An Autumn Ride to Aubrey Falls: A Motorcycle Itinerary Inspired by the Group of Seven

Two wheels, one foot-peg scraping highway, and a 53-meter waterfall: a guide to visiting the Group of Seven landscapes.

The fall has arrived. It’s time to set out my warm riding apparel and foul weather gear and prepare for one last ride of the season. The tour I have in mind can be a three-to-five-day trip, depending on how much time I’m able to muster. It has a destination and a raison d’etre, but more about that momentarily.

In 2017, I left Victoria and rode to Toronto. It was a riding trip. Every day, I spent long hours in the saddle. Except for what I saw from behind my handlebars, I didn’t see much of Canada. When I think about it, it was a wasted opportunity. There were things to do and see in every province. I should have taken the time to get off my bike and explore, but I didn’t. Every day, I just rode. Don’t get me wrong. I loved the trip, but I missed a lot. Now, even for a short trip, I choose a destination and a reason for going, a raison d’etre, as it were.

red, yellow and green autumn treetops against a bright blue sky
If there's anything Ontario does well, it's amazing leaves and amazing roads.

The rugged and scenic beauty of Northern Ontario, as captured by Tom Thomson in his drawings and paintings, is the raison d'être for my trip.

Chasing Tom Thomson: A Moto Tour of The Landscapes That Inspired Him

a blue motorcycle parked in front of bright orange and green autumn trees
To Aubrey Falls.

I wanted to see the colours that inspired Thomson and The Group of Seven as they saw them: the oranges, the reds and the yellows of the changing leaves. Witness the light at dawn and dusk as it bathes the landscape, metaphorically painting a masterpiece before my eyes; the warm, golden light as it illuminates the rocky crags, reflects off northern lakes, and peeks through the ever-present trees. It is magical. There's a reason photographers call dawn and dusk the golden hours.

According to the sign posted at Aubrey Falls, Thomson’s “canoe trip down the Mississagi River with a stop at Aubrey Falls was a key step in his climb to brilliance as a landscape painter” (see the image and full copy below). Although he died in mysterious circumstances in 1917, three years before The Group of Seven formed, his drawings and paintings significantly influenced them and many artists who followed.

Riding winding highways through the undulating and rugged scenery captured by Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven: what’s not to like?

My love for aggressively leaning my bike in the twisties, testing my skills and vigilance, and occasionally setting my adrenaline astir also influenced the agenda. Luckily, Highway 129 undulates and serpentines its way along the shore of the Mississagi River, making it a sporting ride, possibly character-building for some riders, and in my opinion, one of Ontario’s best.

Every hill and corner presents a new surprise on the ride up Highway 129 to Aubrey Falls. There is little to indicate which way the highway turns over the next hill or how the elevation changes around the next corner. It forces me to stay alert. Ah ha, this time it’s a left downhill turn, so I choose my line, put my bike in a near peg-scraping lean, and joyously maneuver my Suzuki V-Strom through the curve. Leaning my bike to and fro, I navigate the twists and turns until I reach the falls.

It is a short hike from the parking lot to get to the lookout at the top. There, you'll get the best view of the falls and can have a picnic. You might think a spot about halfway up is the top, but don’t be fooled, and keep going. The view of the falls from the very top is by far the best; it's worth the extra hike.

I’ve ridden 129 all of the way to Chapleau. From a motorcycling perspective, Highway 129 to Aubrey Falls is the best section. After the falls, the highway flattens, and the curves become sweeping rather than twisty. I suggest turning around at Aubrey Falls to ride Highway 129 back down. After all, it’ll be like riding a new road. It’s definitely worth riding twice. As motorcycling rides go, it’s surprising, scenic, and 108 kilometres (times two) of marvellous, meandering, rollicking, rolling road asphalt that motorcyclists can usually only dream about.

