With over 1,000 km of networked ATV trail systems and routes in the Ottawa Valley, Renfrew County lets riders of all levels travel from deep forest to rail beds to muddy wetlands, with awe-inspiring lookouts and lakes along the way. But the diverse terrain is only one reason to visit: the Renfrew County ATV Club goes out of its way to make everyone feel welcome—and safe—on its trails.
Trail mapping and community building
Once a small group of ATV-enthusiast snowmobilers, the volunteer-run Renfrew County ATV Club has grown its membership to 700 strong in the past five years, bolstering ATVing in the area and creating a strong sense of community in the process.
Along with organizing popular ATV events throughout the year, the club maintains the multi-use trails and updates its extensive online map of Renfrew County trail systems, featuring trail technicality ratings, amenities such as restaurants and places to stay, and 360º photos taken by members.
Teresa Hebb, president of the Renfrew County ATV Club, has seen first-hand how building community around ATVing in Renfrew County has lead to a world-class ATV experience. “I believe that you have to be a part of a community in order to make it great,” she says.
“Riders are getting out on the trails and they're also getting to know other people, finding out from each other where ride, finding people that like to ride the same way they do and trying out the trails together,” Hebb says, adding, “It's often more interesting to try a trail or go somewhere you haven't been when you're with someone who's been down that trail before.”
The Club conducted a demographic survey of their membership in 2018, finding that while the average age of members is over 46 years old, they're riding with their teenagers or their grandchildren, and using the trails as a way to visit family or go to a restaurant with friends. “Local riders who have maybe always ridden one trail since they were a kid discover that there's so much more available out there, and they start using the trails more fully,” says Hebb.
Trail permits make for great trail riding
Not everyone has the time to volunteer with their ATV club, but a trail permit alone has its privileges: namely because permits and memberships are what fund ongoing trail maintenance, safety, mapping, and signage, including hazard alerts. “The majority of our riders like to get out in small groups and appreciate a trail that's going to be safe and signed and accessible,” says Hebb, “and they can also count on us to be advocates for them.”
Since 2017, the RCATV has focused on connecting trails and creating routes, adding more dirt roads and logging roads to the trail system as ways to get from one system to another. As a part of the Ontario Federation of ATV Clubs, the RCATV Trail Permit gives riders access to 17 different clubs—a significant number of Ontario’s organized ATV trails. Renfrew County ATV Club also partners with local organizations to provide better trail access and ATV-friendly amenities.
“One of the things we put in place is the technicality rating on our trail system, based on the Hatfield-McCoy Trail systems in the States,” Hebb explains. “Because frankly, if you're riding a $30,000 side-by-side in the area for the first time, you just want to get out and enjoy the day; you don't want to run into the kind of trouble you need winches for.”
The technicality rating lets riders know how difficult a trail is (from beginner to most difficult), what the terrain like, how wide is the trail and other details, letting people choose trails based on what kind of experience they want to have—even for riders who enjoy winching through mud and taking steeper hills.
Hand-in-hand with rider experience comes rider safety. The ratings stress the importance of experience level matching the trail, and the Renfrew County ATV Club recommends getting training, especially for youth, from the Canadian All-terrain Quad Council of Canada. “The right course can make you feel more comfortable and safe on the trail,” says Hebb.
Even with the RCATV Club's web-based map, Hebb recommends contacting the club where you're going to ride: “You can email or message them on social media—see if there's anything new on the trail, any hazards or closures, especially relevant up here where we deal with beavers all the time and a number of other elements.”
Lookouts and historic sites
With a season that lasts from May 1 until November 30 close, Renfrew County shows off the northern Canadian seasons superbly, from muddy winter melt through dry season and into first snow.
“To really see some of the area's lakes and valleys and experience the history of the ancestral homes, you really need to be on an ATV, mountain bike, or dirt bike—something that will get you well off the beaten track,” advocates Hebb, who started ATVing herself as a way to enjoy a full day outdoors, riding from forest trails to a local restaurant for supper. She's seen her share of wildlife along the trail too, the most memorable a newly born fawn on the trail and a wolf splashing across a river.
In an area where much of the land is traditional Algonquin territory, the Renfrew Country ATV Club worked to rename trail system routes based on Indigenous heritage and history. If you follow the Opeongo trail system, stretching from Wilno to Madawaska, you'll be treated to breathtaking lookouts and opportunities to jump in the Madawaska River. (Take a break in Barry's Bay, where you're welcome to ride your ATV through the Tim Horton's drive-through.)
Old logging roads, mills, railroads, settlements, and geological wonders weave through Renfrew County. On the Opeongo Trail System, don't miss the view from Burnett’s Lookout, the Gun Lake Mine, and the Opeongo River Mill. Abandoned military base Foymount on the Opeongo Colonization road is not only the highest populated point in Ontario, at 1,600 feet above sea level, but it's a ghost town of old dwellings, military structures, and machinery.
On the Pakkotinna Trail System, Shed Hill & Old Bonnechere to Pembroke Road give riders a glimpse into how early settlers lived on the land and maintained the hilly roads in winter by building long wooden sheds over them. And the Deacon Lookout offers a view south over Golden Lake and the Opeongo Mountains. Nearby Golden Lake is home to ATV-friendly cottages, cabins and campgrounds, as well the Sands on Golden Lake inn, restaurant and spa, a long-time supporter of the RCATV and co-organizer of the club's annual “B101 or Bust ATV Weekend,” a group ride and BBQ event.
The trail systems closer to Petawawa might not have the height of other systems, but they're a must for anyone searching for the challenges of rugged terrain and dense bush alongside small lakes and rivers, where you can swim the mud off and jump back on your quad.
With its varied natural landscape and the welcome mat laid out for ATV riders of all experience levels, Renfrew County is a must-ride.
Check out our series on Ontario's best ATV trails: