When you think of quintessential Canada, it might very well be Algonquin Provincial Park that you see in your mind’s eye: maple-dotted hills that turn into a blaze of crimson, gold, and orange in fall, thousands of glassy lakes, clear rivers, craggy ridges, solitary moose, and calling loons. It’s a stunning outdoor playground made up of more than 2,950 square miles of parkland and you can only get to know it from a canoe, horseback, or on foot — hiking or snowshoeing, depending the season.
Ontario’s very first park and its largest, Algonquin is in the middle of the province, between the Ottawa River and Georgian Bay. Though incredibly pristine wilderness, it’s only three hours from Toronto; about four-and-a-half from Ottawa. Outdoor aficionados call it some of the best camping in the world, whether in a backcountry tent or cozy pine cabin. You might call it your outdoor adventure central basecamp during your visit. Just get your park permit, check the weather forecast, and gear up.
There are so so many, really, but to start, here are 10 reasons you should visit Algonquin Park:
You’re in Canada — you have to try canoeing! Algonquin paddling is fabled, with 1,200 miles of routes and portages for you to try. Go short or epic. Go backcountry or hire a guide year-round. Off-the-grid veteran outfitter Voyageur Quest leads small-group canoe excursions or lodge-based trips with perks such as torch-lit ice skating, full-moon canoe paddles, and lake trout cooked over the open fire. Expect expert guides, gourmet eats, and fun around the campfire. The company’s comfy cottage outpost even has a floating sauna. A little luxe with your wilderness goes a long way.
Group wolf howling
Talking to the animals isn’t just for Dr. Doolittle. Since 1963, naturalists have been leading public wolf howling sessions, core of the park’s education program teaching people about the 35 packs of Eastern Wolves that populate Algonquin. Groups gather for a series of howling sequences on Thursdays in August and September — and if conditions are right, the pack responds. First, staff stake out where the social animals have been seen gathering, then they schedule a session nearby. Sometimes you hear pups yipping or a solo crooner, but other times you score with what the pros call a “full pack howl” response. Listening to the eerie, primitive calls is nothing short of thrilling. Learn why wolves howl in the first place and get technique tips at this long-running park tradition.
If you picture a moose munching on poplar twigs while you unpack your picnic in a meadow, Algonquin is your place — the best venue in North America to spot these majestic creatures, many say. Spring is best for spying these gentle giants, but you’re likely to see all kinds of wildlife in any season: white-tailed deer, beaver, 250 bird species, black bear, and of course, howling wolves. It’s easiest to see wildlife in winter due to the lack of foliage, plus you get to enjoy the spectacular solitude. Bring your binoculars and head out in early evening or at dawn, the best time for an encounter. Pick up a guide book or follow a signed interpretive trail to make the most of your time immersed in nature.
4. Explore on skis
Nordic ski and snowshoe
Swooshing along through the sparkly, powder-dusted woods and snow-frosted hemlock is up there when it comes to outdoor Zen. Algonquin offers a 53-mile network of groomed cross-country ski trails (20 miles un-groomed) for skiers of all levels. Plus, there’s skate skiing and skijoring (a combination of skiing and dog sledding), too. December to March is the typical season, and insiders rate the Leaf Lake Ski Trail tops for its thrilling skiing and jaw-dropping views. Warm up in one of the shelters as you glide along the trail network. You can snowshoe anywhere except on the groomed trails. The hardcore can snowshoe in and snow camp at Mew Lake Campground, which is open year-round. Rent equipment just outside the park.
Go for days or just stroll
Interpretive walking trails are plentiful and open year-round in the park. Be sure to pick up a trail guide booklet, found at all trail heads and park bookstores, before you start. You can stroll, hike, or portage with your canoe through most of these routes, so pick your scenery, then hit the trail. Backpackers can do day loop trails or multi-day, overnight backcountry expeditions.
Find out how to hook the big one
Angler? You’re in luck: Algonquin boasts some of the best brook and lake trout fishing around. It’s not surprising: there are 1,500 lakes and 621 miles of streams these fish call home. Canoe and fish in the backcountry in non-winter months, pre-register for a skills workshop (Algonquin’s brook trout are notoriously skittish), join researchers for fall field work, or hire an outfitter to take you out. Whichever you pick, check the regs before you head out. May is prime time.
7. Dog sled
Learn to mush
Tearing through the woods pulled by a pack of yapping Huskies running at 20 mph — now that’s exhilarating. Not only is it a rush, it’s a fun way to see the park, too, considering Algonquin has two dogsledding areas. Several pro outfitters, such as Voyageur Quest and Wilderness Adventures, can take you on a custom tour. Choose from day trips to full-week mushing expeditions.
Retreat to Northern Edge Algonquin
Need to disconnect? Do it at Northern Edge Algonquin Nature Retreat & Awareness Centre, a sanctuary for both getting in touch with nature and recharging. Relax, join a canoe trip or unplugged concert, do a yoga retreat, or take a naturalist-guided hike, snowshoe, ski, dogsled, paddle, or biking excursion. Select low-, medium-, or high-intensity, depending on your mood. The solar-powered lodge serves local, organic fare and has a wood-fired sauna for après-adventure.
See the Northern Lights
Astronomers both pro and amateur flock to the Radio Observatory, home to Canada’s biggest radio telescope. Tour or join a moon-viewing or stargazing party, or stake out a spot anywhere for some spectacular stargazing —no telescope required. You might even catch the aurora borealis dancing across the horizon. But you’ll for sure see a gazillion glittering stars, thanks to the dark sky and lack of urban light anywhere nearby. Check Space Weather for meteor showers, comets, eclipses, airglows, and such.
Go cushy or go mountain man
Camp (just about) anywhere. Pick your type: white water, lake, canoeing? If you’re into roughing it, get a map and make your plan. Take a look at Jeff’s Map of Algonquin and go over required essentials. A more cushy option: rent one of 15 tidy, rustic former ranger patrol cabins, available April to mid-October. There’s no electricity or running water, but most include bunk beds and wood stoves. You can reach five by car; the others, by canoe and portage. Some even have screened verandas, private docks, and gas-run lights. Start planning early, though. You must reserve your spot five months in advance (ontarioparks.com). Then, prepare to savor the solitude.
In many ways, Algonquin stands for a lot of what Canadians hold dear: wilderness, self-reliance, and reveling in the outdoors all times of the year. Getting to know this special place is stepping right into the heart of it all.
It’s time to plan your Ontario adventures. Get started at Ontario Travel’s website.