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The Ultimate Guide to Planning a French River Canoe Trip

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The Ultimate Guide to Planning a French River Canoe Trip

Paddlers are spoiled for choice with more than 250 beautiful campsites along the French River. • Credit: Colin Field

Find out why this family-friendly river is a favorite of Ontario canoeists

Discover an accessible wilderness river you’ll fall in love with. We've rounded up everything you need to know to plan your trip.



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My first unguided whitewater trip was a French River canoe trip. My son was five at the time, my wife didn’t believe I could paddle any of the rapids, and we got caught in multiple rain showers. I lost my favourite sunglasses, and we didn't catch any fish. But we still remember it as a fantastic trip. I've done it numerous times since—even as a guided trip with Black Feather. I've always gone with my son, and it has been memorable and fun every time.

As far as river trips go, canoeing the French River is one of the easiest wilderness trips thanks to its accessible location and friendly whitewater. Just north of Parry Sound, the French River is only 3.5 hours from downtown Toronto, and it’s a great way to get away from it all.

The river flows 110km from Lake Nipissing west to Georgian Bay, cutting through beautiful Canadian shield terrain. It offers canoeists fantastic scenery and more than 250 campsites. Once a major travel route for First Nations, fur trappers, and loggers, this river is Canada’s first designated heritage river. A real benefit of a French River canoe trip is there are few portages. All rapids can be portaged, and many can be run, depending on water levels and how comfortable you are paddling in whitewater. An intro to whitewater course will increase your skills and ensure you’re comfortable on the river.

French River canoe rental companies and outfitters can simplify your journey. Be sure to get your fishing license too; the river is full of walleye, smallmouth bass, and northern pike, and there’s nothing better than fresh fish for dinner. And don’t miss the award-winning French River Visitor Centre before or after your trip on Hwy 69.

Backcountry camping along the French River is perfect for adventurers looking for a multi-day trip. Discover the very best campsites when you go with a guide.
Backcountry camping along the French River is perfect for adventurers looking for a multi-day trip. Discover the very best campsites when you go with a guide.

French River Canoe Rentals and Outfitters

Planning a trip to the French River is even easier with help from the locals. Rely on the expertise of those who know the river for route and gear recommendations. If you need a canoe rental for your French River canoe trip or accommodation before or after your trip, see this list below. 

Hartley Bay Marina

2870 Hartley Bay Rd., French River, ON
The people at Hartley Bay Marina offer canoe rentals, fishing guides, and all the guidance you could ever need to plan your French River trip.

French River Supply Post and Marina 

193 French River Supply Post Rd, Alban, ON
The French River Supply Post and Marina offers a great place to access the river. With a rental fleet, large parking lot and local expertise, this is a one-stop-shop for getting started. You can also leave your vehicle here for overnight trips.

Lodge at Pine Cove 

1013 Hwy 528A, Noelville, ON
The Lodge at Pine Cove is a great place to get on the river. They offer a range of vacation ideas, including guided French River trips, if that's what you're looking for. They also have beautiful cabins for rent.

French River Adventures

Noelville, Ontario
This outfitter offers access to the middle section of the French River and canoe and kayak rentals. They also have big canoe rentals so that you can paddle the river in traditional style. French River Adventures also offers a water taxi service.

Bryer Lodge

751 Highway 528A, Noelville, ON
Bryer Lodge is a quiet housekeeping cottage resort located on the shores of the French River. It offers canoe and kayak rentals, including delivery for a charge. Best for trips launching in the eastern section of the river.

All campsites are first-come, first-served. Interior camping permits are required for backcountry camping. Permits can be purchased online. Photo: Colin Field
All campsites are first-come, first-served. Interior camping permits are required for backcountry camping. Permits can be purchased online. Photo: Colin Field

Guided Canoe Trips on the French River

Guided tours take the guesswork out of planning a French River canoe trip. If you're looking for more natural interpretation and luxury, go guided. All you need to do is show up with a sense of adventure, and the guides will do the rest.

Black Feather

Black Feather’s French River for Families trip is a four-day adventure on one of most scenic sections of the French River, starting at Wolseley Bay and finishing at Highway 69. Expect excellent campsites, clear water and beautiful Canadian Shield scenery.  Learn more about the trip here.

French River Adventures 

French River Adventures offers guided half-day, day and hour-long trips by canoe and kayak. Learn more about the river and its rich history when you bring an expert with you. Learn more about this service here.

