Why is Northern Ontario Special? – 9 Cool Reasons 🇨🇦

Checking in for the second part of this huge province, Ontario is definitely too big for one post. For just one of anything, really. We’ll take a look at the biggest section of ON here to tack onto why it is such a unique place. You can read about Southern Ontario here if you wish. Okay, where exactly could this place be? And what makes Northern Ontario so special? Hmm, so mysterious!

map of Ontario, Canada, highlighted northern region
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map of Canadian Provinces and Territories, highlighted Ontario
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Northern ONTARIO: Quick Geography

As you can see on the map, this chunk of Ontario makes up the vast majority of land in the province, but with only a small portion of its people. In a land area about the size of Vietnam, it sits mostly on the Canadian Shield. In the southern portion are lots of boreal forests with more rugged terrain here and in the interior. Further north and inland are influenced more by tundra landscapes. The climate further north is subarctic while the south is more continental with warm summers.

The western edge stems out into Canada’s Midwest forests while the northeast is a vast wetland called the Hudson Plains. The plains cover the coasts of the huge Hudson Bay and smaller James Bay. Also in the Great Lakes region, Northern Ontario touches the shores of Lake Huron and Lake Superior. Another very notable lake is Lake Nipigon. The French River and Algonquin Park are usually considered the areas that separate north from south in this province. Not far from these parts is Sudbury, the region’s biggest city. Otherwise, you can’t miss this place on a map, it’s really huge.

1. Lake Huron & Sudbury – nature & attractions

rocky and wet landscape around Killarney Provincial Park, Northern Ontario
Killarney – by Sergey Pesterev

Since we’re talking about Sudbury, I’ll start with her. The official name is Greater Sudbury, or Grand-Sudbury in French since there are lots of French speakers here. Besides being the most populous city in Northern Ontario, it’s also the biggest city in the whole province by land area. It’s the main urban center and a nice gateway to the vast north.

One standout feature in this city is Science North, a big science complex dedicated to sparking scientific curiosity. There are underground tunnels, exhibits of different sciences, boat tours, and an IMAX theater. There’s even the biggest coin in the world on the grounds. Sudbury’s the biggest urban attraction in the whole north, so it really deserves its dues. This city isn’t far from Lake Huron which has a number of great parks and trails to discover.

the big nickel, giant coin at the Science North center in Greater Sudbury, Ontario
the Big Nickel – By Phil Harvey

Two special parks on the lake are the French River and Killarney provincial parks. This part of Ontario is very rocky with tons of hills. This makes the perfect contrast along the rivers and lakes in these nearby parks. Particularly in Killarney, there’s a rocky overlook called the Crack that’s awesome for getting a view of the park’s best features all in one spot. There are beautiful forests and wild scenery laced up against tons of little islands and waterways. The French River itself forms a type of gorge with bridges to explore. Not far away, there is one island in particular that needs its own section.

2. Manitoulin Island – big island

view from the cup and saucer trail on Manitoulin island, northern Ontario
View from the Cup & Saucer Trail, Manitoulin – By User:Jhapk

Manitoulin is a very special island indeed. It’s actually the biggest freshwater island in the world, so big that it holds over 100 lakes itself. Some of those lakes even have islands. Dang! More than its impressive size, Manitoulin is home to many great forests, falls, inlets, beaches, and little islands too. Several of the towns here have a nice rustic feel with some of the frontier-style buildings still preserved.

Two trails that hikers seemed to be very excited about are the Great Spirit Circle Trail and the Cup & Saucer Trail. The former offers up adventure from an indigenous perspective, providing rich cultural interactions. Cup & Saucer takes hikers up into the rugged hills, even scaling a ladder to get to a high viewpoint. From there the islands and lakes are free to take in.

3. Lake Superior – nature & hiking

shore of Lake Superior at sunrise
Lake Superior shore – by NOAA

Moving on to the next Great Lake, Lake Superior has some impressive nature as well. The biggest of the Great Lakes (if you don’t consider Michigan and Huron as the same body of water), it possesses a few beautiful parks and trails of its own. With all the forests, rugged coasts, waterfalls, and clear blue waters you would expect, Lake Superior Provincial Park has it all. There’s a nice set of trails to explore the coasts and get down into the cliffs.

Sunrise at Lake Superior Provincial Park, campground on the shore
Lake Superior Provincial ParkCC BY 2.0

Another cool park is Pukaskwa National Park, filled with rocky isles and peninsulas. There are even more waterfalls and inlets here. Hikers can even explore gorges with suspension bridges to walk above the rushing waters. The region is also cut by Ontario’s section of the Trans-Canada Highway, so it’s a logical stop for those driving through.

4. Thunder Bay – culture & history

Terry Fox Monument and lookout in Thunder Bay, special person in Canadian history
Terry Fox Monument – By Richard Keeling

It’s no Sudbury, but Thunder Bay is a really important city in the far corners of Lake Superior. In a region once dominated by the fur trade, there are a couple of preserved sites and villages for learning about the past like Fort William Historical Park. Another park that mixes history with the Canadian wild is Centennial Park. It’s a large natural area with a few historic sites dedicated to TB’s logging past.

