9 Best Small Towns in Ontario for Outdoor Adventure

Your next outdoor adventure vacation starts here

Rural Ontario abounds with outdoor adventure. You’ll find countless quaint, little-known gems offering some of the finest cycling, paddling, camping, and hiking in Canada. Our list includes secret treasures in remote Northern Ontario as well as new ideas for appreciating more popular destinations in Central and Southern Ontario. Read on to discover friendly, outdoorsy communities all across the province—places that are perfect for active travellers and families who love to get outside. 

Park bench with view of the fall colours by the lake
Water is always close at hand in Mattawa. | Photo: Josie Dinsmore


Mattawa is a small town located at the junction of the Mattawa and Ottawa rivers, a historic canoe route since time immemorial. The Mattawa River remains an excellent choice for novice to intermediate canoe trippers, with historic portages, rocky shores and campsites you can settle into while knowing they are centuries old. A three- to four-day trip starts on Trout Lake, just east of North Bay, with several other access points for shorter trips along the way. Mattawa is also the gateway to Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park, known for its tall pines, waterfront and quiet campground. The Canadian Ecology Centre is located adjacent to the park and makes a great destination for adventurous families with cabin rentals, trails and outdoor education programs. Check out the top things to do in Mattawa

Things to do in the area:

  • Nature’s Harmony Ecolodge is a unique place to stay on the Ottawa River near Mattawa with yurt accommodations and on-site hiking, biking, and paddling.
  • Besides playing a central role in Canadian canoe culture, Mattawa is also located on the Voyageur Cycling Route, a 645-km segment of the Trans Canada Trail from Ottawa to Sudbury (with connections to cycling routes in Quebec).
  • Be sure to stop in at Wright’s Bakery for a homemade Mattawa treat.
  • Mattawa River Resort is yet another option for year-round riverside accommodations, with cabins, RV campsites, and a restaurant.

St. Joseph Island

Looking for a quintessential rural experience? You have two small-town options on St. Joseph Island, located east of Sault Ste. Marie on Lake Huron’s North Channel. The town of Richards Landing boasts a quiet waterfront park with a family friendly beach; the community of Hilton Beach, meanwhile, features a vibrant marina and great opportunities for angling. Cyclists can get a headstart on the season by exploring “the island’s” quiet network of backroads in early spring. April rides often overlap with St. Joe’s vibrant maple syrup season (Gilbertson’s is the largest producer in Ontario). Come August, the island is locally renowned for its sweet corn, available at numerous roadside stands along Highway 548.

Things to do in the area:

  • Besides outstanding cycling, St. Joseph Island boasts great options for sea kayak day tours. Intermediate paddlers prepared to handle winds, waves, and moderate current can put-in at the public launch just before the island bridge on Highway 548. A more sheltered, novice-friendly launch is available on Gawas Bay Road. You’ll encounter pink granite and wispy pine islands from either launch site.
  • Maria’s Cabins provides cottage-style, waterfront accommodations near Richards Landing.
  • Sample a cup of locally roasted St. Joeseph Island coffee at the Black Bear Cafe.
  • Birders flock to St. Joseph Island for the opportunity to view a mix of forest and field songbirds, including numerous warblers, bobolinks and meadowlarks. Fort St. Joseph National Historic Site has easy trails and excellent birding potential.


There’s way more to Wawa than a big goose on the side of the Trans-Canada Highway. The town is a welcome sight for travellers on the long stretch between Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay, and boasts great opportunities for adventurers and anglers. Reclusive piano virtuoso Glenn Gould was known to stay at the Wawa Motor Inn; you can too, with cabins and rooms within a short drive from family-friendly Dr. Rose’s or Lion beaches on crystal clear Wawa Lake. Located 10 minutes out of town on Michipicoten Bay, Sandy Beach ranks amongst Lake Superior’s finest. You can walk a kilometre of fine sand, watch the waves or swim. A gourmet dinner at Kinniwabi Pines Restaurant is a great way to wrap up a sunny day at the beach.

Things to do in the area:

  • Book a room at Rock Island Lodge, a stunning four-bedroom B&B on Lake Superior. While you’re there, sign up for a photo workshop or register for kayak, SUP, or canoe day trips and instruction with Naturally Superior Adventures.
  • There are plenty of hiking options in Wawa, too. Visit Scenic High Falls on the Magpie River for family friendly trails. More experienced hikers can tackle a rugged, 5-km segment of the Voyageur Trail along the Magpie River from High Falls to the dual cascades of Silver Falls.
  • Be sure to stop for ice cream at Young’s General Store. Algoma Highlands Blueberry Farm is another unique Wawa attraction.

