Ontario explodes into colour in autumn as the lush greens of spring and summer give way to the reds and golds and scorched orange and browns that are the hallmarks of the harvest time. The best time to see the autumn colours is from mid-September to mid-October when Ontario Parks publishes a colour report on its site of the autumn colours across the province. As you can imagine, the colours vary, depending on your location. In truth there is no better time to hit the road, get out of the city and soak up the kaleidoscope of change for a true Canadian autumn adventure.
The natural heart of the province
Nowhere do the seasons change with as much vivid, coursing colour as in Algonquin provincial park. There are more than 100 provincial parks in Ontario, but none can rival Algonquin for popularity. Why? Because it lives up to the hype … and then some. Almost 3,000 square miles – a bigger expanse of land than Luxembourg – of unspoiled natural wilderness, the park is located between Toronto and Ottawa and is less than three hours’ drive from either city. Camp under the tapestry of stars or rent a ranger cabin for some rustic comfort. But, at first light, get out and catch the rich red maples and blinding yellow aspen trees in all their swing season glory.
Pull up a chair in Muskoka
If Algonquin is Ontario’s natural centre, then the nearby Muskoka region is its relaxation hub. When Torontonians speak wistfully of a need to get out of the city to “cottage country” it’s likely that the Muskoka region is on their mind. From Insta-perfect tiny cabins to multi-million dollar lake homes, Muskoka has the full gamut of getaway options, almost all of them carving out a corner of tranquility among the pretty towns that pepper the region. A buzzing food scene, great breweries, spas and golf courses – the area has everything. Most of all though, it’s made for lounging lakeside in a low-slung Muskoka chair and forgetting about city life.
Why 1,000 Islands make for a delightful trip …
Head upstream from Lake Ontario to the mouth of the mighty St Lawrence River and you’ll reach the 1,000 Islands, an archipelago of more than 1,800 islands that straddle the Canadian and American border. A lazy but so rewarding cruise of the islands from Kingston, Gananoque or Rockport all the way up the St Lawrence is not to be missed, with stunning seasonal views guaranteed. And yes, these same islands are forever commemorated in a condiment – the eponymous salad dressing originating here.
… Or up the ante with 30,000 Islands
If you’re a go big or go home type then please don’t go home. Ontario offers a supersized island experience on the eastern shore of Georgian Bay as speckled out from Parry Sound lie the 30,000 Islands. The largest freshwater archipelago in the world, the islands can be enjoyed on water or, if you’re in the mood to splurge, by air. Georgian Bay Airways offers outstanding tours of the Unesco biosphere reserve, including one that stops in at Henry’s, a fish and chip shop that serves up the local delicacy – battered pickerel – on the quite brilliantly named Frying Pan Island, which can only be visited by plane or boat.
Give the Highlands a fling
Just three hours north-east of Toronto, the Haliburton Highlands offer some of the most spectacular trails and lookout points in the province – especially during the autumn colour season. In late September the four-day Hike Haliburton festival is the largest annual hiking gathering in the entire country. As the tree canopy really begins to find its best burnt crimson, climb the Dorset Lookout Tower and have your breath taken away by the panoramic visions from the top. Once your trail is finished, rest weary limbs and quench that thirst at the Lake of Bays Brewing Company in Baysville to the west.
All aboard for northern exposure
The expanses of Ontario that stretch northwest from Georgian Bay can seem intimidatingly vast. But they needn’t be. Sault Ste Marie, a steel town on the rebound with some real gems among the rebirth, is a great starting point for a northern excursion. The rugged appeal of northern Ontario may be best taken in on the Agawa Canyon Tour Train, a journey into the wilderness on tracks that hug the sides of lakes and traverse rivers on their way through towering rock outcrops. Just make sure to book a window seat.
A capital idea
Not the provincial capital – that honour falls to Toronto – Ottawa more than makes up for it as the epicentre of national governance. But better to leave the indoor stuff to the politicians because autumn is arguably when Canada’s capital city is at its most charming. Take a paddle along the Rideau Canal (before it freezes over for the winter) to get the best views of some of the city’s autumn foliage.
Feast on the fruits of harvest season
You can quite literally wade into the riches of Ontario’s agricultural output as harvest season gets into full swing. Strap up your chest waders and take the plunge in Bala, Ontario’s cranberry capital. Autumn fairs crop up across Ontario as the boundless bounty of produce piles up. From the Pumpkinfest in Port Elgin to Oktoberfests across the province’s south-east, tis the season to dive right in. Food festivals are popular across the province, and run the spectrum from sweet to savoury. Anything from blueberries, strawberries, peaches, apples and cherries can be found. Ribfests, garlic, bacon fests or buttertarts also feature.
Wine for the winding road
The Bruce Trail is the longest and oldest trail in the country and winds its way more than 550 miles north from Niagara Falls to Tobermory, Ontario. An entire section of the trail snakes along some of the spectacular cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment and other sections along the route make for nice day hikes. It would be a sin not to visit during the Niagara Grape and Wine festival, a two-week toast to the region’s finest tipples in September. It’s Canada’s biggest wine festival and a Discovery Pass pairs the wines with some of the best of the region’s vaunted cuisine.
Heading south before the next season
Autumn is not just moving season for farmers. Some of Ontario’s native fauna are getting their act together too. Upwards of 300 bird species begin to pack up and head south to avoid the winter, while hundreds of thousands of monarch butterflies do likewise. The great migrations are perhaps best witnessed at Point Pelee national park, less than an hour from the border with Michigan and the best time to catch the birdlife is mid-September.
Start planning your visit to Ontario this autumn with Canadian Affair