Algonquin was founded in 1893 and is the oldest provincial park in Ontario. Since its inception, it has held a large place in the hearts and minds of Canadians. It was here that some of the country’s most influential artists found their calling, especially the muse of Tom Thomson, who was long considered Canada’s most important landscape painter. Long considered the unofficial border between southern and northern Ontario, the fall colors in Algonquin Provincial Park are pretty much the best you will ever find. Whether you “look at the leaves” on foot, by bike, boat or car – you are guaranteed spectacular views. The park’s hiking and canoeing routes are legendary. There is only one small problem:
Everyone – and I mean everyone – knows Algonquin Park.
If there is any opposite to the proverbial “hidden gem” it is Algonquin Park. The park is famous, popular, and easy to visit from Toronto to Ottawa. That means crowds – and many of them – during peak hours, even when the fall colors are at their best. Crowds are annoying at the best of times, but in times of COVID and social distancing, they’re downright uncomfortable. The Provincial Park staff ameliorating some of these problems by introducing a daytime reservation system that is no different from that used for reserving overnight campsites. But there is an even better solution: visit nearby parks instead. All of these parks offer incredible ways to see the fall colors, with a fraction of the Algonquin crowds. In fact, you might only have a few trails all to yourself. Here are some of the best to check out.
(Fiona M. Donnelly / Shutterstock)
1. Sharbot Lake Provincial Park
The Ridgeview Trail in Sharbot Lake Provincial Park is small (only a third of a mile) but powerful. The trail includes a short steep climb, but the few minutes of exertion are well worth it to reach the summit and enjoy the spectacular views. You will be rewarded with a fantastic view over the lake and if you have a keen eye you will discover cute little houses on the opposite bank. In early autumn you can see the autumn colors up close and all around on the path, while towards the end of the season, when a lot of leaves have fallen, the colors can still be seen on distant hills. This is also a popular paddling spot if you want to admire the change of season from the water.
2. Murphy’s Point Provincial Park
If you’re looking to add a little history and adventure to your fall foliage viewing, Murphy’s Point Provincial Park is the ideal destination. While the park has plenty of paddling and hiking routes for those looking for a physical challenge, the gentle stroll to the old Silver Queen Mine (less than 1.5 miles) is a must. This flat, easy walk has beautiful views of the trees (and is great for bird watching – spotted a woodpecker and a hawk on my last hike there), but the real star is the old mine and labor camp at the end of the trail . They can only be visited during the guided tours organized by the park. You’ll put on construction workers’ helmets to learn how minerals like mica were once mined in the area. On the way back, the Beaver Pond Trail is a nice alternative and takes you past wetlands. (Note that in some areas the trail is partially obscured by large rocks sticking awkwardly from the ground. If you have tricky ankles, go back the way you came on the Silver Queen trail).
Pro tip: Both Sharbot Lake Provincial Park and Murphy’s Point Provincial Park are 30 minutes’ drive from the city of Westport. This lovely lakeside community feels like the setting of a Hallmark movie, and there are lots of cute shops around. After your hike, it’s worth a visit, as well as the nearby Scheuermann winery (home to wood-fired pizzas, which are highly recommended) and the Foley Mountain Conservation Area. Foley’s is home to several gentle hiking trails as well as a fantastic lookout point to admire the fall colors.
Canadian Parliament Buildings across the Ottawa River (Facto Photo / Shutterstock)
3. Driftwood Provincial Park
Tiny Driftwood Provincial Park is just a few miles from the northern boundary of Algonquin Provincial Park and is dwarfed by its mega-neighbor. But it should by no means be overshadowed. This particular spot is on the water (that’s Quebec, which you see across the Ottawa River), making it the ideal place for paddling. The 1.5 mile (medium difficulty) Beaver Pond Trail is steep in sections, but its panoramic views of the river and foliage are well worth the effort.
