Looking for tranquility on the Cabot Trail? You may find it at Fishing Cove!
Accessible via a 6km trail, Fishing Cove is a beautiful bay on Cape Breton Island, part of Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia.
The Fishing Cove Trail may be short but it offers a very approachable and rewarding backcountry experience. For what it lacks in true wilderness, it makes up for with raw charm.
And better still, one of the best campgrounds on Cape Breton is found at the end of the trail!
Read on to discover everything you need to know about planning a hiking trip on the Fishing Cove Trail. Here’s what to expect:
- An introduction to Fishing Cove
- Hiking experience
- Fishing Cove Trail planning guide
- When to go
- Fees and permits
- Fishing Cove campground
- Trail navigation
- Safety information
- Packing list
Last updated March 2023
Fishing Cove Trail
Location: Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Nova Scotia
Distance: 12km return
Elevation gain: 355m
Hike type: Out and back
Time: 4 to 5 hours (day hike)
Difficulty: Low to moderate
Camping: Yes, at national park campground
Fees: National park pass ($8.50/adult)
When to go: May to October
Dogs: Allowed on leash
- Always bring the 10 Essentials
- Know how to stay safe in the backcountry
- Remember to Leave No Trace to help keep the wilderness wild
- Understand how to avoid negative bear encounters
- Trying out backpacking for the first time? Read Backpacking 101
- Check out our packing guide with gear recommendations
- Sign up to our newsletter for a free backpacking checklist
Introducing Fishing Cove, Nova Scotia
Fishing Cove is located on the western side of Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia, Canada. It sits on Mi’kma’ki, the traditional ancestral territory of the Mi’kmaq people.
This peaceful bay was once also the homebase for a Scottish fishing community. The settlers here traded supplies with the French. There was also a lobster cannery here, though it is hard to tell.
The Fishing Cove Trail starts at the top of Mackenzie Mountain on the scenic Cabot Trail (Highway 30). The path descends 355m through a forest, arriving at the ocean after 6km.
At the end of the trail, a small campground sits on a grassy hillside overlooking the water. This is the only designated wilderness (backcountry) campground in Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
The first thing you’ll probably notice is how quiet it is. The Cabot Trail is far away, at the top of the valley.
The cove faces into the Gulf of St Lawrence, a waterbody much calmer here than on the other side of the island. The ocean laps onto the stony beach with barely any waves.
Few boats venture into the cove itself, usually passing further out to sea. The river reflects the luscious green valley slopes and the sky beyond.
Don’t feel like camping overnight? Fishing Cove can be visited on a day hike as well (allow 4-5 hours). The forested trail and oceanside destination provides a good contrast to the likes of the mountain-top Skyline Trail.
Fishing Cove Trail hiking experience
The Fishing Cove trail is as pleasant as it is straightforward. A few obstacles here and there, but in general the narrow path is a fun little downhill jaunt through the woods.
The trail starts with a fairly steep, wide descent (something that always makes me dread the return journey) before fully entering the Acadian forest.
The steepest downhill section lasts for around 2km, with switchbacks used to drop elevation more quickly.
At the valley floor, the trail meets a meandering creek which runs roughly parallel to the rest of the journey.
The sound of the water rushing over the rocks and other debris provides a soothing soundtrack for the rest of the hike
When the creek starts to veer away from the trail, know that you are very close to Fishing Cove. The forest opens up quickly, revealing a wide meadow.
The tall grass of the meadow hides the view until the path crests a small hill. The (usually) calm waters of Fishing Cove will soon appear, bordered by rocky cliffs.
Fishing Cove Trail: Planning Guide
Inspired to hike to Fishing Cove? This section will tell you everything you need to know to start planning a trip.
Cape Breton Highlands National Park is situated on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada. The Fishing Cove trailhead is located on the western side of the park.
The Fishing Cove trailhead is located in a small parking lot just off the Cabot Trail. There is space for about 20 cars and two RVs or buses.
The Fishing Cove route starts immediately to the side of the Parks Canada information signs.
The well signed parking lot can be found 24km north of the Chéticamp Parks Canada Visitor Centre (also the Cape Breton Highlands National Park entrance). Allow 20-25 minutes for the scenic drive.
If driving from the other side of the national park, the Ingonish entrance is about 72km away. The drive takes around 1 hour no stops (but who wouldn’t stop on the beautiful Cabot Trail?!)
Confusingly, Parks Canada incorrectly states on their website that the Fishing Cove trailhead is located at the coordinates Lat: 46.761030 Long: -60.834544. This is about 1km south of the actual trailhead.
It is also worth noting that there used to be another Fishing Cove trailhead, a little further north along the Cabot Trail. This provided a shorter and steeper hike into Fishing Cove.
This alternative route has been closed for 5+ years and has been removed from the Parks Canada map of the area. Some online trip reports still refer to this trail, however.
