Canada is a vast nation that is known to the world as the place for poutine, maple syrup, Mounties, Niagara Falls, Banff, Whistler, igloos, hockey, Michael Bublé, and Justin Bieber. Yes, yes, all very stereotypical but to me there's so much more.
Canada is full of hidden gems
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In honour of Canada's 150th anniversary, I wanted to showcase something unique, something unexpected, and of course something a little adventurous. Canada is full of hidden gems that most people don't automatically think about when the Great White North pops up in their heads. As with most gems though, you just need to know where to look.
Coming from Toronto, I naturally looked north to take advantage of the wintery outdoors. It doesn't get better than the crisp winter air, fresh pine smell, gentle snowflakes falling, the snow that captures the precious beams of sunlight that makes its way through, and the warmth of a crackling campfire.
With snow and ice on our mind, we hopped into the car and headed north to Muskoka for a winter weekend escape to cozy up in our upgraded suite at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Huntsville and a few adventurous ideas in tow.
A Fairy Tale Ice Trail
Imagine skating in the calm of the wilderness with forest trees to your left and to the right. Imagine cutting through fresh sheets of ice and going on a trail that feels never ending? Sounds too good to be true?
Well, Ontario's best kept secret is out and it's called Arrowhead Provincial Park. Absence of the echoing noise and brightness of your typical arena, you can truly skate freely out here. There's something fairy tale-like about being able to carve your skates in the open while surrounded by snow-covered evergreen trees.
Located mere minutes from downtown Huntsville in Muskoka, entrance to the park is a very affordable $17 per vehicle. Sadly, I don't own a pair of skates and if you're like me, you'll want to take advantage of the rental shop which has them for $10 per pair.
At the head of the trail is a comfy staging area which has benches to lace your skates up, cubbies to store your shoes, and a campfire to keep you warm. String lights dangling between trees further help set the ambiance.
Between December and March, there are special Fire and Ice nights when the trail is illuminated by hundreds of tiki torches that light your way after the sun has gone down. If you're lucky enough to plan around those days, I highly recommend making it out to the park.
Whether you like zipping through the track at speed-skating velocity or taking a leisurely skate with your family or loved one, this is an experience that you won't forget.
Know Before You Go
Address – Arrowhead Provincial Park is 7 km north of Huntsville, off Hwy 11. Take exit 226, then turn right onto Arrowhead Park Road.
Phone – 705-789-5105
- December & January: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm
- February: 9:00 am – 5:30 pm
- March: 9:00 am – 6:00 pm
Ice Trail Hours – Daily: 11:00 am — park closes (On Fire and Ice nights, the skate trail is closed for maintenance from 3:00 pm until 6:00 pm)
Cost – $17 per vehicle and $10 for all-day skate rentals
Just You, Your Snowshoes, and the Highlands
In the equally serene winter air, we traded in our skate blades with snowshoes to trek into waist-high snow in the thick Algonquin forest highlands. Instead of cutting through ice, we crunched through fresh powdered snow to follow our own path of adventure.
There are two trails in the park that are worth exploring even as a novice. The first is the one that starts at the Mew Lake Campground which branches off into the Highland Backpacking Trail. This trail offers an incredible diversity of forest landscapes from wide opening of fields to being under a canopy of trees to ending up on a bridge and watching the rapids of a stream come rushing through. While it may seem daunting at first, the trail itself is quite well marked from others passing through.
The second trail is right across the highway and called the Two Rivers Trail. This trail that takes you along a full loop around thick forest, and it rewards you with 180 degree vistas when you get to the other end. Perched on top of a cliff, enjoy the view of the army of trees dusted with snow that make up the forest below.
The tranquil experience of snowshoeing is special because it is one where you're out there alone in the forest, focused on nothing more than the blowing of snow across a ground packed with powder, and your left foot moving forward followed by your right foot.
Know Before You Go
Address – The West Gate is where you'll most likely enter into the Provincial Park. Make sure you stop by the visitor centre before proceeding to pick up your vehicle permit. The West Gate is 43.6 km east (on Highway 60) of the junctions of Highways 11 & 60 in Huntsville, Ontario.
Phone – 705-633-5572
Trail Hours – There are no opening and closing hours per say but my recommendation is to be on the trail when the sun is up. Trust me, you don't want to be out there in the dark.
Cost – $17 per vehicle and $20 for all-day skate rentals at Algonquin Outfitters
To think that all I needed to do was drive up north a few hours from Toronto and stay the weekend at the Holiday Inn Express in Huntsville shows just how easy, incredibly accessible, and yet easily forgotten these two winter experiences are. That's why skating at Arrowhead Provincial Park and snowshoeing at Algonquin Provincial Park are my handpicked hidden gems in Canada.
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This trip to Muskoka was sponsored by IHG® Rewards Club. The content and opinions expressed below are that of Going Awesome Places.