Top 10 Things to Do in Northern Ontario
Discover the best things to do—from dancing the night away to treasure hunting—in Northern Ontario.
‘Put in’ at Storied Canoe Lake
Paddle through this lore-filled portal into the myriad waterways of Algonquin—Canada’s oldest provincial park. Located three hours northeast of Toronto, Algonquin's nature reserve is bigger than the state of Delaware. Several Canadian prime ministers, including Justin Trudeau and his father, Pierre, whiled away childhood summers on these waters. But it’s Canuck art legend Tom Thomson who dominates local lore. Thomson was based here from 1912 until his mysterious drowning in 1917. He tripped throughout the park, defining a northern sensibility on canvas later made famous by Canada’s Group of Seven artists. Learn more in Northern Light by Roy MacGregor.Follow in all these J-strokes: casting a line in the cool deep waters of nearby Big Trout Lake, gliding past a massive bull moose in Grassy Bay, stoking a crackling fire as loons call into midsummer twilight. Fall colors here are awe-inspiring. The Portage Store, your put-in point, offers complete outfitting, trip routes, and guides. Back onshore, call ahead for dinner at Arowhon Pines, a historic wilderness lodge with food rivaling top tables anywhere.
Experience Classic Cottage Living in Muskoka
Head two hours north of Toronto to experience the beloved pairing of freshwater and gracious Victorian-era cottages like generations of Ontarians have done. Explore rugged granite outcrops and fir trees of the Canadian Shield along the shores of Lake Muskoka, Lake Rosseau, Lake Joseph, and surrounding smaller lakes. Cruise to a historic island community in a nearly 80-year-old mahogany Ditchburn boat. July and August promise warm lake temperatures and few bugs. A ride on North America’s oldest operating steamship, the R.M.S. Segwun, reveals the myriad bays and islands of Lake Muskoka. Take a pontoon boat tour of all three big lakes, or rent your own ride (lake charts and a valid boating license required). For the little ones, Santa’s Village (his summer home) is a must. Later, chill on the dock with local suds from Lake of Bays Brewing and a nibble of Milford Bay smoked trout. Cottage rentals of grand Victorians, such as Dumbiedikes, down to modern chic one-bedroom cabins are listed on sites such as Airbnb. Windermere House on Lake Rosseau is one of the last Old Muskoka hotels.
Go on a Train-In Fishing Expedition
Canada was built on the reach of railways and waterways that carried voyageurs, pioneers, and entrepreneurs across its vast wilderness. Experience the heritage of both on an epic train-in fishing expedition to the remote shores of Northern Ontario’s Algoma Country.The adventure begins in Sault Ste. Marie with your gear loaded on the Algoma Passenger Train or the Via Rail Budd Car. The trains travel through rugged Canadian Shield terrain, featuring the towering trestles of the Agawa Canyon.There are more than a dozen lodges along the rail line, including Mar Mac Lodge, whose rustic main building and cabins are situated on scenic Esnagi Lake. Here, enjoy world-class fishing from your 18-foot classic cedar strip runabout, casting a line for walleye, northern pike, perch, and whitefish. Non-fishing guests enjoy photography, hiking, boating, painting, or just chilling in this remote Northern Ontario splendor.
Hike or Run White Water Amid the Grandeur of Lake Superior
Perhaps the most aptly named of the Great Lakes, Superior—known as Gitche Gumee or “big water” to the Chippewa First Nations people—is the largest freshwater lake in the world. With ocean-like force, it holds one-eighth of the world’s freshwater within its ancient Precambrian rock basin on the southern edge of the Canadian Shield.Mesmerizing and powerful, Lake Superior’s rugged shoreline abounds with craggy cliffs—and below, chilling water so clear that its pebbled bottom can be seen to great depths. Canoe the white water of one of more than 200 rivers that feed Superior on a custom guided trip. Take coastal day hikes from Rock Island Lodge. Expert hikers might tackle the Coastal Trail through Lake Superior Provincial Park. Sea kayak outfitters offer day trips and longer explorations of Superior’s wild shore from Agawa Bay up to near Thunder Bay. In winter, try ice climbing near Batchawana Bay.
Embrace Winter Wilderness
The Danes call it hygge, the act of embracing harsh weather and cozying up indoors to enjoy the company of friends and family. In Northern Ontario, they just call it winter. Rent a private log cabin, complete with guide and cook, on a secluded lake tucked in the northwestern corner of Algonquin Park—home base amid a winter wonderland. In crisp, clear day, snowshoe out to a warm meal in a heated prospector tent. Make first tracks cross-country skiing over a snow-covered lake. Try your hand mushing a team of sled dogs. Hook a big one ice fishing or play shinny—an informal game of hockey—by torchlight as night settles in. After dark with the fire roaring, bond over customized meals like wild game, your day’s catch, or tourtière with Parmesan risotto and roasted vegetables, and maybe sticky toffee pudding for dessert. Wash all that down with local craft beers like Highlander Brew Company or Stack Brewing, and a few not-so-local fine wines. It’s total winter hygge.
