Best Weekend Escapes within a Drive From Buffalo & Rochester

There’s something for everyone in Ontario—and it’s an easy drive from upstate New York.

For pristine nature, superb outdoor activities, and unique cultural experiences, just look north of the border. Less than a half-day’s drive from the Peace Bridge, upstate New Yorkers can be enjoying relaxing retreats or thrilling adventures among Ontario’s beautiful lakes and highlands. Here’s our short list of unforgettable Ontario escapes.

Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve: World’s Largest Freshwater Archipelago

You could easily spend a lifetime exploring the watery passages and tens of thousands of rocky islands that comprise the UNESCO-designated Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve. Weekend visitors can get a taste of the reserve’s unique and fascinating ecology by taking a short, scenic shuttle boat ride to Beausoleil Island—the largest of 63 islands making up Georgian Bay Islands National Park.

Pink Lady Slipper Orchids
Pink lady’s slipper orchids blossom in early summer along Georgian Bay Islands park trails. Photo: Virginia Marshall

The granite shores, leafy forests, and windswept pines of this beautiful nature preserve are accessible only by boat. Board the park’s Daytripper shuttle service in Honey Harbour, then rent a mountain bike on the island and cycle wooded trails, overnight at secluded campsites or waterfront cabins and hike to viewpoints overlooking the azure waters and sublime smooth-rock swimming. Sharp-eyed visitors may even spot a threatened Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake—Ontario’s only venomous snake—basking on the sun-warmed granite. If you’re lucky enough to encounter this shy creature, give it space and admire it from a safe distance.

Continuing north along Highway 400 from Honey Harbour, a 45-minute drive brings weekenders to the town of Parry Sound. During summer, this small town bustles with visitors and cottagers headed onto the sparkling waters of Georgian Bay. From Parry Sound harbour, you can explore the region’s famous shoreline with 30,000 Islands Cruise Lines aboard the Island Queen or Islander X, or enjoy a dinner cruise on the MV Chippewa III.

Woman paddling a yellow and white kayak a sunset.
A guided kayak trip is an easy and beautiful way to experience Georgian Bay. Photo: Virginia Marshall

For an even more intimate and adventurous tour of the Bay, Ontario Sea Kayak Centre offers guided paddling day-trips in the Biosphere, departing from locations near Parry Sound. Plan to stay overnight at one of two provincial parks located nearby—Killbear and Oastler Lake—and join an interpretive program to learn more about the unique ecosystems and wildlife that surround you.

Cultural Muskoka: Festivals, History, Boat Cruises and MorE

Just three hours north of the Peace Bridge, situated amidst a backdrop of tranquil lakes and majestic forests, Muskoka is a world-renowned vacation destination that offers exceptional accommodation, dining, festivals, entertainment, and outdoor adventure.

RMS Segwun ship at Gravenhurst wharf at sunset.
Cruise the Muskoka Lakes aboard the Royal Mail Ship Segwun. Photo: @robertgordontaylor

The region has been providing city-dwellers with a much-needed dose of nature since the days when steamships transported travellers along Ontario’s original highways—her lakes and rivers. Learn about the area’s storied boating culture at Gravenhurst’s Muskoka Boat and Heritage Centre, and then depart on an unforgettable cruise aboard the authentic Muskoka steamships, RMS Segwun or Wenonah II. At more than 130 years old, the RMS Segwun is the oldest operating steamship in North America.

Back ashore in Gravenhurst at the Muskoka Wharf, stroll the waterfront boardwalk to shops and dining right on the shores of Lake Muskoka. There is something exciting happening here almost every weekend, from the Muskoka Power Boat Races and Summer Art Crawl in June, to July’s Annual Vintage Boat Show. This superb event celebrates its 40th year in 2020 and is a must for fans of classic wooden boats. Get info on all these events and more here.

A stunt flyboarder high in the air over a lake.
A stunt flyboarder steals the SWS Water Ski Show at Muskoka Wharf. Photo: @rideflylaugh

Plus, if you’re visiting mid-week, don’t miss the Wednesday evening SWS Water Ski Show—an incredible performance right in front of Boston Pizza’s outdoor patio on the Muskoka Wharf! With a huge variety of accommodation options—from luxury resort to cottage rentals and rustic inns—Muskoka has no shortage of places to stay while you’re here.

Almaguin Highlands: Winter at the Edge of Algonquin Park

Drive 20 minutes beyond Muskoka up the Highway 11 corridor and you’ll reach one of Ontario’s best-kept secrets, the Almaguin Highlands. This beautiful region is packed with thousands of lakes and rivers, rolling hills and snow-draped forests—the same wild scenery that attracts over half-a-million visitors each year to neighbouring Algonquin Park. Winter is the perfect season to experience the silence and serenity of this landscape.

