The Canadian Canoe Route Road Trip

Canoeing in Canada at OWL Rafting, Ontario.
Canoeing in Canada at sunset near OWL Rafting, Ontario.

The Canadian Canoe has become one of Canada’s most recognized icons. Invented by the Indigenous Peoples of Canada, canoeing in Canada became a tool of diplomacy and cross-cultural collaboration that made the creation of this country possible. Without the canoe, there may not be a “Canada”. After all, how else would the Europeans have explored such a vast and wild country full of rivers and lakes? How else would the voyageurs have travelled across the country trading furs and other goods?

While no longer a major mode of transportation, canoeing still serves as a popular pastime for exploring the vastness of Canada’s rivers and lakes, connecting Canadians to wild places while rewarding determination and hard work.

Now, with the Canadian Canoe Route, you can combine canoeing in Canada and a fun Ontario road trip that connects you with Canada’s past and present on a network of waterways and roads between Toronto and Ottawa. You’ll gain insight into the true “wonder” of the canoe with a hands-on experience that takes place on land and on the water. You’ll learn about the history of Canada and the canoe while also being immersed in nature by paddling your own canoe in flat water and/or whitewater, whitewater rafting, and exploring the Canadian Shield of the Ontario Highlands while enjoying many Canadian Signature Experiences.

Learning how to properly go canoeing in Canada with Madawaska Kanu Centre.
Learning how to go canoeing in Canada with Madawaska Kanu Centre.

The Canadian Canoe Route Itinerary

While you can certainly bend and blend the Canadian Canoe Route itinerary to your travel wishes, or even break it up into multiple trips, the recommended itinerary comprises seven nights of travel, which looks like this:

Day 1 – 2: Drive northeast from Toronto to Elmhirst Lake and spend a night or two next to Rice Lake, a great place to go canoeing in Canada. During your time here, you can also drive to Peterborough to explore the Canadian Canoe Museum and learn all about Canadian canoe culture. Spend two nights at Elmhirst if you can.

Day 3 – 4: Travel to Madawaska Kanu Centre to take part in their one-day Zero-to-Hero paddling course, a course that will truly teach you how to go canoeing in Canada, even in whitewater! Spend the night in one of their rustic cabanas or new glamping tents and enjoy the sights and sounds of being in nature. You may want to spend two nights at Madawaska to maximize your time in the area, or if you really want to become a canoeing or kayaking pro, consider their week-long course.

Day 5: Get back in the car and drive to the Algonquin Way Cultural Centre on Golden Lake, which is home to the world’s largest birch bark canoe. Afterwards, head to OWL Rafting to spend a night or two next to the Ottawa River.

Day 6: Now it’s time for some whitewater adventure in a modern raft. You’ll experience some gnarly rapids, get the chance to body surf down the river, jump off a cliff, and much more, all before enjoying a freshly grilled meal aboard the OWL pontoon boat while watching the Canadian Shield pass by. If you want to do more canoeing in Canada, OWL Rafting provides free canoe “rentals”, allowing you to slip out in the evening for a gentle paddle at sunset.

Day 7: After enjoying breakfast at OWL Rafting, take a short 1.5-hour drive to the nation’s capital to enjoy both the Canadian Museum of History and the Indigenous Experiences offered just behind the museum. If you have even more time, you can either continue to explore Ottawa, take a boat ride on the historic Rideau Canal, or head down to the picturesque little city of Perth for more canoeing in Canada.

Also, if the thought of planning this entire trip yourself sounds daunting, you can reach out to Landsby and inquire about their 7-day Canadian Canoe Route package.

Let’s dive deeper into the itinerary below:

Things to do in Toronto
Toronto is a great place to start the Canadian Canoe Route.

