsite.
The three reservable Cape Breton Highlands National Park Campgrounds have washrooms, hot showers, kitchen shelters, and picnic tables. Cheticamp and Broad Cove Campgrounds both have sites with electric, water, and sewer hook-up. Ingonish sites are all unserviced. Most campsites, but not all have fire pits. They also have large dish-washing sinks with hot water for washing up.
Types of Camping in Cape Breton Highlands National Park
In addition to basic tent and RV sites, there are a few unique camping options that I want to mention. We didn’t try any of them out because they were all booked when we tried to reserve them, but we talked to lots of families taking advantage of the o’TENTiks and equipped campsites, and all of them were super happy with their accommodations.
oTENTiks – These are cabin/tent hybrids that are great for families. Inside you will find bunks for sleeping (you still need sleeping bags), a table and chairs, solar-powered lights, and heat. There’s a picnic table outside, and either a fire pit or a barbecue grill. There are 20 oTENTiks in Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
Equipped camping – Now you can plan a camping trip without bringing all the gear. Equipped campsites provide you with a tent that sleeps six people, sleeping pads, camp chairs, a camp stove, cooking gear, and a wash bin. All you need to bring is your sleeping bag, pillows, and sense of adventure. There are 10 equipped campsites in Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
Ingonish Beach Campground
Number of sites: 60
Equipped camping: 5
Sites with electric, water, and sewer: 0
Sites with electric and water: 0
Unserviced sites: 51
Ingonish Beach Campground is located near the entrance to Cape Breton Highlands National Park on the east side of Cape Breton Island. It is very close to the Ingonish Visitor Center and to a local bakery and a small market. The beautiful Ingonish Beach is a ten-minute walk from the campground. This is probably the most popular beach in the park, and it’s a great beach for kids because there are lifeguards on duty in the summer. Visitors can choose to swim in the ocean or the freshwater lake, which is much, much warmer. There is a small nature center in the Ingonish Beach Campground, and interpretive programs are offered daily throughout the summer months. Although the campground is small, most of the sites are in the open, with very little privacy.
What we loved about Ingonish Beach Campground: We enjoyed spending time at
Ingonish Beach. The ocean was pretty cold for swimming, but the lake was perfect.
Something to consider: There are no hook-ups, so you are generally camping with tenters or small RVs and vans.
Hiking Trails Near Ingonish Beach Campground
- Freshwater Lake – This easy loop can be reached from the campground. It’s entirely level and travels along the coast, past beaver ponds, and a freshwater lake that was once a saltwater bay. The 1.1-mile (1.7km) is suitable for young children. After your hike, take a dip in the ocean or the lake before heading back to camp.
- Freshwater Lake Look-Off – If you’re short on time, but still want a fantastic view, take the short, steep hike up to the Freshwater Lake Look-Off. The trail is just .2 miles (.3km) round trip, and leads to incredible views of the ocean, Freshwater Lake, and Middle Head.
- Middle Head – This moderate, 2.4-mile (3.8km) loop meanders along a narrow peninsula on the headland. It is mostly level, with a few rocky sections. It’s suitable for older kids. There are opportunities for spotting wildlife from the headlands, including eagles, whales, and seabirds. This is a fantastic trail to hike on a sunny day, especially if you have a picnic.
Broad Cove Campground
Number of sites: 202
Sites with electric, sewer, and water: 81
Unserviced sites: 113
Note: Not all of these sites have fire pits. See individual site descriptions before booking.
Broad Cove Campground is the largest campground in the park, but you wouldn’t know it. There are many loops to choose from — some open, others wooded and more private. You will have a lot more choices if you don’t need hook-ups. The RV sites are in one section, and for the most part, are quite crowded together.
Without seeing the campground beforehand, we booked site 160. It turned out to be one of our favorite sites. The section was very quiet and open, and we had a private trail down to the most spectacular beach with red sand and crashing waves. The Broad Brook empties into the sea here, so you can choose to swim in the ocean or the river at Broad Cove Beach (swim at your own risk). There were never more than a handful of people on the beach, and both sunset and sunrise were spectacular! Broad Cove Campground was definitely our favorite spot to just relax. It’s not close to stores, so stock up! There are several hiking trails that you can hike without getting in your car.
What we loved about Broad Cove Campground: It was very quiet and you could walk from the campground to several trails. The beach was awesome. The rangers hosted a campfire on the beach one evening, and provided music, s’mores, and hot chocolate. Also, my teenagers would want you know know that they connected to Wi-Fi no problem…
Something to consider: If you choose the loop near the main bathhouse, you will find it fairly crowded, and possibly noisy. The smaller campground loops are very quiet.
Trails near Broad Cove Campground
- Broad Cove Beach – This isn’t listed as an official hiking trail, but it’s a nice walk through the woods from the campground to the beach. Depending on where you’re camping, it’s a 5-15 minute walk.
