Northern Ontario is the large and sparsely-populated region that dominates the map of Ontario but lies far away, both geographically and culturally, from the big cities of the south.
This is land of rocks, lakes, and "muskegs" (bogs) and few farms or towns, never mind cities. Those communities that do exist are mostly based around mining and forestry, but there are also a number of lake-front vacation home communities and the area is known many for it outdoors activities. As well, Indigenous cultural tourism is of increasing importance here.
Distances are large in Northern Ontario – it's 1600 km (1000 miles) from North Bay to the Manitoba border, so consider focus on a particular sub-region unless you have a lot of time to spend. However, this region may also interest you are considering driving the famous Trans-Canada Highway or riding The Canadian to get between Western and Central Canada.
|Northwestern Ontario |
So far from the rest of Ontario that it's more like a part of Western Canada, this is where the rugged terrain of the Canadian Shield reaches right down into Minnesota and is easily accessed by road.
|Northeastern Ontario |
Drive the remote Highway 11 route to get lost in the heart of Northern Ontario.
|Lake Superior North Shore |
The rocky shores of the giant freshwater "lake" (really more like a sea) called Superior offer literally thousands of km of coastline to explore.
|Near North |
Closest to the big cities and airports of the South and therefore the most accessible and developed for tourism, it is home to many lake resort towns.
Northern Ontario has nine cities (Greater Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, North Bay, Timmins, Kenora, Elliot Lake, Temiskaming Shores, Dryden) and many small towns.
With the exception of the Greater Sudbury municipality, all of northern Ontario's land is divided into districts. These districts include vast tracts of sparsely-populated territory where public services are provided by the government of Ontario.
- 1 Dryden — home of Maximillian the Moose, an 18 ft (5.5 m) tall statue
- 2 Elliot Lake — a former mining boomtown that now seeks to attract tourists and retirees
- 3 Kenora — a vacation resort town
- 4 North Bay — calls itself the "gateway to Northern Ontario"
- 5 Sault Ste. Marie — the starting point for the Agawa Canyon tour train
- 6 Greater Sudbury — Northern Ontario's largest city
- 7 Temiskaming Shores — a popular retirement and recreational destination
- 8 Thunder Bay — the metropolis of the northwest
- 9 Timmins — its main attractions are mining tours and outdoor recreation
- 1 Blue Lake Provincial Park — a 2314-ha pak for hiking, canoeing and birding
- 2 Lake Superior Provincial Park — spectacular and diverse scenery, and the Agawa Pictographs
- 3 Manitoulin Island — the world's largest freshwater island
- 4 Pimachiowin Aki — a mixed (natural and cultural) UNESCO World Heritage Site
- 5 St. Joseph Island — popular as camp and cottage country
- 6 Pukaskwa National Park — its 60-km Coastal Trail offers a challenging but rewarding wilderness experience along the steep Lake Superior coastline
- 7 Wabakimi Provincial Park — one of the world's largest boreal forest reserves, almost the size of Puerto Rico
Ontario is Canada's most populous province, with nearly 40 percent of the country's population, but most of Ontario's 13.5 million people live in southern communities along the Windsor-Quebec corridor. This leaves the rest of the province very sparsely populated, with Northern Ontario's few people spread across a vast area which spans two time zones. Northern Ontario covers 90% of the area of Ontario, but has only 6% of its population—about 730,000 people.
Don't expect to drive across all of Northern Ontario in a day; it's 1,000 mi (1,600 km) of Trans-Canada Highway from North Bay to the Manitoba border and a few communities (mostly on Indigenous lands around Hudson Bay) have no intercity road access at all.
Most of Northern Ontario sits on the Canadian Shield, a vast rocky plateau, and most of it is covered by boreal forest. As a result, the region's main businesses are mining and forestry, although tourism also plays a role in the economy. Its main population centres are Greater Sudbury in the east, and Thunder Bay in the West.
In the early 20th century, Northern Ontario was often called "New Ontario", although this name fell into disuse because of its colonial connotations. (In French, however, the region may still be referred to as Nouvel-Ontario, although le Nord de l'Ontario and Ontario-Nord are now more commonly used.)
There are several small francophone communities in Northern Ontario, but English speaking travellers shouldn't encounter any issues with language since most of those living in these communities are bilingual (English-French). There are also many communities that speak mainly Cree or Ojibwa (Aanishenabe), though there are usually English speakers there as well.
Air Canada Express provides daily service from Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ IATA) to Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins and Thunder Bay from Toronto (Thunder Bay also served from Winnipeg, Manitoba). Westjet flies to Thunder Bay from Toronto. Bearskin Airlines (based in Thunder Bay) provides services to various smaller communities in Northern Ontario, including Red Lake, Dryden, Sioux Lookout and Kenora from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Porter Airlines flies to Timmins, Thunder Bay, Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie from Toronto City Island Airport (YTZ IATA).
The 2 main routes through Northern Ontario are Highways #11 and #17. They diverge at North Bay with Highway 11 going north and Highway 17 going west to Sault Ste. Marie then north from there. Both highways continue westward toward Manitoba, with a few points where there is only one road. The Trans-Canada Highway distance from North Bay to the Manitoba border is approximately 1650 km (1050 mi).
Via Rail provides service from Toronto to Parry Sound and Sudbury Junction (10 km from the city), and continues through Northern Ontario with stops at Hornepayne, Longlac, Sioux Lookout and several minor stops, to Winnipeg, Manitoba and westward.
While the former Ontario Northland passenger rail service from Toronto to North Bay and Cochrane, Ontario has been replaced by a bus, there is passenger rail service from Cochrane to Moosonee on the Polar Bear Express.
