The Best Northern Ontario Provincial Parks to Visit This Year

Thanks to the global pandemic, Ontario Parks are swarming with stir-crazy Canucks dying to reconnect with nature. Campsites are booked solid. There are line-ups to get into line-ups at the front gate, with folks waiting hours to get in. Sometimes, the day passes sell out before noon. It’s bonkers! So, why not venture away from the GTA crowds and explore some Northern Ontario provincial parks?

To get you started, I’ve listed my choices for the best provincial parks in Northern Ontario. Some are well-known, others may surprise you, but all are fantastic places to camp in Ontario. And for those willing to go the distance, I’ve included some incredible and lesser-known provincial parks near Thunder Bay. I should know: I used to live in Northwestern Ontario and I’ve had the privilege of spending an enormous amount of time in these regions. Of course, this is by no means a complete list—all Ontario parks are worth visiting—so let this just be inspo to kickstart your planning!

Pancake Bay Provincial Park: Best Ontario Provincial Park For Beaches

Where is it: 55 minutes from Sault Ste. Marie

Sandbanks Provincial Park and Long Point Provincial Parks have bombshell beaches—and everyone wants to go. But these parks are so popular that it can be hours of waiting to get to the gate (if you’re lucky—often, the day passes sell out). Instead, head to Pancake Bay Provincial Park, which has one of the most beautiful beaches in North America. Here, you can lounge on 3 km of golden sand fringed by turquoise blue waters and get spectacular views of Lake Superior. There are loads of options for camping: large RV sites, car camping, and yurts.

Tip: Take a break from beach bumming and paddle the stunning shoreline of Lake Superior—just as the voyageurs once did.  

Quetico Provincial Park: Best Ontario Park For Backcountry Canoeing

Where is it: 2.5 hours from Thunder Bay or 16.5 hours from Toronto.

If you’re really looking for an outback experience, go to Quetico Provincial Park. Located in Northwestern Ontario, it’s Ontario’s first wilderness class park—meaning it offers minimal human contact (perfect for social distancing!) and “a tradition of low impact wilderness canoeing.” So that means no facilities (such as bathrooms), services, or even signs marking campsites or portages, and you need a permit for backcountry camping.

 

 

 

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With over 450,000 hectares of wilderness and 2,000 lakes, you can paddle in solitude, hike deserted trails, find some of the best campsites in Ontario, and star-gaze late into the evening. The park was just designated a dark sky park, so you’ll be treated to awesome eye candy at night. As a former Northern Ontario resident, I can tell you that Quetico is one of the best Northern Ontario provincial parks, especially for backcountry canoeing.

Tip: Bring your passport—if you plan on paddling into US waters, you’ll need to go through customs. Quetico is the only place in Ontario where you’ll encounter a remote ranger station on the international border while paddling from the USA into Canada.

Sleeping Giant Provincial Park: Best Ontario Provincial Park For Hiking

Where is it: Thunder Bay

With more than 110 km of trails, Sleeping Giant Provincial Park is a hiker’s haven. One of the most beautiful provincial parks near Thunder Bay, you’ll be treated to sublime scenery, a vigorous workout, and a mix of trails geared to various levels: from short, accessible walks to tough day hikes to multi-day backcountry trips.

If you’re an avid hiker, trek to the top of the Sleeping Giant—the rock formation that, at 290 metres, is one of the highest points in Ontario. It takes about 6-8 hours to hike the Sleeping Giant Trail, so bring comfy shoes, snacks, and plenty of water.

Tip: Go in the winter! Sleeping Giant Provincial Park has 50km of amazing snowshoeing and cross-country skiing trails.

Rushing River Provincial Park: Best Provincial Park in Ontario For Families

Where is it: 30 minutes from Kenora

The star attraction at Rushing River Provincial Park is the dope waterfall that you can play in. Seriously, what’s more thrilling for kids than sliding down rocks into rapids?! There’s other stuff to do, too: hiking, canoeing, fishing, and swimming at the sandy beaches (BTW, all have a shallow, roped-off section that’s safe for little kids). There’s also a playground with swings in case the kiddies need a nature break.

Tip: This park gets crazy-busy in a regular summer, so you can imagine what it’s like during a pandemic. My advice is to avoid weekends, go at opening, and monitor the park updates on Twitter.

 

 

 

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Killarney Provincial Park: Best Ontario Provincial Park for Camping

Where is it: 1 hour from Sudbury

Killarney Provincial Park has it all: challenging hikes, birding, jaw-dropping scenery (OMG, those white quartzite cliffs!), and over 50 glistening sapphire lakes with an extensive network of canoe routes. There’s also a Discovery Program and a small star-gazing observatory that sometimes hosts guest astronomers. I spent several summers camping here, and it’s definitely one of the best Ontario provincial parks for camping. There are campsites for car camping, backcountry camping, radio-free camping, and even yurts and cabins that you can rent.

Tip: If you’re into fishing, this park isn’t for you. Many of the lakes are fish sanctuaries.

 

 

 

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Algonquin Provincial Park: Best Ontario Park for Fall Colours in Ontario

Where is it: 3 hours north of Toronto

Okay, Algonquin Provincial Park isn’t as far north as others on this list, but it’s a must-see in your lifetime. For starters, it’s huge—with thousands of lakes and 7,635 square kilometres of forests, bogs, lakes, and rivers—and is known for rare wildlife spotting opps (especially for moose!). Plus, it has some of the best camping in Ontario: there are eight campgrounds, as well as yurts and backcountry cabins that can be booked. But IMO, the best reason to go is to see the stunning fall colours erupt in mid-September to mid-October. With an abundance of Sugar Maple and Red Maple trees, you’ll see orange, yellow, red, purple, and brown hues ripple across the treeline. It’s utterly enchanting—which explains why so many people flock here to watch the spectacle.

 

 

 

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Tip: Avoid the crowds and visit on a weekday. Fall weekends bring busloads of tourists, especially at the west gate. You can buy day-use permits at self-serve fee stations at the west and east gates on weekdays as early as 7:00 am. Do that!

best northern ontario provincial parksFushimi Lake Provincial Park: Best Ontario Provincial Park for Fishing

Where is it: 10 hours from Toronto or Ottawa; 3 hours from Timmins

The fishing is fantastic in Fushimi Lake Provincial Park. Set on a crystal-clear lake surrounded by Boreal forest, expect to find Walleye, Northern Pike, Lake Whitefish and Yellow Perch. Star-gazing is also incredible here, and you may even see the northern lights. The park has 13 backcountry campsites, with some island sites with excellent access to fishable waters. There are also RV, tent, and trailer sites.

Tip: Book the cozy lakeside cabin if you don’t want to set up camp!

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