Where Lake Ontario ends and the St. Lawrence River begins, the Thousand Islands region spans 80 kilometres along the Canada-United States border. Each bank of the river is home to unique locations, views, cultures, and experiences. If you’re planning a Thousand Islands road trip, consider bringing your passport along. There’s no better way to celebrate everything this amazing region has to offer than exploring the International Loop!
This guide will help you plan a weekend away in Canada and the U.S.A. that’s tailored to your interests. Here’s a look at how to complete the loop and the essential experiences along the way.
Produced in partnership with 1000 Islands Tourism
2023 Mazda MX-5
Our drive around the Thousand Islands International Loop was the perfect excuse for a getaway in a 2023 Mazda MX-5. (While we’re celebrating international friendship, let’s give a hat tip to our American friends and call it a Mazda MX-5 Miata!)
The ND generation of the MX-5 is winding down, but any MX-5 is and always will be the ultimate in affordable driving entertainment for two. Our fully loaded GT tester comes in at $43,745 including delivery charges and fees. This makes it far more affordable than the average vehicle sold today. Sure, you’ll need to pack creatively to get a weekend’s worth of stuff into the 130-litre trunk, and you’ll wonder what to do with your water bottles if you need your cup holders for coffee. But the trade-off is top-down motoring in a street-legal go-kart. If you know, you know.
We decided to try out an MX-5 with the six-speed automatic transmission. While it’s still plenty of fun and more convenient in stop-and-go traffic, we’re still convinced the manual better suits the car’s attitude. Either way, it’s tough to beat the dollar-to-delight value proposition from Mazda’s spunky little rear-wheel drive roadster.
Watch the full International Loop Thousand Islands road trip video at Modern Motoring:
The International Loop Thousand Islands road trip: What to know before you go
We love the International Loop because it lets you explore so much of what the Thousand Islands region has to offer without seeing anything twice. However, it’s important to know it’s not possible to complete this loop year-round. Horne’s Ferry between Wolfe Island, Ontario, and Cape Vincent, New York, is an essential component of this route. This small family operation doesn’t run daily or year-round. Their typical season goes from late May to mid-October, but there are sometimes breaks in service in between.
If you hope to complete this drive as a full loop, it’s essential to monitor Horne’s Ferry’s social media accounts for updates before you depart. Note the operators only accept cash in U.S. or Canadian dollars, so be sure to check the fare in advance and bring it with you. Here’s the good news: even if there is a change to the ferry service or it’s not in service when you’d like to visit, it’s only a 45-minute drive back to the border crossing at the Thousand Islands Bridge.
Most importantly, this route involves two border crossings. Don’t forget your passport!
Gananoque, Ontario: Gateway to your Thousand Islands road trip
For most visitors coming from either side of the border, we highly recommend staying at least one to two nights in Gananoque, Ontario. This puts you in a central location to use as a home base for completing the Thousand Islands International Loop and exploring the region in detail.
While you’re in Gananoque, there’s so much to do!
– Fly high with 1000 Islands Helicopter Tours! With 10-minute, 20-minute, 30-minute, and one-hour options, this is hands-down the best way to get a bird’s-eye view of the Thousand Islands and truly get a sense of their scope. There are actually 1,864 islands in the Thousand Islands region, and from the air they seem to go on forever! This is an experience that’s absolutely not to be missed.
– Take a 1000 Islands Cruise with City Cruises. With one and three-hour itinerary options departing from Gananoque, you’ll explore some of the most popular sights in the region.
– Book a kayaking excursion with 1000 Islands Kayaking. Take a three-hour guided tour that leads you across the St. Lawrence Seaway and weaves through some of the best local nooks and crannies around the islands. If you’re especially adventurous, consider kayaking to an overnight camping adventure in Thousand Islands National Park!
– See a show at the Thousand Islands Playhouse. The company has two stages, including the scenic dockside Springer Theatre, where a rotating slate of performances operates from roughly May to October each year. Each production is top-notch, and the Playhouse has a reputation as a developing ground for homegrown theatre talent.
– Dive into the town’s great eats, from Italian-inspired fine dining at Riva to tasty casual pub fare at Muskie Jake’s Tap and Grill inside the historic Gananoque Inn. If you’re in town on a Friday, don’t miss Fiesta Friday at Laverne’s for delicious tacos and other Mexican-style fare. Enjoy traditional Italian at Anthony’s, or grab a great take-out sandwich and explore the upscale pantry selection at Lighthouse Provisions. For great wood-fired pizza or a hearty salad on a secluded garden patio, check out the Purple House Café.
– There are several accommodation options in Gananoque, but we’re happy to recommend the Comfort Inn. Its clean and serviceable rooms, friendly staff, and central location make it a convenient place to rest your head that you can book with confidence.
The Thousand Islands Parkway: One of Ontario’s most scenic drives
The Thousand Islands Parkway is a scenic highway in Ontario that spans roughly 40 kilometres from Gananoque to just west of Brockville, Ontario. The parkway connects to Highway 401 at each end and provides excellent views and access to some of the region’s most important attractions. Key among these is Thousand Islands National Park, administered by Parks Canada. This park protects 21 islands and three mainland sections within the region.
