Everyone loves to hate Ontario, or as it’s often referred to, On-terrible. Whether it’s our lack of mountains or distance from the ocean (or how the entire province is equated with Toronto), Ontario does not get a good reputation. But, as you guys know, I grew up in this province and have grown rather fond of it over the years. Through many summers canoe guiding in the near north, I’ve discovered there are some truly incredible destinations for backcountry camping in Ontario.
Backcountry Camping in Ontario – Map
As some of the park names might be unfamiliar, I’d created this map to help orient you. I’ve included a lot of destinations on this map. As I visit more of them myself, I’ll add photos and descriptions and grow this post. Note: The waterfall icon means the park is meant for a river canoe trip.
First off, I dare you to find a place with more frequent beautiful sunsets. I went to a camp in the area for 13 years, and it’s the place that introduced me to the wild. The largest island in the park – and the only one you can backcountry camp on – is Beausoleil Island. One thing I love about Beausoleil is that the northern part is composed of Canadian Shield, so the terrain is white and pink-streaked granite, while the southern part is St Lawrence Lowlands and totally flat. And the parts of the island exposed to the windy bay, have the beautiful windswept pine trees I love.
There are eight backcountry campsites on the island (Parks Canada calls these sites ‘primitive’) and you need to hike to your campsite from the boat dock.
This magical piece of wilderness just a 2 hour drive from Toronto and then a 20 minute boat ride. Yet, the added complexity of a boat ride means the park doesn’t get tons and tons of visitors. Nonetheless, you’ll still want to book your campsites and organize your boat shuttle in advance.
Killarney is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. The park is a matrix of lakes, joined through portages. It has white rocky hills, the largest known as Silver Peak (which you can hike for incredible views of the park), and the water ranges from black to Gatorade blue. There were several moments when I had to stop canoeing just to take in my surroundings.
While most visitors to the park spend a weekend here, I’ve had the opportunity to spend almost three weeks (as such, I’ve made a comprehensive guide to camping in the park, which I have linked below).
It’s about 4.5 hours from Toronto, but despite the long drive it is worth it. There are some areas that get pretty busy (like around George Lake). If you’re looking to canoe camp, you’ll want to reserve campsites at 5-6 months in advance. There is only one campsite per lake, which is great for solitude and privacy, but means there are a very limited number of campsites. Even though it can be difficult to secure, backcountry camping in Killarney is one of the best places in Ontario.
Expert Tip: Some routes, like going into Nellie Lake, have a TON of long and rugged portages. I don’t recommend wearing sandals for these – get a decent pair of (preferably closed toe) canoeing shoes. These are my favourites ones.
Missinaibi Provincial Park is hands down the best destination for backcountry camping in Ontario that I’ve personally experienced. I paddled the entirety of the river (all 500+ km of it) over 25 days in 2017. The river is remote and can be a challenging paddle in parts – it is definitely not for the inexperienced. But if you have the skills (or are willing to hire a canoe guide) it is an out-of-this-world experience.
The Missinaibi River starts at Missinaibi Lake, some 7 hours from Toronto, and weaves through the Canadian Shield. Here you will find roaring rapids, exposed granite rock and waterfalls with intimidating names like “Thunderhouse Falls” and “Hell’s Gate”.
After Hell’s Gate, the geography transforms into the Hudson Bay Lowlands, where the river is flat and incredibly straight. Here the pine and spruce trees are short and the sky is large. From here, the Missinaibi flows into the Moose River and eventually empties into the salty waters of James Bay.
It is seriously the trip of a life time!
Expert Tip: Even in the summer, it can get deceivingly cold at night. Remember to dress in layers and have a dedicated pair of sleep clothing. This is what I use.
Read more: 7 Reasons to Canoe the Missinaibi River
Algonquin Provincial Park is likely the most popular destination for backcountry camping in Ontario (possibly all of Canada). The park protects over 7,000 sq. km of wilderness and boasts over 2,000 km of canoe routes. There are also a few long hikes for backpacking. (I recently did the Highland Backpacking Trail and oh my goodness, it was great but it was challenging!)
