5 Unique Ways To Experience The Rideau Canal This Year

Explore one of Canada’s most iconic waterways with these fascinating activities on the Rideau Canal between Ottawa and Kingston, Ontario.

ways to experience the Rideau Canal
Photo credit: Ottawa tourism

The sparkling waters of the historic Rideau Canal wind their way gracefully from the Ottawa River through to the St. Lawrence River. This historic canal connects Canada’s modern capital of Ottawa with the country’s original political centre of Kingston.

Along its route through central Ontario, the Rideau Canal connects several important bodies of water, ultimately linking the Ottawa River with Lake Ontario. Along the route, an engineering marvel in the form of a complex system of locks was built. Upon its completion in the early 1800s, the Rideau Canal became the first operating canal system in North America.

While the original intention of the Rideau Canal was to allow the safe and easy passage of goods to Canada’s young capital, the importance of the canal as a secure trade route was reduced when relations with our neighbors to the south, the United States of America, stabilized upon Canada’s independence in 1867.

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in June 2007, the importance of the Rideau Canal to Canada’s growth as a nation was cemented. Nowadays the Rideau Canal acts as a graceful summer route for pleasure boaters to explore some of Ontario’s most charming small towns. During the winter, the Rideau Canal doesn’t lose its luster though. The waterway is a popular spot for skating rinks, snowmobilers, and, up in the nation’s capital, a hub for some of Ontario’s best winter festivals.

What Is The Rideau Canal Anyway?

Nature along the Rideau Canal
Nature along the Rideau Canal – Photo credit: Kevin Wagar

The Rideau Canal is one of the most important historical pieces of infrastructure in Ontario. This 202-kilometre waterway connects Ottawa with the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario. It was this engineering feat that allowed for easy trade between Canada’s capital and its economic hub, Toronto.

Work on this man-made canal began in 1826 and was officially opened in 1832. While it’s not nearly as active for product transport as it was 150 years ago, the Rideau Canal is now one of the most exciting and beautiful waterways in Ontario. The route is popular among houseboaters, pleasure boaters, and those touring Ontario and Quebec via the water.

The system is connected by a series of 29 individual locks that allow boats to travel easily up and down the canal through many remote environments and small towns.

Exciting Ways To Experience The Rideau Canal

Taking time to explore the Rideau Canal doesn’t just offer the chance to experience one of the most important and epic infrastructure projects in the province of Ontario, but it also offers a deep dive into some of the most gorgeous and under-explored small towns in the province.

No matter what the season, the Rideau is ripe with activities, both on and off the water. And to truly understand the value of this scenic waterway, it’s always best to see it both during the summer months as well as the winter ones.

Explore The Rideau By Pleasure Boat

Houseboating along the Rideau Canal
Houseboating along the Rideau Canal – Photo credit: Kevin Wagar

If you want to explore the Rideau Canal from end to end, one of the best ways to make the most of your journey is by pleasure boat.

Enjoy lazy days aboard your boat as you make your way through the 29 locks that make up the route. Wake with the rising sun and wave at passing boaters as you sip your morning coffee. It’s only from the water that you can explore the glorious natural beauty that lines the entire length of the canal.

Countless pleasure boaters make this journey each and every year while the lock system is open. Between mid-May to mid-October, the Rideau is a spectacle of fun as boats from all over Canada and even international destinations make their way along the storied route.

If you don’t have your own boat, there are many houseboat rental companies that offer intrepid explorers the chance to captain their own ship along the calm waters. These rental companies offer everything you need to enjoy the journey, including training on how to pilot the boat and navigate the waters. You won’t even need an Ontario boaters license.

The most popular rental company is LeBoat. This company, which rents out modern houseboats designed specifically for the Rideau canal journey, is based out of the beautiful town of Smiths Falls in Lanark County. Their boats book up very fast so if you don’t manage to find the dates you’re looking for with them you can also look at some other highly regarded local companies such as Rideau Lake Houseboat Rentals.

