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 of canoe guiding in the near north, I’ve discovered there are some truly incredible destinations for backcountry camping in Ontario.
So in this post, I’ll introduce you to a few of my favourites. I also recommend checking out the resources linked throughout the post, which go into a ton of depth on backcountry camping in Ontario.
- Georgian Bay Islands
- French River
- Spanish River
- Missinaibi River
- Kawartha Highlands
- Lower Madawaska
Backcountry Camping in Ontario – A Resource for Finding Routes
The following destinations each offer numerous options for canoeing, hiking and kayaking routes. If you find a destination you’re interested in visiting, I encourage you to search for it on this resource to find trip reports and route maps for that destination.
Algonquin Provincial Park
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.
Algonquin Park Canoe Routes
- Canoe Lake to Burnt Island Lake (3 days / 38 km)
- Canoe Lake to Sunbeam Lake Loop (4 days / 38 km)
- Petawawa River: Travers Lake to McManus Lake (4 days / 49 km)
- Opeongo Lake to Canoe Lake (6 days / 58 km)
Algonquin Park Backpacking Routes
- Western Uplands Backpacking Trails: Loops 1 & 2 (4 days / 58 km)
- Highland Backpacking Trail (3 days / 35 km)
Read more: How to Get Started in Whitewater Canoeing
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Killarney Provincial Park
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). You’ll want to reserve campsites 5-6 months in advance. There are a limited number of lakes and Killarney is very popular.
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.
Killarney Canoe Routes
- Bell Lake to David Lake and Silver Peak (3 days / 20 km)
- George Lake to Kakakise Lake (4 days / 54 km)
- Johnny Lake to George Lake (12 days / 94 km)
Killarney Backpacking Routes
Georgian Bay Islands National Park
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 is 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.
The French River is a beautiful and historic river north of Georgian Bay. It begins at Lake Nipissing and then flows southwest, constricting to form several rapids and gorges along the way. As you approach Georgian Bay, however, the river widens into several channels and from here you can choose your own adventure. The current slows such that it resembles flat water, and as such, can be paddled in either direction. This makes it easy to plan a canoe trip with a loop.
Along the French River, you’ll find gorgeous campsites and white granite hilltops, sparkling water and blazing sunsets. Campsites are well-maintained, though the popularity of the river has made it victim to some abuse (you’ll likely find signs of other campers, like trash in the fire pit or a leftover clothesline). Despite this, the French River is an incredible piece of backcountry camping in Ontario without being too far away.
French River Canoe Routes
- French River: Wolsley Bay to Dry Pine Bay (4 days / 42 km)
- West Channel Loop (3 days / 52 km)
- Lake Nipissing to Hartley Bay (8 days / 172 km)
The photos below were taken by Pete Parke who made the most incredible film about the French River. You can watch it here.
I like to think of the Spanish River as a sister to the French. The Spanish River is also located north of Georgian Bay, though further west than the French, flowing south into the bay. There are two sources for the Spanish: Duke Lake on the east and Biscotasi Lake on the west. Each branch flows south from their respective lake and meet each other at The Fork, combining into one river.
When planning a trip on the Spanish River, you’ll need to decide between the East Branch and the West Branch. The East Branch is better for novice whitewater paddlers, as there are fewer and smaller rapids. The East Branch is also accessible by car from Highway 144. The West Branch offers more exciting whitewater and must be accessed by the train which runs parallel to the river.
Both branches offer beautiful scenery, well-maintained campsites, and quiet wilderness. Of all the near-north paddling, the Spanish River is one of the least busy routes I’ve done in a long time.
Spanish River Canoe Routes
- West Branch: Sinker Creek to Agnew Lake (5 days / 130 km)
- East Branch: Duke Lake to Agnew Lake (7 days / 145 km)
Missinaibi Provincial Park
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.
If you don’t have the skills for the Missinaibi self-guided, I highly recommend going with MHO adventures. My family took one of their trips last year (as paying clients) and it was amazing. Their Upper Missinaibi route is an awesome trip.
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 lifetime!
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.
Missinaibi Canoe Routes
Read more: 7 Reasons to Canoe the Missinaibi River
Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park
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 – the perfect dessert for your first night in the woods!).
With so many lakes, the park is better suited for canoe camping. Campsites can book 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 (photo credits to him!).
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.
Kawartha Canoe Routes
- Serpentine Lake Loop (3 days / 21 km)
- Buzzard Lake Loop (3 days / 20 km)
- Wolf Lake to Crab Lake (2 days / 10 km)
Lower Madawaska River Provincial Park
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 is what you’re keen to do, this is a great river to canoe.
Madawaska Canoe Route
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 another region of the park.
Temagami Canoe Routes
- Montreal River to Ishpatina Ridge (4 days / 68 km)
- Matagamasi Lake to Wolf Lake (4 days / 37 km)
- Sturgeon River – Lady Evelyn – Solace Loop (4 days / 97 km)
- Temagami Lake to Florence Lake Loop (8 days / 150 km)
Quetico Provincial Park
Quetico is a large provincial park west of Sudbury. I’ve never been myself (well, I visited as a young kid but I don’t remember much), 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!
Quetico Canoe Routes
Backcountry Camping in Ontario – Final Thoughts
Ontario has a ton of incredible places for backcountry camping. My personal favourites are Killarney and the Missinaibi River, but any of these destinations would make for an excellent camping trip!