South River

It’s tough to beat the crowds to central Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park, but basing yourself in the small town of South River, located between Huntsville and North Bay off of Highway 11, is your best bet. Northern Edge Algonquin offers canoe tours, yoga, and accommodations on the west shore of Kawawaymog Lake. Looking for an Algonquin Log Cabin retreat? Check out Voyageur Quest, which rents six cabins, including a quaint log cabin on Smith Lake and a private island chalet on Kawawaymog Lake. Voyageur Quest also provides Algonquin Park canoe rentals, outfitting, wildlife photography, and guided trips.

Things to do in the area:

  • While in South River be sure to stop in at South River Brewing for small-batch, locally-inspired craft beer.
  • Even if you’re just passing through, South River’s Tom Thomson Park is a great place to stretch your legs and allow your kids and/or dogs to let loose some steam.
  • You’ll find lots of dining options in and around South River, including Danny’s Justa’ Pasta in nearby Sundridge.
View of a tandem kayak in a harbour
It all happens on the Tobermory waterfront. | Photo: Esky Studi


Tobermory is a small town located near the mainland terminus of a big landform: The Niagara Escarpment. If you’re really ambitious you can lace up your hiking boots and walk the length of the limestone escarpment from Niagara to Tobermory along the 900 km Bruce Trail. Or you can drive to Tobermory and day-hike on some of the most spectacular parts of the trail, visiting iconic Ontario landforms like the Grotto and the Flowerpot Islands. Tobermory bustles in the summer months, serving as a gateway to Bruce Peninsula National Park and Fathom Five National Marine Park. The latter offers camping and outstanding hiking, with trails radiating from the top of the escarpment to the Lake Huron shore. Fathom Five, meanwhile, is the site of some of the best scuba diving in Canada, with countless shipwrecks in turquoise waters. Diver’s Den delivers guided trips and certified scuba instruction for all levels. 

Things to do in the area:

  • From campgrounds to bed and breakfasts, motels, cabins, and inns, there are plenty of places to stay in Tobermory. But you’ll want to book early for the summer months. Planning a trip in the spring or fall gives you more options and fewer crowds.
  • You’ll find everything from street tacos to locally roasted coffee in Tobermory, as well as fine dining (and resort-style accommodations) at Sweet Water Bay.
  • Want to camp on an island? You’ll have to act fast to secure one of six backcountry campsites on Flowerpot Island, part of Fathom Five National Marine Park. The island is only accessible by tour boat or by experienced sea kayakers.
  • Tobermory is also the launch point for the MS Chi-Cheemaun ferry to Manitoulin Island.

Elliot Lake

Picture a quaint cottage country town with a fraction of the crowds and you have Elliot Lake, a great Ontario small town located between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie, just north of the Trans Canada Highway. Elliot Lake is a great summer destination for its overwhelming abundance of freshwater lakes. In fact, there’s a scenic three-day canoe route that starts and finishes from downtown, one of a half-dozen established paddling routes in the area. The community also boasts two sandy beaches for swimming. Stay in a quiet campground and enjoy excellent swimming, paddling, fishing, and hiking at Mississagi Provincial Park, about 20 minutes north of town, or book cabin or condo-style accommodations at Laurentian Lodge. It’s a great base camp for couples, outdoor photographers, and adventurous families on Flack Lake.

Things to do in the area:

  • Elliot Lake is the largest community on the Deer Trail Touring Route, a scenic, 120-km detour from the Trans-Canada Highway on paved secondary highways 546, 639 and 108. The route traces cascading rivers and crests many steep hills, providing some of the best fall colours in Ontario.
  • Dunlop Lake Lodge provides upscale accommodations, dining, fishing, snowmobiling, and ATVing just north of downtown Elliot Lake.
  • The Fire Tower Lookout provides an amazing 360-degree view of the rugged Canadian Shield landscape that embraces Elliot Lake and includes interpretive displays capturing the early days of managing forest fires in Ontario.
View of the town of Bancroft
Get a view of Bancroft from the Eagle’s Nest Lookout. | Photo: Andreas


Bancroft is a small town in central Ontario, located within an easy drive of both Ottawa and Toronto. Settlers were drawn to the area by the prospects of gold and other valuable minerals, and Bancroft remains a popular destination for rockhounds. You can visit the Bancroft Mineral Museum, go on a mineral-collecting field trip with Lakeside Gems or come for the popular Rockhound Gemboree, Canada’s largest gem and mineral show. You can get a more intimate glimpse of Bancroft’s Canadian Shield geology with a trip to Silent Lake Provincial Park. The park features a drive-in campground (including yurts and cabins) with family friendly opportunities for hiking, fishing, paddling and swimming (the park is aptly named: no motors are allowed on Silent Lake). Mountain bike enthusiasts rank Silent Lake’s 11- and 17-km loops as some of the best riding in the area.