French River Canoe Access Points 

Accessing the French River is the only limit to what the river can offer. Over its 110km length, there are several access points, but the most commonly used—and the ones were you can leave a vehicle overnight—are:

Reservations for the French River Canoe Trip

Booking sites on the French River is easy. You can book online, just be sure to click the Backcountry Registration tab so the French River appears as an option. You'll need to decide in advance roughly which area of the river you'll be camping each night to identify which zone you'll need a permit for each night. The river is broken up into eight zones from the mouth at Lake Nipissing down to Georgian Bay. 

Fishing heaven awaits on the French River. Walleye, smallmouth bass, and northern pike are just a few of the fish species that are found in the river. Photo: Colin Field
Fishing heaven awaits on the French River. Walleye, smallmouth bass, and northern pike are just a few of the fish species that are found in the river. Photo: Colin Field

French River Canoe Routes Maps 

There are a couple of versions of French River paddling maps. Ontario Parks prints one that is detailed, complete with rapid names and camp numbers. Buy in the early stages of planning your trip; it's invaluable. You can usually get them at MEC or any other outdoor outfitter. Another map canoeists love is Unlostify’s West French River map.

Kevin Callan’s A Paddler’s Guide to Killarney and the French River covers many trips in the region and is another valuable resource for planning.

Best French River Canoe Routes 

With three channels, the French River's route possibilities would take a lifetime to explore fully. Except in Spring, the current is rarely so strong that you can’t paddle upriver, making an out and back trip doable. If you’re trying to choose a route, get a paddling map at one of the links above and then start dreaming.

Keep in mind, if you’re paddling downstream, there’s a good chance you’ll be paddling into the prevailing west wind. While 25km days are possible, not everyone thinks they’re fun.  I find anywhere from five to 15km a day with kids is reasonable and allows for lots of swimming, fishing, and fun times at camp.

Practice leave-no-trace camping and camp only on designated campsites while canoeing the French River. Photo: Colin Field
Practice leave-no-trace camping and camp only on designated campsites while canoeing the French River. Photo: Colin Field

A 3-day canoe trip on the French River is a manageable length to fit into a busy schedule. Pick a long weekend or choose a day to take off work and get planning. Here are a couple of our favourite 3-day canoe trip routes on the French River. 

Wolseley Bay to Highway 69 

The classic French River trip is Wolseley Bay to Highway 69. Leave one vehicle at the French River Supply Post and Marina. This will be the vehicle you use when you finish the trip. Then drive all your gear and people up to the Lodge at Pine Cove. You can leave your car here, unload and get on the water.

Starting here, you’ll hit the majority of the French’s rapids on day one, depending on how fast you move. Beginning with Little Pine Rapids, you'll get a good idea of what's coming downstream. There are some fantastic campsites along this stretch. Big Parisienne Rapid is the last set of real rapids before Highway 69. It's worth taking your time on day one and camping near one of the rapids, especially if you have kids; they'll love playing in the water and jumping off rocks. 

Most rapids are runnable if you have experience and skill. Depending on your comfort level, you could portage all your gear to the end of the rapid, and then try paddling an empty boat. You can also line your canoe down the rapids. Don’t take any unnecessary risks. Big Pine Rapids (class II) are the most technical set of rapids. The portage is short.         

Once you pass the Big Parisienne Rapids, it’s about 25km of flatwater until you reach your take-out. Although you can make it in one day, it’s nice to break it up into two and camp along the way. 

The rapids eliminate boat traffic from most of this French River canoe route, and it'll feel like you're alone in the wilderness. Take out at the French River Supply Post and Marina

Lodge to Lodge Route 

Another way to tackle the whitewater section of the French River is to put in at the Lodge at Pine Cove then head downstream as far as Big Parisienne rapids. This will take you through all the fun whitewater. We made this trip with six kids a couple of years ago and it was incredibly fun for everyone. On the third day, we lined our boats back upstream and took out again at the Lodge at Pine Cove. It's an out-and-back, and if you're looking to practice paddling whitewater, this is the way to do it. Portaging around all the rapids is painless; none of the portages are longer than 500 metres and many of them are much shorter. 

French River To Pickerel River Loop

A more ambitious French River 3-day canoe trip starts at Highway 69. You can leave a vehicle at the Pickerel River Marina, then take all your gear and paddlers a few kilometres north on the highway to the French River Supply Post and Marina. Put in here, then head west on the French River. The only portage on this trip is Recollet Falls, about 25 metres long. It's easy and not too far from the put-in, so you quickly get it over with. 

