Canada’s Trent-Severn Waterway National Historic Site is far more fascinating than it’s often given credit for. As a 386-kilometre waterway connecting Lake Ontario and Georgian Bay with 44 locks, two sets of flight locks, 15 swing bridges, one marine railway, and the two tallest hydraulic lift locks in the world, there’s so much to explore!

The Trent-Severn Waterway is a well-known favourite destination for recreational boaters. But tracing the waterway is also a fantastic way to enjoy a road trip in Central Ontario. It’s easy to plan a day trip, a weekend road trip, or a longer journey along the Trent-Severn Waterway. It’s also possible to reach all but two of the waterway’s lock stations by road. Visiting the locks of the Trent-Severn Waterway on land is completely free of charge, which makes it great for vacationing on a budget. This road trip is educational, entertaining, exciting, and relaxing, all at once! It’s also highly customizable according to your interests and how much time you can set aside to enjoy it.

If you have one day to explore the Trent-Severn Waterway, you’ll be able to capture the highlights and check out a couple of the Trent-Severn Trail Towns. With a weekend, you’ll have the chance to explore a variety of lock stations and spend more time in the welcoming towns and villages along the route. And if you’re really into it, you can explore the entire system in five to seven days, staying overnight either in hotels or at the many Ontario Parks that are conveniently located along the waterway. Regardless of how long you stay, expect to blend your boat watching with patio lunches, vibrant downtowns, breweries and wineries, ice cream, and plenty of beautiful scenery.

Here’s a look at some sample itineraries for exploring the Trent-Severn Waterway. These are just a few examples. Be sure to read all three sections to get a feel for everything there is to see. It just might inspire you to create a Trent-Severn Waterway itinerary of your own!

Take a Trent-Severn Waterway day trip from the Greater Toronto Area

If you’re curious but short on time, you can test the waters with this Trent-Severn Waterway day trip.

Start your morning in Peterborough at lock 21, the Peterborough Lift Lock National Historic Site. This impressive structure opened in 1904. The Peterborough Lift Lock remains the tallest hydraulic lift lock in the world with a rise of 19.8 metres (65 feet). Because it operates with hydraulics, the pair of 1,500-ton caissons operate on gravity alone. External power is only used to raise and lower the gates! Plan to spend at least half an hour here watching the lift lock in operation. (You may find it so interesting you decide to stay even longer!)

Check out this weekend road trip for paddling and portaging through Peterborough >

Next, head north to take the scenic drive along Nassau Mills Road toward the village of Lakefield. As you pass through the Trent University campus, you’ll find four more lock stations along your route. We recommend a stop at Lock 22 at Nassau Mills, just north of Trent University. This is a great place to see a single lock in action. The location is beautiful with easy access from the road and plenty of parking.

There’s also a lock station in Lakefield. It’s a little more complicated to access than the others. Even if you decide not to visit Lakefield’s Lock 26, stop for some ice cream at the Canoe and Paddle, grab some lunch if you’re ready, and check out the shops along Queen Street.

Finding the missing lock

When you’re ready, continue north out of Lakefield on Highway 28 toward Lock 28 at Burleigh Falls. A flight lock is a series of multiple connected locks that boaters pass through one after the other. Burleigh Falls was originally a flight lock, but it was converted to a single lock in 1967. When the second lock was removed here, Lock 29 was eliminated. This is why there’s a Lock 45 but only 44 locks along the Trent-Severn Waterway today.

The next lock reachable by road is Lock 31 in Buckhorn. It’s located roughly 15 minutes west of Burleigh Falls along County Road 36. Many boaters stop to rest and restock in this small village. It has waterside dining and gift shops within easy walking distance of the lock. Don’t forget to snap a selfie with the Buckhorn Buck!

If you’d like to try some fruit wine, Kawartha Country Wines is also on County Road 36, five minutes north of Buckhorn. Here, you’ll find a variety of fruit wines and ciders. Adult passengers can enjoy samples of wines made from cranberry, Saskatoon berry, and even a strawberry rhubarb sparkling wine.

