With a quarter of a million lakes and a system of spectacular rivers connecting them, Ontario seems purpose-built for canoe trips. The names of these Ontario Parks say it all: Killarney, Quetico, Temagami… With so many options, it’s hard not to feel a sense of urgency. Truly, there is a lifetime of backcountry canoe routes waiting to be enjoyed.
With that in mind, we start you off with a Bucket List of routes you don’t want to miss. Underneath each trip, you’ll find a list of local outfitters who can provide you with trip planning advice, transportation, equipment rentals, provisions, accommodations, and full guiding services.
The Missinaibi rises less than 100 km from the shores of Lake Superior. From here it makes a beeline northeast for James Bay, more or less bisecting the province as it flows to tidewater. It’s a defining river of Ontario’s topography, cutting through the rapid-replete Canadian Shield before dropping dramatically through Thunderhouse Canyon to settle into the James Bay Lowlands.
The ultimate destination: the historic Moose Factory Hudson’s Bay Company trading post and the nearby train station, where the Polar Bear Express will pick you up to speed you back south. Access points allow for trips from Missinaibi Lake Provincial Park, Peterbell or Highway 11. The upper river is classic shield country with rocky campsites and pool-and-drop rapids. After Thunderhouse Falls, the river widens but still moves briskly through the lowlands. You’ll know the trip is over when the water turns salty. Guided trips and shuttles available from MHO Adventures and Missinaibi Outfitters.
Lady Evelyn River, Temagami
There’s a reason the Temagami region has become a household name among canoe trippers. With 4,300 km of canoe routes, the scenic area north of North Bay offers a lifetime of options. For the option of a lifetime, try the week-long Golden Staircase route. The Lady Evelyn River falls over nine picturesque waterfalls as it flows from Weegobeekawnin (Gamble) Lake. Along the way you’ll pass the beautiful rocky outcroppings of the area known as the Trout Streams, as well as huge wetlands, sand dunes, and peat bogs between Chris Willis Lake and Hobart Lake.
Be sure to plan a stop at Tupper Lake for the day-long climb up Chee Bay Jing (the second-highest point in Ontario). Here you can take a break and enjoy elevated views of your route. The pick up is on Duncanson Lake, were you can see the aftermath of the 2018 forest fires. It’s a fascinating end to a near-perfect route for canoeists who are packing with them at least a little experience with portages and river travel. See Temagami Outfitting Co. and Smoothwater Outfitters for more detailed information. See Lakeland Airways for fly-in adventure options or stay in rustic comfort at Cabin Falls Ecoldoge.
The white, quartzite La Cloche Mountains are best viewed indirectly, like say via their reflection off the calm, gin-clear waters of Killarney’s lakes as you paddle among the ancient peaks. A comprehensive loop through the park can take 10 days, but it’s possible to cut the distance in half with a water taxi trip from town up to the end of MacGregor Bay.
Starting at the northwest corner of the park, this approach will leave you more time to properly explore on your way back to George Lake. Plan a five- to seven-day trip and use the extra time to tie up the hiking boots and spend a full day hiking either Silver Peak or The Crack. Or both. The taxi costs $600, but can fit up to 12 people. As a bonus, the captain will usually drop a downrigger into Fraser Bay along the way and send you off with lake trout fillets for your first dinner.
The remote Woodland Caribou Provincial Park is almost half a million hectares in size, yet it sees an average of only 600 paddlers per year. You could argue you have a better chance of seeing the park’s namesake ungulate than of crossing paths with other paddlers. It borders Manitoba, and has a distinctly different climate than Ontario canoe trippers might be used to. Classed as “prairie boreal” terrain, it’s the second-driest and second-warmest provincial park in Ontario, home to species like the Franklin ground squirrel, burr oak, and prickly pear cactus. The fire-affected landscape rolls out like a mosaic as you link lakes in the southern region of the park.
After a shuttle drop on a bush road, you’ll paddle through Leano Lake and the Killburn chain. Look for canoe-level pictographs on the rock faces of Pauline Lake. Try your hand for lake trout lunkers in Wrist Lake and divert to the waterfalls at the south end of Mexican Hat Lake (so named due to its resemblance to a sombrero). Aegean Lake is, as you’d expect, dotted with islands. You can even nose your canoe into a cave (call it a grotto, if you like). Find out more at Goldseekers Canoe Outfitting and Wilderness Expeditions.
There are many things that would attract a canoeist to Wabakimi Provincial Park, but novel access has to be considered one of them. Via Rail’s cross-country passenger train service traverses the southern portion of the park. Get your canoe ($100 surcharge) on the train anywhere from sea to shining sea and you can ease off the train at Allanwater Bridge. It’s the busiest train station in Wabakimi Provincial Park, but don’t expect anyone to get in your way as you ease your canoe into the Allanwater River and point it north.