Visit Toronto

While Toronto is not officially part of the Canadian Canoe Route, it is the best starting point. Not only is it home to a major international airport, but it’s also Canada’s largest and most multicultural city. It offers a steep contrast to what Canada looked like when the canoe was the major mode of transportation. Home to hundreds of skyscrapers, the iconic CN Tower, and some of the largest highways in North America, it’s actually quite incredible to see how far we’ve come in such a short period of time. If you’re keen on exploring the city, take a look at our Things to Do in Toronto Travel Guide, which will help you pick and choose from the wide array of activities, attractions, and sights to see.

An early morning canoe paddle in front of Elmhirst's Lodge on Rice Lake.
An early morning paddle in front of Elmhirst’s Lodge on Rice Lake.

Elmhirst’s Resort

Located approximately 160 km east of Toronto, Elmhirst’s Lodge seems worlds apart. A family business for five generations, Elmhirt’s Lodge offers the chance to kick back and relax on the edge of Rice Lake, a perfect place to go canoeing. What better way to kick off the Canadian Canoe Route than to go for a paddle in the wee hours of the morning while catching a glimpse of the sun as it makes its way up over the horizon? Another popular option is to go out at night and paddle under the stars.

The Resort is a mix of family-style cottages and also a farm with ducks, chickens, horses, and cattle. In fact, another benefit of staying at Elmhirst’s Resort is enjoying their farm-to-table cuisine, including Tine Up Tuesdays, which feature live music and Texas-style BBQ. It’s also a wedding venue, spa, and Canadian Signature Experience.

When it comes to Canoeing in Canada, the North Canoe is a big part of Canada's history.
The North Canoe was used by voyageurs to travel across Canada trading goods.

Explore the Canadian Canoe Museum

For obvious reasons, the Canadian Canoe Route road trip just wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the amazing Canadian Canoe Museum. Located in Peterborough and soon being relocated to a stunning new building next to the water, the Canadian Canoe Museum offers the chance to really learn the history of Canada’s original mode of transportation. Home to the largest collection of paddled watercraft in the world, the museum pays homage to traditional boat-building techniques by Indigenous peoples across Canada and modern craft used by today’s Olympic athletes.

The Canadian Canoe and the Canadian Kayak were invented by the Indigenous Peoples of Canada.
There are hundreds of canoes and kayaks to see at the Canadian Canoe Museum.

There are so many different canoes to check out, including beautiful birch-bark canoes, carefully carved dug-outs that were used by people on the West Coast, light-weight kayaks created from sealskin by the Inuit, the big canoes used by the voyageurs, and even the canoe that was used by former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. In addition to history and canoes, another thing that makes this museum special is being able to partake in one of their hands-on workshops, such as making your own canoe paddle! They may even start offering classes on how to actually build a canoe. How cool would that be?

Petroglyphs Provincial Park, Ontario.
The Museum and Visitor Centre at Petroglyphs Provincial Park.

Visit Petroglyphs Provincial Park

While not an official stop on the Canadian Canoe Route, Petroglyphs Provincial Park is in-between the Canadian Canoe Museum and Madawaska Kanu Centre and is home to the largest known concentration of Indigenous rock carvings (petroglyphs) in Canada, depicting turtles, snakes, birds, humans and more.

This site, which is known as “The Teaching Rocks”, is considered sacred and that is why you won’t see any photos or videos of the actual rock carvings. However, you can visit them in person and even take a guided tour with one of the local Indigenous guides to get insight into these ancient carvings and ask any questions you may have.

There’s also a museum where you can learn more about the local Indigenous culture and you can also stop by McGinnis Lake, a bright blue/green lake that is one of only a handful of meromictic (layers of water that don’t intermix) lakes in Canada.

Canadian Canoeing is best learned at the Madawaska Kanu Centre.
Learning how to go canoeing in whitewater at Madawaska Kanu Centre.