We can’t forget the Tragically Hip fans! Stay on County Road 36 to reach your next stop: Lock 32 at Bobcaygeon. This lock has the distinction of being the first lock completed on the Trent-Severn Waterway more than 160 years ago. Downtown Bobcaygeon is a favourite cottage country destination. It’s home to the famous Bigley family of shops, offering anything from clothing to kitchen gadgets, sweets and ice cream. Many smaller boutiques line the streets as well, and beer lovers flock to the Old Dog Brewing Company.

Finally, take County Road 8 to end the day with a visit to Lock 34 at Fenelon Falls. There are numerous restaurants here where you can enjoy a meal overlooking the lock station or the town’s beautiful namesake waterfall.

As you plan your timing for this day trip, bear in mind that lock stations typically end their day’s operations at 5:30 PM on weekdays and 6:30 PM on weekends. Find a full list of the operating hours on the Trent-Severn Waterway here.

Make it a weekend road trip on the waterway

If an overnight stay in cottage country interests you, follow this route to visit all of the waterway’s most popular attractions in one weekend.

Start your first day in Campbellford. Walk across the Ranney Gorge Suspension Bridge for a view of Ranney Falls. Just a few steps away, you’ll find the Ranney Falls flight lock, locks 11 and 12. This is the first of the Trent-Severn Waterway’s two surviving flight locks. If you can stay for long enough, try to be there when boat traffic is moving in both directions you can see both locks operate at once. It’s a very cool sight! Bring a cooler and stop at nearby Empire Cheese. Here, you can sometimes pick up fresh cheese curds, and you’ll always find some of the best cheddar in Ontario.

Locks 16 and 17, the Healey Falls Flight Lock, is also worth visiting. It’s a little more remote, but at a total height of 16.5 metres or 54 feet, it’s an impressive structure to see in action. Plenty of parking is available at Lock 15 at Healey Falls, and the flight locks are a short five-minute walk away.

From here, join the single-day itinerary above at the Peterborough Lift Lock. Plan an overnight stay in one of the towns or villages. Bobcaygeon makes a good stopping point if you’re following this road trip plan.

The world’s two tallest hydraulic lift locks

As you’re departing Fenelon Falls, you’ll continue on to Lock 36, the Kirkfield Lift Lock. This is the second-highest hydraulic lift lock in the world. (The Peterborough Lift Lock is the highest, which means the two highest hydraulic lift locks in the world are along the Trent-Severn Waterway!) The Kirkfield Lift Lock also sits at the highest elevation point along the waterway.

Next, head toward Lock 41 at Gamebridge. This lock is easy to reach from Highway 12. It sits at the end of a long man-made canal. You can see much of the canal from here on a clear day, and it’s quite the sight! If you’re feeling energetic, it’s possible to walk along the canal to Lock 40 and Lock 39 via a closed access road. At a steady pace, this walk takes roughly an hour round-trip.

The final stop on this weekend tour is a little more out of the way than most, but it’s absolutely worth it. Lock 44 is the Big Chute Marine Railway, a two-storey structure that’s part ferry, part rail car. The Big Chute Marine Railway is the only marine railway of its kind in North America.

First, it dips into the Severn River to allow boats on board. Then a sling system secures the boats into place. The rail car moves forward and lifts them out of the water, past a road-level rail crossing, and down a 17.7-metre (58 ft) descent. Finally, the boats leave the rail car and return to the waters below. On nice days, it’s common to see families enjoying picnics at the waterside and watch the railway for hours on end.

After a 10 minute drive, you’ll be back on Highway 400 and heading toward home.

Take a week-long road trip to explore the entire Trent-Severn Waterway

There are only two locks on the entire Trent-Severn Waterway that are not accessible by road. That leaves 42 locks for you to turn into an extended road trip!

This approach is worthwhile, but it does take a little more dedication. Nearly all lock stations have parking on-site, but it’s not always well-identified on Google Maps. (We’re working on a turn-by-turn map to make this easier, but it’s a long-term project.) At the handful of stations where parking isn’t available, these are generally remote enough that it isn’t a problem to park a car at the side of the road for a few minutes.