Things to do in the area:

  • Baptiste Lake Lodge offers waterfront vacation rentals located just outside of Bancroft.
  • Bancroft dining options include For the Halibut (fish and chips, obviously); the Bancroft Brew Pub (site of Bancroft Brewing Co.); and Wattle & Daub Cafe (for lunch, great coffee and homemade baked goods).
  • No trip to central Ontario is complete without grabbing a cone or shake at Kawartha Dairy, with a location on Highway 28.
Lighthouse on the rocks
A classic view on the edge of Killarney. | Photo: Hailey Sonntag


As a picture-perfect small Ontario town, Killarney scores high points for its gorgeous Georgian Bay waterfront. The community morphed from a sleepy fishing village reminiscent of outport Newfoundland into a popular summer destination largely on account of nearby Killarney Provincial Park, which lives up to the moniker “Ontario’s crown jewel.” The park remains the area’s main draw, with gorgeous campsites and easy day paddling on George Lake. Both Killarney Kanoes and Killarney Outfitters offer canoe and kayak rentals and insider advice on the best paddling routes, with boats available at the George Lake Campground. Be sure to stop by the town itself, perhaps treating yourself to a stay at the upscale Killarney Mountain Lodge or the more modest Sportsman’s Inn. Stop in at Herbert’s Fish and Chips to experience a classic Killarney attraction. 

Things to do in the area:

  • The historic Killarney East lighthouses is located a short walk along the shore from the village; meanwhile, the George Island Wilderness Trail is accessible by boat only, with a ferry service departing Killarney Mountain Lodge.
  • Besides a great beach and stunning scenery, hiking makes the George Lake campground a perfect destination for families. Check out the easy Cranberry Bog and Granite Ridge trails or tackle the short Chikanishing trail (located a short drive from the park visitor centre) along the pink granite shores of Georgian Bay.
  • You’ll find all-day breakfast and amazing cinnamon buns at Killarney’s Gateway Restaurant and Bakery.


Temagami is another small town in Ontario where life revolves around the water. The community is located on Highway 11, about an hour’s drive north of North Bay, perched on one of Lake Temagami’s many deep inlets. The view from the town’s waterfront provides a glimpse of what’s beyond: rocky islets, tall pine and clear, deep waters. Little wonder why Temagami is synonymous with canoe tripping in Ontario. You can rent a canoe or sign up for a guided trip with the Temagami Outfitting Company, which operates a shop on the community’s waterfront. Just north of town, Smoothwater Outfitters and Lodge offers outfitting, rentals, vehicle shuttles and trip planning, as well as cozy waterfront accommodations and gourmet meals. Meanwhile, Finlayson Provincial Park provides quiet camping, a family-friendly beach and boat launch for anglers wishing to try their luck with Lake Temagami’s walleye, bass, and lake trout.

Things to do in the area:

  • Temagami-based Lakeland Airways provides spectacular aerial tours of the wilderness aboard trusty deHavilland floatplanes, as well as shuttles for intrepid canoeists and several fly-in outpost fishing camps on remote lakes.
  • Be sure to hike to the Temagami fire tower, accessible via Highway 11, for a scenic overview of old-growth pine forests and gem-like lakes.
  • Book a stay at a Lake Temagami lodge: Great Spirit Lodge, Ojibway Family Lodge and the Wanapitei Chateau offer adventure-ready base camp accommodations.

This list is just the beginning. We encourage you to look for the small dots on the map. Get out and explore, staying off the beaten track—and get ready to find even more great Ontario small towns for amazing outdoor vacations.

About Conor Mihell

Conor Mihell is an award-winning environmental and adventure travel writer based in Sault Ste. Marie. Read his work in the Globe and Mail, Explore, Cottage Life, Canoe & Kayak, ON Nature, and other magazines and newspapers. He's been a sea kayak guide on Lake Superior for close to 20 years, and has paddled from Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay. 

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