If you’re used to blasting across the 401 between Toronto and Montreal, it’s time to take the slow route. The towns, villages, historic sites, and waterfront destinations along the St. Lawrence River in Southeast Ontario are worth taking time to explore.
Many of these destinations would make excellent weekend trips from Toronto or Montreal. If you’d like to string them all together, expect to commit at least a week to get the most out of your experience.
When we drove this entire route as a road trip in 2021, we towed a camper. Many of our overnight suggestions are therefore at campgrounds. If we’ve experienced traditional accommodations in any of the towns along the route, we’ve noted those in our recommendations as well.
For the most part, this route traces Highway 2 along the riverfront for the duration. The exception is the portion from Gananoque to just west of Brockville, which follows the Thousand Islands Parkway.
Southeast Ontario Days 1 and 2: Kingston
We recommend staying in Kingston for at least two days to fully experience the city during your visit. Kingston makes a great weekend getaway!
If you’re visiting in the summer, dedicate at least one full day to the hop-on, hop-off Kingston Trolley Tour. This will allow you to keep your vehicle parked for the day and be transported to attractions outside of downtown. Fort Henry, Bellevue House National Historic Site, Gord Edgar Downie Pier (walkable from Bellevue House), and Kingston Penitentiary are all stops on the trolley’s route.
You can come and go from these sites according to your interest and convenience. In between stops, the knowledgeable guides will share tales about the city that will help you see it in a whole new light!
On the second day, book a cruise with Kingston 1000 Islands Cruises. If your budget allows for it, we highly recommend the three-hour Heart of the Islands tour. You’ll get a view of Kingston’s waterfront as you depart past Wolfe Island and into the Thousand Islands. An onboard snack bar and live music set the backdrop. For a truly special experience, book the VIP experience. You’ll reserve a window table and enjoy brunch or lunch on the water.
Spend the rest of the second day strolling through downtown Kingston. There are plenty of wonderful shops, restaurants, and nooks and crannies to explore. To discover the city in a unique way, head to Improbable Escapes. Their outdoor escape rooms combine mystery with a self-guided walking tour. There are a few themes to choose from, and each one will send you looking for tucked-away corners of the city you likely wouldn’t find on your own. Our escape room of choice was Who Let the Cats Out?, and we enjoyed every minute of it!
We’ve stayed at the Delta Kingston Waterfront and found it to be an excellent and centrally located hotel. If you’re camping, check out Rideau Acres Campground. It’s about 15 minutes outside the city on Highway 15. It’s a bustling place with many sites occupied by seasonal campers, but some are available for temporary stays. A few even have beautiful views over the Cataraqui River, which is part of the Rideau Canal.
Days 3 and 4: Gananoque and the Thousand Islands
The Thousand Islands Parkway is a worthwhile side trip off the 401, even if you only have half an hour to spare. But if you’re coming into the area to explore, dedicate at least two days to the experience, and add another day if you have time. There’s so much to do! This is another fabulous weekend getaway from Toronto, Montreal, or other nearby major cities.
Thousand Island National Park is a significant destination here. It includes 21 islands and three sectors on the mainland. If you have your own power boat, the park is your playground: multiple islands have docks, anchorages, and hiking trails to explore.
But most people will come into the area without a boat. In that case, we can recommend one of our favourite experiences we’ve ever had in a national park. By renting a kayak overnight from 1000 Islands Kayaking, you can paddle out to one of the park’s island campgrounds and stay overnight. There are traditional campsites if you’re into that, but you can enjoy a ready-to-camp experience by booking an oTENTik on McDonald Island. 1000 Islands Kayaking operates half-day kayaking tours of the islands, which are also excellent.
It’s also possible to get a feel for Thousand Island National Park from the mainland. Each of the three mainland sectors has hiking trails with lookouts that offer excellent views of the islands. The visitor centre at Mallorytown Landing is the place to go with younger kids to pick up and complete the Parks Canada Xplorers program. A group of riverside oTENTiks can be booked here for overnight stays that don’t require taking to the water.
If you’d prefer to take in the scenery from the air, check out 1000 Islands Helicopter Tours. This exhilarating experience will let you see the islands from above in a private helicopter for up to three people. This is the best way to fully appreciate just how many islands there are in the Thousand Islands: 1,864, to be exact!
While you’re staying in Gananoque, see a show at the Thousand Islands Playhouse if there’s one running during your stay. This historic waterfront theatre is an intimate venue that hosts fun shows of all kinds throughout the summer months.
Some restaurants we enjoy in Gananoque include Anthony’s for classic Italian and Laverne’s Eatery, who host an awesome Fiesta Friday. Lighthouse Provisions is an excellent place to stop for lunch or to stock up on premium grocery staples. Panache Bakery is popular as well.