- Warren Lake – We saw so many signs of moose on the Warren Lake Trail, and we thought for sure that we would see one. We talked to a ranger later who said they are often spotted there. You can hop on the trail across the street from Broad Cove Campground, or save some time by driving to the parking lot near the lake. The trail is a level, 2.9-mile (4.7km) loop. There’s a sandy beach, parking area, and toilets near the parking area.
- Broad Cove Mountain – The trailhead to Broad Cove Mountain is located on the road to Warren Lake. It’s a 1.4-mile (2.3km) out-and-back hike. It is quite steep, but the view is definitely worth the work. There’s a bench at the top so you can catch your breath and take in the views of the ocean.
- Franey – We didn’t hike the Franey trail, but I’m including it here, because so many people told us afterwards that we missed one of the best hikes in the park. It’s a 4.6-mile (7.4km) loop that takes you through the forest, up mountains, and along cliffs. It’s rated as difficult.
Number of sites: 122
Equipped sites: 5
Sites with electricity, water, and sewer: 24
Sites with electricity: 14
Unserviced sites: 71
Chéticamp Campground is located on the west side of the park, about 1.5 hours driving distance from Broad Cove. If you are planning a road trip, it makes sense to divide your time between the two sides of the island. Chéticamp Campground is the closest campground to the famous Skyline Trail, which is a must-do for everyone. The campground is also close to the bustling town of Chéticamp, which is the biggest town on the Cabot Trail. The community has 4,000 residents, most of whom are Acadian and speak French as their native language.
Cheticamp Campground is within walking distance to the Chéticamp Visitor Center, where you’ll find a small gift/book shop, coffee, and free Wi-Fi. The campground consists of open and wooded campsites. The open area offers little privacy, but there’s a nice family-feel to it, and the sites surround a great playground and an outdoor theater.
What we loved about Chéticamp Campground: Its proximity to the town of Cheticamp, where we found awesome food, Acadian music, and a sandy beach.
Something to consider: Chéticamp Campground seemed like the busiest of all the campgrounds we stayed at. Our site was not at all secluded, and we wouldn’t have been happy if we had to spend much time there. We mainly just slept at the campground, and used it as a jumping-off point for many adventures.
Hiking Trails Near Chéticamp Campground
- Salmon Pools – This is the only trail you can walk to from the campground. It features a lovely walk along the Chéticamp River, where you can watch salmon spawning in the deeper pools. Total distance is 4.8 miles (7.8km), but it’s an out-and-back trail, so you can simply turn around whenever you’re ready. There are a few steep sections, but for the most part, it’s an easy trail.
- Skyline Trail – As I mentioned above, the Skyline Trail is one of those must-hike trails. It will likely be crowded, no matter when you visit, but the vistas are beyond incredible. You chance seeing all kinds of wildlife — moose, bear, eagles, whales, and coyotes, plus you’ll have a great view of the Cabot Trail below. The hike is rated as easy. You can go out and back in 4 miles (6.5km) or do a loop in 5.1 miles (8.2km). Unless you are looking for a longer hike, we found the out-and-back route easier, with better views.
- Acadian Trail – This 5.2-mile (8.4km) loop is a steady climb through forest and fields, with some excellent views of the river valley, town, and highlands. Moose and bear frequent the area.
Corney Brook Campground
Unserviced sites: 20
Corney Brook Campground is a small campground right on the ocean. There is no potable water, but there is plenty of solitude and gorgeous views. We considered staying here, but in the end the wind was blowing too fiercely. I can tell you that on a Saturday night in July, only four of the campsites were occupied when we drove through. Corney Brook is very close to the Skyline Trail, and unfortunately, you can’t make reservations.
MacIntosh Brook Campground
Unserviced sites: 10
MacIntosh Brook Campground was closed when we passed through, but it seems like a very small and secluded area. There is a waterfall within walking distance, a kitchen shelter, playground, and flush toilets. We hope to catch it next time. It is located in the Grand Anse Valley.
Meat Cove Campground
Meat Cove Campground is not located in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, but I did want to include it so you know your options. Located in Meat Cove, on the northern tip of Cape Breton Island, the whole camping area is pretty much perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean. We went whale watching along Meat Cove and saw the tents from the water. Looks like a fun place for adventurers without kids or a heavy drinking habit. You couldn’t pay me to pitch a tent there, but it probably makes for good photos. They don’t take reservations, and you have to travel on a rutted, dirt road to get there. If you’ve been, I want to hear about it.
Cape Breton Highlands National Park Campgrounds are open from mid-May to late-October. Most sites can be reserved, but there are several that are first-come, first-served. If you are hoping to rent an equipped camping site or an o’TENTik, I recommend reserving your site in the winter before your trip. All of the campgrounds are all fairly modern and clean, but our favorite was definitely Broad Cove Campground.
I’ll be writing more about Cape Breton in upcoming posts, including our whale watching excursion, our favorite stops on the Cabot Trail, and a Skyline Trail hiking guide. Stay tuned! In the meantime, check out our Fundy National Park Camping Guide.
Have you ever camped in Cape Breton Highlands National Park? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.
Check out these books and guides for exploring Cape Breton (click on the photo for more info):
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