A skip away from there is the Terry Fox Monument dedicated to this famous Canadian athlete. He is well known throughout the nation for attempting a cross-country marathon in order to bring awareness to cancer. Oh, and he did this with a synthetic leg! I’d say he deserves a monument, and there’s a nice one right in Thunder Bay.

sweeping snowy landscape in Thunder Bay, city in north Ontario
Thunder Bay – by Jaime Dantas

Further down is Loch Lomond, a quaint ski getaway near to the city. Besides its nature and its seriously sweet name, this city is also home to an important Art Gallery. It’s the biggest in all NorOn (don’t know if that exists, but I’m going with it) and is dedicated to showcasing contemporary First Nations art. To get a break from all the boreal forests, there’s the Centennial Conservatory. It shelters lots of tropical plants and beautiful gardens throughout the year, and it’s free to visit. We like free.

5. Around Thunder Bay – nature

Kekabeka Falls, a unique waterfall in Ontario, Canada
Kakabeka Falls – By Carport

Not just a city, Thunder Bay is practically the gateway to the Northwest which is a whole subregion on its own. There are some pretty amazing sights up here. The Sleeping Giant is a park area and rock formation that stretches out over the water. From the sky, it looks like a giant napping on a strip of land. Ouimet Canyon is a forested area centered on a big gorge. There’s yet another suspension bridge here to cut across and get a nice view of the area.

One of the main attractions around Thunder Bay is called Kakabeka Falls. It’s a big waterfall out in the forest, though that doesn’t stop it from being popular. The waters are so strong and it’s so easily accessible that it’s been given the nickname “Niagara of the North.” Really a unique spot in its own right.

6. Remote Nature – exploration & adventure

Canoes on Lake Temagami, popular lake and wilderness area in Northern Ontario
Canoeing on Lake Temagami – By Jordan Wan

If there’s one thing I feel that NorOn is known for, it’s got to be remote wilderness. There are so many huge provincial parks out here it’s ridiculous. You’ve got Quetico in the boundary waters region shared with Minnesota. There’s Wabakimi and Nagagamisis. I’m just tripping off of these names, though. There’s also a bendy lake called Lake Temagami with lots of parks surrounding it.

a caribou or reindeer at a river in the woods, relating to Woodland Caribou Provincial Park, Ontario
Caribou – by Thomas Lefebvre

These places are mostly accessible just by small planes, like seaplanes, or by boat. Visitors to these parks usually fly into some remote part of the forest and spend time camping, canoeing, and trekking all through the wilderness. Another notable park is Woodland Caribou. It’s known for the same stuff as all the other parks but with some ancient pictographs to add. These places are great spots to get away from it all (far, far away) and get immersed in the wild.

7. Hudson Plains – remote towns & nature

a polar bear near Hudson Bay, common sight in northern Ontario
Near Hudson Bay – by Jason Hillier

So moose are pretty common throughout Canada, but polar bears are a different story. That’s why Ontario is home to Polar Bear Provincial Park, its biggest and most isolated park. It’s so isolated that it’s only accessible by air and visitors need special permission to enter. It covers a large section of the wet plains along Hudson Bay and is a much-needed sanctuary for tundra-dwelling creatures, like the polar bear.

Polar Bear Express train in north Ontario, Canada
Polar Bear Express – By Rev40

Speaking of those snowy furballs, there’s a train ride named after them. The Polar Bear Express transports people between the towns of Cochrane and Moosonee and is the only way to get to these two places on the ground. Interestingly enough, Moosonee is too far north to see moose and too far south to see polar bears. Still, I’d ride that train just to feel like I was in a Christmas adventure movie. Despite the lack of big game, Moosonee and Moose Factory Island are still some interesting and remote towns. They offer education about the First Nations and give off a distant feeling of isolation. Way to get away from all that city noise.

8. Agawa – views & trains

Agawa Canyon, beautiful place in northern Ontario
Agawa Canyon – By Carport

The area around Agawa is a canyon and wilderness park just inland from Lake Superior. The really neat thing about the canyon is a scenic railway that winds through it. It seems especially pretty during the fall months. Imagine riding a train over dips and curls across a valley filled with fiery colored trees and a tranquil running river. I’m about ready to drop what I’m doing and go there today.

On the Lake Superior coast, there’s an offshore island called Bathtub that has some beaches and natural pools to “bathe” in. Just leave the soap at home. Other than this beautiful canyon, the Agawa region is also home to some impressive pictographs made by ancient inhabitants in the area. What a cool slice of culture!

9. Culture (and Closing)

Really taking it into the backwoods! Northern Ontario is such a massive area with so much to see. The great thing is that it’s mostly wilderness and woodlands, so it hasn’t been changed much since pre-settlement times. The lakes and rivers are an immediate location of settlement for the people here, contributing to the strong boating, canoeing, and seaplane culture. There’s so much space and nature it could blow your mind way out into the outdoors.

From hiking beautiful shores to enjoying the remote wilderness, this region has been able to preserve lots of its indigenous character. There are a number of galleries and excursions dedicated to First Nations, and several historic sites preserved to show how life was like for fur traders and loggers. The woods are practically in the blood of these hardy folks. Northern Ontario shows how important it is to mesh its different historic identities into one, even if its population doesn’t quite match the south.

**Hey everybody! Did you enjoy learning about Northern Ontario? If there’s anybody out there that wants to add or share more about this place, please feel free to enlighten us! What makes Ontario special for you? Anyway, you’re all special and our whole planet is special, so keep taking care of each other and the Earth. Talk soon!

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