There’s a bounty of class I and class II rapids as you make your way north through Brennan, Granite, Wabakimi and Whitewater lakes. Keep an eye out for pictographs on Kenoji Lake, and don’t stress about campsites. You won’t have any competition for the world-class sites waiting for you to make them your home for the night. The portages are all under a kilometre, and the rapids you’ll encounter make for a good introduction for the novice. Plan to spend nine or 10 days paddling the 160 km north to your rendez-vous with a float plane from Thunderhook Fly-Ins that will to buzz you back to the train station in Armstrong. Find more information outfitters Wabakimi Canoe Outfitters, Wilderness North, and Mattice Lake Outfitters.
The Spanish River checks all the boxes. Located northwest of Sudbury, it’s in the proper north, but easy to get to from major highways and population centres. It has plenty of whitewater, but much of it is of the learning variety and all is easily portaged around. There are lots of campsites, but not too many paddlers. You can start your trip by train and have your vehicle left at one of two egress points, depending on how much time you have. It even has a parallel East Branch that gives paddlers an extra option for more lake travel and less whitewater. Best of all, there are sections where kilometres of swift-moving, riffle-water channels lay out before your bow for hours of floating fun.
For a full Spanish experience, go all the way from the train drop at Biscotasi Lake (Bud Car service runs between Sudbury and White River) to Agnew Lake near Highway 17. You’ll want 10 days to enjoy this route of 160 km. Buy the Chrismar Adventure Map to truncate your trip with an early egress at the Elbow or premature put-ins at Sinker Creek, the Forks or Pogomasing Lake. Whichever stretch you choose, make sure you budget enough time to properly scout, and then enjoy, lengthy sets like Bazette, Lebell and C4 rapids. Take them as they come, pick your line, and maybe even carry an empty canoe back up for one more ride. Get more information and shuttle info from Fox Lake Lodge and Agnew Lake Lodge.
Being a centrally located, highlight-filled river with many access points, the French has become a favourite destination for short haul trips. So what makes it worthy of your bucket list? You can do the whole thing, from Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay, and fully experience one of Ontario’s justifiably famous rivers.
The 150-km route begins at Restoule Provincial Park. Spend a day paddling north through small lakes and a meandering creek to emerge onto the massive Lake Nipissing. From here, turn the corner to follow the voyageurs and head west to Georgian Bay. Along the way you’ll hit a few portages, and plenty of gentle rapids. At the end, take your pick on getting out to Georgian Bay. The French’s hard rock delta offers many route options, each of them stunning. If weather allows, head offshore to visit the secluded Bustard Islands before cruising up Key River to end your French adventure at Camp Doré. Launch from Hartley Bay Marina, Grundy Lake Supply Post, Grundy Lake Supply Post, or Wolseley Lodge. Go guided with French River Adventures or Black Feather.
To best enjoy Quetico Provincial Park, keep clear of the crowds that slip over the border from Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area. This linear trip links some of Quetico’s prettiest lakes along the northern edge, and travels west to east to take advantage of prevailing west winds. Starting at Beaver House Lake, you’ll enjoy Quetico, Jesse, Maria, and Batchewaung lakes on the way to Pickerel Lake’s Staunton Bay.
The beaches in Pickerel Narrows are a good place to get your toes wet, stretch out your paddling muscles, and throw a line in the water for some walleye. Portages range up to 1.5 km, but they are well maintained and always lead to somewhere you’ll want to be. Leave a vehicle at either end and arrange for a shuttle from one of the outfitters listed below. There are piles of great campsites and the permits are allotted by lake, so you’ll know you’ll have plenty of space.
Instead of becoming just another canoe-topped car along the standard Highway 60 corridor, go wide and long around the top of the Algonquin Provincial Park to a less used access road that drops down to Brent. It’s an old railroad and logging town, but before you get there be sure to stop at the Bent Crater Lookout trail to climb the tower and gaze out at the distinct rim of the 400-million-year old meteor crater that pitted the top end of the park.
The canoe trip starts on Cedar Lake, where Algonquin Outfitters maintains a base. There’s also a drive-in campground and ranger cabins for rent, allowing you to arrive late in the day. The route from Cedar Lake traces up the Petawawa River, passing Catfish and Burntroot Lakes along the way. You’ll portage up and around picturesque waterfalls.
From here, you’ll portage into the Nipissing system for the trip back down to Cedar. The route has a nice mix of scenery, lake, river, wetland, and some old logging ruins, and it offers an excellent chance of spying moose. The rivers hold water even through August and offer enticing trout fishing from mid-to-late September. Use one of these outfitters to help with your trip: Algonquin Outfitters, Algonquin Bound Outfitters, Voyageur Outfitting, and Algonquin North Wilderness Outfitter.
Each of these routes has something special to offer. We recommend you do them all!