Nestled north east of Toronto and just a stone's throw away from the capital of Canada, the Ottawa Valley is filled with unexpected surprises and gems that will just blow you away. Seekers of thrill, adventure, and excitement will feel just at home in this region that's named Ontario's Highlands.
With flat plains, rolling hills, lakes, and a famous river, we set out here for a long weekend to see how far we could push our comfort zone while at the same time be pampered by the comforts of amazing food and sweet lodging. This follows our 3 day road trip itinerary into Ontario's Highlands‘ Ottawa Valley and covers all the activities we tried, restaurants we ate at, and where we stayed.
Read more about Ontario
- Best weekend trips from Toronto
- Outdoor wellness retreats in Ontario
- Yurts you can book in Ontario
- Nature's Harmony yurt review
- Where to find RV rentals in Ontario
Where to stay in Ontario's Highlands?
- During our trip, we stayed at the Cabana cabins at OWL Rafting and also Calabogie Peak Resorts.
Here's what we're covering:
Ontario's Highlands Freedom Finder Wandering Route
I'm many types of travellers but if there's something that describes me the best, it's “Freedom Finder”. This is someone that is looking for experiences to break away from the daily norms. Whether it's somewhere of peace and serenity or wild adventure and adrenaline, I am the type of person that loves to connect by disconnecting and in doing so, soak in everything new.
The below is what our journey looked like across 3 incredible days.
Day 1 – The Road Up From Toronto
I don't know about you but every time I go on a road trip, there are certain rituals that you have. 1) Grab McDonalds before heading out, 2) make sure you have tunes to jam, and 3) sing your heart out in our version of carpool karaoke.
CHECK,CHECK, AND CHECK)! (make sure you watch the video)
While on paper it seemed long, the 4.5 hours up to the Ottawa Valley went by really quickly. Big freeways and skyscrapers quickly gave way to small local roads, quaint towns, glistening lakes, and lots of trees.
Our main stop for the first day was a craft brewery with the slogan “Brewed by friends, for friends” in the town of Cobden, Ontario. The story goes that 3 friends came together on a rafting trip on the Ottawa River and realized that with the area home to some of the best natural ingredients, this was the perfect spot for a brewery. That is how Whitewater Brewing Company came to be.
At their Lakeside location where the brewing action happens, we signed up for a brewery tour. Being able to go behind the scenes, we were impressed with the meticulous care they've put into putting the facility together and ensuring quality. It was on the back floor where terms like “mash”, “hops”, and “fermenting” were used to describe the many steps involved to create the perfect pint.
Of course, what brewery tour would be complete without a sampling of their classics? Aptly called paddles (instead of flight) of beers, we were able to try their Farmer's Daughter, Whistler Paddler, Class V, and Midnight Stout.
Their dedication to quality really showed and I love how they've never lost sight of their roots. Whether it's in the ingredients of the beer they brew or their excellent food from the brew pub, everything is as local as it can be.
Settling into OWL
With our grumbling stomachs satisfied, we were only 20 minutes away from our final destination for the day, OWL Rafting on the Ottawa River which is where we stayed the night.
The check-in process was smooth and in no time, we were given our wrist straps and keys to the newly built Cabaña cabins. Unlike the standard cabins that are available or camping on the grounds, we were in awe at the luxury we were given with a super spacious room featuring a queen-sized bed, bathroom with sink and compost toilet, and most importantly electricity. This meant that we could charge our electronics (no blackout times) and the room had its own lights. On top of that, we didn't have to worry about bringing our own beddings, linens, or towels. The only catch was that we still had to use their private outdoor showers since there isn't one in the room.
With the prompt ring of the gong, it was time for dinner. Our rafting package included a steak buffet dinner which came with a delicious assortment of baked potatoes, corn, salad, beer, and apple pie a-la-mode.
What better way to end off the day than with a stroll on the beach before hitting the sauna – the perfect ending to a relaxed day.
Day 2 – Whitewater, Surf, and Splash
If the first day was characterized as laid back, the second day was the complete opposite of that and I mean that in the best way.
Anticipation and excitement was in the air as all of us converged into the main building to grab a hearty breakfast. The safety briefing was entertaining and gave us an idea of what to expect but at the same time, we also had no idea what was really in store for us. There was some extra time to gear up before we head to the buses waiting for us at the parking lot.
We piled into yellow school buses which immediately gave me the throwback feels to elementary school. Just like before, there wasn't any air condition other than the one that kicks in at 60 km/h.
Once we reached our launch site, we headed towards our rafting guide, Aiden, who was waiting for us by the big yellow 12-person rafts. He was stoked to meet us and this was also the first time our whole group of 12 strangers were assembled.
We hopped into our rafts and soon all 10 groups were in the water and making our way down-river as if on some sort of crazy expedition. Everything was calm and tranquil at this point. Aiden got us to practice our 2 speeds of paddling and our emergency “oh shit” grab handles (a common theme for this trip).