Due to its size and proximity to Toronto, Algonquin offers a little bit of everything. There are high quality outfitters servicing the park, tons of access points and well maintained portages and campsites. With so many campsites and so much popularity, there are tons of routes where you will cross paths with other paddlers – and if you’re new to canoe camping, this can be perfect. However, if you’d like more solitude, there are also many off-the-beaten path routes in the park as well.
My favourite time to visit Algonquin is in October, when the fall colours are ablaze.
Read more: How to Get Started in Whitewater Canoeing
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After Algonquin, Kawartha Highlands is the largest provincial park in southern Ontario. Stretching across almost 400 sq km of forest, Kawartha Highlands has tons of opportunities for backcountry camping without being too far from Toronto. The drive is about 2 hours (on the way to the park, make a stop at the Kawartha Buttertart Factory at the corner of Highway 28 and Highway 4 – perfect dessert for your first night in the woods!).
With so many lakes, the park is better suited for canoe camping. Campsites can booked on the Ontario Parks reservation system, and while you should definitely book ahead, you don’t need to book as far in advance as Killarney. My fellow Toronto-based blogger, Kevin, wrote a great guide to planning a trip in the Kawartha Highlands that I recommend reading if you’re interested in the park.
If hiking is more to your fancy, there are plenty of trails and crown land camping sites just outside the park too. I really like the area around High Falls, just outside the park to the southeast. Either way, Kawartha offers a little something for everyone and is an excellent destination for backcountry camping near Toronto.
The Lower Madawaska River is a moderately trafficked river in the Ottawa Valley. The fun part starts just upriver to the provincial park, at Palmer Rapids, which is a great place to take a whitewater course if you want to get into whitewater canoeing. From there, the river curves through rugged Canadian Shield and over seriously fun rapids. This is not a river for novice paddlers!
Lower Madawaska Provincial Park is a non-operating park, which means there are “no facilities” and “no activities”. That just means the park isn’t serviced by park staff. There are places to camp along the river and you don’t need to book ahead of secure permits. It isn’t exactly remote and you’ll likely see other people, but if whitewater paddling if what you’re keen to do, this is a great river to canoe.
(Photo credits to my friend Taylor who now lives along the river full time – the dream!)
Temagami is a large region consisting of both crown land and several provincial parks for a combined total of ~16,000 sq. km. That’s the size of Belgium! Temagami is also home to Ishpatina Ridge; at 693 m, this is the highest point in Ontario.
Temagami is the epitome of canoe camping in Ontario – a vast network of interconnected lakes and rocky terrain. Unlike Killarney or Algonquin, Temagami has less developed campsites because it is not actively managed by Ontario Parks. Instead, a wonderful non-profit organization called The Friends of Temagami volunteer their time to maintain the area and advocate for its protection.
For the intermediate canoeist, Temagami offers a more rugged wilderness experience.
I’ve had the pleasure of spending a month in Temagami. When I was fifteen I did a two week canoe trip here, and this was my first introduction to real canoe tripping. Four years later I returned to lead a group of camping for another two week canoe trip in other region of the park.
Read more: A Beginner’s Guide to Canoe Camping
Quetico is a large provincial park west of Sudbury. I’ve never been myself, but my canoeist friends are always raving about it. One such friend – Ashley from Canoe The North – was kind enough to write a few lines about Quetico and what makes it so incredible.
“One of our favourite Ontario camping destinations is Quetico Provincial Park. This is a challenging park for multi-day trips. Unlike most provincial parks, the campsites and portages here are not marked, so map and compass skills are a must! What we love about this destination is that there is so much to explore; 4655 square km in total. If you are looking for solitude and a true Ontario wilderness experience, this is it! Difficult way-finding and portaging is thoroughly rewarded by Quetico’s beautiful campsites, breathtaking scenery, and phenomenal fishing. This Ontario destination is a must for lovers of the outdoors, especially paddlers!”
Seems like a winner to me!
What’s your favourite spot for backcountry camping in Ontario?
Anywhere you would add to the list?