Everyone has a different tolerance level for how far they like to ride. For this reason, I am laying out this trip only loosely. The first day is from the GTA to Highway 17 between Massey and Thessalon; there are many places to stay. The second day is from your motel to Aubrey Falls and back. As an option, on the third day, you can do a tour of Manitoulin Island. The final day (the third or fourth) is a trek back to the GTA.

Although a short trip, it will take you to the places that inspired Tom Thomson. You’ll ride beside the Mississagi River, the very river Tom Thomson canoed down, which he held in high regard. You’ll see the mesmerizing Aubrey Falls and the colours and scenery of Northern Ontario. And you’ll ride on one of Ontario’s best roads.

the handlebars of a motorcycle from the driver's point of view, showing the road ahead bending and autumn trees along the side

But you prefer sweeping turns, the open road, visiting museums, or hiking, or fine dining...

The great thing about Northern Ontario is that there is a lot to do. If art and artists aren’t your thing, create your own trip around what interests you.

Where to Ride in Northern Ontario

Are you into science? Try Science North.

Are you into trains? Try the Northern Ontario Railroad Museum & Heritage Centre.

How about Lighthouses? Check out this article.

A good ride is okay, but at the end of the day you want some great food. Check this out.

It doesn’t matter what gets you motivated to put a few hours in the saddle. Northern Ontario has a lot to offer. Visit Northern Ontario Travel or your friendly Google and start planning your trip today. The one thing you’ll be guaranteed of, there will be some great scenery, roads, and hospitable people along the way.

As for me, I’ll definitely visit Aubrey Falls again.

Full Text from Tom Thomson on the Northern River Interpretive Panel in Aubrey Falls

"Tom Thomson on the Northen River" interpretive panel
The Tom Thomson Interpretive Panel, Aubrey Falls.

Top: "Tom Thomson, who painted 'Northern River', is a true Canadian legend. His two-month canoe trip down the Mississagi River with a stop at Aubrey Falls was a key step in his climb to brilliance as a landscape painter. In 1912, the middle-aged graphic artist had no ambition to become a full-time artist but the wilderness excursion down the Mississagi changed his mind. Tom said, 'We had a peach of a time as the Mississagi is considered the finest canoe trip in the world.' On his return, several art patrons including Lawren Harris detected a rare talent in his honest sketches of the bush. They talked him into taking a year just to paint. That began his four-year 'blaze' of amazing productivity and innovative work including this mysteriously beautiful painting he called, 'My Swamp Picture'. It resembles scenes along the Mississagi River. Tom died in 1917 in a suspicious canoeing accident. His death devastated his friends. However, his innovations, use of colour and bold way of depicting the Canadian wilderness continued to live in the art of those men who later formed the Group of Seven."

Bottom left: "Was Lauren Harris thinking of 'Northern River' when he did this painting in Algoma, five years later? Notice the similarities: the evening light, the screen of spruce in the foreground and the reflections on the pond. Maybe this was a tribute to his good friend Tom Thomson."

Bottom middle: "This painting shows Thomson’s flare for colour in a subject very similar to 'Northern River'. But the rich colours totally change the mood. In his short landscape art career, Tom produced over 400 field sketches but only 33 large canvases."

Bottom right: "Tom Thomson (back left), here photographed in Algonquin Provincial Park in 1914, shared good times with his artist friends. On these trips, he introduced them (the future Group of Seven) to the northlands, which he grew to love so much."

a landscape painting by John Lewis, featuring a blue lake reflecting red, orange and green fall foliage and and thin boggy spruce trees under a bright blue sky.
Both the Ontario landscape and the work of Tom Thomson itself continue to be inspiring. // Credit for work John A. Lewis, 2023
About John Lewis

John Lewis loves telling stories that inform, inspire, and entertain. He writes about motorcycle touring, motorcycle safety, culture, travel, and more. His work has appeared in a number of national magazines including Motorcycle Mojo and The Motorcycle Times, as well as many blogs and websites.

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