(Wildnerdpix / Shutterstock)
4. Samuel De Champlain
It’s hard to pick a winner, but Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park is perhaps the best place to see the fall colors across Ontario. This dazzlingly beautiful park offers incredible hikes, including the gentle Wabashiki Trail (an easy 0.6 mile loop that allows visitors to explore the swamp across a peninsula in the middle of Moore Lake). At the other end of the spectrum, when it comes to distance and exertion, the Etienne System Trails offer a variety of loops, all of which are strenuous, with the longest driveway of 5 miles. Those who explore by canoe will enjoy everything from motor-free lakes flanked by cliffs to challenging rapids and views of waterfalls. As if that wasn’t enough, the park is also a prime place to see bald eagles.
Pro tip: The town of North Bay is only 30 minutes away and is the ideal place to stock up on camping groceries, outdoor gear and all the classic goodies for fall adventures: craft beer, pumpkin spice latte and delicious baked goods. Visit the Gateway City Brewery. His Twiggs Fire Tower brew uses coffee from the local Twiggs roaster. You can have your specialty coffees at Twiggs along with a road trip-friendly breakfast (like a Montreal-style bagel with cream cheese, dill, and hot banana peppers – yum!)
(Kylee Majoros / Shutterstock)
Restoule Provincial Park has an excellent reputation as a mountain bike destination. If you fancy an adventurous way of enjoying the seasonal colors, this is it! But there is also a lot for hikers here. The Fire Tower Trail (2.5 miles) is steep at times and with uneven terrain, not exactly the kind of route you would tackle in flip-flops. You will need some proper walking shoes here. The path leads hikers over flat forest paths, boardwalks and rocky paths and rewards them with breathtaking lake views from above. Unfortunately, you can’t climb the fire tower of the same name yourself, but that’s okay. Take a moment to catch your breath on the ground while admiring the deep blue glittering water. (As an added bonus, autumn is the perfect time to explore this route as it is famous for buggy travel in spring and on humid summer days).
Those who like it a little quieter will appreciate the River Trail. At just under a mile, it’s the perfect waterfront getaway.
(kentaylordesign / Shutterstock)
If you’re traveling with kids and pets, Mikisew Provincial Park is the perfect fall destination. It’s fantastic for bird watching (home to more than 90 species), fishing (especially for walleye, perch, perch, and pike), and paddling (stand-up paddle boards can be rented). But there are some fun activities that you won’t find in every provincial park. Take the 18-hole disc golf course, for example. Designed for beginners and intermediate players alike, this game uses rules similar to golf, but instead of using the ball and club, use your hands to aim a plastic disc at a target. In addition, the park has both a pet-friendly beach and a rare, off-leash animal area (which is fenced for safety). It’s the perfect provincial park if you want to both enjoy the fall colors and let off some steam.
(Giancarlo Piccin / Shutterstock)
7. Lake St. Peter
Similar to Driftwood, Lake St. Peter Provincial Park is a neighbor of Algonquin. The southeast arm of Algonquin Provincial Parks is just a few miles from Lake St. Peter. This pretty little park is a top destination for serious hikers – and serious fans of fall colors. Both the Lookout Trail (which takes about 1.5 hours) and the Cabin Trail (2 hours) are classified as “strenuous”. The Cabin Trail branches off from the Lookout Trail. So if you do both in one day, you will get quite a workout ahead of you. And quite a view too! As the name suggests, the Lookout Trail offers impressive views. And the Cabin Trail has some interesting views, including an abandoned log cabin. Today only a few fragile timbers remain from a beautiful forest reserve.
Lake St. Peter Provincial Park is also the northern end of the Hastings Heritage Trail. The trail is just over a mile from the park and is open year-round to hikers, cyclists, horse riders, skiers, dog sledding, snowmobiling, and recreational vehicles. Note that if you are camping on Lake St. Peter, your camping permit allows free use of Algonquin and Silent Lake Provincial Parks (if space permits) – perfect for more fall adventures!
Other Canadian National Parks To Consider: