10 Top-Rated Ontario Parks: Exploring Ontario's Great Outdoors

Ontario is home to beautiful, pristine lakes, rivers, and forests, which are made easily accessible by the provincial and national parks spread across the province. Families often enjoy the front country campgrounds, many of which are located on popular lakes with beaches. Those looking to hike and canoe will find a range of trails and waterways through spectacular scenery, some of it within an easy drive from the main cities of Southern Ontario. Backcountry enthusiasts looking for remote wilderness adventures may want to head further afield to the areas north and west of Lake Superior in Northwestern Ontario. For park reservations and details on current events in the parks visit the Ontario Provincial Parks or the National Parks of Canada websites.

1 Algonquin Provincial Park

Algonquin Provincial Park
Algonquin Provincial Park

Algonquin Provincial Park, just three hours north of Toronto, offers easy access to Ontario's beautiful wilderness. The lakes and forests, home to black bears, wolves, moose, and deer, provide great opportunities for canoeing, hiking, and camping. Because of its many waterways, Algonquin Provincial Park is particularly popular with canoeists and offers backcountry camping. There are more than 1,600 kilometers of rivers and lakes marked out for those keen on this sport.

The park is a particular favorite in autumn when tourists come to see the colorful display of red, orange, and yellow leaves. Another popular activity in the park is the nighttime wolf howl, when visitors can join a tour and call to wolves and listen to them howl back.

The Algonquin Art Centre, located at Km 20 near the main campgrounds in the park, is a must see for visitors interested in nature and Canadian art. The center is housed in a beautifully restored stone building. There is also a visitor center with all the latest information on the trails and campgrounds.

2 Bruce Peninsula National Park and Fathom Five National Marine Park

Flowerpot Island
Flowerpot Island Lana Law

Just outside Tobermory are Bruce Peninsula National Park and the Fathom Five National Marine Park on the shores and waters of Georgian Bay. Bruce Peninsula National park features lovely coves for swimming, dramatic cliffs, beaches, and walking trails. Also unique to the park are very rare orchids and all kinds of wildlife, especially amphibians.

Fathom Five National Marine Park, north of Tobermory, is the site of more than a dozen shipwrecks, of which some are heavily overgrown. These, together with the extraordinarily clear waters make the Marine Park a hot spot for divers and underwater photography. Another most unusual attraction is the so-called Flowerpot, a rock pillar in the shape of a huge vase, located on Flowerpot Island. Cruising to the island on excursion boats that leave from Tobermory, visitors can see sunken boats along the way.

The nearby town of Tobermory is a picturesque little fishing village with half-timbered houses and secluded coves at the northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula, - geologically speaking a foothill of the Niagara Escarpment - which separates Georgian Bay from Lake Huron itself. Due to the seasonal nature of tourism in the area, many of the establishments here are only open during the summer months.

3 Killarney Provincial Park

Killarney Provincial Park
Killarney Provincial Park Lana Law

About an hour's drive from Sudbury, but to the southwest, lies the 363-square-kilometer Killarney Provincial Park. This area bordering on Georgian Bay is still a part of the Canadian Shield, and includes the white La Cloche mountains and many inland lakes. Pink granite rock cliffs lining the shore provide an interesting contrast against the white mountains behind. This area is also associated with members of the Group of Seven, the famous Canadian artists who painted landscapes of the area and were instrumental in persuading the government to establish the park.

The area offers spectacular hiking trails. While most of these are just day hikes, the 80-kilometer La Cloche Silhouette loop trail is a multi-day hike through the forest to more remote lakes. The park is also a popular canoeing location. There is a drive-up campground on George Lake, but there are also many backcountry campsites for those venturing further afield in canoes or on the hiking trails.

4 Bon Echo Provincial Park

Bon Echo Provincial Park
Bon Echo Provincial Park Ryan M.

Bon Echo Provincial Park is a popular family park with a large campground, sand beach, and beautiful setting. The main campground on Mazinaw Lake looks across to the 100-meter-high cliffs of Mazinaw Rock. Visitors can take a tour boat here from the campground and walk up a long set of stairs and a path to the top of the rock for extensive views over the whole area. The tour boat also continues on to other points of interest, particularly native pictographs along the rock wall. On rainy days, the boat passes close to the waterfalls cascading down the huge rock face. Many people also enjoy kayaking and canoeing out to the rock.

