Snow Belt areas are terrific for winter sports enthusiasts like skiers and snowmobilers but motorists can face dicey drives when it’s snowing and blowing out there.
Police, the Ministry of Transportation and road safety associations remind us that Ontario’s highways are among the safest in the world, although weather-related driving hazards can make winter travel frightful with high winds, drifts, icy patches and poor visibility.
Road closures ordered by police due to bad weather and surface conditions must be heeded, so it’s always wise to delay the trip until conditions improve.
The following roads are 10 of Ontario’s most challenging winter motoring routes.
Highway 400 — Between Barrie and Toronto is an eight lane, four south and four northbound, route running through a well established snow belt region where blowing wind and snow can produce whiteouts and major drifts during the winter months. As the main GTA artery to cottage and ski country it’s a heavily travelled road all year long and despite having a great surface and good snow clearing service it has been the site of numerous weather-related accidents and major multi-vehicle calamities over the years.
Highway 401 — From Toronto to the Quebec border the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway can be a blessing and a curse in the winter. It’s a stretch of easy driving divided pavement but can turn into a nightmare in bad weather. Off lake gusts and squalls in various areas between Toronto and Kingston can shake you up and the high volume of transport truck traffic can be intimidating. Pack your patience, keep your distance and pull over at a rest stop when weariness sets in because it’s a long haul to Cornwall.
Highway 401 — It’s flat as a pancake and straight as an arrow from London to the U.S. border. Nicknamed Carnage Alley because of a series of fatal accidents and multi-vehicle crashes in the fog during warmer months, the 60 km section east of Windsor can be deceptively hazardous in winter due to ice patches when there’s very little sign of the white stuff. Numerous cars and trucks slide off the road at this time of year as drivers lose control because they don’t slow down.
Highway 402 — From London to Sarnia this 102 km four-lane highway takes you to the U.S. via the Blue Water International Bridge over the St. Clair River at the southern tip of Lake Huron. The massive blizzard in 2010 was a freak weather event as large snow storms are not common in the area, but every winter streamers routinely sweep inland off the lake causing icy road surfaces and blowing snow which leads to highway havoc when cars and trucks are moving too fast.
The Q.E.W.— Hugging the Lake Ontario shoreline from Burlington to Welland this section can turn into a scary super highway when the winds blow in from the lake. It’s Ontario’s busiest auto and truck route leading to a choice of four border crossings into the U.S. Although winters are generally mild the entire Niagara Peninsula sandwiched between Lakes Erie and Ontario can be hit hard by heavy snowfall when south-western winds are predominant.
Highway 69 — For the past few years road construction has been going on to widen this route of the Trans-Canada Highway to four lanes from the Parry Sound area to Sudbury with the final portion nearing completion north of the French River up to the home of the Big Nickel. The posted speed limit is 70 in the construction zone but that’s if the driving conditions are good, so expect to go much slower when the winds pick up and the snow flies.
Highway 26 — This two-lane highway rounds the south shore of Georgian Bay from Collingwood to the Wasaga Beach area and it can turn into a pretty treacherous route with greatly reduced visibility and drifting snow all the way east to Barrie and Lake Simcoe whenever a winter storm passes through. It can be a scary ride on a bad weather day but all that fresh fluffy stuff also brings joy to the skiers who flock to this Blue Mountain region.
Highway 21 — The scenic 170 km two-lane road along the Lake Huron shoreline from the Ipperwash Beach area stretches north through to Southampton, where it veers inland heading east to Owen Sound. This part of Ontario offers spectacular sunsets year round but it can be a challenging route when the winter snows blow off the lake. Be prepared to spend the night in one of the many delightful communities along the way if the OPP close the road when the weather gets bad.
Highway 17 — Winter driving can get rough on the Trans-Canada Highway between the nation’s capitol and North Bay, 350 km to the west. This two-lane route skirts the south bank of the Ottawa River in places linking several communities. Counties have looked to the provincial and federal governments to widen and divide the highway as there has been a rise in road fatalities and increased truck traffic in recent years. Watch out for icy patches and whiteouts from blowing snow.
Highway 17 — The Trans-Canada Highway between Sault Ste. Marie and Wawa is a 225 km route along the rocky northeastern shore of Lake Superior, the largest fresh water lake in the world. It offers some of the most breathtaking vistas and fiercest wind whipped winter snow storms in the province. If you’re planning on motoring through this rugged region, and even on to Thunder Bay check the weather forecasts and highway surface condition reports before hitting the road.
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