The sun is shining – well, it’s trying to, anyway – and the end of the school year is near. And as luck would have it, gas prices aren’t terrible. The stars are aligning: it’s time to seriously consider packing the car this summer and taking the family on the open road to find the best of what Canada has to offer.
Whether you only have a couple of days or you can spare a week or more, there’s a trove of treasures waiting to be discovered within a reasonable drive from Toronto.
This one happens to be top of mind because my friends and I just visited a couple of weekends ago, but we go every year without fail for good reason: Ontario’s West Coast has beaches for days, and almost all of them are quiet with gentle and shallow shorelines that make them a dream for families with young kids. The wide variety of towns, provincial parks, and remote cottages means that the right experience is out there for everyone, all within a three- to four-hour drive of the GTA. And the sunsets alone are entirely worth the trip.
Who says you need to find an ocean to bask in crystal clear, turquoise blue waters? A trip north of Toronto for about four hours on Highway 10 will get you to the Bruce Peninsula, home to the northernmost section of the Bruce Trail, the largest remaining stand of forest in Southern Ontario, and swimming holes galore along the western side of Georgian Bay. Full disclosure: this destination is very popular, and it can be difficult to find accommodations within the boundaries of Bruce Peninsula National Park this close to the summer unless you luck into a cancellation. But don’t let that stop you from trying: there are plenty of quality, independently run motels and campgrounds within easy driving distance of the park’s most popular locations.
Georgian Bay Islands
If it’s natural beauty and honest-to-goodness isolation you crave but you don’t believe it can be found within a two-hour drive of the city, think again. Georgian Bay Islands National Park is a rare gem set just off Highway 400 between Barrie and Parry Sound. The catch is that getting there takes more effort than average: day trippers and cabin guests can get to the main campground on Beausoleil Island by reserving a spot in advance on the park’s boat, but tent campers need to pack everything they’ll need and secure their own passage from a private operator in Honey Harbour. The reward is an experience relatively few people ever take the time to discover: classic Central Ontario vistas, many kilometres of approachable hiking trails, well-maintained facilities, and blissful escape from the hustle and bustle of the ordinary.
Prince Edward County
This suggestion seems so obvious as to almost not be worth mentioning, but it makes so much sense that Torontonians flock to the County every summer: there’s a magic here that simply cannot be replicated anywhere else within a two-hour drive of the city. It’s in the mix of high-end accommodations and camping and swimming near the dunes at Sandbanks Provincial Park; the fine dining and celebrated wineries interspersed with artisan cheese makers and bustling farmers’ markets; the charming villages and the abundance of inimitable views of Lake Ontario. Once you land in the County, your experience here truly is what you make of it.
I’ve never met a single school-aged child who didn’t thrill at that first sight of the Peace Tower and Canada’s parliament buildings. But there’s so much more to see and do in our nation’s capital, roughly four and a half hours from Toronto: the many museums, art galleries, national historic sites and monuments, and riverside parks can turn this trip into as educational or scenic a journey as you want it to be. Bonus side trip: it’s been a few years since I visited, but when I last went to Carp, Ontario, to check out the Diefenbunker, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s Cold War-era underground shelter designed to provide refuge for government officials in the event of nuclear attack, it was deeply fascinating and would be well worth the drive with older kids who are mature enough to take it in with gravitas.
Kids of all ages can appreciate climbing the last remaining fortification city walls on the continent north of Mexico. It takes a full eight-hour day of driving to get there, so this trip requires a longer time commitment. But once you arrive, the immense amount of history to explore in one of Canada’s original centres of colonization, with its enduring architecture and unmistakeable European influence, make it one of this country’s most unique destinations. This can turn into a very expensive trip if you’re not cautious, but it doesn’t have to be: there’s a parking lot on rue Abraham-Martin near the Old Port where trailers can legally dry camp within walking distance of the major tourist sites for, as of this writing, $70 per night.
Bay of Fundy
If you’ve got a few days to explore, a strong desire for an easy seaside getaway, and kids who can tolerate two seven- to eight-hour days in a car (or three shorter days, or perhaps a stopover in Quebec City to break it up), then a trip to Fundy National Park might be just the right adventure for you. This family-friendly park combines the fascination of the Bay of Fundy’s most extreme tides in the world with a variety of camping experiences, massive playgrounds, a swimming pool with a view, and a quick trip into the village of Alma for a lobster dinner and an ice cream cone while breathing in the salty ocean air. For those who want to branch out and see a little more, New Brunswick’s famous Hopewell Rocks are a 35-minute drive away.
A Few Tips
– Take in the programs designed for kids. Parks Canada’s Xplorers program, available at select national parks and historic sites, is wonderful for helping kids put down their devices and engage with Canada’s natural and historical treasures. And this summer, Ontario Parks is joining the fun by introducing its park crests program, which is making dozens of collectible custom-designed crests available at many of its most popular provincial parks.
– Tune up your car before you go. Nothing ruins a vacation faster than being stuck on the side of the road with maintenance issues, especially if they could have been avoided with a little forethought. For shorter trips, at a minimum you should make sure your tires are in good shape, including your spare or repair kit, and top off your windshield washer fluid. For longer trips, consider also getting an oil change before you go, changing your wiper blades if needed, and checking on whether any routine maintenance is due that’s best taken care of before you hit the road.
– Fuel up wisely. Fuel bills can be one of the highest costs on any road trip. Drivers often pay a premium for filling up at more convenient locations like urban centres or highway rest stops, but extremely remote locations can often see jacked-up prices, too. Choosing small-town stations not too far from major highways can save you a few bucks over a long haul. If you’re really serious about cutting costs, there are apps out there that can help you find the best-priced fuel within a given range.
– Be tick prepared. Early reports this year say that tick activity is unusually high, which increases the risk of contracting Lyme disease for those who spend time outdoors. Don’t let that scare you away, though: there are plenty of preventative measures that can help. Use a tick-repelling bug spray, wear light colours so that they’re easier to spot, stay in the middle of groomed walking trails so that you don’t brush up against the long grasses where they like to hide, shower within an hour or two of returning from a hike so that they don’t have time to establish a bite, and check yourself and your family for ticks daily. It takes 24 hours for Lyme disease to transfer between a human and an embedded tick, so making these routines a habit and learning how to remove ticks safely is all that’s needed to keep fearlessly enjoying the great outdoors.