Travel

The Most Beautiful Places in Ontario You Never Knew About

Time to move beyond Niagara.

Thousand Islands National Park
Thousand Islands National Park | benedek/E+/Getty
Thousand Islands National Park | benedek/E+/Getty
Note: We know COVID-19 is impacting travel plans right now. For a little inspiration, we’ll continue to share stories from our favorite places around the world so you can keep daydreaming about your next adventure.

You wouldn’t roll into Utah and assume it's just one big salty lake, and you wouldn’t judge the Rocky Mountains based on a connecting flight in Denver. So why do so many non-residents think that the massive Ontario -- a province so big it could eat Texas and then have Montana for desert -- starts and stops with Niagara Falls and Prince Edward County

Those places are great, but there’s still the matter of Ontario’s other 415,600 square miles of landmass along four Great Lakes and the Hudson Bay. To help course correct, we put the spotlight on 15 places around Ontario that deserve a look, ranging from dark sky expanses to canyons and nigh-mythical shorelines. You’ll never look at Niagara the same again. 

MORE: Don’t forget to fall in love with Toronto while you’re here

Cheltenham Badlands
Cheltenham Badlands | VDV/Shutterstock

Cheltenham Badlands

Caledon
The closest you might come to living out your space travel fantasies and feeling as if you’re exploring Mars would have been a trip to the Cheltenham Badlands. The area, just northwest of Toronto, is currently closed due to COVID, is a sea of undulating red hills and iron-rich Queenston shale. The shale was deposited 445 million years ago and the shape it takes now is thanks to questionable farming practices in the 1900s that led to erosion of the red shale bedrock.
MORE:  Check out this collection of Canada’s most beautiful places

 Bruce Peninsula Shoreline
Cave at Bruce Peninsula Shoreline | Claire Smith/500px/500Px Plus/Getty

Cyprus Lake Grotto

Bruce Peninsula National Park
If you’ve never been swimming or snorkeling inside a cave, add it to your bucket list. One of the most beautiful spots to do it is at Cyprus Lake Grotto, a massive cave that was carved out by the relentless pounding of waves from Georgian Bay over thousands of years. It’s a short 30-minute hike to the grotto along the Georgian Bay Trail in this stunner of a national park on Lake Huron, but getting into the grotto involves climbing down about 12 meters over a rocky open cliff. It’s well worth the effort for the crystal-clear water and feeling like you just landed on another planet.

Flowerpot Island

Tobermory
Just off the coast of Bruce Peninsula town Tobermory in Fathom Five National Marine Park, you’ll find one of the most unique attractions in Ontario. Flowerpot Island is named for the two towering rock formations known as sea stacks that kind of look like they belong in a florist’s shop for giants. Standing at just over 18 meters, the rugged formations look like they could be remnants of a long-since-washed-away medieval castle. The island itself is only accessible by boat, and there are campsites and hiking trails.

Red Mill in St.Catherines
Waterfalls near Red Mill in St. Catherines | Ernest L Photography/Shutterstock

Decew Falls

St. Catharines
Located on the outskirts of St. Catharines due west of Niagara, Decew Falls cascade 22 meters in a veil of water you can actually walk behind if you can make the steep climb into the gorge. Getting down is one thing, getting up is another: people have legit needed rescuing in order to get out. One of them was reportedly not entirely sober (surprise!), so you know, don’t drink and descend waterfalls.

Ouimet Canyon

Dorion
Geologists believe Ouimet was created 1 billion years ago when glaciers came through Northern Canada, essentially cracking the earth wide open. That would explain why way down at the bottom of this 100-meter-deep canyon there are rare arctic plants thriving when they would normally only be found about 1,000 kilometers north. The canyon itself is pretty spectacular, and at 2 kilometers long and 150 meters wide it’s hard not to be awed by the size. A short hike gets you to the viewing platform for the obligatory photos of the view.
MORE:  How does it compare to the Grand Canyon, though?

Bonnechere Caves in Eganville, Ontario
Bonnechere Caves in Eganville, Ontario | Darlene Munro/Shutterstock

Bonnechere Caves

Eganville
Originally formed at the bed of a tropical sea, these limestone caves date back hundreds of millions of years -- basically, dinosaurs even considered them ancient. The winding complex of tunnels near the Ottawa border was caused by erosion from acidic waters and these eerily beautiful tunnels contain stalactites and tons of prehistoric fossils. Some tunnels are particularly narrow so take note if you’re uncomfortable with a tight squeeze.

Hamilton, Ontario
Hamilton, Ontario | Aivoges/Shutterstock

Webster’s Falls

Hamilton
This waterfall happens to be one of the most beautiful in the Hamilton area, and that’s saying a lot because there are OVER 100 waterfalls in this area near the shores of Lake Ontario. They don’t call it the City of Waterfalls for nothing. Webster’s Falls also happens to be the site of some filming of the 2005 sci-fi movie Descent starring Luke Perry, which you’ve probably never heard of. The tiered fall plunges 22 meters and is one of the largest in the area.