You can circle 15 Mile Island by heading west on the French River then east on the Pickerel River back to your vehicle. There are no rapids on these stretches of river and only the one 25-metre portage. There is incredible scenery, excellent campsites and some stunning Canadian wilderness. The entire loop is about 30km, so you'll need to cover some decent distance each day. You'll most likely be heading into the wind while heading west and with the wind while heading east.

From the rugged hills and thick forests of the Canadian Shield to the channels, bays, and lakes that interconnect along this waterway, French River Provincial Park is a maze of quiet hideaways and fast-moving water. Photo: Colin Field
From the rugged hills and thick forests of the Canadian Shield to the channels, bays, and lakes that interconnect along this waterway, French River Provincial Park is a maze of quiet hideaways and fast-moving water. Photo: Colin Field

Best canoe routes on the French River 

For canoeists who have a bit more time and appetite for adventure, the French River will provide. Enjoy these epic suggestions if you’re looking for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure close to home.

French River: Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay

The best trip I’ve done on the French River was an end-to-end trip with a couple of other dads and three 10-year-olds. Starting from Lake Nipissing near North Bay and paddling to Georgian Bay was an epic trip. It was a difficult trip and took 11 days, although it would have been quicker with older kids. The river is 110km long and the voyageurs used to do it in a single day. 

One of the biggest challenges was getting to the French's mouth on Lake Nipissing; we ended up taking a four-hour water taxi (towing three canoes) from Lichty’s Marina up near Monetville. We had to portage around the Chaudier Dams, and the 600-metre portage was the only real difficulty on the entire trip. Our partners resupplied us with food at French River Supply Post and Marina on day seven, and then we carried on. Once we reached Georgian Bay, we got a water taxi from Key Harbour Lodge to pick us up and take us back to a waiting vehicle at the Key Marina Resort. Using water taxis eliminated about 40km of paddling and took four days off our entire trip. And it was essential for keeping three 10-year-olds keen and happy. 

French River: 18 Mile Loop

Another one of the best French River trips is the 18 Mile Island loop. Putting in at the Lodge at Pine Cove you can take the main channel of the French River west, then paddle the French River North Channel back east and take out at the Lodge at Pine Cove. It's about 65km to circle the island, and it's a fantastic stretch of river. There are no portages on this stretch. Complete in 5 to 7 days.

The French River travels 110km through interconnected lakes, gorges and rapids from Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay. Photo: Colin Field
The French River travels 110km through interconnected lakes, gorges, and rapids from Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay. Photo: Colin Field

Near The French River

Favorite Local Shop 

Just north of the French River bridge is the French River Trading Post offering a restaurant and souvenirs. Kids will love the Hungry Bear and Blueberry Hound mascots that visit the outdoor dining area in summer. The ice cream is delicious and serving sizes are generous.

Sightseeing 

The French River Provincial Park Visitor Centre is a great place to start a river trip. With historical information about the river, impressive interpretive displays and a pedestrian bridge, it’ll provide perspective and context for your adventure ahead.

5 can’t-miss activities for kids canoeing the French River 

Kids come alive on the French River. Don’t miss these kid-friendly activities while you’re paddling.  

  • Go fishing. People come from around the world to fish on the French River. Make sure your kids are set up for success with bait and kid-sized gear. And have your pliers ready when it comes time to take the fish off the hook. Find out everything you need to know about getting a fishing license here. To find all the best fishing holes, go guided with the folks at Wolseley Lodge.
  • Snorkeling. Packing along a swim mask and a snorkel is a great way to spend the day. It’s incredible how close you can get to the bass. Find a good fishing hole and it’ll give the kids plenty of entertainment.
  • Rock jumping. There are so many rocks to jump off on the French River. Take a swim mask so adults can check the depth of the water before leaping. 
  • Explore a ghost town. French River Village was once home to over a thousand people during the summer months in the logging days. It’s now abandoned and dismantled, but evidence of the town remains. It’s only accessible by canoe or kayak.
  • Stargaze. The stargazing on the French River is top-notch. With a little planning, you'll be able to impress them with your knowledge of the constellations and all the marvels of the universe. Of course, you can also just make it all up and enjoy the beauty of the Milky Way. 

Canada’s first designated heritage river

The river flows 110km from Lake Nipissing west to Georgian Bay, cutting through beautiful Canadian shield terrain. It offers canoeists fantastic scenery and more than 250 campsites. It's also Canada’s first designated heritage river. Don’t miss the award-winning French River Visitor Centre before or after your trip on Hwy 69.

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