The Best Place to Ride in Ontario is Highway 17
We love riding in Ontario. And we love debating the best routes, roads, and destinations. To finally settle the score, we reached out to our most avid motorcycling friends and asked them to tell us definitively: What's the best place to ride in Ontario? We got a lot of passionate replies—from a truck stop to a city of waterfalls. Which one is your fav?
WHAT'S THE BEST PLACE TO RIDE IN NORTHERN ONTARIO?
There’s a stretch of road that is calling me. In fact, it’s not so much a road as a region, a geography, and ultimately, a state of mind. Highway 17 from Sault Ste-Marie to Thunder Bay is the perfect antidote to urban and suburban life. Its quiet solitude, big skies, towering pines, rolling mountains, and majestic lookouts over Lake Superior will cleanse you of your day-to-day concerns—exactly what a vacation should be. Add to that the freedom of the motorcycle and the simplicity of camping, and you have a sort of paradise.
WHAT MAKES THIS SECTION OF HIGHWAY 17 SO SPECIAL?
Highway 17 over the top of Lake Superior is 700 kilometers of immaculate roadway. There are very few tar snakes, potholes, and other imperfections, a remarkable accomplishment for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, given the remoteness of the highway. The trade-off, however, is that you will likely encounter a few sections of roadwork, which really only amounts to a brief wait as the highway reduces to a single lane. There’s relatively little traffic on this open road to hold you up.
The road has a speed limit of 100 km/hr and is generally two lanes wide with passing lanes every few kilometers, usually on the steep hills so the struggling trucks can pull over. And there are hills! This is mountainous geography and the road climbs and descends as the sweepers follow the northern cliff shoreline of gichi-gami, Ojibwe for “The Great Sea.” You will see the vast body of water off your shoulder for most of this ride, but be sure to pull off at the lookouts so you can safely drink in the vistas that inspired Lauren Harris and others in The Group of Seven.
If the lookouts are not enough, you can stretch your legs off the bike by doing one of the many hikes in the area. Most bring you to the top of a mountain for a similar view to what Harris saw.
IF YOU STAY OVERNIGHT, WHERE DO YOU STAY?
There’s not a lot of development in this region, and that’s its charm. But it means that accommodations are clustered in the small cities and towns you will pass through, like Sault Ste-Marie, Wawa, Marathon, and Thunder Bay. A roadside motel with a soft bed is great at the end of a long day of riding, but if you are riding this highway, you’ll want to do some camping so you can experience the natural beauty of the area in the evenings off the bike. There’s nothing like a campfire or a stroll along a beach at sunset to really unwind, so be sure to pack a tent, a camp stove, and a few cooking essentials.
Fortunately, this section of highway contains two excellent parks with campgrounds: Lake Superior Provincial Park and Pukaskwa National Park. Both are inexpensive, clean, well-staffed, and quiet, with hot showers and other facilities available. A real treat and must stay is Agawa Campground, situated on the shoreline with its own long sandy beach.
There are front-country and backcountry hikes available, including the Coastal Hiking Trail at Pukaskwa that leads to the White River Suspension Bridge 23 meters above Chigamiwinigum Falls.
WHERE'S THE MUST-STOP PLACE ON highway 17?
One highlight not to be missed is Agawa Rock. Located just west of Agawa Campground in Lake Superior Provincial Park, the rock contains a series of ancient pictographs still clearly visible and reminds you that this place, however remote, has been special to many others for hundreds of years. The pictographs are 150-400 years old and tell the stories of Ojibwe legends, local wildlife, and historical wars. If the surrounding rugged wilderness doesn’t humble you, these visible reminders of a greater historical context will. The Agawa Rock is a sacred place that inspires awe and reflection.
THE IDEAL AMOUNT OF TIME TO SPEND ON THIS RIDE?
You can ride from Sault Ste-Marie to Thunder Bay in less than eight hours, but why would you? That’s like wolfing down your double chocolate mousse cheesecake. You’ll want to budget at least three days to savour this stretch of spectacular landscape. If you are travelling east to west, you could spend one night at Lake Superior Provincial Park, your second at Pukaskwa, and your third in Thunder Bay. This way you’ll have short daily rides and lots of time to relax on the beaches, hike the mountains, and view Agawa Rock. If you are up for it, you can also spend some time canoeing, kayaking, and fishing in the parks.
BEST SPOT TO GRAB A BITE?
You’ll find food in the cities, but when passing through Wawa, be sure to stop at Kinniwabi Pines Restaurant. This family-run restaurant has an elegant rustic décor and a large menu, including Lake Superior trout, salmon, and pickerel. It’s in keeping with the region and you won’t get a nicer view from your table if you choose to be seated on the terrace.
IF YOU COULD PICK A SOUNDTRACK THAT CAPTURES THE EXPERIENCE OF THIS RIDE, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
If I had to choose a soundtrack for this ride, it would be something calming and soulful, like any of the opening tracks of Beck’s Morning Phase. But what I think of when I imagine this region is American poet Sylvia Plath’s lines describing her first experience of Canadian wilderness. In “Two Campers in Cloud Country,” she writes, “I lean to you, numb as a fossil.” For Plath, who suffered from anxiety her whole adult life, the image is positive as she leans in to husband Ted Hughes, enjoying the erasure of self and civilization in the midst of such raw wilderness and natural beauty.
Planets pulse in the lake like bright amoebas;
The pines blot our voices up in their lightest sighs.
Around our tent the old simplicities sough
Sleepily as Lethe, trying to get in.
We’ll wake blank-brained as water in the dawn.
It’s one of the best expressions of the sublime in contemporary poetry and captures well the mood and atmosphere of this remote stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway and my favourite spot to ride in Northern Ontario. After the demanding year it’s been, I’m very much looking forward to loading up my bike next week and heading again for this little piece of paradise.