Ride the Polar Bear Express to the Northern Lights
September and October are prime time for catching the drama of both fall colors and the aurora borealis—the northern lights—the colorful intersection of gaseous particles in our atmosphere and charged particles released from the sun. SpaceWeather.com provides a 24-hour northern lights forecast with peak viewing times, usually between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. Killarney, Timmins, North Bay, and many other Northern Ontario locales with little or no light pollution provide optimal conditions from the winter months until April.Still, to radically boost odds of a big show, take the Polar Bear Express from Cochrane to Moosonee into the arctic watershed toward James Bay, a key 17th-century fur-trade post and British settlement gateway.In Moosonee, stay at the Moose River Guesthouse, or take a water taxi to Moose Factory Island. Here, unpack at the Cree Village Eco-Lodge and learn about the ever morphing local ecosystem on a Moose River Tour.
Fish and Explore on the French River
Northern Ontario is a lacework of lakes and rivers in a region that’s home to 20 percent of the world’s freshwater. No surprise: Fishing is big here, and the tradition of escaping to remote sporting lodges to indulge in the “drug of the tug” reaches back over a century. The Lodge at Pine Cove on the French River has welcomed guests of all ages since 1935—many drawn to snagging one of the 40 thriving fish species in the river region by day and luxuriating in wilderness comforts on land by night. First Nations guide Pa-Pa-Se (a name that translates to “woodpecker”) can teach you how to find, prepare, cook, and, of course, eat local catches. For non-fishing types, there’s kayaking and hiking amid the beavers, bald eagles, blue herons, and more. Each Canada Day, up to 18 paddlers (kids included) can retrace a historic voyageur route in a 36-foot replica fur-trade canoe to an Ojibwe powwow with dancing, drumming, and native costumes at the Dokis First Nations reserve.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Treasure Hunt the Riches of Sudbury and Surrounds
Hit the road on a geocache treasure hunt with the kids to learn about the people, places, and precious metals that shaped many Northern Ontario towns. This Parks Canada Heritage Hide’n’Seek GeoTour begins on the gold-laden bedrock of Porcupine, a gold rush town settled around the turn of the 20th century and still home to one of the world’s largest gold mines. Next, seek out the secrets of old silver mines toward Haileybury and New Liskeard and end up in the big nickel town of Sudbury. At each stage, find the caches, answer the questions, sign the logbooks, and exchange knickknacks, then earn enough points to be eligible for a collectible Heritage Hide‘n’Seek geocoin.In Sudbury, explore Science North, Canada’s second largest science center featuring an IMAX theatre, digital planetarium, butterfly gallery, and special exhibits on biology, space travel, and stop-motion animation. Rent a cottage on one of Sudbury’s many nearby lakes and on your way back south, stop for the best pasta in Northern Ontario at Danny's Justa Pasta in Sundridge.
Ride the Great Spirit Circle Trail on Manitoulin Island
Hike the towering cliffs above Georgian Bay’s turquoise waters on the final leg of the Bruce Trail to Tobermory, then catch the ferry to Manitoulin—the largest freshwater island in the world. Manitoulin blends thriving First Nations culture dating back to prehistory with early European settler roots, 21st-century small-town Ontario life, and pristine wild places.Mount up to explore Manitoulin’s Great Spirit Circle Trail. Learn to ride bareback and swim with your horse. Chow down around the campfire. Commune with your inner journey on a medicine walk. Join the oral tradition of storytelling and relax to the beat of your guide’s drumming, the pulsing heart of any authentic powwow. Finally, put your head down in a luxe teepee with a raised wooden floor and a view above of the night stars.Out of the saddle, catch the northern lights in fall at Gordon’s Park or see Debaj—a touring aboriginal theater company founded in 1984 and considered to be Canada’s oldest such group—perform at the historic Mission Ruins in Wikwemikong.
Trip Through Temagami Like Legendary Grey Owl
Land in Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater Provincial Park via floatplane from North Bay to walk in the moccasins of Northern Ontario’s most famous conservationist, Grey Owl, played by Peirce Brosnan in the 1999 biopic of the same name. Deep in this Temagami backcountry, let your trip outfitters show you why Grey Owl convinced kings, queens, and prime ministers to preserve such northern wilderness early in the 20th century. Only after his death was it discovered that Grey Owl was not a First Nations aboriginal. Rather, he was Englishman Archibald Belaney from the British seaside town of Hastings.Paddle and learn tracking and bush craft as Grey Owl did. Tour the First Nations community of Bear Island on Lake Temagami and experience aboriginal ceremonies, storytelling, and history. Finally, start to make your way back to your real life at Smoothwater Eco-Lodge with cuisine featuring local ingredients like blueberries, fresh fish, wild game, honeys, and maple syrup.