Ontario Northland operates the following routes in the region as of Sep 2021:
- Toronto - Barrie - North Bay
- Toronto - Parry Sound - Sudbury
- North Bay - Timmins - Cochrane
- Sudbury - Timmins - Hearst
- Ottawa - North Bay - Sudbury
- Sudbury - Sault Ste. Marie
- Thunder Bay - Sault Ste. Marie
- Thunder Bay - Winnipeg
Kasper Bus serves western areas as of Sep 2021:
- Thunder Bay-Longlac
- Thunder Bay-Sioux Lookout-Winnipeg
- Thunder Bay-White River
Car rental services are available in most of the larger centres, including Kenora, Red Lake, Thunder Bay, Nipigon, Terrace Bay, Marathon, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, Timmins, and North Bay.
In Northern Ontario, a car is a must if you wish to get from place to place. In most cases, you will be driving the Trans-Canada Highway (a cross-Canada network of highways, often offering more than one route), either on Highway 17 or Highway 11. Highway 17 follows a more southerly route hugging Lake Superior, while 11 ventures northward at North Bay and heads through a less populous region of the province (avoiding the winds off of the Great Lakes, so this route is popular with truckers) before heading southwards. Highways 11 and 17 run concurrently from the Nipigon River west to the Thunder Bay region, a single point of failure. To the west, 11 heads to the US border at Rainy River while Trans-Canada 17 continues west to Manitoba.
The heavy logging trucks that are common on the roads here take a long time to stop. Be sure to give them a lot of space, as cutting one off is a quick ticket to a collision that you will lose.
Ontario Northland operates the Polar Bear Express railway between Cochrane and Moosonee, on the James Bay shore, hauling mostly locals (the railway is the only method of overland access for many isolated Northern communities) and freight, plus some tourists. This train is one of the few remaining in North America that lets you flag it down to get picked up. Northbound trains leave Cochrane at 9AM four days a week, arriving in Moosonee at 2:20PM. Going the other way, trains depart Moosonee at 5PM and return to Cochrane at 11:30PM.
- Ouimet Canyon, near Dorion, is 100 metres (330 ft) deep, 150 metres (490 ft) wide and 2 km (1.2 mi) long. It is protected as part of Ouimet Canyon Provincial Park.
- Aguasabon Falls and Gorge near Terrace Bay is a 30-m (100-foot) waterfall that was created as a spill basin for a generating station. It offers tourists an amazing view through a wheelchair accessible boardwalk that overlooks the falls.
- Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre (Manitou Mounds) 33 km from Rainy River, is one of the most significant centres of early habitation and ceremonial burial in Canada. The centre offers interpretive tours and galleries, a collections space with over 16,000 artifacts, a gift shop that showcases artwork by local Indigenous artists, and a restaurant that serves traditional Ojibway cuisine.
- M.S. Kenora cruise is a great way to experience the splendour of Lake of the Woods. The cruise passes by Coney Island beach, through the scenic channels south of Kenora, and returns through the exciting ‘Devil’s Gap’, a channel guarded by a mythical rock bearing its name. Bald eagles and wildlife can also be sighted.
- Fort William Historical Park in Thunder Bay is a recreation of the days of the North West Company and the Canadian fur trade circa 1815. It offers a look at fur trade life, culture, rafts, medicine, business, domestic life and heritage farming.
- Agawa Canyon Tour Train is a very popular scenic one-day rail excursion to Agawa Canyon Park, 114 railway miles north of Sault Ste Marie. There is a three-hour stopover at the canyon where there are hiking trails and a railway museum. The train has dining cars, dome cars, and regular coach cars.
- Science North is a science education centre in Sudbury with an IMAX theatre, a butterfly gallery, a robotics lab, and interactive exhibits on geology, animal biology and other areas of science.
There are some amazing scenic drives in Northern Ontario, especially Highway 17 from Sault Ste Marie is particularly beautiful, as are both the Highway 11 and Highway 17 routes from Thunder Bay to Kenora.
Northern Ontario has a lot of provincial parks, some for day use only and others that have camping facilities. There are 3 large ones accessible by highways: Quetico Provincial Park; Lake Superior Provincial Park and Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park. Wabakimi Provincial Park is not accessible by highway, but is accessible from The Canadian passenger rail line (which can be flagged down, and features a baggage car that can handle canoes).
There is one national park: Pukaskwa National Park (pronounced "puck-a-saw"; just south of Marathon) which offers day use and overnight facilities. No motorized boats are allowed to be used in the park except those that access the park from Lake Superior.
Many towns through the region have outfitters who will equip you with everything you need for fishing, hunting or snowmobiling trips, and can provide guides, or organize the whole trip for you, often to remote private lodges, some accessible only by float planes.
Cell/mobile phone service is not available on many stretches of highways through the region, even those most travelled (Highways 11 and 17). You will have service in and around cities and towns, but you should bring some emergency supplies in the case of a breakdown, such as water, blankets, and food.
Black flies and mosquitoes are abundant throughout Northern Ontario. To protect yourself when camping or hiking, wear long sleeve shirts (white or brightly coloured), thick socks, and long pants (tuck the pants into the socks), and apply insect repellent containing DEET. A mosquito net can be nicer than applying repellent to your face. Also some type of bug netting in your tent is advised. Flies are most active at dawn and dusk between mid-June and late July.
Winter driving in the North can be treacherous, given the inclement winters here. Be prepared to adjust or cancel travel plans should the weather conditions require it.
West to Manitoba; south to Minnesota, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Central Ontario and Eastern Ontario; east to the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region of Quebec; or, if you have access to an aircraft, north to Nunavut.