Canadian Staycation: 5 Amazing Winter Day Trips in Southern Ontario
Lake Huron at dusk. Photo: Jimfeng/Getty Images
Sure, it’s easy, even convenient to view winter as a time to hibernate and overindulge. All too often, it comes down to a simple pain-pleasure equation with the benefits of reading a book under a cosy blanket outweighing the physical act of putting on clothes, much less the mental capacity needed to get motivated and moving.
But, with a little perspective, winter doesn’t have to be a dreaded off season. In fact, there’s plenty to see, do, eat and experience in and around southern Ontario that will change the way you look at old man winter, and inspire you to appreciate the beauty of the season, and make the most of it.
1. Niagara Region
When I was a kid, members of my extended family would drive up from Florida and visit every summer. We would pack the old station wagon, and with paper maps in hand, crisscross the province. But in 1997, they decided to drive up in January and see Niagara Falls during the winter. It was then that a summer tradition became a winter one.
Narnia. That’s one word to describe the frozen fairytale that is Niagara Falls in winter. Obviously far less crowded, visiting during the colder months will make you giddy knowing that you have them all to yourself. Beyond the falls, “Currents” is an immersive, and interactive sound and light show like no other, while the Winter Festival of Lights is an annual tradition featuring millions of lights illuminating the entire Canadian side along the Niagara Parkway and Dufferin Islands. Head further up the river, and get your heart racing with a hike at Niagara Glen, or take it easier in Niagara-on-the-Lake and enjoy a winery tour and a glass of ambrosia, a.k.a. ice wine. For something very different, head west and visit the historic Gingerbread Houses at Grimsby Beach. Lovely in the summer, they are downright delicious in the winter, thanks to nature’s icing sugar sprinkled on top.
Look beyond its tough, industrial skyline and you’ll discover Hamilton’s softer side. Thanks to its unique location along the Niagara Escarpment, which provides perfect geological conditions for waterfalls to occur, Steeltown is also known as the waterfall capital of the world, proudly home to more than 100 waterfalls.
Exploring them in the winter does present its own set of challenges, but with a bit of planning, dressing for the weather and packing for the terrain, the rewards are worth it. With a drop of more than 100 feet, Devil’s Punch Bowl is among the most popular waterfalls, and features several layers of stratified rock segments dating back more than 450 million years. Albion Falls is a beautiful 62-foot cascade waterfall, while Tiffany Falls is a 69-foot ribbon waterfall and offers visitors platform views of its frozen facade and ancient rock face.
3. Bruce Peninsula
In the summer, the Bruce is ground zero for everyone from hikers to sun worshippers. In the winter, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, winter glamping, and of course winter hiking trails are all open. But there’s one spot within Bruce Peninsula National Park that will make you glad you strapped on your long johns and thick parka.
Indian Head Cove and The Grotto, both popular swimming spots in the warmer months, stand still in the winter. The white boulder beach and caves in this area of the park turn into frozen, crystallized monuments of nature. Exploring here comes with shots of awe and wonder, not only about the magical beauty of the area, but also about Mother Nature’s ability to miraculously transform from an exotic summer wonderland into a majestic winter oasis.
If you go, keep in mind that trails are not maintained in the winter and visitors are urged to use them at their own risk. Proper footwear and gear is essential for a memorable and safe day in the park.
It’s true what they say about Muskoka — once discovered, never forgotten. If you thought this part of southern Ontario was only a summer spot for cottages and boating, think again. This region offers experiences that will get your adrenaline pumping and have you seeing stars, literally.
Who wouldn’t want to fat bike, dog sled, and snowshoe alongside Muskoka’s stunning, rocky terrain dominating the skyline at every turn? Incredible activities abound here, including ice skating on exceptional trails — a winter pastime residents here feel they’ve perfected. The Cranberry Ice Trail in Bala, Ont., is a 1.2km loop around 12 acres of cranberry fields. Après-skate, enjoy a glass of wine or mulled cider at the onsite winery, in front of a rustling fire. Meanwhile, the 1.3 km long Arrowhead Ice Skating Trail meanders through thick forest. Fire and Ice Nights feature tiki torches lighting the way along the trail, making the experience that much more special.
Stargazing, anyone? Torrance Barrens Conservation Area is the world’s first permanent Dark Sky Reserve. Here, the lunar-like landscape is matched with 360-degree views of the actual lunar night sky. Bring your telescopes and see if you can spot the rings of Saturn. If you time it right, you’ll be enthralled with the sight of both the northern lights and Milky Way.
5. National Capital Region
With so much to do, it’s easy to get outside and stay outside here. Home to beautiful museums, delicious grub and a euphoric New Year’s celebration on Parliament Hill, the Ottawa Valley is truly a winter paradise. On my last visit, my goal was to enjoy the season without breaking a leg. Despite my terrible ice skating skills, strapping on a pair of blades and inching along the nearly 8 km long Rideau Canal Skateway in the winter was a bucket list experience proudly accomplished. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a novice or a pro, young or old, this UNESCO World Heritage Site, and world’s largest skating rink, is a perfect winter activity for everyone, accessible 24-7.
For an added bonus, arrive in February and skate the Rideau during Winterlude, a festival that attracts nearly one million visitors annually, and celebrates everything winter. Musical concerts, snow parks, ice lounges, ice slides and even an ice sculpture competition take over almost the entire month, making it an event like no other.
Top off your day at the largest spa on the continent. Located in Chelsea, Que., just 10 minutes from downtown Ottawa, Nordik Spa-Nature is both an indoor and outdoor Scandinavian-style spa and wellness experience that promises to put you in an immediate state of serene zen, complete with spectacular views of the capital region.