During our camping road trip, we camped on McDonald Island. We’ve also stayed at the Ramada Gananoque Provincial Inn and found it to offer clean and comfortable accommodations.
Day 5: Brockville
It will take roughly an hour to drive from Gananoque to Brockville. If you arrive in the early afternoon, you can spend the rest of the day enjoying the attractions in Brockville’s downtown area.
If you have young kids along, plan to spend two to three hours at the Aquatarium. This small aquarium has a focus on local marine conservation. It also has activities for little ones and some wildlife displays, including river otters and a Canadian celebrity, Justin Beaver.
The Brockville Railway Tunnel is a must-visit that will take roughly an hour, depending on your walking pace. It’s hard to believe Canada’s oldest railway tunnel could be so interesting, but the music and light displays make this a mesmerizing stop. Top off the afternoon with a stroll through Blockhouse Park.
During our stay, we camped at the Brockville municipal campground at St. Lawrence Park.
Day 6: Prescott, Iroquois, and Morrisburg
In the morning, head to Prescott to visit Fort Wellington National Historic Site. This interesting fort actually saw active combat in the 1800s, which you’ll learn about during your visit. Two hours is ample time to explore the visitor centre, see the fort, and have your young Xplorers complete activities and collect their tags.
Optionally, you can continue five minutes down the road to Battle of the Windmill National Historic Site to learn more about this area’s history during the Upper Canada Rebellions. This is a national historic site but is locally administered and is not part of the Xplorers program.
Boating enthusiasts may wish to stop in Iroquois to check out the Iroquois Lock, part of the St. Lawrence Seaway. If you’re really lucky, you might see a massive ocean freighter traverse the lock shortly after you arrive. If not, you may wait hours and only see a couple of sailboats pass through. This is a stop that’s best when it’s not rushed, so plan accordingly.
If you have three to four hours left in your day, spend the afternoon at Upper Canada Village. You’ll feel like you’ve travelled back in time to a Loyalist village as it would have operated in the 1860s. There’s a grain mill, blacksmith, newspaper office, bakery, cheesemaker, and more to explore. Many of the items produced here are sold at the gift shop for you to take home.
For camping accommodations, book into one of the nearby Parks of the St. Lawrence. This provincial entity is along the same lines as Ontario Parks, but its campgrounds are less well-known. They’re true hidden gems in this part of the province! Two-night stays are usuall required.
The Upper Canada Bird Sanctuary campground is right next to Upper Canada Village, so you could use this for convenience on this night and return here for the second night before you head home. You could also book at a campground on Long Sault Parkway and continue there from here this evening, then be more centrally located for the next day’s activities. If you prefer a hotel, there are options in Morrisburg.
Southeast Ontario Day 7: Long Sault Parkway
The Long Sault Parkway itself is a relatively quick drive. It takes 15 to 20 minutes to travel from the west entry in Ingleside to the east entry point in Long Sault. The entire parkway is administered by the Parks of the St. Lawrence, which also maintains several campgrounds along the route.
The 11 islands that are strung together by the parkway were once hilltops before this part of the St. Lawrence River was flooded to create the St. Lawrence Seaway. The six villages and three hamlets that were abandoned prior to the flooding are now under water. Because of this, the Long Sault Parkway is now a very popular destination for diving enthusiasts!
Kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding are available at the beach near Milles Roches Campground. We also recommend a visit to Ault Park to learn more about the history of the Lost Villages at the Lost Villages Museum. You’ll find this on the mainland just east of the eastern entrance to the parkway.
Very occasionally during the summer, you can book a guided tour with Jim Brownell, President of the Lost Villages Society. Mr. Brownell is a former Member of Provincial Parliament, a wonderful speaker, and a one-time resident of the Lost Villages. He has many informative stories to tell about the history of the area and what it was like to lose his home in the name of progress.
You may have time on this final day to continue further east. This would take you through Cornwall and, if you like, across the Quebec border. Not long after the latter, you’ll find Coteau-du-Lac National Historic Site. This is another interesting stop for boating enthusiasts: this area is a study in the evolution of boat lockage.
You can observe a rapids on the St. Lawrence River, as well as the methods humans used to overcome them. The historic site has a rigolet dug out by the French in the 1700s. Not far away, you’ll find a lock built by the English a few decades later. This lock is one of the oldest in North America. On the other side of Grande Île is the modern solution: Beauharnois Canal, another component of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The historic site is also home to a replica blockhouse based on the one the English burned down during the Upper Canada Rebellions.
From here, you could continue on to Montreal or along the St. Lawrence River to points east. A trip along the Ottawa River would make a pleasant journey toward Ottawa, or you could head back toward home.