Connect with nature while soaking in local culture, arts, and cuisine in charming towns on a week-long fall road trip from Toronto to Montreal. Join National Geographic Travel writer and Ontario native Heather Greenwood Davis as she bypasses Canada’s busiest highway in favor of a more scenic route that allows time to enjoy the beauty of the season.
TOP FIVE REASONS TO GO
- Wade waist-deep in cranberries on a family-owned farm
- Paddle through a scene that feels like an iconic painting
- Sink your teeth into a unique “Muskoka Cloud” pastry
- Ride horseback along a colorful leaf-littered trail
- Sleep in a luxury prospector’s tent under the stars
DAY ONE: TORONTO TO MUSKOKA, ONTARIO
Immerse yourself in Canadian art
You’ll feel the buzz of the city dissipate as you head north from Toronto. Make your first stop in Kleinburg to visit the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, a world-renowned collection of Canadian art awaits, including one of the largest groups of Tom Thomson oil sketches in existence. Wander the galleries and peek at painted versions of the landscapes you’ll visit over the next few days. Set on 100 acres of forested land, the gallery showcases art that ranges from First Nations artists to Group of Seven originals.
Make your way to Muskoka
Muskoka referred to by locals as Cottage Country, is set in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Forest Region, which means its home to both deciduous (red maple, yellow birch) and coniferous (white pine, white cedar) trees and home to more than 1,600 lakes. They combine into a reflective kaleidoscope of color each fall. Families have made their way along this route for generations, settling into tents, cottages and palatial homes along the water’s edge. For fall travelers, the region offers a mix of quaint towns, iconic eats, and working farms.
Jump in a cranberry bog
Accept an invitation to don hip-waders and take the “Cranberry Plunge” by walking into a bog filled with floating red berries for a unique experience at Muskoka Lakes Farm and Winery. You’ll develop a new appreciation for the tiny fruit. Then, head to Port Carling for a stroll. Look up at the historic mosaic mural and make sure to save time to watch local boaters come through the locks.
INSIDE TIP: Take the winding roads through the trees to the shores of Gilleach Lake in Muskoka, and try sleeping in the rustic luxury of a canvas Glamping Tent that’ll forever change your idea of roughing it.
DAY TWO: ARROWHEAD AND ALGONQUIN PROVINCIAL PARKS, ONTARIO
Hike to a waterfall
Wake to the changing colors at your doorstep. You’ll begin to spot the telltale bright yellows in the trees as you start the drive out to Arrowhead Provincial Park. At the panoramic views from Big Bend Lookout, you’ll better understand that almost two-thirds of this province is forested. Take a coffee with you and savor it while out on the mile-long woodland hike to Stubb’s Falls. For a peaceful way to enjoy the park, try canoeing on the calm waters of Mayflower Lake amid an idyllic backdrop of lush landscape.
Stop for snacks
Aim to stop at the legendary Henrietta’s Pine Bakery in Dwight. Bite into a Muskoka Cloud tea biscuit while you chat with the owners who will happily share some of the history behind this 57-year old local institution. Then move to one of the red Muskoka Chairs out front to finish enjoying the warm, airy pastry that has cream cheese baked into the dough. Peppered with local cranberries and dusted with sugar, it’s a delicate delight. Pop back in to pick up extra treats for the road, including one of their famous sticky buns (and the extra napkins they’ll require).
Capture jaw-dropping vistas
Set out for Algonquin Park. There is natural beauty worth snapping over every hill. End today’s driving early to make the most of tonight’s cozy stay at Killarney Lodge. Each cabin comes with a canoe on its doorstep, and everything you need to paddle (SUP, canoe, or kayak) is on-site. Evening views (sunsets or stars) are best taken in while wrapped in a large blanket on an Adirondack chair at the lakes’ edge.
INSIDE TIP: Avoid the temptation to speed past the Western Gate ranger station. Rangers here have great tips on what to see and it’s where you’ll need to pick up your park pass.
DAY THREE: ALGONQUIN PROVINCIAL PARK, ONTARIO
Explore the forests from all angles
This morning, Algonquin Outfitters can provide everything you need (including a guide!) to explore from the water. Catch your breath at the reflection of the fall colors on the lake as you gently glide across the surface. Later, rent a bicycle at Lake of Two Rivers where you can grab a map and pedal like you’re a kid again on the Old Railway Bike Trail. Keep the driving to a minimum today. With many trails starting right from the parking lots, you can easily explore everything from Ragged Falls at the Oxtongue River to the gentle hike at Hardwood Lookout Trail.
DAY FOUR: ALGONQUIN PROVINCIAL PARK AND OTTAWA VALLEY, ONTARIO
Explore art in the making
Wake to the sound of loons calling to each other on the water. Today, you’ll slowly leave Algonquin Park behind, but not before popping up to the Algonquin Art Centre. Start your visit by wandering the outdoor exhibit dedicated to the artists that spent their time here. Inside, Canadian art and souvenir purchases support modern day creatives.
