By late September, the hardwood forests surrounding the Agawa Canyon light up with the crimson and gold of autumn. These identical glowing vistas were among wilderness scenes captured in the early 20th century by what would become known as the Group of Seven, the legendary school of Canadian artists whose landscape paintings helped foster appreciation for Canada's vast, untamed lands. Group member Lawren Harris even had a boxcar specially outfitted for fall painting expeditions along the Algoma Central Railway (ACR) line. Today, the landscapes remain remote—but not inaccessible. The artists' impressionistic canvas images can be viewed for real from the comfort of one of North America's most popular train rides.
When to Go: The canyon is open year-round. However, fall is the best time to revisit the sites that inspired the Group of Seven. Leaves usually change color late September through early October. Ice climbing the 575-foot-high granite canyon walls is a growing adventure sport—for experienced ice climbers only.
How to Get Around: The convenient, popular way to see the canyon is by the Agawa Canyon Tour Train. Departing daily from the city of Sault Ste. Marie, the train travels 114 miles into Ontario wilderness. It features large viewing windows, GPS-triggered tour narration, and various dining options. It stops for 90 minutes in Canyon Park, allowing passengers to explore several easy walking trails, nearby waterfalls, and a 250-foot-high lookout 372 steps above the canyon. The train departs Sault Ste. Marie at 8 a.m. and returns around 6 p.m.
Adventurous can pack their own canoe on Algoma Central Railway's no-frills passenger line that runs three times a week all year or book a guided, weekend canoe trip. "That's the same way the Group of Seven would have gone up to paint the fall colors," says freelance writer and adventure guide Conor Mihell. "It's [Class 2] white water that you can navigate in a canoe—not over-the-top but still challenging enough that you can have fun."
Travelers can also drive along the north shore of Lake Superior. The route from Sault Ste. Marie to Wawa takes you through the stunning Lake Superior Provincial Park.
Where to Stay: Book packages with your train journey—including Algoma Country fishing and wilderness lodges like the secluded Errington's Wilderness Island Resort (on a lake island in Chapleau Crown Game Preserve) and Loch Island Lodge (with simple cabins and packages that include breakfast and dinner rounded out with homemade bread and desserts). From Sault Ste. Marie, it's a scenic, 30-minute drive north to Bellevue Valley Lodge, which features two bed-and-breakfast suites in the main lodge, a separate chalet that sleeps up to 15, and a traditional sauna. Lodge trails access 2,000 acres of forest hiking, biking, and snowshoeing.
What to Eat or Drink: On the tour train, dining runs throughout the day, serving hot and cold lunches, picnic boxes, tea, and cocktails. Seating is available on a first-come, first-served basis except for breakfast, based on coach number. A canteen also operates in Canyon Park.
What to Buy: A souvenir car, open upon arrival in Canyon Park until a half-hour before departure, sells train memorabilia and Canadiana, such as Ontario-made maple leaf pins and jewelry, collectible spoons, and assorted Agawa Canyon T-shirts and sweatshirts.
What to Read Before You Go: Award-winning Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him by Roy MacGregor (Vintage Canada, 2011) examines the life, love, and mysterious death of one of the Group of Seven's most famous artists. To see the works of Thomson and his fellow painters, The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson (Firefly Books, 2011) includes 400 of their paintings and drawings with background essays.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Fun Fact: The Sault Ste. Marie Canal, a National Historic Site of Canada, was completed in 1895. At that time, it was the longest lock in the world and the first powered by electricity. Visitors can check out the site for a tour with an expert or a walk along the water.
Vancouver-based Robin Esrock is author of The Great Canadian Bucket List and was the host of the Nat Geo Adventure TV series Word Travels.