When to go
Cape Breton Highlands National Park operates from mid May to mid October. The Fishing Cove Trail can be hiked throughout this period, though keep in mind that the park only has full services during the summer months.
For the most comfortable daytime temperatures, plan to hike the Fishing Cove Trail in July or August. Rain at possible at any time throughout the year. There may be some mud on the trail after rain.
Temperatures in May, June, September and October will be cooler, especially in the evenings. Frost is also possible in the early morning. If the weather turns cold, snow is not impossible in late October.
Fall can be a very beautiful time to hike this trail. By the start of October, the trees on Cape Breton Island start to change colour. The peak is usually in the middle of the month, but it varies from year to year (weather dependent).
The Fishing Cove Trail provides a straightforward hiking trail with little technical difficulty. This makes for an easy, enjoyable trail, particularly if done as an overnight backpacking trip.
The main challenge is the 355m descent (and later, ascent) at the beginning of the trail. Being an out and back trail, however, there are no surprises on the return journey.
The route starts with a wide trail leading away from the parking lot. After descending a couple of switchbacks, the trail narrows and drops into the valley.
Once most of the elevation has been lost via a few more switchbacks, the trail flattens and winds along the creek. It stays close for the remainder of the journey, occasionally rising and falling to avoid obstructions.
The trail to Fishing Cove is generally clear and undemanding to walk, with some rocky sections. The route was well maintained.
We encountered a little bit of mud during our mid-July hike, but not enough to get our shoes wet.
Parks Canada rates this trail to be ‘difficult.’ I believe this rating is in comparison with other hikes in the Cape Breton Highlands. To put it into context, Fishing Cove is the longest day hike in the park.
We hike pretty regularly and are used to trails with significant elevation gain/loss. Personally, we would rate the Fishing Cove Trail to be low to moderate, with the latter referring to the first 2km downhill section.
Fees and permits
There is no permit required to hike the Fishing Cove Trail specifically, but hikers do need a valid national parks pass.
2023 daily admission fees for Cape Breton Highlands National Park are:
|Commercial Group, per person||$7.25|
Plan to purchase a park pass before travelling to the Fishing Cove trailhead. Park passes can be purchased at the Parks Canada Visitor Centers or park entrance gates.
Spending more than a week exploring Nova Scotia’s national parks and national historic sites? It may be worthwhile to purchase a Discovery Pass rather then a daily park pass.
A backcountry permit is required to stay overnight at the Fishing Cove campground. I’ll talk more about that in the next two sections.
Fishing Cove campground
The Fishing Cove campground is situated at the end of the 6km long trail, on a grassy open hillside area above the ocean.
There are eight wooden tent pads, an outhouse (a porta potty when we were there), and a couple of iconic Parks Canada Adirondack chairs.
The tent pads are well separated for a fairly decent level of privacy, especially those set further back from the ocean. There is a short trail to the beach from the closest tent pad.
Some of the tent pads have direct views of the ocean. We stayed at picturesque site number 3. Site number 2 is also very scenic.
There are several bear poles next to the outhouse in the campground – be sure to use them for proper food storage.
Campfires are not allowed at the Fishing Cove campground. Only one tent is permitted per tent pad.
Hikers must have a backcountry permit to stay overnight at the Fishing Cove campground. This can be secured in advance with a reservation.
Backcountry permit fees are $12.75 per person, per night. A valid park pass is required in addition to the backcountry permit (see previous section for details).
A reservation is the best way to secure a spot in the Fishing Cove campground for a specific arrival date. Reservation fees are $11.50/online and $13.50/phone.
Fishing Cove campground reservations usually launch in January each year. At this time, availability for the entire operating season is available.
In 2023, the launch date was 18th March at 8am AT. This was a little later than usual due to a reservation platform update.
If there is a specific date you want to camp at Fishing Cove, I’d recommend making a reservation on the launch date. If you have some flexibility, there is still usually plenty of availability a week or two after the launch.
While Fishing Cove does see consistent traffic through the summer, it’s not the most popular camping destination. When we camped there in July, there were only two other couples staying in the campground.
Even with the relatively new reservation system, I believe there is some scattered availability throughout the summer months.
If you don’t want to commit to a reservation, it is still possible to check for availability in-person at either of the Cape Breton Highlands Visitor Centres (Chéticamp or Ingonish).
How to make a Fishing Cove reservation online
- To make a reservation, navigate to the Parks Canada website and click the ‘Backcountry’ tab
- Select ‘Cape Breton Highlands’ from the drop-down and enter your desired dates with party size. Equipment must be set to ‘1 tent’
- Click ‘Search’ and a map will appear. Select ‘Fishing Cove’ and look for a campsite with a green diamond next to it (green = available)
- Scroll up to the ‘Build Your Stay’ section and select the campsite number from the drop down menu
- Click ‘Save’ and then ‘Reserve.’ If the site is still available, Parks Canada will ask you to confirm rules and regulations with a tick box
- After this point, you have 20 minutes to log-in and pay for your reservation
Please note that Parks Canada uses a waiting room system on launch dates to prevent system overload.
