Canoe on wilderness lakes, make a splash in Niagara, or spot wildlife in Algonquin Provincial Park – immerse yourself in Ontario's great outdoors with these incredible activities...
Canada, of course, is massive. And Ontario takes up a fair chunk of it. But you don’t have to mount a huge, hardcore expedition to have an adventure here, especially in southern Ontario, where there’s cool fun to be had without any need for privation or long drives. You can hike in seemingly endless forests and play in the innumerable lakes (Ontario means ‘glittering waters’ in Iroquois, after all), but you can also dangle – safely – off a manmade icon, zip about the treetops, paddleboard with beavers and canoe past bears without having to go completely Bear Grylls.
Canada’s most bustling metropolis has plenty of urban razzmatazz. But it serves up wilder thrills too. Take the sky-piercing CN Tower – not only is it Toronto’s highest building, it offers the city’s biggest high: if you dare, don a harness and take an outdoor stroll, 356m up above street-level.
From these giddy heights, you can also see why Toronto is so suited to urban expeditioning. The metropolis sprawls along the north shore of Lake Ontario, an enticing swathe of blue that you might walk or cycle alongside or, better, explore by boat. Hire a kayak or paddleboard to glide right below the skyline or amid the quiet channels and bird-loved lagoons of the largely vehicle-free Toronto Islands.
Thunderous Niagara Falls needs little introduction – though when you arrive at North America’s most powerful cascade, you’ll find there are a multitude of ways of introducing yourself to it.
The classic choice is a cruise into the spray zone, via state-of-the-art catamaran. Add a different slant by sailing at sunrise amid the early-morning mists or at night, when the falls are illuminated in rainbow colours.
You don’t have to get in a boat though. Take an elevator down through the bedrock to get behind the falls and peek through a 13-storey wall of water. Or view the drama from above, either from the cockpit of a Niagara Helicopter or strapped onto the MistRider Zipline, a 670m swoop through the river gorge, with unhindered views.
Don’t miss a trip a little further north to Niagara-on-the-Lake, a charming Victorian town where you’ll find not only browsable boutiques and galleries but the lower half of the Niagara River, with it’s Class 5 whitewater. Hop aboard the Whirlpool Jet Boat to plunge into rapids at 80km/h. Drenching inevitable. Celebrate afterwards with a local tipple. This region – roughly the same latitude as northern Italy – is one of Canada’s best wine-growing areas, with more than 85 vineyards, many of which offer tours and tastings.
If you wanted a tough Ontario adventure, you could take on the Bruce Trail, an 890km hike along the Niagara Escarpment. But for something softer, opt for Blue Mountain, the escarpment’s highest point and Ontario’s most action-packed peak.
There is year-round potential here. In winter, there are downhill slopes, terrain parks, welcome hot pools and plenty of après-ski. In summer, you can hike, bike, fish, climb and paddle. You can spelunk through glacier-carved caves, tear up the terrain in a 4WD Hummer and swim off 14km-long Wasaga Beach, the longest freshwater beach in the world. You can also ride Canada’s only triple zip line, enabling you and your friends to share the 20m-up, 50km/h treetop adventure.
More than 1,500 silky-smooth, forest-fringed lakes dapple the Muskoka region. It’s less a destination than a refreshing balm, a sparkling, soul-soothing spot in which to both chill out and get out. No wonder so many city-dwellers crave a cottage here. However, one of Muskoka’s lovely lakeside resorts will do just as well, providing a base for a multitude of watery hijinks.
Many hotels include canoe, kayak and paddleboard rental in their rates, so you can set off along the shores, keeping an eye out for locals such as porcupine, bobcat and wolf. Or scull down the meandering Muskoka River to South Falls for a swim in its cascade-carved pools. In autumn you can hike amid fabulous fall colours, while in winter you can pull on skates and snowshoes for fairytale forest walks.
Algonquin Provincial Park is the quintessence of Canadian wilderness – a vastness of lakes and rugged ridges swathed in pine and fall-inflamed maple, beech and birch. Yet it’s conveniently close to civilisation, around three hours by car from Toronto. Simply driving along Highway 60, the main road through the park, offers good moose-spotting opportunities. However, the only way to explore the interior is by canoe or on foot.
There are over 2,100km of canoe trails. It’s possible to paddle away from the world for days, catching your own fish supper and camping out in the backcountry. Equally, novice boaters can join shorter but still wilderness-probing guided day trips to float along creeks, inlets and lakeshores, scanning for moose, beaver and loon. There are wolves in these forests too – they’re quite elusive, but if you join a ‘Public Wolf Howl’, on which park rangers imitate the creature’s call, you might hear one howl back.
There are plenty of easy-to-access hiking trails too. For instance, follow the 3km Big Pines Trail to visit the remains of an 1880s logging camp, take the easy Spruce Bog Boardwalk for excellent birdwatching or climb the 2km Lookout Trail for some of the most magnificent views over Algonquin.