1000 Islands

Gananoque
Located along the border between Northern New York State and Southeastern Ontario, the 1000 Islands are actually an archipelago of 1,864 islands, so someone miscounted. Either way, the area is one of the most scenic in Ontario. But it wasn’t always so serene. These waterways were once patrolled by pirates, who then gave way to bootleggers in the Prohibition era. Now though, it’s just a really pretty place to spend a few days.

La Cloche Mountains

Northern Ontario
Being a relatively flat province, mountains aren’t something you see a lot of around these parts. But what makes the La Cloche Mountains so striking is the fact that they’re composed of sparkling white quartzite, kinda like someone spray-painted with a subtle coat of glitter. One of the best places to see them is Killarney Provincial Park, and if you really want to spend some quality time with these mountains you can tackle the 100-kilometer La Cloche Silhouette loop trail.

Mazinaw Rock

Cloyne
Bon Echo Provincial Park -- a southeastern Ontario gem in its own right -- is home to the Mazinaw Rock. This is not some ordinary, run-of-the-mill rock, but a 1.5-kilometer-long sheer granite rock face that towers 100 meters above Mazinaw Lake. Mazinaw Rock gets points for sheer awe-inspiring size, but it also happens to feature over 260 indigenous pictographs, one of the largest collections of its kind in Canada.

Agawa Canyon, Ontario
Train over Agawa Canyon, Ontario | Russ Heinl/Shutterstock

Agawa Canyon

Sault Ste. Marie
As in New England, leaf peeping is like a sport in Ontario, and Agawa Canyon is the perfect place to play. The most popular way to explore the 1.2 billion-year-old fault is the 180km train tour from Sault Ste. Marie -- right across from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula -- which features spectacular views of gushing waterfalls and pristine lakes out the big train car windows. The train has a dining car and stops for 90 minutes so you can check out the area on foot. Alternatively, drift through the canyon by canoe and partake in some of the area’s famous fishing.

Lake Superior
Ice caves on Lake Superior | KHilderbrand/Shutterstock

Lake Superior Ice Caves

Algoma
When Ontario plunges into the well of winter, towering waves in Lake Superior crash against rocks on the seashore and form striking ice ridges and caves that are a photographer’s fantasy. You’ll have to bundle up until you look like the Michelin Man and wear snowshoes, but it’s well worth the trip considering the caves could disappear in just a couple of decades due to climate change. Since the ice caves change location every year, ask around in nearby towns and accommodations to find them: They’ve been seen before at Coppermine Point, Alona Bay, Point des Chenes Park, and Hibbard Bay.
MORE:  Frozen waterfalls are also pretty damn incredible

Kakabeka Falls

Thunder Bay
Niagara is nice, but very few have heard of Kakabeka Falls, and they’re seriously missing out. The 40-meter tall waterfall is Ontario’s second-highest and can burst with over 1,000 liters of water per minute. The flow is so powerful it has unearthed 1.6 million-year-old fossils at the bottom of the Kaministiquia River. Getting here is an easy 32km drive from Thunder Bay -- a Lake Superior city with an airport if you feel like flying -- rather than road tripping -- and the falls are just a short walk from the parking lot.

Port Dover

Norfolk
Forget the Caribbean: Ontario has its own palm tree-laden beach in Port Dover, an adorable resort town on the coast of Lake Erie. The beach has a little lighthouse on the edge of the pier and is perfect for a day of basking or tossing around the frisbee. In town, there are some terrific breweries, quality restaurants, and beautiful B&Bs, and you can hop on a bike for a food and wine tour to taste some of the province’s top wineries. Port Dover hosts a Friday the 13th motorcycle festival every year, too, if that sorta thing fills your cup. 
MORE:  Considering becoming a biker? Read this first.

Torrance Barrens
View of the Milky Way from Torrance Barrens | Sandra Herber/Moment Open/Getty

Torrance Barrens

Muskoka
For thousands of years, humans were able to simply look up at the twinkling stars and ponder the vastness of space. That all changed with city life and light pollution, so some very smart people created dark sky preserves like the one at Torrance Barrens to guarantee a superb view of the stars. Designated the world’s first permanent dark sky preserve in 1999, looking up from Torrance Barrens will give you 360-degree views of the Milky Way, Andromeda Galaxy 2 million light-years away, and, on rare occasions, the northern lights. During the daytime, you can hike or bike around the 4700-acre conservation reserve’s wetlands, which are dominated by vast ridges of Precambrian bedrock shaped by ice age glaciers and the oh-so-Canadian animal, the beaver.
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Joel Balsam is a freelance journalist and travel guidebook writer whose work can be found in National Geographic Travel, Time, The Guardian, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure. Follow him @joelbalsam.
Jessica Padykula is a contributor for Thrillist.