Two people canoeing rough water on the Missinaibi River.

Missinaibi River | Destination Ontario

10 iconic rivers to canoe in Ontario

Two people canoeing rough water on the Missinaibi River.

Missinaibi River | Destination Ontario

Renowned as home to over 250,000 gorgeous lakes, including four of the big five Great Lakes, Ontario is also blessed with countless mighty rivers and interconnected waterways. These waters served as the original highways for the First Peoples of this land. They have been navigated by explorers, traders, adventurers and settlers, and continue to attract outdoor enthusiasts today. 

Plan your next canoeing adventure on one of these legendary Ontario rivers.

Southern and Central Ontario

Grand River

This scenic, rural waterway is the largest watershed in southern Ontario. It meanders along its almost 300-kilometre route from Grey County, south of Georgian Bay, through southwest Ontario to the north shore of Lake Erie. It has also received recognition as a Canadian Heritage River System.

The Grand plays a defining role in the character and quaintness of several towns and communities along its shores and flows into the beautiful Elora Gorge and rapids. The stretch between Grand Valley and Paris is popular for canoeing, where the river flows wide alongside pastoral scenery reminiscent of a 19th-century landscape painting. Closer to Lake Erie, the river cuts through beautiful Carolinian forest, another top spot to paddle. 

Plan your trip

The Grand is suitable for all ages and skill levels, including beginners and families. Canoeing The GrandGrand River Rafting and Grand Experiences Canoe & Kayak Outfitter all offer a variety of guided trips in different vessels and rentals and outfitting services.

The Grand River Conservation Authority manages several conservation areas that offer great camping opportunities. Chiefswood Park is a cultural destination offering Indigenous experiences, outdoor adventure and cozy, nature-inspired cabins. Located adjacent to the Grand River, it’s the perfect home base from which to explore the river and the surrounding Carolinian Forest.

“August is laughing across the sky, 
Laughing while paddle, canoe and I, 
Drift, drift, 
Where the hills uplift 
On either side of the current swift." 

— Mohawk poet E. Pauline Johnson on the Grand River, from The Song My Paddle Sings

Saugeen River

The Saugeen is a major southwest Ontario tributary that journeys gently from Osprey Wetland Conservation Lands northwest for 160 kilometres to meet Lake Huron at Southampton.

Once a key route for barges, today the Saugeen is made for lazy summer days with a veritable Huckleberry Finn vibe. It snakes through scenic farmland and mixed forest. This riverway is ideal for beginners, with idyllic flatwater paddling. Anglers are treated to some of the best rainbow and trout fly fishing in the province.

Plan your trip

There are several recommended launch points with various day trip canoe routes, such as Hanover, through Walkerton and Paisley to Southampton. Thorncrest Outfitters in Southampton offers everything you need for an amazing day on the river, including rentals, delivery, shuttle service and guided packages.

Check out the water levels and paddling conditions before you set out. Outer Vision Adventure Tours, a Bruce Peninsula outfitter, provides a handy overview of route options

Madawaska River

This 230-kilometre river originates in the highlands of Algonquin Park and flows east to Arnprior, where it merges with the Ottawa River, eventually draining into the St Lawrence River.

If only rivers could speak, the “Mad” would have some fascinating tales. In the late 1800s, it served as a means of transportation for the growing lumber industry as newly felled pine and oak logs were floated downstream to the mills. In the 1920s, dams were erected to harness hydroelectric power along the river and its tributaries.

With its neighbour, the Ottawa River, the Madawaska is a fierce and exciting ride with whitewater action at Palmer Rapids in the Lower Madawaska Provincial Park. It also offers spectacular flatwater paddling, particularly in the section between the towns of Griffith and Burnstown. There are maintained portages around the rapids and you’ll find camping along its shores in the park.

Plan your trip

Mad River Paddle Co. provides outfitting and rental services, as well as pick-up and delivery. Or join a guided outing with Madawaska Kanu Centre based in Barry’s Bay.

Magnetawan River

The Ojibwa translation of Magnetawan is “swiftly flowing waters”, aptly describing this river. The 175-kilometre westward, downhill-flowing waterway springs from Magnetawan Lake in Algonquin Provincial Park and empties into Georgian Bay at Byng Inlet just north of Parry Sound.

The Mag is characterized by over five sets of class I to class III rapids and falls that will require portaging; a great opportunity to stop and appreciate the tall pines and rocky shoreline. 

Plan your trip

The river is connected to several lakes worth exploring, many of which are home to fishing resorts and lodges. Quiet Bay Lodge offers paddling packages or gear up with Black Feather for a self or fully guided trip.

Colin Field is a northern adventure writer who laughs about the spoiler alert he received before tackling the Thirty Dollar rapids on a Mag canoe trip. He writes:

“The prophecy I’d been hearing for the past few days came true: “Everyone swims on the Magnetawan.”

Northern Ontario

French River

Experience the first Canadian river to be bestowed with the historic designation as a National Heritage River in 1985. Its significance is due to its interconnectedness.

This 110-kilometre waterway provided access for Indigenous people and later for explorers, fur traders and Voyageurs to travel from Lake Nipissing in the east to the shores of Georgian Bay in the west, thus traversing the centre of Ontario.

Today the river is just as exciting, with sections of rapids and whitewater, great wildlife viewing, fishing opportunities and top-notch lodges and campsites along the way. Don’t miss the award-winning French River Visitor Centre on Highway 69 for the “Voices of the River” exhibit. 

Plan your trip

It’s recommended that only experienced paddlers take on a self-guided trip. Black Feather offers canoe and gear rentals, as well as fully guided voyages that suit all skill levels.

Missinaibi River

Another Heritage River, Missinaibi offers unparalleled paddling adventure. Many speculate the river was named after ancient rock pictographs witnessed along the shore, as Missinaibi means “pictured waters” in Cree. It free-flows northeast across the Canadian Shield from Missinaibi Lake to the Moose River, then travels up to James Bay, over 700 kilometres in length.

Plan your trip

This is wild water! It’s advised that only paddlers with advanced skill levels tackle this unbridled waterway. Look to MHO Adventures for a fully outfitted and guided adventure.

Scott Elliott, an outdoor adventurer and back-country enthusiast, provides helpful tips from his 9-day wilderness excursion

Michipicoten River

Ontario’s rivers are like living and breathing natural annals, chronicling the ecology of the land they course through and the history of human activity on the water. Flowing 113 kilometres west from Dog Lake to deposit into Lake Superior’s eastern shore at Wawa, the Michipicoten is one such example. It has been honoured with a landmark plaque identifying how the river was a vital link in the canoe route from Lake Superior to James Bay for Indigenous peoples, and later Hudson’s Bay Company fur traders.

Plan your trip

Naturally Superior Adventures offers a variety of guided or self guided day trips and tours of the river, with a cozy lodge, glamping site or campsite to come home to at Rock Island Lodge.

Turtle River

Attention rockhounds, history buffs and amateur geologists. On Turtle River, you’ll paddle along a large moraine, some of the oldest rocks in the world, past ancient pictographs and to the remote three-story log castle on White Otter Lake, built single-handedly by recluse Jimmy McQuat from 1903-1914.

Expect all this and more, including breathtaking, rugged landscapes, sheer cliffs and potential wildlife sightings, on a backcountry canoeing adventure in Turtle River Provincial Park.

Plan your trip

The closest community is Atikokan, aptly called the “canoe capital of Canada.” You can assess the river from several locations, but a common route has paddlers launching from the bridge on Highway 622, south of Highway 17 and following the river as it connects various lakes, rapids and falls to White Otter Castle. You’ll need to tackle a few portages and camping is available along the way.

A few local fishing lodges provide guided tours to White Otter Castle and canoe outfitting, such as Brown’s Clearwater West Lodge and Branch’s Seine River Lodge.

Spanish River

Another legendary Ontario river is the Spanish River. It’s been traversed by many, including the Ojibwe, French fur traders and the English adventurer and conservationist Archibald Belaney, who reinvented himself as Grey Owl. The 338-kilometre-long waterway rushes from its source at Spanish Lake to its mouth at the North Channel on Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay.

There are a variety of paddling routes and with fast-moving water, swifts and class I and II rapids, an intermediate-to-advanced skill level is recommended. Launching site options include road or train access.

Plan your trip

Get your gear from Spanish River Outfitters, who also provide shuttle services. Or avoid the hassle of driving and arrive by air. True North Airways will fly you, your canoe and gear into your launch site and collect you from your final point by float plane.

Jeff Johnson, an Outdoor Adventure professor at Algonquin College outlines the perfect intro to whitewater canoe tripping on the Spanish River

Lady Evelyn River

Most of the Lady Evelyn River flows in and around Lady Evelyn Smoothwater Provincial Park in the Temagami area, about 100 kilometres north of North Bay.

The river is one of the park’s prominent features, along with the famous old-growth pine forests and pristine lakes. It has four branches, some only accessible by water or floatplane and features several impressive cascades, such as the 25-metres-high Helen Falls.

Plan your trip

The remoteness, level of rough water and portage difficulty requires advanced canoeing skills to explore this wilderness waterway. Smoothwater Outfitters and Lodge and Temagami Outfitting Co. are your best bets for guided or outfitted canoe trips.

These river adventures require preparation and planning. Safety precautions are paramount. Research your chosen waterway to understand the water levels and portage routes, be aware of weather predictions, and prepare a gear checklist.

Last updated: April 30, 2024

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