Learn to Paddle at Madawaska Kanu Centre

Created by two German immigrants-turned-Canadian Olympic paddlers back in 1972, the Madawaska Kanu Centre has become a Canadian Signature Experience, with some of the best athletes in the world on-hand to teach you how to really paddle a canoe or kayak. People come from all over to learn how to paddle here, oftentimes for an entire week or more, but one of their new offerings as part of this Canadian Canoe Route is their one-day Zero to Hero whitewater canoe course. We did this during our road trip and it was such a wonderful experience. Not only was our instructor amazing, but we were able to basically jam 3-4 days’ worth of instruction in one day, although this likely depends on your abilities. Either way, the goal of the program is to teach you how to operate the canoe efficiently, using techniques such as cross-bows and “eddy turns” during the morning class before taking you down the river in the afternoon to paddle through Class I-II rapids.

The resort itself is rustic, yet charming, with all sorts of accommodation options ranging from lodge-style rooms, dorm rooms, cabanas, camping options, and glamping tents. While taking any of the courses, meals are included and the Lower Madawaska River is walking distance away. You’ll really feel like a Canadian after spending some time here!

Visit the Algonquin Way Cultural Centre

Since the Indigenous Peoples of Canada have roamed the land, waterways, and riverbanks since time immemorial, not to mention being the founders of the canoe and kayak, it makes sense to learn about their culture along the way. Thankfully, not far from Madawaska Kanu Centre is Algonquin Way Cultural Centre (Omàmiwininì Pimàdjwowin). Here you can gain insight into the Algonquin People, including a look at the world’s largest birch bark canoe and admiring a variety of objects and artifacts such as dance regalia and ancient stone tools, all the while flowing through the building in a circular motion that follows the Anishinabe Seven Fires Prophecy. This cultural centre was created in 2000 as a way for Algonquians to revive, protect and share their cultural traditions.

Paddle the Ottawa River in a modern raft with OWL Rafting.
The Ottawa River is home to some big rapids, which are great for modern rafts.

Explore the Ottawa River with Owl Rafting

After learning about the history of the canoe as well as how to paddle one, it’s time to change things up and jump in a raft to head down the massive Ottawa River for some true Canadian fun. Whether you’re looking for low, medium, or high intensity, OWL Rafting has something for everyone. This full-day whitewater rafting excursion will take you through the Canadian Shield while featuring some massive rapids, body surfing, cliff jumping, and so much more. The guides are always such a blast and fun is practically guaranteed. In fact, that’s one of the things we’ve really noticed at OWL Rafting. After rafting with them in 2017 and again in 2022, we recognized almost all of the staff. Everyone just loves being here and is truly excited to take people out on the river. As an added bonus, when the trip ends in a calm lake, you’ll get transported back to the lodge on their signature pontoon boats, traversing the historical route of the First Nations, Voyageurs, and Log Drive, while enjoying a delicious grilled buffet.

The lodge itself is also such a great place to hang out and spend the night (or two or three). Not only do they offer cabins, camping, and glamping, but they also have a lovely waterfront setting with beach volleyball, frisbee golf, a fire pit, and complimentary use of canoes, kayaks, and paddle-boards. There’s a reason this has become a Canadian Signature Experience!

Learn all about the Canadian canoe and more with Indigenous Experiences in Ottawa.
Learning about the Birchbark Canoe via Indigenous Experiences at the Canadian Museum of History.

Indigenous Experiences at the Canadian Museum of History

Located just located behind the Canadian Museum of History, near a site once used by Indigenous Peoples as a trading post, and as a place of friendship and celebration, Indigenous Experiences is an immersive encounter that brings Indigenous history and culture to life through engaging, authentic and interactive programming for visitors of all ages.

During our visit, a couple of local Indigenous cultural ambassadors toured us around the site while teaching us about their culture and history and showing us objects and artifacts such as animal furs, their traditional housing techniques, how a birch-bark canoe is made, and much more. It was incredibly hot outside that day but they still gave us a light demonstration of some of their dancing as well.

They offer other types of tours as well, including an experience within the Canadian Museum of History, which featured a guided Indigenous tour of the Grand Hall, the First Peoples Hall, the Canadian History Hall, and more. Visit the Indigenous Experiences website to learn more.

One of the best Ottawa museums is the Canadian Museum of History.
Even the building of the Canadian Museum of History is beautiful.

