It’s the most wonderful time of the year for a scenic drive: autumn weekends bring about a painter’s palette of changing leaves, along with cooler temperatures – not having to blast the air conditioning is great for fuel economy.
But as lovely as it is to hit the road for no reason other than to view the fall colours, the best road trips also have a great destination. Southern Ontario is chock full of great excuses to set off toward foliage and fun.
Here are five ideas for autumn road trips that can be accomplished within a day from Greater Toronto.
Caledon: Forks of the Credit and Cheltenham Badlands
The surprise: The Cheltenham Badlands reopened to visitors in late September after being closed for more than three years. This barren landscape was created by erosion caused by some unfortunate farming habits in the early 20th century. The unique shale formations that were exposed as a result are a highly fragile environment. A new pay-parking lot, trail system, and boardwalk have been constructed to help control traffic and protect the sensitive area. Go and see them quickly before the selfie-stick-wielding influencers find out.
How to get there: The quintessential fall drive to the Badlands used to be along Forks of the Credit Road. Local residents took umbrage with the unnaturally high traffic levels, though, and successfully lobbied to have speed bumps installed that have sucked the life out of this route.
If you’d like to see some scenery and enjoy getting there, try this route instead: go north on Highway 10 to Charleston Sideroad, then turn left onto Mississauga Road – the section that runs past the Caledon Ski Club isn’t quite as animated as Forks of the Credit Road, but it’s still entertaining. Stay on it through Belfountain, which has a great place to stop for a coffee, and turn left onto Olde Base Line Road to reach the parking lot between Creditview Road and Chinguacousy Road.
Bonus stop: Head back to Mississauga Road and continue one street south to Boston Mills Road to find Spirit Tree Ciderhouse and pick up some of fall’s fermented apple bounty to sample at home.
Kitchener: Bingemans and Woodside National Historic Site
The surprise: Once Toronto’s many outdoor amusement areas close at the end of the summer, weatherproof places to wear your kids out become surprisingly hard to come by. Head about an hour and a half to the west and you’ll find one of the largest indoor playlands in the province with an arcade, three-level play structure, ball pit, rock climbing walls, ropes course, and construction equipment play zone.
If the weather is nicer and you prefer something a little less plugged in, Woodside National Historic Site is not far away. Set on over 11 acres of mature forest and manicured gardens, the mansion was the boyhood home of Canada’s longest-serving Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King. It’s open only between Thanksgiving and Christmas each year, making it a great excuse to get out on an autumn afternoon.
How to get there: Make a beeline across the 401 and up Highway 8 to get there as quickly as you can, let the kids loose until they drop, and then let them sleep in the back seat while you enjoy the silence and the views as you meander back to the GTA by heading either along Highway 7 through Guelph, Rockwood, and Acton, or via the back roads to Appleby Line and Steeles Avenue past Kelso and Rattlesnake Point conservation areas. Bliss.
Bonus stop: Add to your autumn experience by stopping at one of the best apple-picking experiences around, Chudleigh’s Farm, just north of the 401 off Highway 25.
Hamilton: City of Waterfalls
The surprise: Did you know that Hamilton is home to more than 100 waterfalls? Some are just a few steps from major roads while others take a long hike to reach, making this exploration a true choose-your-own-adventure experience.
How to get there: This route will take you past some of the more scenic and easier-to-reach vistas – but they’re also among the best-known, so expect it to be busy on weekends. Take the QEW to the 403 Westbound in Hamilton. Exit at Waterdown Road and head north. Just past Mountain Brow Road, before reaching the village of Waterdown, is the parking area for Smokey Hollow Waterfall, accessible via an easy-going hike. Carry on north to Dundas Street, then make a left and another quick left onto Main Street, which ends at Snake Road. Make a left onto Snake Road and follow its undulating curves past gorgeous overlooks until you get to Old York Road. Turn right and stay on it as it turns into York Road and crosses Highway 6.
If you like, you can continue north around Borer’s Falls Conservation Area – or stop there to try out the longer and more challenging trails – then continue on to Tew’s Falls, Webster’s Falls, and Dundas Peak. But the parking for this area overflows very easily in peak times and visitors are sent to shuttles from Christie Lake Conservation Area a few minutes away, which is a frustrating way to spend an afternoon. Instead, try continuing along York Road to Highway 8, turning left, and then turning right when it meets Main Street West. Tiffany Falls and Sherman Falls are quick walks from parking lots just down the road, and more remote waterfalls can be found a longer hike away.
Bonus stop: If you find yourself in need of a caffeine hit, stop for a coffee at the original Tim Hortons at 65 Ottawa Street North in Hamilton.
Niagara Region: The Comfort Maple
The surprise: Fall colours, super-sized! Estimated to be well over 500 years old, the Comfort Maple is said to be the largest sugar maple in Canada. As though you need another excuse to head down to wine country!
How to get there: You can take the fast way – follow the Niagara-bound QEW to Victoria Avenue, drive through Vineland, then turn left at Metler Road – or you can take a more scenic route down Highway 406 into St. Catharines, exit at Glendale Avenue, and head west to turn left onto Pelham Road and then Effingham Street to approach Metler Road from the east and turn right toward the conservation area.
Bonus stop: This area is bursting with them. Depending on which route you take, either the Beamsville Bench or the Niagara-on-the-Lake wine regions are right on your doorstep. If you opt for the scenic route noted above, you’ll drive right past Henry of Pelham Estate Winery’s tasting room. (We don’t endorse sampling and driving, of course, but you can always pick some up to take home.)
Kawarthas: Burleigh Falls and the Stoney Lake Loop
The surprise: This one’s greatest delight is how easy it is to find sweeping and colourful vistas, complete with abounding lakes and rivers, without ever getting out of your car. If it’s mostly the drive you’re looking for, pick this route.
How to get there: The views start roughly halfway up Highway 115 from the 401 and only get better from there. Try this loop around Stoney Lake, one of the most beautiful lakes in the Kawarthas: when the 115 ends at Highway 7, turn right and follow it to Highway 28, then turn left. Turn right at Warsaw Road and follow it through the hamlet of Warsaw, then turn right onto County Road 6. Stay on this until you reach Northey’s Bay Road, then turn left. (Enjoy this road – it’s one of the best around.) When you rejoin Highway 28, turn left and stop for a quick look around at Burleigh Falls. During boating season, the lock in this village is one of the busiest on the Trent-Severn Waterway. Continue south on Highway 28 to return to the city.
Bonus stop: Instead of bombing straight down Highway 28, if you have the extra time, turn off at Queen Street to go through Lakefield and take the back way on the banks of the Otonabee River into Peterborough.
When’s the Best Time?
It changes from year to year and from day to day, depending on how hot the summer has been and how much wind and rain the autumn brings. The most reliable source of information is the Ontario Parks fall foliage report, which shows the average colour vibrance and leaf falls for regions across the province. The report is available here.
Header, Best Time & Burleigh Falls Images © Russ Higgins
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