The upper Ottawa Valley is a region in Eastern Ontario, Canada. Renfrew County forms the heart of the Ottawa Valley as delineated by the cultural region (which may not coincide with the geological terrain).
This guide covers the Ontario side of the river, for the same valley in Quebec see Pontiac (Quebec).
Generally speaking, closer to the Ottawa River the terrain becomes flatter with thus more farmland. This is also where the greatest concentration of people reside in the region. Although not synonymous, the Ottawa Valley is closely associated with Renfrew County as the towns most closely associated with the valley (Arnprior, Renfrew and Pembroke) are all located there, on or near the river.
Across the river is the Quebec region of Outaouais (Ottawa in French). We treat that in a separate article but parts of it, especially the historically English-speaking towns near the river such as Aylmer (now part of Gatineau) are very similar to places on the Ontario side of the river.
Towns and villages
- 1 Arnprior — gateway to tourism in the Upper Ottawa Valley, and the western gateway to Ottawa and Canada's National Capital Region
- 2 Bancroft — the "mineral capital of Canada" offers snowmobile, hiking and ATV trails
- 3 Barry's Bay — the eastern gateway to Algonquin Provincial Park
- 4 Calabogie — a ski and motorsports resort town
- 5 Killaloe
- 6 Maynooth — Lake St. Peter Provincial Park offers campsites, beaches and hiking trails
- 7 North Algona Wilberforce — snowmobiling, cross county skiing, ice fishing, canoeing, kayaking and fishing
- 8 Pembroke — a small city that can be a base for exploring Algonquin Provincial Park
- 9 Petawawa — the Petawawa Heritage Village shows the hist of the German immigrant settlement era and the traditions and teachings of the First Nations people
- 10 Renfrew — an important stop for outdoor enthusiasts on their way to nearby whitewater rafting, boating, camping, hunting, golfing, fishing, snowmobiling, down-hill skiing, and cross-country skiing
- 11 Wilno — Canada's oldest Polish settlement
While there is not a substantially-sized park within Renfrew County, Algonquin Park borders much of the region to the west. The Ottawa Valley itself is largely cottage country (forming a sort of transition area between cottage owners from Ottawa and Toronto.)
- Bonnechere Provincial Park
- Bonnechere River Provincial Park
- Driftwood Provincial Park
- Foy Provincial Park
- Lower Madawaska River Provincial Park
- Westmeath Provincial Park
The region was first inhabited by indigenous people belonging to various First Nations (or "tribes"). Relatively few First Nations people still reside in this region, though there is a presence near Golden Lake, including a pow wow once a year.
As with many early attempts to penetrate the continent's interior, the rivers served as the main route by which to do this and the Ottawa River was no exception. Later the river served as the conduit for the lumber trade, which made millionaires out of men in the region. The ties to the river are less strong these days, but still live on in some folklore, most notably Joseph Montferrand or Joe Muffaraw (depending on which side of the river you are on) a local lumberjack comparable to and predating Paul Bunyan.
Renfrew is considered by some to be the birthplace of the NHL, though there is little in the town to show for it.
There is a discernible accent in the Ottawa Valley though those that understand English will have little trouble understanding or being understood. There are some French speakers in the area as well, but even into the Quebec region on the other side of the Ottawa River, English will be easily understood.
Despite the region's one-time strong link to the railway and the river, the only viable way to visit the region is by motor vehicle. Highway 60 from the west and highway 17 (the Trans-Canada Highway) from the northwest and southeast form the main routes in the region. Bus service is possible to some areas, but there will often be only one bus per day.
Access to a motor vehicle is almost a necessity when travelling through the region, especially for areas off the beaten track. Some people take advantage of the relatively calm rivers to arrange multi day river journeys, but these also require some transport to the start and end points.
The urban areas serve primarily as local centres and have very few actual sites. These towns usually have a local museum, and in Renfrew and Arnprior the river offers a pleasant locale for a walk or picnic.
For a more authentic experience head for the rural areas. Balaclava, not far from Renfrew, often makes the list for most picturesque villages in Ontario. Eganville is another village on the Bonnechere River (as is Renfrew) and has a nice setting. Nearby and also on the Bonnechere River are the Bonnechere Caves, a series of caves carved out of the limestone by the moving water. These are privately owned and there is an entrance fee involved.
Wilno has strong ties to Polish culture, and those interested can find numerous Polish sites nearby. Foymount is the settlement in Ontario at the highest elevation. On County Road #9 north of Kelly's Corner stands a small piece of virgin forest.
There are no set itineraries for the region, as points of note are often tied to scenery as opposed to "must-see" sites. One of the best ways to see the region is to explore the back roads. If you are driving between two points, check your map or inquire locally if there is a back way to go. Also be aware that some areas around Mount St. Patrick have uranium deposits and these areas are off limits and sometimes patrolled.
- Whitewater Rafting on the Ottawa River is popular. Despite being a region associated with nature, there are not many parks and thus access to nature seems restricted to cottage owners. However, if you can find a boat launch, then you should be able to access most bodies of water. Furthermore, most islands in lakes are public property and thus camping on them is fine except where otherwise noted.
- Skiing is a popular activity in Calabogie. Dacre Heights is a former commercial ski hill. It is now private property, but you are welcome to ski, snowshoe, hike, and bike, all over the hill.
- Snowmobiling is another popular seasonal activity, and the region is served by an extensive network of trails.
- Hunting wildlife is a popular pastime among locals and visitors who flock to the area every fall season.
- Arts: the region is not home to a thriving arts scene, but most small towns have a series of theatre productions throughout the year.
Food is limited to what is standard in rural Canada. Every town will have a greasy spoon, a Chinese takeout place, a fancier restaurant, a pizza place, and one or two fast food places.
If you ask around among locals you may be able to find some less common meats, which often come from hunting. Be aware that it is also possible to buy illegal meat in this way, which is could result in some legal action. In summertime, look for church picnics or barbecues. The town of Wilno is known for its Polish fare.
Local taverns abound throughout the region, many of which amount to little more than watering holes, although several of these are where you'll be able to see some of the local culture of the region. Bars known for hosting live country and rock music are:
- Finnegan's in Renfrew
- The Lasso in Pembroke
- Wilno Tavern
The Ottawa Valley region is generally very safe. There may be some alcohol or drug abuse in urban and township areas.
The Ottawa Valley region contains many country and back-country as well as wilderness areas. Cell phone coverage is generally good but may be patchy in some remote areas. The Valley has fairly harsh winters and the usual precautions should be taken when traveling, especially when driving to more remote areas.
There is a lot of wildlife throughout the region, including apex predators such as coyotes, wolves, and black bears, but these animals in actuality account for very few attacks on humans as long as reasonable precautions are taken while camping and hiking. Watch out for deer and other wildlife crossing the road as this is the cause of many car accidents throughout the year.
Wilderness and back-country areas in the summer can contain many biting insects. Most of these are merely a nuisance but the ticks in this area sometimes carry lime disease which can cause serious illness. Take the usual precautions against ticks such as wearing long sleeves and long pants when in bushy areas, and check yourself, your children, and pets for ticks after coming back from walks.
- Algonquin Provincial Park to the north-west offers a variety of interior camping, canoeing and hiking.
- The Pontiac region of Quebec forms the other half of the upper Ottawa Valley.
- Downriver, the Ottawa/Outaouais river continues through Ottawa-Gatineau (see Ottawa-Rideau, Outaouais) to Prescott-Russell, a disproportionately francophone region on the Trans-Canada Highway. The Ottawa River ends at Montréal