Visit the Canadian Museum of History

As Canada’s most popular museum, the Canadian Museum of History is truly a work of art. There’s no better place to learn about the history of Canada, with a number of spectacular ongoing exhibitions, such as the Grand Hall, which is home to a stunning collection of totem poles, and the First Peoples Hall, which celebrates the history, diversity, creativity, resourcefulness and endurance of Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples, and the Canadian History Hall, which unveils the events, personalities and historical currents that have shaped Canada — from time immemorial to the present day.

Of course, there are many more incredible exhibits, as well as the Canadian Children’s Museum, a 500-seat theatre and the CINÉ+, a 295-seat movie theatre equipped with a giant 3D screen and a giant dome. During our visit, we were able to watch the Great Bear Rainforest, which offers a fascinating glimpse into the spirit bear, a subspecies of the North American black bear that has white fur due to a rare genetic trait.

In addition to the 25,000 square metres of display space, the architecture of the building is also something to admire and the views of the Parliament Building, which is right across the river, are hard to beat.

At the end of the Canadian Canoe Route Road Trip is the great Rideau Canal in Ottawa.
The Rideau Canal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Explore the Rideau Canal

One of the top attractions in Ottawa is the Rideau Canal, the oldest continuously operating canal in North America. A National Historic Site, a Canadian Heritage River and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 202-kilometre-long waterway is made up mostly of rivers and lakes, with 19 kilometres of man-made canals, divided into sections by 45 locks. If you’re short on time, you can a great glimpse into the Rideau Canal right next to the Fairmont Château Laurier, or if you have some time to spare, it’s a wonderful experience to paddle portions of it by renting a canoe at Jones Falls or Chaffey’s Lock. This would really add to your “canoeing in Canada” experience. However, another option is to take a boat tour with Le Boat.

Perth, Ontario is a great place to visit on the Canadian Canoe Route and the Tay River is excellent for canoeing in Canada.
Paddle the Tay River while visiting Perth, Ontario.

Go Canoeing in Perth

Another side-trip option is travelling an hour south and staying in the charming little town of Perth, which is home to a picturesque heritage downtown core filled with century-old stone buildings and the Tay River, which is connected to the Rideau Canal. For an added experience, you could actually travel here by boat from Ottawa, using the locks that have made the Rideau Canal such a famous attraction. While in Perth, we highly recommend renting a canoe from Perth Major Outfitters and paddling the Tay Canal. This narrow waterway is such a pleasant place to go canoeing in Canada, especially in the morning when a thin layer of mist hovers above the water. You can paddle in through the downtown area while admiring some of the beautiful riverside homes, or you can also head in the opposite direction towards the Perth Wildlife Reserve and Tay Marsh, both of which are a great way to end your time on the Canadian Canoe Route.

During our time in Perth, we stayed at The White House Inn, a heritage home that is part of the Best Western Plus Perth Parkside Inn & Spa. This is a great place to stay as you can either enjoy the heritage home or the modern hotel, while also enjoying amenities such as free hot breakfast, fitness centre, pool, and spa.

OWL Rafting is a great place to spend a couple of nights while you go canoeing in Canada and rafting on the Ottawa River.
An aerial view of OWL Rafting Resort near Ottawa, Ontario.

The Canadian Canoe Route Passport

Before you embark on this fabulous Canadian road trip, don’t forget to download and print out your Canadian Canoe Route Passport. You can fold it up or cut it up and make it into a passport to bring along with you, scoring stamps along the way that will turn it into a memorable souvenir of an experience you’ll never forget. The passport also features some insight into the trip itself, as well as the main stops along the way while providing a fun way of checking off the “bucket list” during your road trip. You can also extend your trip with many other amazing adventures by visiting the website of Destination Ontario.

Want More Things to Do?

As one of the largest provinces in Canada, there’s so much more to Ontario. Whether you’re looking to go canoeing in Canada, fly over one of the world’s most famous waterfalls, or explore Canada’s largest city, we’ve got you covered with our many Ontario travel guides.

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