There are plenty of quality hotels along this route for those who prefer that option. When we visited 34 of the 44 locks on one five-day road trip, we towed a trailer and camped overnight at Ontario Parks convenient to our route. These are the parks that worked best for us:

  • Ferris Provincial Park, which is just south of Campbellford near Ranney Gorge and the Ranney Falls flight lock

Parks Canada also has tent camping and permanent accommodation options for land-based visitors at some lock stations. Toward the east, there are walk-in campsites near Lock 8 at Percy Reach, and Oasis raised cabins near Lock 9 at Meyers and Lock 10 at Hagues Reach. There are also four oTENTiks available at Lock 24 at Douro, and three oTENTiks, one rustic cabin, and two walk-in campsites on the shores of Lock 35 at Rosedale. With the exception of the oTENTiks at Douro, these all require a hike to reach. They’re very popular, so be sure to book early!

If you can dedicate a full week to exploring the Trent-Severn Waterway on a road trip, you’ll have time to uncover some of the more remote hidden gems. Lock 7 at Glen Ross has well-manicured grounds and a swing bridge that’s great fun to watch. Lock 20 at Ashburnham is on the shores of Little Lake in Peterborough. It’s along the Trans-Canada Trail and offers direct access to the Canadian Canoe Museum as well as some of the city’s best parks.

The Mnjikaning Fish Weirs National Historic Site, which today sits under a highway overpass in Orillia, is also part of the Trent-Severn Waterway. This site has been a sacred Indigenous fishing ground for more than 5,000 years. Quiet reflection here provides an important reminder that these waters have been integral to humanity for far longer than the century-plus of the waterway’s innovations. And if you travel all the way from Lock 1 at Trenton to Lock 45 at Port Severn, you’ll get a bookended perspective on just how expansive this system’s nearly 400 kilometres can be.

The Trent-Severn Waterway makes a great road trip for young Xplorers

If you’ll be bringing children along on this journey, don’t forget to check out the Parks Canada Xplorers program. It helps kids and their families engage with Parks Canada places across the country. Most lock stations have booklets for kids to pick up that are packed full of activities. Complete the booklet, and your intrepid Xplorers will receive a collectible souvenir to take home!

And here’s a hot tip: there’s more than one Xplorers tag to collect on the Trent-Severn Waterway! The Peterborough Lift Lock National Historic Site has its own designation and its own Xplorers mememto. Most lock stations have medallions available for the Trent-Severn Waterway. However, the visitor centre at the Peterborough Lift Lock is closed for the 2024 season. If you’re looking for the separate Xplorers tag for the Peterborough Lift Lock, check with the lockmasters or a member of the staff. You may also be able to find it at some of the nearby locks in the Peterborough area.

How the Parks Canada Xplorers program helped my daughter ace her history exam >

Frequently asked questions (FAQs):

Can you enjoy the Trent-Severn Waterway without a boat?

Yes! While boating on the Trent-Severn Waterway makes for a wonderful vacation, it’s just as enjoyable to watch the locks operate from the land. Visiting lock stations along the Trent-Severn Waterway makes for a fantastic road trip!

Why was the Trent-Severn Waterway built?

The Trent-Severn Waterway was originally planned as a commercial shipping route. By the time the waterway was completed in 1920, its usefulness for shipping was already obsolete. But the waterway continues to be enjoyed immensely to this day by recreational boaters and observers who watch from the shorelines.

Where does the Trent-Severn Waterway begin and end?

The Trent-Severn Waterway begins with Lock 1 at Trenton in Quinte West on the shores of Lake Ontario. It ends with Lock 45 at Port Severn, where boaters exit into Georgian Bay.

How many locks are on the Trent-Severn Waterway?

There are 44 locks on the Trent-Severn Waterway National Historic Site, from Lock 1 at Trenton to Lock 45 at Port Severn.

Why is there no lock 29 on the Trent-Severn Waterway?

When the Trent-Severn Waterway was built, there were two locks at Burleigh Falls arranged as a flight lock. These two locks were reconfigured in 1967 into a single lock. This lock kept its number 28, and Lock 29 was eliminated from the system. Today, boaters travel from Lock 28 at Burleigh Falls directly to Lock 30 at Lovesick.

How many locks on the Trent-Severn Waterway are reachable by road?

42 of the 44 locks on the Trent-Severn Waterway are reachable by road. The only locks that are not accessible by car are Lock 30 at Lovesick and Lock 43 at Swift Rapids. Exploring the Trent-Severn Waterway in your own vehicle is a great way to enjoy a Central Ontario road trip!

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