The calm soon dissolved as the thunder of the rapids grew louder and louder. There was no time to think. Aiden called out that it's our turn to head down and we go. “Easy forward” was followed by shouts of “hard forward” as water you would never dare get close to was staring us in the face. In a matter of seconds, our roller coaster of emotions go from pure fear to elation. Once the roar of the water can be heard behind us, I realized that we made it through.
That was kind of how it went for the rest of the day as we hit rapid after rapid. Of course all of them had friendly names like Black Chute, Butcher's Knife, and Coliseum.
As if terrifying rapids weren't enough, halfway through, we made a pit-stop at this towering cliff for refreshments, trail mix, and a casual jump off a cliff. No biggie!
By about 3PM, we got to our end destination and we were picked up by a boat that linked all of the rafts up and towed us to one of two pontoons that were waiting to feed us hungry hippos. We were all pretty tired at this point but we mustered our energy to get aboard and jumped straight into the buffet line of food that included the perfect mouth-watering BBQ chicken.
Ending in Calabogie
As the sun set, vivid colours reflected off of the still lake, the perfect backdrop to our dinner that managed to delight with their juicy mussels, al dente pasta, and flaky shepherd's pie. A must-have is definitely their cheesecake infused with carrot cake which was ridiculously good.
Day 3 – Need For Speed
For our final day, we spent the morning exploring the resort that becomes a big ski resort in the winter but transforms into a place of relaxation in the summer. All rested up in our large suite, we headed down to have breakfast which had a lovely spread of food.
We took the morning to also cross over to the resort's beach. While we didn't have time to fully take advantage of all the scenic spots, I was impressed to see how there was a lot of space to enjoy Calabogie Lake and there was a small island with bridge you could cross over to.
Pedal to the Metal
From fast moving rapids, we switched gears to something even faster at the Calabogie Motorsports Park. Greeted by our instructor for the day, Greg, we were in for a real track day. I was certainly giddy with excitement but I could tell that Chantelle wasn't as eager. That would soon change.
What you have to know about Calabogie Motorsports is that they're a relatively young race track. After opening in 2006, they became Canada's longest track and is now a major attraction for car companies, enthusiasts, and of course thrill-seekers like me. With state of the art pavement and beautiful facilities including multiple apartment suites for rent, event space, and private garages, there's a lot to like about this speedway.
We started with a quick lesson in the classroom on driving practices, rules, and an overview of the track itself. Next, all we needed to do was grab our helmets and before we knew it, we were on the track. As we made our way out, all I could hear in my head was Kenny Loggins' “Danger Zone”. (Chantelle was thinking about Pixar's movie Cars, Lightning McQueen, zoom zoom)
The first part of our experience was very similar to a condensed version of the Feel The Rush package that they offer. Once we were strapped in to our made-for-racing Mustangs complete with roll cages, short-throw shifter, and really big brakes, we were off to the races. Underneath my helmet was a headset and so even with the raging loud noise of the engine blasting away, I could hear Greg shouting out commands for upcoming turns, when I needed to open up throttle, hit the brakes, and most importantly remind me to keep my hands at 9 and 3 o'clock position on the steering wheel.
Chantelle got a chance too and she was nervous at first because the car was manual transmission but Greg talked her through it and was driving in 4th gear in no time. She was all smiles when she finished her laps and with the amount of yelling I heard through video editing, she had just as heart-pumping fun as I did.
Where in rafting you're at the mercy of the currents, driving on a track in my opinion is even more thrilling because you're in full control of every tilt of the steering wheel and pump of the pedals. Driving beyond the edge of comfort at high speeds is what makes this so exhilarating.
For good measure, Greg then gave us a chance to feel what it's like to track around with a professional racer with the Hot Laps experience. Sitting in the passenger seat, all I can remember was being knocked around every turn and our faces being contorted in many unnatural ways.
If that wasn't enough speed, we took it up a notch with one of the many supercars they have in their garage. As if descended from the heavens, Greg pulled in a bright yellow Lamborghini Gallardo and even though we were still recovering from our accelerated heart rates, all I could say was “HELL YES!”
Taking a deep breath, we jumped into our supercar track experience. I tried to channel everything I learned in the Mustang but that was all thrown out the window when I realized that the Lambo was automatic and how differently the car handled. There was only one mode – FAST.
After we wrapped things up in Calabogie, we made our way back to Toronto. We were exhausted and sticky from all the sweat but it was all worth it. With ear to ear smiles, we were happy to have spent the weekend trying something a little bit out of the ordinary. Who knew all of this was right on our backyard.
So there you have it, our 3 action-packed days in Ontario's Highlands and the Ottawa Valley. This goes to show you that with our Freedom Finder Wandering Route, there's a lot you can do as a weekend road trip from a big city like Toronto or Ottawa. If it's adventure you're looking for, I've certainly found it.
This trip was a gifted experience by Ontario's Highlands however all views and opinions are on my own as I love coming back to this region year after year.
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