The canal was built by the British after the War of 1812 to provide a secure link between Montreal and Kingston, without passing along the Saint Lawrence River because that river borders American territory. Colonel By of the Royal Engineers was in charge; the city at the North end of the canal, now called Ottawa, was originally Bytown.
Actual construction started in 1827 and the canal was opened 5 years later in 1832, with 47 locks in 25 separate lock stations. While the total length of the route is 202 kilometres, only about 19 kilometres are actually man-made, with the rest of the route using existing lakes and rivers.
The Bytown Museum by the Ottawa Locks in Ottawa is a good place to learn about the history of the Rideau Canal. Parks Canada displays four floors of museum exhibits at the Rideau Canal Visitor Centre, a 19th century stone mill (34 Beckwith Street) in Smiths Falls.
There are two main ways to see the Rideau Canal: either you can travel by boat in the canal itself, or you can drive alongside. You can either opt to drive or sail by yourself, or go for a guided tour. Some people also cycle this route.
The Canal is generally open to boat traffic from Victoria Day weekend (around the 24th of May) to Thanksgiving (in Canada, the second Monday of October). It can be covered in as little as three days by boat, but this won't leave you much time to enjoy the sights. In winter, an 8-kilometre section of the canal in Ottawa is transformed into the world's largest outdoor skating rink.
Maximum permitted dimensions are 27.4 m (90 ft) length, 7.9m (26 ft) width, and 6.7m (22 ft) height. Water depth is maintained at 1.5 metres (5.0 feet) minimum, although draught of over 1.2m is not recommended. A vertical lift bridge at Pretoria Avenue in Ottawa must be opened for vessels above 3m (10 feet) tall and a lift bridge at the Lasalle Causeway in Kingston must be opened for vessels above 4.3m (14 feet), interrupting road traffic on busy streets in both cases. Additional height restrictions apply for side trips at Kemptville and at the Tay Canal to Perth.
There were 49 locks in the original Rideau Canal, which Parks Canada numbers from Ottawa. Some sites operate as multiple adjacent locks in series, numbered individually here. Naming of locks as "Upper" or "Lower" is relative to the highest point on the canal system, which is near Westport; the locks descend toward Kingston or Ottawa from there.
- 1-8 Ottawa (downtown, near Parliament and Château Laurier)
- 9-10 Hartwells (Centretown)
- 11-12 Hogs Back (near Carleton University)
- 13 Black Rapids (between Ottawa and Manotick)
- 14-16 Long Island
- 17 Burritts Rapids (between Kemptville and Merrickville)
- 18 Lower Nicholsons (east of Merrickville)
- 19 Upper Nicholsons
- 20 Clowes
- 21-23 Merrickville (in the village)
- 24 Kilmarnock (midway to Smiths Falls)
- 25 Edmonds
- 26-27 Old Slys
- 28-31 Smiths Falls (one modern lock 29a bypasses three original locks 28-30)
- 32 Poonamalie
- 33 Lower Beveridges
- 34 Upper Beveridges
- 35 Narrows
- 36 Newboro
- 37 Chaffeys
- 38 Davis
- 39-42 Jones Falls
- 43-44 Upper Brewers
- 45 Lower Brewers
- 46-49 Kingston Mills
- Prince of Wales Drive (old Hwy 16, on west bank) or Colonel By Drive (former rail line, on east bank) canalside within Ottawa. Colonel By Drive ends at Locks 11-12 Hogs Back; take Hogs Back Drive east to CR 19 (Riverside Drive) to continue driving on the east side of the canal.
- CR 73 (old Hwy 16, west bank) or CR 19 (River Road, east bank) from Ottawa to Manotick
- CR 13 through Manotick and Kars village to Donnelly Drive (west bank, to Merrickville) or stay on River Road (east bank, to Kemptville)
- Take old Hwy 43 (CR 43) west from Kemptville or Merrickville to Smiths Falls
- From Smiths Falls, take Hwy 15 (east bank) south
- (For the side trip to Perth, exit from Hwy 15 onto CR 1 - Rideau Ferry - near Lombardy)
- To go to Kingston, stay on Hwy 15 (east bank) all the way to CFB Kingston and Old Fort Henry
This is neither the shortest, the fastest, the widest nor the quietest route from Ottawa to Kingston. Organised cycle tours like Ottawa Bicycle Club's annual 170km Rideau Lake Cycle Tour use routes which minimise distance or avoid main provincial highways, even if this means not following the canal for its entire 202km routing.
For cars, the fastest Ottawa-Kingston route is via Highways 416 and 401, both large modern divided highways. If you take this route, you will see the Rideau Canal for less than a minute as you cross the bridge over the Rideau River on Highway 416.
This should go without saying, but always wear a life jacket while boating on the canal. The canal varies from a channel a few dozen metres wide to lakes a few kilometres wide.
Stay clear of dams and weirs - they are clearly marked (buoyed off) on the water. Never venture near the base of a fixed overflow dam (dangerous undertows).
Swimming is a common pastime in most sections of the canal with the exception of the canal in Ottawa (from the locks at Hogs Back to the Ottawa Locks) where swimming is prohibited. Water quality is generally very good for swimming except at times near some public beaches (which will be posted) and in some sections of the shallower lakes (i.e. Colonel By Lake, River Styx) where blue-green algae blooms have been reported.
- Trans-Canada Highway (itinerary) from Ottawa-Gatineau
- Windsor-Quebec corridor (itinerary) from Kingston
- Thousand Islands