Paddle Your Own Rideau Adventure

Kevin Wagar paddling the Rideau Canal
Paddling the Rideau Canal – Photo credit: Kevin Wagar

By canoe, SUP, or kayak, paddling the majestic collection of lakes and rivers of the Rideau Canal is something that every outdoor lover should experience. The waterways, wetlands, and watersheds offer an endless collection of scenery that are perfect for paddling.

The Rideau Canal’s calm waters are packed with scenic hideaways and beautiful inlets that can only be reached by human-powered boats. And whether you’re looking to day-trip individual sections of the canal or make the epic journey from end to end, you’ll have an unforgettable experience.

The collection of small towns, outfitters, and accommodations along the route make this an easy-going journey, even for novice paddlers. You can indulge in luxury at the spa and resort hotels in towns such as Kingston and Leed’s, or enjoy rustic comfort at the many Parks Canada stops along the way that offers camping.

It’s not difficult to enjoy an entire summer paddling the route from Ottawa to Kingston. However, many paddlers treat themselves to a section at a time, opting to complete the route over several years just a few days at a time.

Hike or Bike the Rideau Trail

Cycling the Rideau Trail
Cycling the Rideau Trail – Photo credit: Kevin Wagar

If you prefer dry-land adventures to those on the water, the Rideau Trail offers exciting routes that wind along the flowing edges of the waterway.

The Rideau Trail, which begins on the shores of the Ottawa River, winds through small towns, forests, country trails, and urban paths past the Parks Canada locks all the way to the St. Lawrence River at Kingston, Ontario.

The route is popular for hikers, and for cycling enthusiasts, the trails are almost as popular. Although the entire route is not accessible to bicycles, there are easy detours that make up the areas where bicycles are not permitted.

Camp Along The Rideau

Parks Canada oTENTik on the Rideau Canal
Parks Canada oTENTik along the Rideau Canal – Photo credit: Kevin Wagar

The Rideau Canal has 29 locks and 24 unique lock stations situated along the 202-kilometre route from Ottawa to Kingston. These locks are operated by Parks Canada, the same organization that runs some of the most incredible national parks in Canada.

Like the national park system itself, many of these lock stations offer places for boaters to shore up for the night. Others have beautiful camping opportunities for those who prefer to sleep outside of their boat.

IF you’re looking for a truly special experience Upper Nicholsons lock, situated on a beautiful cutaway designed to bypass some rapids on the Rideau River, has two oTENTik soft-sided glamping tents set up.

The Parks Canada oTENTik setups include sleeping for up to six individuals (three double beds). Each tent also includes heating, lighting, a barbecue, an eating area, and access to the lock as well. Whether you’re arriving by land or water, this is a must-do experience along the Rideau Canal.

Skate The Rideau Canal

Skating at dusk on the Rideau Canal
Skating at dusk on the Rideau Canal – Photo credit: Ottawa Tourism

There are few more Canadian experiences than skating the Rideau Canal. In fact, locals in Ottawa are so committed to this activity that many commuters forego their vehicles in the winter months in place of skates. These blades of steel let locals beat the local rush hour traffic while gliding along, what is often the world’s longest continuous ice rink (this ranking is occasionally bested by the Nestaweya¬†River Trail in Winnipeg, Manitoba).

The stunningly beautiful Rideau Canal Skateway reaches from the top of the initial lock system next door to the famous Fairmont Chateau Laurier and winds for nearly 8 kilometres right to the edge of the Canadian capital. You can skate the Rideau Canal without indulging in a freshly-made Beavertail and frozen maple syrup taffy while you are out on the ice.

Ottawa might be the most famous place to skate on the Rideau Canal, but it isn’t the only city on the waterway that offers this experience. Small towns such as Smiths Falls, Merrickville, and Westport all run their own winter skating rinks on the Rideau. Although they aren’t as extensive as the epic Ottawa trail.

Enjoy These Experiences Along The Rideau Canal

These incredible things to do on the Rideau Canal will help you gain an appreciation for this hidden gem in Ontario. Whether you’re just exploring Ottawa or making your way down the entire waterway, your time on or near the water is sure to be memorable.

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