The Ultimate Northern Ontario Road Trip
A 40-day tour of Ontario reveals incredible diversity
How well do you know your own backyard? For most of us long distance riders, the last place we visit is usually the one closest to us. But this summer, in support of Ontario's new Online Trip Planner, my father, our photographer, and I travelled over 8000km (5000 miles), seeking out every major motorcycling road in Northern Ontario over the course of 40 days. With two motorcycles, a 2000 Honda ST1100 and a 1977 Yamaha XS750 triple, and a rented RV in tow, we set out to find the best rides in the province.
Ontario is a land of incredibly varied landscapes and cultures, and we aimed to sample each of them. Our aim was to travel through every major region in the North, seeking out the best riding roads, restaurants, accommodations and attractions and sharing our discoveries as they happened through photos, videos and text on our blog.
Starting from Toronto, our ride out of the city in pouring rain, heavy wind and a constant stream of 18 wheelers seemed like a terrible way to start 40 days on the road. Finally, after a good hour and a half fighting our way out of city traffic, we were rewarded with wide blue skies, rolling farmland and picturesque forests as we entered Grey County.
Our stress quickly evaporated and all the hopes we'd had for this long trip seemed to be within easy reach. From the farmland of Grey County, we rode further into the forested wilds of the Bruce Peninsula, staying at the rider-friendly Taylor Made Bed and Breakfast in Lion's Head. Our gracious hosts Barb and Dave Wynd took us for an incredible night ride down one side of the peninsula then back up the other, showing off some newly paved side roads by the moonlight.
The next day, we woke early to take the Chi-Cheemaun ferry to Manitoulin Island, and the distinctly slower pace of life there. After getting off ferry with a few other riders who'd been travelling north from Vermont, we were met by another group of local riders who gave us a tour of the island. While the western, and more populated side of the islands, has plenty of attractions and winding highways that were nicely banked in several spots, the eastern side took us out to the Meldrum Bay Inn, a truly unique and peaceful place to sit and enjoy an afternoon over some delicious local specialties, such as the lightly breaded whitefish and fries.
We parked our RV at the Mindemoya Court Cottage and Campgrounds, and to this day we all sorely miss this Northern gem. The lake was cool and clean, but the campground and amenities stood out, with clean hot showers and some of the best internet coverage we had on the entire trip. Imagine streaming game seven of the Stanley Cup while barbequing ribs at the communal fire pit, watching the sun set on the world's largest freshwater island.
We reluctantly parted ways with the island, and made our way to North Bay. We did stop at the Willisiville Mountain Road on our way, which is a very short but very exciting ride that I highly recommend.
In North Bay, we rode along with the Ride for Dad charity ride with over 300 other motorcyclists who raised more than $30,000 for prostate cancer research. Northern Ontario is home to dozens of motorcycling events. Many are group rides or poker runs which raise money for charitable causes, while others run the gamut from competitive road racing, to off-road trail rides. To get a full appreciation for the wide range of events in the province, we also attended the Bikers Reunion in New Liskeard which raises money for cancer; the Vintage Road Racing Association's Runway Romp, where vintage bikes race on the North Bay airport's runway; and the Ontario Federation of Trail Rider's Soggy Boot Ride, easily one of the most daunting off-road motorcycle trail rides in the province.
At all these events we received a warm welcome and were impressed with the community spirit we experienced across the North. There's something about living with these great physical distances between people, with such close proximity to the raw natural environment that makes people extra friendly and helpful.
After our ride in North Bay, we headed west, stopping in Sturgeon Falls to sample the poutine at the two legendary (and rival) chip stands, Larry's and The Riv. The two purveyors of all that is delicious and bad for you operate directly across the street from each other. We won't give away the winner here - you'll just have to experience it for yourself. Suffice to say, the deep fried pickles were the sleeper hit of the trip.
Continuing our journey on to Sault Ste. Marie and the start of the North Shore of Lake Superior route, we took a side trip to one of the top riding roads in the province, if not the country. Highway 129 from Thessalon to Chapleau is easily one of the most exciting and visually stimulating rides in the province. With constant twists and turns, dips and rises, pristine lakes, massive cliffs, raging rivers and great pavement (for the first 70km - after that, it's better to turn around or to be on an adventure tourer), this is a must-ride road.
Following this short side road with The North Shore of Superior from Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay was pure riding joy. If Ontario has a bucket-list ride, this is it. Vast vistas of Lake Superior, incredible beaches, massive geologic formations, combined with the strong sense of history throughout the small communities along the highway make for an unforgettable experience.
Must-see’s on this route are the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre in Sault Ste. Marie, the stunning views from Batchawana Bay, Neys Provincial Park, and Aguasabon Falls in Terrace Bay, the vibrant and unique community of Rossport, the 100-meter deep Ouimet Canyon, and the Sibley Road to Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. Also, Thunder Bay's new waterfront area makes for a romantic evening walk, depending on who you're travelling with, of course.
Our experience on the North Shore can't be understated. At every point before we arrived, we'd met riders who had nothing but good things to say about this route, but little could have prepared us for the reality. It exceeded every description.
After spending a few lovely days in Thundery Bay, that included a meal at the Prospector Steakhouse and an afternoon sailing trip on Lake Superior, we headed east on Highway 11 to New Liskeard. This route offers an entirely different experience from the constant variety of landscapes along Lake Superior. Long, straight, flat and with very little population, this is the most northerly contiguous highway in the province. To say that it induces a contemplative state of mind would be an understatement - we all decided to call it "Highway Zen." Riders with smaller tanks will need to be mindful, as fuel stops here are further apart.
The Temiskaming Loop, a fun drive that loosely follows the shores of Lake Temiskaming through Ontario and Quebec was next on our agenda, and although we'd done this route before, we were able to take our time and explore the area in greater detail. The blooming canola flowers offset the lake nicely with their brilliant yellow, which could be seen for miles in every direction.
With just under two weeks left on our tout, we zigzagged south towards our final destination of Toronto, through Algonquin Park, Haliburton and the Kawarthas, and the southern tip of Georgian Bay. The great riding roads in the Ottawa Valley were a wonderful surprise, as I'd never visited the area before. Quaint small towns sitting in the hollows of seemingly endless hills; old barns, fallow fields and long stone fences that snaked their way across this hilly countryside all contributed to the charm of the region.
Before we knew it, our time was up and we began our reluctant drive home. As we looked back on that first day of rain, wind and heavy traffic, and all we'd seen over those 8000km, the image of the true North was much clearer. The wide-open roads, the direct contact with nature, the friendliness of the people – this is the true Northern Experience.
Our experience with great accommodations, restaurants and attractions, as well as the routes we discovered will all be featured on Ontario's new Online Trip Planner at http://www.gotourontario.ca/. Check it out to start planning your own Ultimate Ontario Road Trip. Or for more information on riding in Ontario, check out GoRideOntario.com/motorcycle.
Follow Mike Jacobs on Twitter @NorthernRoads.
Ottawa Valley Motorcycle Adventure [Video]
Following the Champlain Route - North Bay to Ottawa
Women Riders Tour in Northern Ontario [Video]
Touring Ontario: Algoma Country
Touring Ontario: Rider-Friendly Accommodations
Touring Ontario: Exploring the Near North and Rainbow Country
Touring Ontario: Muskoka and Rainbow Country