The friendly town of Huntsville serves as a gateway for visitors from the south. Tucked behind the snowy sidewalks and historic, brick storefronts of downtown, Algonquin Outfitters offers equipment rentals and advice for every type of self-guided outdoor adventure imaginable. For a guided experience unlike any other, join North Ridge Ranch for a half-day dogsledding tour on 20 km (12.5 miles) of snowy trails north of Huntsville. And if you’re here in February, catch Ontario’s largest dogsled racing event, the Kearney Dog Sled Races.

Cedar sauna cabin with a red door surrounded by snow.
Unwind in Northern Edge Algonquin’s cedar sauna. Photo: @northernedgealgonquin

Can’t decide on just one winter activity? Join Voyageur Quest for a Winter Weekend Sampler at Algonquin Cottage Outpost near the northwest corner of Algonquin Park. Or go off-grid at their cozy Algonquin Log Cabin Lodge for three days of home-cooked meals and guided snowshoeing, backcountry skiing, dogsledding, wolf howling and more. This corner of Algonquin is also home to Northern Edge Algonquin, a year-round eco-lodge and wellness centre that specializes in relaxing and nourishing retreats amid a magical winter setting. For an independent multi-sport weekend, reserve one of the camp cabins at Arrowhead Provincial Park just outside Huntsville. This compact park offers outstanding cross-country skiing and snowshoeing as well as snow tubing and a 1.3-km (0.8-mile) ice skating trail through the frosty forest. Equipment rental is available at the park’s stunning new visitor centre/ski chalet.

Woman cross country skiing on groomed trail.
In the groove at Arrowhead Provincial Park. Photo: Virginia Marshall

North Bay: Four-Seasons Gateway to the North

For a true taste of Northern Ontario only five hours from Buffalo, the gateway city of North Bay welcomes weekenders with a thriving downtown, picturesque waterfront, vibrant arts scene, and endless outdoor recreation opportunities.

A woman paddling in a canoe.
Plan a weekend paddling adventure at the edge of Northern Ontario. Photo: Virginia Marshall

Nestled between mighty Lake Nipissing and the more intimate waters of Trout Lake, it is no surprise that North Bay offers some great paddling. Rent paddleboards, canoes and kayaks at Fun Rentals on the waterfront. Or opt for a guided kayak day-trip with Shockwaves Paddle Adventures—choose from a river canyon ending in a beautiful waterfall, or a scenic sunset paddle along the city shoreline. Experienced canoe trippers can paddle the historic Mattawa River from the east end of Trout Lake to Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park—this two-day trip covers 38 km (23 miles) and nine portages.

If you prefer to keep your adventures on dry land, check out North Bay’s excellent cycling routes. The crown jewel of the city’s trail system is the 12-km (7.5-mile) Kate Pace Way, which runs along the waterfront and connects to the 5-km (3.1-mile) Kinsmen Trail. Both paths are paved and popular with inline skaters as well as cyclists; rent bikes at Cycle Works. Hikers can explore the exquisite forests and waterfalls at the Education Centre Trails—don’t miss the short but steep circuit around Duchesnay Falls.

Close up of back of digital camera with cascading water in front of a waterfall.
Capture the magic of Duchesnay Falls. Photo: @edworthy_photography_

Winter transforms North Bay’s trails and lakes into a paradise for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, ice fishing, skating, and snowkiting. North Bay Nordic maintains nearly 10 km (6.2 miles) of scenic snowshoeing trails and 50 km (31 miles) of groomed ski trails—enough to keep even the most ardent cross-country skiers on their toes. Ice fishing supplies and hut rentals are available from numerous outfitters. There’s even downhill skiing and boarding right in town at Laurentian Ski Hill.

For a one-of-a-kind winter experience, stay in a fully furnished traditional Mongolian Yurt at Nature’s Harmony Ecolodge. The ecolodge is situated on 485 wilderness acres, so you can enjoy skiing, snowshoeing, skating, kicksledding, tobogganing, and more right from your door.

Plan your Road Trip 

It's easy to come to Ontario plus you'll save money with the exchange rate. Just pick your favourite getaway,  jump in the car and head north where adventure awaits you. 

About Virginia Marshall

Virginia Marshall is a freelance outdoor adventure writer, photographer and editor with roots in Muskoka and Lake Superior. Read her work in Adventure Kayak, Canoeroots, Rapid, Paddling Magazine and Backroad Mapbooks.

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