It took me a long time to fall in love with our cold winters here in Southeastern Ontario. I used to wait out the winter months, spending the season yearning for warmer weather. I only started enjoying winter after forcing myself to get outside, embrace the cold, and try some new activities. Now, I’m here to tell you that the cold season has its own charms.
Here’s a list of 10 winter activities in Ontario that I hope convince you to give winter a second chance. Many of these can be enjoyed throughout the province, but I’ve offered suggestions on locations I think you’ll love. Let’s get into it.
The camping season doesn’t have to end when winter hits. Many Ontario parks are open to winter campers, including Algonquin, Silent Lake, Pinery, MacGregor Point, Frontenac, Arrowhead, Killarney, Windy Lake, and Sleeping Giant.
While winter camping takes more time and preparation, it has some advantages. Campgrounds are free from crowds, they’re less noisy, and there are plenty of campsites to pick from. You can also leave the bug spray at home, because mosquitoes and other biting insects won’t be a problem.
If you’ve never tried winter camping, Mountain Equipment Coop runs winter camping workshops to get you started. If winter tenting sounds too ambitious, why not rent a cabin, yurt, or winterized treehouse? Many parks offer cabin and yurt rentals, and you can even find winterized accommodations on Airbnb.
Ontario is a great place to start ice skating. If you live near the country’s capital, the Rideau River Skateway is the largest naturally-frozen skating rink in the world! With a little practice, you’ll be jetting along the canal, visiting rest-stops where you can catch your breath, grab something to eat, and get warm by a fire.
Or, maybe you’d prefer to skate among the trees. At Arrowhead Provincial Park you can skate through the beautiful Muskoka forest. Check out their “fire and ice nights” when the skating trail is lit with hundreds of torches. Woodview Mountaintop Skating is another option for forest skating. Choose this destination and you’ll be skating along the Niagara Escarpment. This Blue Mountain resort destination also offers night skates with lit trails.
Take advantage of the long winter nights to try stargazing. Ontario has 6 dark sky preserves located at Bruce Peninsula, Torrance Barrens, Point Pelee, North Frontenac, Lennox and Addington, and Gordon’s Park. These locations offer some of the best stargazing in the province. If you are looking to catch the northern lights, the Great Lakes region is a good bet.
Before heading out, check the weather forecast to make sure that cloud cover won’t be an issue. If you have them, you may want to bring a telescope, blanket, chair, and a thermos filled with your favourite hot drink. Also consider downloading an app that can help you identify stars and constellations.
If you love hiking, you will most certainly love snowshoeing. Algonquin Park is a popular destination for snowshoers with a number of forested trails to explore. You can rent snowshoes at the East and West Gates.
If you are looking for a snowshoe adventure with a spectacular view, visit Kakabeka Falls. This waterfall is the second largest in Ontario and is gorgeous during the winter months. Also known for its spectacular view is the suspension bridge at Scenic Caves Natural Adventures, Ontario’s longest. The bridge gives you a bird’s eye view of the Georgian Bay and surrounding old growth forest.
Explore Lake Superior’s Ice Caves
Lake Superior’s ice caves are on my winter bucket list this year! These beautiful caves form when the frigid waters of Lake Superior hit the shoreline. They are so stunning they made the New York Times list of 52 Places to Go in 2019. A word of caution, because the caves are somewhat unpredictable (and threatened by climate change) it can be difficult to know when and where to find them. Consider hiring a local guide and be safe if you are venturing out on the ice alone.
Learn to Identify Coniferous Trees
Take some time this season to identify your local coniferous trees. If you don’t have a field guide, there are lots of free online resources that can help. Check out the Ontario Tree Atlas and the Ontario Trees and Shrubs guide. Kevin Callan (aka the Happy Camper) also has some YouTube guides for identifying Ontario’s Christmas trees and, if you really want to challenge yourself, identifying deciduous trees in the winter.
If you’ve never tried ice climbing before, Liv Outside offers both beginner and intermediate ice climbing courses in the beautiful Muskoka region. Keep practicing and one day you’ll be ready to tackle some of Ontario’s more challenging ice climbs in the renown Agawa Canyon. Agawa Canyon boasts some of the highest ice climbs in Eastern Canada, up to 200 meters in height. A scenic train ride from Sault Ste. Marie is required to get to the canyon.
While many birds migrate to avoid harsh winters, Ontario has a number of spectacular non-migratory species. If you are new to bird watching, there are guided bird watching tours that can help you identify birds, their habitat, calls, and behaviours. The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority has a list of bird watching events for the upcoming months. If you live in the Ottawa/Gatineau area, you can watch and feed chickadees and nuthatches in Ottawa’s Greenbelt.
An hour’s drive from Toronto, Albion Hills Conservation Area has 27 kilometres of groomed ski trails. With rentals on site and a heated chalet, it’s the perfect place for first-time skiers. There are plenty of beginner friendly trails and some intermediate ones as well.
If you are looking for something more challenging, the Minnesing Wilderness Ski Trail is great for backcountry wilderness skiing. If you want to make an extended trip, you can reserve one of the cabins along the trail. This trail is not groomed, so experience is a must.
Ontario is an amazing location for ice fishing. Depending on your area, you can fish for sturgeon, pike, salmon, perch, trout, and bass. If you’ve never been ice fishing before, there are ice fishing tours which will guide you through the process. Many outfitters offer rental packages which include ice huts and fishing equipment. Some rentals include stoves so that you can cook your catch on site.
For location suggestions, check out Rebekka Redd’s “10 Must Try Ice Fishing Lakes in Ontario.”