The Ultimate Ontario Paddling Bucket List
Ontario is Canada’s paddling epicentre. With lakes and rivers of all sizes and demeanours scattered abundantly across 1 million square kilometres, Ontario boasts enough canoeing, sea kayaking, standup paddleboarding and whitewater boating options to fill an entire bucket list. Here’s a rundown of the ultimate Ontario paddling destinations to add to your places-to-go list.
Quetico Provincial Park
You’d be hard-pressed to find better geography for canoe tripping than Northwestern Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park. This is legendary canoe country, shrouded in the mystique of ancient Indigenous water routes and central to the Canadian fur trade. Once you get a taste of the Quetico, no doubt you’ll be hungry to return. Quetico is particularly appealing to U.S. paddlers because it’s adjacent to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area and interior ranger stations support cross-border canoe expeditions.
Rightly described as an inland sea, this vast body of freshwater is fringed by nearly 1,000 km of wilderness coastline, including several national and provincial parks and a water trail segment of Canada’s Great Trail. The “Big Lake” is best for intermediate and advanced sea kayakers. From Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay, you could spend a lifetime exploring Pancake Bay Provincial Park, Lake Superior Provincial Park, Pukaskwa National Park, Neys Provincial Park, the Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area, and Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. If you’re a novice looking to join a group, or require rental kayaks and equipment, reach out to outfitters including Naturally Superior Adventures in Wawa and S.A.N.D. Adventures in Thunder Bay.
The Missinaibi River forms a watery ribbon across Northern Ontario, part of a historic canoe route between Lake Superior and James Bay. Today, it’s recognized as one of Canada’s classic canoe routes, the perfect place for intermediate river trippers to push their skills. The Missinaibi is typically divided into two sections, each requiring 10 to 14 days to complete. Finishing at the remote James Bay community of Moosonee requires a unique train ride south aboard the Ontario Northland Polar Bear Express and the chance to experience Cree cultural traditions at Moose Factory.
Wabakimi and Woodland Caribou
Two vast parks in Ontario’s far northwest provide experienced paddlers with some of the province’s best wilderness canoe tripping. Located northeast of Thunder Bay, Wabakimi Provincial Park is Ontario’s second-largest protected area, with countless options for multi-week canoe adventures. Wabakimi’s waterlogged geography is comprised of equal parts lakes and wild rivers, making for diverse canoeing experiences. Access to such a remote park often requires train travel or chartering a floatplane—or plenty of vacation time. Further west, Woodland Caribou Provincial Park captures the best of the boreal forest: big lakes with excellent fishing opportunities; long-distance portage routes; and intense solitude, accessed via the community of Red Lake. One of Woodland Caribou’s best routes lead west into Manitoba on the scenic Bloodvein River.
Algonquin Provincial Park
There's a good reason Central Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park is a world-renowned canoe tripping destination. The original Ontario Park boasts thousands of kilometres of wilderness canoe routes, ranging from lake tripping to wild rivers, set in an enchanting landscape teeming with iconic Canadian wildlife like moose, wolves and black bear. Of course, this popularity means parts of Algonquin—especially the Highway 60 corridor—tend to be busy in peak season. Algonquin becomes a bonafide bucket list canoe destination if you seek out the park’s more remote access points and plan your trip for the shoulder seasons. Fall is perhaps the best time to visit for Algonquin’s blazing maple forests, crisp nights and solitude; enter via the Magnetewan or Rain Lake access points on the park’s west side and venture into the network of lakes at the headwaters of the Petawawa River. Canoe rentals and guided trips are available from various outfitters in the park’s periphery.
Georgian Bay is a sweetwater sea, its clear waters laced with polished granite islands that create a dreamscape for sea kayakers. Access “the Bay” near the town of Killarney and paddle east, exploring the Philip Edward Island archipelago. Further south, the Bustard Islands at the mouth of the French River are a great destination for advanced paddlers. Near Parry Sound and Killbear Provincial Park, a cluster of islands centred by Franklin Island are perfect for novice touring kayakers. Check out Killarney Outfitters or the Ontario Sea Kayak Centre for rentals and guided trips.
It’s no surprise that paddling opportunities abound on the diverse Lake Ontario shoreline of Canada’s largest city. Toronto features numerous options for paddling day trips, including standup paddleboarding, canoeing and kayaking. East of downtown, Rouge National Urban Park offers great introductory paddling experiences in one of Canada’s newest national parks.
Killarney and French River
Sister parks in Ontario’s Near North offer diverse experiences for canoe tripping. To paddle and portage in the interior of Killarney Provincial Park is to experience the austere landscapes immortalized by Canada’s famous Group of Seven artists. Killarney’s George Lake is a popular access point to view the stunning white quartzite of the La Cloche Mountains. For a wilder experience, launch from the park’s west side and paddle the crystalline waters of Nellie and Grace lakes. Meanwhile, just south of Killarney, the French River boasts some of Canada’s richest Indigenous and fur trade history. A multitude of channels on this age-old watery highway supports loop trips ranging from a weekend to a week, with flatwater options for sea kayaking.
Northeastern Ontario’s Temagami region is legendary amongst wilderness paddlers. It’s home to more youth canoe summer camps than anywhere else on the planet, and features over 2,000 km of ancient canoe routes saturated in Indigenous history. For most canoeists, Temagami represents a wilder, more challenging alternative to places like Algonquin and Killarney. Do your homework and you’ll discover the area is home to a constellation of provincial parks, ranging from Finlayson Point (which features a family-friendly drive-in campground and options for day canoeing and sea kayaking on Lake Temagami’s Northeast Arm) to the remote wilderness of Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater.
Canada’s National Capital Region is home to more than Parliament Hill and great urban attractions. Central to the region is the Ottawa River—one of the world’s finest destinations for whitewater paddling. Multiple outfitters offer one-day whitewater experiences for all levels and riverside accommodations within an easy drive of Ottawa. Or challenge yourself and develop your skills with a whitewater kayak or canoe course from experts at the Madawaska Kanu Centre or Paddler Co-Op, located in the quaint and scenic Ottawa Valley.