When you think classic Canadiana, you probably picture Algonquin Park, celebrated for its tranquil lakes and deciduous moose-filled forests that turn a spectacular orange in the fall. But Canada’s second-largest province, Ontario, above the Great Lakes, is checkered with even more gorgeous and varied provincial parks. Visit the best places to paddle, camp, see wild animals in their natural habitat, dogsled, cross-country ski, snowshoe, bike, and hike in Ontario — and get a taste of Canada’s wilderness, within reach of the urban centers.
Algonquin Provincial Park
Hands down, the most well-known is Algonquin Provincial Park. Why? Well because of its beauty, but also its size. This park is huge: 2,955 hilly, craggy square miles of trails, lakes to fish, and clear rivers, populated by moose, bear, wolves, and myriad wildlife. Mid-province, it’s just three hours from Toronto. Go for some of the country’s best camping — backcountry and rustic cabin — and to canoe the 1,200 miles of routes and portages. Take a gourmet-meets-roughing it Voyageur Quest canoe excursion, visit the art center, or howl with the wolves, one of the park’s signature experiences. Get a guidebook and go.
Quetico Provincial Park
Looking for remote? Then look to rugged Quetico Provincial Park, an iconic wilderness of pine and spruce forest west of Thunder Bay that extends into Minnesota. It’s also renowned for backcountry canoeing. Expect few visitors, lots of animals, and superb paddling on pristine rivers and about 2,000 lakes. You can access the 2,796-square-mile park by canoe, boat, or floatplane. Multi-day paddling expeditions with great fishing for walleye and trout are de rigueur here.
Killarney Provincial Park
If you're an art fan, consider Killarney Provincial Park. The famed Canadian Group of Seven painted landscapes here in central Ontario on the land flanking wild Georgian Bay, and even prompted the government to make it a park. See for yourself the white quartzite La Cloche Mountains and pink cliffs flanking 50 deep-blue inland lakes. You’ll want to day hike here or tackle the La Cloche-Silhouette, a 50-mile seven– to 10–day loop. Canoeing, sea kayaking, backcountry camping, skiing, and snowshoeing are also popular. Or, why not paint a landscape yourself?
French River Provincial Park
Paddling enthusiasts and history buffs choose the backcountry, mostly boat-access French River Provincial Park, an hour south of Sudbury. The first designated Canadian Heritage River, the 65-mile route from Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay is where 1600s era Aboriginal people, French voyageurs, fur traders, trappers, and missionaries once traveled. Fish, stay at a rustic-luxe lodge, canoe, kayak, or motorboat, and don’t miss the visitor center, an award-winning spot.
Bass Lake Provincial Park
Car camp at Bass Lake Provincial Park near Orillia, less than two hours’ from Toronto. The main focus here is a quick city escape to fun and R&R on a sandy beach — the lake is perfect for swimming and boating. Paddle, play in the water, and take a walk on the short, easily accessible hiking trail. You can enjoy Mother Nature, then duck out to the movies, eat out, or go shopping just a five-minute drive away. In winter, Nordic ski or snowshoe the 2.5-mile trail.
Petroglyphs Provincial Park
Petroglyphs Provincial Park is home to Canada’s biggest collection of petroglyphs, or native rock carvings, all in a sacred site northeast of Peterborough. The Ojibway call these 500 to 1,000-year-old relics “teaching rocks” and there are some 900 in a concentrated area depicting things like humans, turtles, birds, and snakes. You can learn more at the visitor center or join guided storytelling outings to the site in the summer months. In addition to wildlife viewing and birding, this area is noted for two-tone blue-green McGinnis Lake, one of a handful of lakes in Canada with layers of water that don’t mix creating an amazing sight to behold.
Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park
Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park is Ontario’s largest park after Algonquin and is about three hours from Ottawa. Go for incredible sunsets, clear-lake swimming, fishing, backcountry camping, and paddling. Visit in spring to avoid the summer rush if you want to savor the solitude — you’re likely to see lots of wildlife, too. Birding in the wetlands area is top-notch. Look for osprey, loons, and Great Blue Herons.
Lake Superior Provincial Park
Huge Lake Superior Provincial Park is appealing because it offers a bit of everything: Natural beauty, sandy beaches, water view hiking, river valleys, waterfalls, dramatic cliffs, and Aboriginal rock carvings, the Agawa Rock Pictographs. Aside from these carvings and the lake’s lovely shoreline, another highlight is Old Woman Bay, a postcard perfect beach with a view. Hike or paddle in the water, or relax on the soft sand. It’s a bit off the beaten path in southern Ontario, but easily accessible from Highway 17. Camp and take your time recharging in the out-of-doors.
Whichever you choose, just get outside and enjoy Mother Nature, Canadian-style.
Adventure time? See the Ontario Travel website.