5 Point Pelee National Park

Point Pelee National Park
Point Pelee National Park

Point Pelee National Park is at the southernmost point on the Canadian mainland, forming an almost triangular peninsula which juts out into Lake Erie. It has long been famous as a resting place on the path of many migratory birds, which led to it being named a "Wetland of International Significance" by UNESCO. As a result it is extremely popular with birders, who can stroll the extensive boardwalks running through marshland or wander along the beaches. It's also possible to kayak through the wetlands. The most popular time to visit the park is during the spring and fall migration period. In addition, the park is also known for the large number of Monarch butterflies that move through the area each year.

6 Quetico Provincial Park

Ottertrack Lake
Ottertrack Lake

In the remote northwestern portion of Ontario, about 160 kilometers west of Thunder Bay, lies Quetico Provincial Park. The pristine lakes and forests of Quetico offer a much different experience than the parks in Southern Ontario, with a vast, open wilderness that sees far fewer visitors. Wildlife is more prevalent, as are fish and solitude. This area extends over more than 4,500 square kilometers and is, for the most part, accessible only by boat, float plane, or canoe. A highway does run through an area of the park providing access to a campground, but this is only one small portion of Quetico. Quetico is part of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Superior National Forest in Minnesota. Many outdoor adventure groups from both Canada and the United States come to the park for multi-day paddling expeditions.

7 Lake Superior Provincial Park

Agawa Rock pictogrpahs
Agawa Rock pictogrpahs

Along the north shore of Lake Superior is the beautiful Lake Superior Provincial Park. Although it is a long way from any major city, it is easily accessible off highway 17, which runs the entire length of the park. The park has several campgrounds, some of which are located along beautiful stretches of sandy beach. Points of interest in the park are the Agawa Rock Pictographs that line a huge cliff wall along the lake. A short hiking trail leads to the water's edge at the base of the cliff, but visitors can only walk out along the shoreline to see the pictographs on calm days when there are no waves. Another great stop for those with limited time is Old Woman Bay. Visitors can pull in here off the main highway to stretch their legs on a huge stretch of soft sand beach and look out to a dramatic cliff wall across the bay.

8 French River Provincial Park

French River Provincial Park
French River Provincial Park

French River Provincial Park covers an area along the French River reaching down to Georgian Bay. This area is almost all backcountry and accessed mainly by boat or canoe. Campsites spread out along the river and on the islands in Georgian Bay. This scenic river, a 112-kilometer-long waterway between Lake Nipissing and Georgian Bay, is about an hour's drive south of Sudbury, or three hours north of Toronto. There is an impressive visitor's center off Highway 69 with views over a section of the river and a nearby pedestrian bridge that crosses over the river.

Historically, the French "voyageurs" and missionaries, Samuel de Champlain among them, plied these waters as far back as 1620. Nowadays the river is very popular with canoeists, anglers, and outdoor enthusiasts. There are numerous fishing and recreational resorts along the river. Some of them are boat or floatplane access only and offer complete packages for fishing, kayaking, or canoeing.

9 Georgian Bay Islands National Park

Georgian Bay Islands National Park
Georgian Bay Islands National Park

The delightful islands of Georgian Bay are part of the Canadian Shield and were shaped by the last Ice Age. This paradise of some 30,000 small islands has long been a magnet for boaters, outdoor enthusiasts, and artists such as Tom Thomson and the "Group of Seven." In 1929, some 59 of the archipelago's islands were designated a National Park. Still virtually unspoiled, they can only be visited by boat. Trips being run from mid-May to October from Honey Harbour, Penetanguishene, and Midland.

10 Petroglyphs Provincial Park

Northeast of Peterborough, Petroglyphs Provincial Park has more native rock carvings than anywhere else in Canada with about 900 that are between 500 and 1000 years old. The rocks that contain the carvings have been covered over with a glass enclosure to protect them from the elements. They are all concentrated in this one small area, making them particularly easy to see. Visitors can walk through this building as well as the visitor center, which is full of information on the drawings.

Practical Tips

  • Reservations for campsites in many of the provincial parks are accepted up to five months in advance. The best locations, particularly during the peak summer months are booked out very early. Some parks, such as French River, do not accept reservations and campsites are available on a first-come first-serve basis. There is a fee for advance reservations.

  • The most desirable campsites in a campground, typically waterfront sites or those with views, are considered premium sites and are more expensive than those rated regular. The least popular are rated low and are the least expensive sites.

  • Yurts are available for rent in some parks. These are on-site tent-like structures with a circular wooden base and fully outfitted with bunk beds and barbeques. There are generally very few of these per park and they should be booked well in advance.

  • Visitors who are not camping can pay a day use fee or buy a seasonal permit for unlimited day use. Some of the most popular parks also have on-site canoe rentals available.

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