INSIDE TIP: Don’t skip the Algonquin Visitor Centre on the eastern end of the park on your way out. Stroll interactive exhibits that share the park’s natural (through wildlife dioramas) and human history (the Algonquin First Nations were inhabitants here for more than 8,000 years before Europeans arrived).
Slow down and meet the locals
The splendor of the season continues outside the park’s East Gate as the Ottawa Valley rises up to meet you. Filled with small-town charm, local coffee shops and quaint villages, there are plenty of opportunities to join a conversation. A late afternoon meal of poutine at the Chip Pit in Cobden is the iconic Canadian fall treat. Down the road at the White Water Brewing Co. & Lakeside Brew Pub you can sample the seasonal farm-to-table menu while watching the brewing process through large glass windows from your table. Continue the drive to Ottawa. From there it’ll be a quick drive across a short bridge into Quebec to catch an incredible view of Parliament Hill as the sun sets. Head to the town of Wakefield for overnight.
INSIDE TIP: On route to Ottawa, head to the town of Eganville for an hour-long tour of its otherworldly Bonnechere Caves. Owner Chris Hinsperger has been there for decades and will take you through the tunnels, pointing out fossils and a few of the flying bats that call it home.
DAY FIVE: GATINEAU PARK, QUEBEC
Reinvigorate at the spa
Get up early and snap some photos as you wander Wakefield’s cute storefronts and landmark red-covered bridge. From there, it’s a short drive out to Nordik Spa-Nature. Take in the views of crimson leaves across the village below from the stunning collection of pools, saunas and heated outdoor hammocks.
Step into Canadian History
Make your way through the town of Chelsea to Gatineau Park for a 150-square mile provincial park that offers a glimpse into Canada’s past with both natural landmarks and historical structures. Stop in at Meech Lake. This is the spot where provincial leaders from across Canada once met in a failed bid to amend the Constitution. Not far away is the Mackenzie King Estate. There, informational billboards help tell the story of the simple cottage that grew over several decades into an estate that perfectly suited the eccentric Prime Minister. The park also offers plenty of places to admire the beauty of the area. A picnic table perched at the Étienne Brûlé Lookout offers a birds-eye view of the changing colors and is an optimal spot from which to enjoy the afternoon.
DAY SIX: MONT TREMBLANT, QUEBEC
Get close to the animals
Crisp fall air will demand an open window on the drive out to Kanatha-Aki Nature Center. Run by the Denis family, this unique spot has horses for you to ride on picturesque trails, rescued bison (including one that will let you scratch his beard) and dozens of dogs that help pull sleds in the winter and are good company in the fall.
Spark an adrenaline rush at Mont-Tremblant
This afternoon is all about boosting energy. Park your car and engage in an afternoon filled with activity at Mont-Tremblant. Zipline high above the colorful foliage, take your driving prowess to a mountain track in a luge cart or ride the gondola 2,871 feet to the summit for a panoramic Laurentian view.
Explore the forest after dark
After dinner, head for the mountains once again. The magical lights of Tonga Lumina transform the trees and rockfaces into a story that brings you closer to the Indigenous roots of this area. The slow walk through the forest is the perfect nightcap, and you’ll find yourself thinking about the heartwarming tale long after you leave.
INSIDE TIP: Make sure to work up an appetite for dinner at La Savoie restaurant. Imported French cheese melts at your table while you choose from a bounty of local produce and meats to enjoy it with.
DAY SEVEN: MONT-TREMBLANT TO MONTREAL, QUEBEC
Go slowly towards Montreal
The drive to Montreal brings new reasons to smile. Your trip will end here today, but not before you have the chance to sample all that the city has to offer. The colors are at their peak now, and the urge to stop to take in the views along the way shouldn’t be ignored. Fill this last day with incredible music, nightlife, food, and art. This evening, under the sparkle of the city lights, consider raising a glass to a fantastic trip and an incredible time of year.
HOW TO TAKE THIS TRIP:
Start your drive in Toronto and wind your way north and east through Ottawa and Montreal. The total trip is about 600 miles. Plan to leave your rental car in Montreal and fly out from there. Or if you prefer to drive back to Toronto, try the ride along Highway 7 for farmland scenery and small-town stops. While we suggest seven days for this trip, you can make it as short or as long as your vacation time allows. There is a lot to see and do in these two provinces.
WHERE TO STAY:
Start with a luxurious overnight stay at Hotel X in Toronto. For your first night on the road, you’ve got plenty of choices. Outdoorsy couples will like one of the three glamping tents at Cotton Co. Luxury Adventures. For an active family-friendly resort stay, try Deerhurst Resort. JW Marriott The Rousseau Muskoka Resort and Spa is another option with comfy beds and upscale dining. Spend the next two nights in Algonquin Park at one of the cabins at beautiful Killarney Lodge. Spend your first night in Quebec at Wakefield Mill, where the sound of the water that once powered the mill will lull you to sleep. The next night stay at the luxurious Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello. Your final night will be at one of the many hotels on-site at Mont Tremblant, including Homewood Suites by Hilton and Le Westin Resort & Spa.
Fall colors start to appear near the end of September, but they can be unpredictable. To make sure you’re timing your trip for the season, check the fall color reports for Ontario and Quebec.