Best Backcountry Ski Spots in Ontario
Backcountry skiing in Ontario appeals to winter enthusiasts who dream of breaking their own trails: weaving through the trees while shushing down powder-buried slopes, navigating silent woods, or venturing across frozen lakes. Whereas backcountry skiing is generally an alpine pursuit in western Canada, Ontario is more diverse and inclusive for all levels of skiers, with options available for everyone looking for a more adventurous winter activity.
The potential is vast, and Ontario’s best backcountry ski areas have one thing in common: plenty of snow. Northwestern Ontario and Thunder Bay are blessed with the province’s longest winters, while the Sault Ste. Marie area and central Ontario’s Algonquin Highlands benefit from abundant (and fluffy) lake-effect snowfall blowing in off the Great Lakes. Backcountry skiers who are most interested in speed and thrills look for steep slopes and choose fat, downhill-style skis with powerful, versatile alpine touring bindings for better float and stability; backcountry tourers, meanwhile, use wider nordic skis with durable telemark or cross-country bindings to glide across rolling terrain, ungroomed forest trails and frozen lakes.
Avalanches are one thing you don’t have to worry about while backcountry skiing in Ontario. However, high-speed downhill “tree skiing” has its own risks; be sure to wear a helmet and make sure your skis are equipped with releasable bindings for greater safety. Ontario backcountry skiing may also take you into remote wilderness areas beyond the safety of cellular reception, so it’s important to bring emergency gear such as warm clothing, food, first aid supplies and a satellite communication device. Seek out local knowledge (better yet, get an auger and drill a few test holes) before venturing onto frozen bodies of water. You should always avoid ice near rivers and around hydroelectric facilities.
First-time backcountry skiers should stick to ungroomed trails at cross-country ski areas. The best way to learn how to ski downhill in the backcountry is with an instructor; the techniques for turning in powder snow are far different than skiing on groomed resort runs. Regardless of your objectives, practice makes perfect when it comes to all disciplines of backcountry skiing. Come to Ontario and check out these great destinations to experience the freedom of the hills.
Algoma Highlands and Sault Ste. Marie
Northern Ontario’s Algoma region boasts a rich history of nordic skiing, which has no doubt contributed to its standing as Ontario’s best backcountry ski destination. The city of Sault Ste. Marie’s Soo Finnish Nordic Ski Club got its start carving backcountry trails in the snowy hills just north of the city centre, well over 50 years ago. Later, downhills skiers in the area discovered the potential of some of Ontario’s tallest landforms to produce epic backcountry runs. Ungroomed wilderness trails have always been a huge attraction at the Algoma Highlands’ luxe Stokely Creek Lodge. Regardless of your backcountry passion (or skill level) you’ll find plenty of ways to stay busy in and around Sault Ste. Marie.
- The 14-km Mabel Lake trail is a locals’ favourite at the Hiawatha Highlands, located in the north end of Sault Ste. Marie. This backcountry trail is groomed for classic skiing, making it suitable for all nordic skiers. The trail boasts fantastic scenery, including a frozen wetland, remote lake and hardwood hills. Ski rentals are available on-site or from Velorution Ski and Bike.
- There’s a long history of backcountry skiing at Stokely Creek Lodge in Goulais River. A good number of the area’s trails are “skier groomed”, with countless options to explore the hardwood forests of Algoma Highlands. This is true wilderness skiing: ask for route advice at the lodge and be sure to bring a backpack with warm clothes, snacks and a thermos.
- Backcountry skiing in Ontario arguably began at Bellevue Valley Lodge, a year-round rental chalet and bed and breakfast located 30 minutes north of Sault Ste. Marie in Goulais River. Owners and hosts Robin Macintyre and Enn Poldmaa have shaped a backcountry ski culture rooted in dozens of hand-selected and tirelessly maintained downhill ski runs in scenic hardwood hills. The massive area offers great options for more mellow ski touring, as well. Poldmaa offers guided backcountry ski tours catering to beginners and experts alike, along with telemark ski instruction. A limited number of backcountry skis and boots are available for guests to use.
- Check out Georgie’s Shawarma for authentic Syrian food in downtown Sault Ste. Marie and grab a java, homemade baked goods or a tasty lunch at Feeding Your Soul Cafe.