All users on the website prior to 8am will be placed into a virtual waiting room and then allocated a line number at 8am.
When it is your ‘turn,’ the website will reload and you will be allowed entry to make a reservation.
According to Parks Canada’s Reservation Service, Fishing Cove hikers with a reservation still need to check-in at the either of the Cape Breton Highlands Visitor Centres (Chéticamp or Ingonish) before heading to the trailhead.
If arriving after opening hours, call the Visitor Centres in advance to receive instructions.
The Fishing Cove Trail is an established and well used hiking path. The route is mostly dirt with some short rocky sections.
There is trailhead signage and kilometre markers along the entirety of the trail.
The Fishing Cove Trail is featured on Organic Maps, our favourite offline navigation app. Download the Cape Breton Island area before you go.
Please note that the old Fishing Cove Trail is also shown on Organic Maps – be sure to look at the southern route (starting at coordinates 46.771134, -60.836679)
There are over 40 types of mammals living in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, as well as plenty of seabirds, eagles and songbirds.
Hikers should be aware of the presence of moose, bears and coyotes in the Cabot Trail area. Always stay alert, make noise and do not approach wildlife.
We spotted a sizeable garter snake on our hike. It was sunning itself on a rocky section of the trail. We gave it plenty of space as we passed.
- Phone signal is patchy in this area. Tell someone where you are going and when you plan to be back
- Bring the 10 Essentials to prevent small inconveniences from turning into emergency situations
- Bring clothing to suit all possible weather conditions. Expect to spend 4 to 5 hours on the Fishing Cove Trail (day hiking)
- Know how to avoid negative wildlife encounters. This includes learning the basics of bear safety
- Leave No Trace of your visit. Stay on established trails, pack out everything you brought with you, use designated outhouses, be considerate of others
- Time your hike right. If day hiking this trail, make sure you have enough time to return to the trailhead in daylight hours
Fishing Cove packing list
As well as the 10 Essentials, I’d suggest bringing the following items on your hike:
- Although the Fishing Cove trail is not technically difficult, I would recommend wearing tried and tested hiking shoes with decent grip
- Hiking poles can provide good support on the initial descent. We love the super lightweight Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z
- Much of the trail follows a creek and ends close to a wide river. Water supply is not difficult. For this reason, we decided to prioritise lighter packs and filtered water on the go (we like the BeFree filter by Katadyn)
- There are very few large trees by most of the tent pads at Fishing Cove. For this reason, I wouldn’t suggest bringing a tarp
- If you plan to swim in the ocean, water shoes may not be a bad idea since the beach consists of small rocks. Alternatively, you could also paddle in the freshwater river
- Bring lightweight cord/rope to use on the bear hang. The ropes that were there during our visit were looking pretty threadbare so we used our own
- It’s always a good idea to have your own supply of toilet paper in the backcountry! Never assume there will be any in the designated outhouses
Other things to do in Cape Breton Highlands
Just a few kilometres south of the Fishing Cove hike is the Skyline Trail. One of Nova Scotia’s most famous hikes, the Skyline features epic views of the highlands and ocean from a jutting headland.
There is usually a loop trail open (8.2km) as well as a 6.5km out and back route. On our visit, the loop trail was closed. The Skyline trail is mostly flat and an easy walk for all ages.
In the other direction, the Cabot Trail starts to curve and wind down towards Pleasant Bay. It is one of my favourite sections of the Cabot Trail.
At Pleasant Bay, you can go whale watching, check out the whale interpretive center or simply buy a well-deserved ice cream to eat on the beach.
Looking for more things to do on the Cabot Trail? Check out this Cabot Trail trip itinerary (with map).
On the way to Cape Breton Island, I’d suggest an overnight stop in the characterful town of Antigonish.
Other Nova Scotia posts you may like:
Nova Scotia’s Mini Cabot Trail (Cape George Scenic Drive): Complete Travel Guide
27+ of the Best Beaches in Nova Scotia, Canada
7 Must Do Nova Scotia Road Trips: Maps, Itineraries and Tips
Hiking the Cape Chignecto Coastal Trail, Nova Scotia
12+ of the Best Nova Scotia Campgrounds
The Best Things to do in Wolfville – Nova Scotia’s Coolest Small Town
6 Fast and Fun Hikes in Nova Scotia, Canada
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One half of the Canadian/British couple behind Off Track Travel, Gemma is happiest when hiking on the trail or planning the next big travel adventure. JR and Gemma are currently based in the beautiful Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada