Unique ice-based experiences in Ontario
While cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling are all popular things to do in the wintertime, there are still more impressive ice-based activities when Ontario waterways freeze.
These ice-based experiences often rely on planning, luck with the weather and willingness to endure the elements. The payoff is the satisfaction that comes from pushing boundaries and lasting memories.
Experience the polar world right on the largest Great Lake. A sea kayaking heaven in the summertime, few paddlers brave the ice waters in the late winter. This is for good reason; winter paddling can be extremely dangerous without proper equipment and preparation.
With the assistance of skilled guides, even newer paddlers can marvel at the wonders created by this massive lake.
Where to go ice paddling in Ontario
Such a Nice Day (S.A.N.D) Adventures takes visitors out in March and April when the frigid northern winter comes to a close.
Lake Superior begins to break up, but remnants of the ice that covers massive areas linger. Safely outfitted in expedition-grade kayaks and drysuits, paddlers will explore massive ice floes, break through thin sheet ice or view cathedrals of ice caves on the still spring waters.
These tours take place in Thunder Bay or the nearby Rossport Islands, one of the gems of Lake Superior. Expect to be out for a half- or full-day, with opportunities to explore coastlines and the ever-changing ice. Knowledgeable guides help the group navigate the ice conditions and entertain with their extensive experience.
The steep topography and cold winters of Northern Ontario makes for perfect ice climbing conditions.
Ice walls form where moisture seeps out of rocks or on frozen waterfalls creating fantastic structures with different textures and shapes. More than just a good workout, ice climbers get the opportunity to engage with the landscape in a totally in a unique way.
While experience with rock climbing is certainly helpful, ice climbing techniques are very different so guides can cater their tours for beginners. Specialized equipment like harnesses, axes and crampons are supplied by the operator, making guided tours a great introduction to the activity.
Where to go ice climbing in Ontario
Thunder Bay’s Outdoor Skills and Thrills offers guided experiences to some of the best ice climbing in Ontario at Orient Bay.
Closer to Sault Ste. Marie is Steve Foster Adventure Instruction who offers climbing in the nearby Algoma Highlands.
Muskoka Mountainworks runs ice climbing and guided tours and workshops within the Muskoka, Haliburton, Madawaska, Bancroft and Niagara Escarpment regions.
With ice climbing sites between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, Superior Exploration is Ontario’s oldest ice climbing school. Kids and adults can choose from beginner to advanced courses. Night climbing adventures are available once beginner courses have been completed.
When conditions are just right, ice caves form on the rocky, exposed coasts of the Great Lakes. These caves are formed by waves crashing repeatedly against cliffs in sub-zero temperatures. As they hit the rocks, pieces gradually freeze, eventually forming caves or cavities.
Where to see ice caves in Ontario
This phenomenon is most common on Lake Superior. Some of the best and most accessible caves are found along the Trans-Canada Highway between Sault Ste. Marie and Wawa. The best time to see these caves is when winter is at its coldest, from February into March.
Stokely Creek Lodge offers guided tours to spots north of Sault Ste. Marie. Getting to these caves requires awareness of ice conditions and proper planning. Local guides will help keep groups safe and find the best caves.
Finding the caves involves snowshoeing across the ice, so always check ice conditions before heading out. The condition of the ice forming the caves is always changing as well so always exercise caution before considering entering the caves.
Snowshoeing to frozen waterfalls
Snowshoeing offers a great workout and a fresh perspective on hiking trails. There are great snowshoeing getaways across the province, where cabins provide a cozy retreat after full days in the forest.
Where to go snowshoeing to frozen waterfalls
On the Canadian Shield, many of the trails tracing waterways will lead to frozen falls and ice structures.
Staying at one of Quetico Provincial Park’s roofed accommodations provides easy access to the frozen French Falls, as well as a network of frozen lakes and rivers to explore. It’s a moderate five-kilometre round trip.
The Crack is Killarney Provincial Park’s most popular hike in the summer but visiting in the winter makes for a terrific adventure as well. The trail passes along Kakakise Lake where a massive ice fall forms.
This icefall appears to be frozen waterfalls, but in the summer, they would go nearly unnoticed. It is caused by groundwater constantly seeping out of the rock in small increments, but over the winter builds into large ice structures.
Always check with the park in advance to see if the ice conditions are safe before venturing onto the ice for a detour. Stay at one of Killarney Provincial Park’s rustic cabins or the nearby Killarney Mountain Lodge.
Ice skating on skate trails
Skating is one of Canada’s most quintessential activities.
Going beyond indoor rinks into the open air makes for a magical day or evening. Some trails will also offer skate rentals so check in advance. Pair this moment with a hot drink and warm bite to eat for an unforgettable experience.
Skating trails have exploded in popularity and can now be found in parks, wineries and even city centres.
Where to ice skate on skating trails
The Muskoka Lakes Cranberry Farm and Winery has a 1.2-kilometre skating trail around the cranberry bog.
Choose a sunny winter day to go for a skate and warm up afterwards with the winery’s mulled wine or hot cranberry cider. Rentals are available here and Saturday night skating occasionally takes place.
Arrowhead Provincial Park creates one of the best skating trails in the province.
Glide across the 1.3-kilometre trail winding through the forest on crisp ice. Attend for the Fire and Ice nights, where the trail is lit with tiki torches for a magical experience.
One of Toronto’s favourite public spaces is The Bentway, under the Gardiner Expressway. This cool area located in the heart of the city features a 220-metre, figure-eight skate trail complete with benches and warming stations.
The Rideau Canal is Canada’s most well-known ice skating path and something everyone should try to skate once. Conditions are best after constantly cold temperatures, often late January through March.
Check the National Capital Commission’s ice report before heading out. Skate and sleigh rentals are available at three pavilions along the skateway.
Last updated: February 14, 2024