Thunder Bay and Northwestern Ontario
Just like Sault Ste. Marie, the city of Thunder Bay has a rich Scandinavian heritage—so it’s no surprise that Northwestern Ontario is a skiing mecca. Easy access to abundant wilderness, with diverse terrain ranging from frozen lakes to steep hills, makes for great backcountry skiing.
- Lakehead University hosts telemark ski nights at Thunder Bay’s Mount Baldy, providing the ideal opportunity to learn the basics of backcountry skiing in a controlled environment. Inquire at the resort to learn more or ask for more information at one of Thunder Bay’s ski shops, including Fresh Air Experience, Petrie’s Cycle and Sports, or Rollin’ Thunder.
- The Cross Quetico Lakes Ski Tour is a classic backcountry ski event held each March in Northwestern Ontario. Skiers experience the frozen lakes of quintessential Ontario canoe country with a relaxed, all-inclusive atmosphere that celebrates the longer days and crusty snow of late winter.
- While in Thunder Bay, check out Kangas Sauna for authentic Finnish pancakes and a community steambath, and stay at the Valhalla Inn.
Skiers in central Ontario enjoy secret stashes of powder runs and quiet hills in the Algonquin Highlands, a vast snowbelt area spanning Parry Sound, Muskoka and North Bay, 2 to 3 hours north of the GTA. This region has great potential for all types of backcountry skiing, including downhill tree-skiing and off-trail ski touring in the quiet off-season at iconic Algonquin Provincial Park. The best part is, services and opportunities for first-time visitors are rapidly expanding as more formal backcountry ski packages take shape.
- The West Wind Highlands Ski Touring Association is your go-to source of information (and events) for backcountry skiing in central Ontario. The club supports backcountry skiing in three areas: the Limberlost Forest and Nature Reserve, which provides downhill and touring options east of Huntsville; Nickle Peak, a backcountry skiing gem with 450 feet of vertical on the doorstep of Algonquin Provincial Park, near the town of Kearney; and Tasso Highlands, a remote part of Muskoka with an impressive 525 feet of vertical drop. Become a club member to learn more and to find like-minded skiers.
- For a true backcountry ski experience in Algonquin Provincial Park check out the Minnesing Trails, a “stacked loop” of ungroomed ski trails located along the park’s Highway 60 corridor. There are 6- to 32-km of trails available with a distinctive wilderness character of hardwood forests and backcountry lakes. Backcountry touring skis with durable bindings are advised.
- Visit Algonquin Outfitters in Oxtongue Lake, Huntsville, and Haliburton for a full selection of rental backcountry ski equipment.
- Voyageur Quest’s Algonquin Log Cabin, located just outside of the town of South River, provides backcountry skiers with access to frozen lakes on the northwest corner of Algonquin Provincial Park—along with cozy accommodations and homestyle meals.
If you’ve ever driven the Trans-Canada Highway between the towns of Mattawa and Deep River, or taken the secondary highways south of Renfrew, there’s no doubt you’ve admired the rugged topography of Northeastern and Eastern Ontario. It’s no surprise there’s great backcountry skiing throughout the Ottawa Valley, especially for DIY adventurers who are able to bring their own gear and willing to get off the beaten track.
- Get a sense of Ontario’s longest ski runs without paying for a lift ticket by backcountry skiing in and around the Voyageur Multi-use Trail, near Mattawa. This community east of North Bay also offers excellent accommodations for adventurous families and couples at the Canadian Ecology Centre and Nature’s Harmony Ecolodge, both of which feature marked trails for beginner-friendly backcountry skiing.
- Dacre Heights is a former downhill ski area in eastern Ontario that’s being reclaimed as a backcountry ski destination less than an hour’s drive from Ottawa. The hill features over 400 feet of vertical drop with great views of the Ottawa Valley. The property owner and local backcountry ski enthusiasts have reclaimed 7.5 km of winter trails spanning over 200 acres of terrain, with routes suitable for those who love ski touring or those who wish to discover the joy of powder skiing downhill.
Plan Your Trip
Ontario is emerging as a fine destination for backcountry ski enthusiasts. Count on lake-effect snowfalls to transform the province’s rugged hills and escarpments into prime off-piste ski playgrounds. Whichever region you choose to visit, Ontario’s welcoming outdoor community and cozy accommodations make it easy to discover boundless backcountry skiing right out your door.