To begin the International Loop, set off from Gananoque and join the Thousand Islands Parkway at the east end of town. As you head eastbound, the first major landmark is Landons Bay, a mainland section of Thousand Islands National Park. Be sure to stop here and hike the Lookout Trail. The moderately challenging hike through an uphill forested pathway takes 15 to 20 minutes to complete one-way. At the end, you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views over Landons Bay and the St. Lawrence River. (Don’t forget to pay for parking, which also buys you a day pass for accessing the park.)
Roughly 10 minutes east of Landons Bay, you’ll find the village of Rockport. Four different cruises depart from this village operated by Rockport Boat Line. These are some of the best cruises in the Thousand Islands, from a very thorough one-hour tour to sunset cruises and more. And there’s no extra charge for parking!
East of Rockport, the Thousand Islands Parkway continues until it meets with Highway 401. If you’re not completing the International Loop, you can continue eastbound to explore more of Thousand Islands National Park. There are additional hiking trails at Jones Creek, and Mallorytown Landing is home to the park’s visitor centre. From there, you can carry on into Brockville and trace the northern bank of the St. Lawrence River all the way to the Quebec border.
Hill Island: Take your Thousand Islands road trip to the U.S. border
The International Loop Thousand Islands road trip turns southbound from the Thousand Islands Parkway at Highway 137, which crosses Hill Island in Ontario before meeting up with the U.S. border. (If you chose to visit Rockport, you’ll need to backtrack slightly along the parkway to meet up with Highway 137.)
Before you reach Hill Island, you’ll be asked to pay a small toll as you cross the first section of the Thousand Islands Bridge. Since you’ll be paying anyway, a road trip on the International Loop is an ideal time to visit the 1000 Islands Tower. Located just off Highway 137 on Hill Island, it’s less than a kilometre from the border and has been offering breathtaking views of the Thousand Islands since 1965. A short elevator ride takes you to three observation decks where you can spot some of the region’s key landmarks.
Once you’re done at the 1000 Islands Tower, continue south on Highway 137 and cross the border into the United States.
Wellesley Island: Discover Boldt Castle and the Boldt family history
Once you’ve passed through the border checkpoint, you’ll join Interstate 81 as it crosses New York state’s Wellesley Island. This island’s most famous resident was George C. Boldt, a hotel owner and proprietor who made a fortune serving the nouveau riche of America’s Gilded Age. Boldt had a summer estate on Wellesley Island as well as a golf club, stable, polo field, farms, and more.
He also owned Boldt Yacht House toward the east end of Wellesley Island, which today is the gateway to visiting Boldt Castle. This enormous Rhineland-style mansion on nearby Heart Island was to be a tribute to Boldt’s beloved wife Louise. When she passed suddenly during the castle’s construction, Boldt was heartbroken and abandoned the project. Now, it’s a popular tourist attraction and is one of the crown jewels of the Thousand Islands.
There are several ways to see Boldt Castle, from flying over in a helicopter to disembarking on a cruise. But a drive to Boldt Yacht House as part of a Thousand Islands road trip is the only way to check out Boldt Castle in person entirely on your own schedule. Ferry shuttles depart from Boldt Yacht House to Heart Island every 30 minutes during operating hours.
While you wait, a nominal extra fee will give you access to the antique boat collection housed within the yacht house. The castle is a historic example of Gilded Age construction, and there are so many aspects of it to explore. You’ll find the flexibility of setting your own timeline is a benefit, especially if this is your first visit.
Clayton, New York: Classic Americana on the St. Lawrence
Once you depart Boldt Yacht House, your Thousand Islands road trip along the International Loop will rejoin I-81 and head south until it meets New York State Route 12. Here, you’ll turn westbound toward the village of Clayton, New York.
Clayton’s main street, with its rows of storefront facades and waterfront walkways, looks like an American river resort town straight off a postcard. Riverside Drive and the adjacent downtown streets are packed with restaurants, shops, and cafés to explore. We enjoyed lunch with a view on the patio at Di Prinzio’s Kitchen, enjoyed a great coffee and some friendly conversation at the Lyric Coffee House, and picked up some sweet and savoury treats at the Clayton Popcorn Company.
In our opinion, the best hidden gem on this side of the St. Lawrence is the Ride the River tour at Clayton’s Antique Boat Museum. This 45-minute tour weaves through the islands on the U.S. side of the river in an antique boat! Our captain Gary has been boating in these waters for decades and seems to know every possible detail about the area’s islands and waters. Because the antique boats used for these tours can only hold a small number of guests, they feel very personal and exclusive. And once it’s done, you can tour the museum’s impressive collection. This experience is not to be missed!
Wine touring is another Thousand Islands road trip experience exclusive to the American side of the river in this region. There are five wineries accessible on or near Route 12, and a sixth is located on Grindstone Island, which is reachable from Clayton via water taxi. Beer drinkers may want to investigate a brewery circle tour: each of the major cities and towns along this route is home to a microbrewery. You’ll also find three distilleries located roughly between Clayton and the town of Alexandria Bay to the east. We have yet to check these out, but we’re looking forward to doing so on a future visit.
Cape Vincent, New York: Completing the loop on the water
To the west of Clayton, the town of Cape Vincent, New York, sits near the point where Lake Ontario drains into the St. Lawrence River. This is where your Thousand Islands road trip turns back northbound into Canada via Horne’s Ferry. Operating days and hours are routinely posted on the Horne’s Ferry social media accounts, so don’t forget to check those before you make the drive. You’ll also need cash to pay the fare for you, your vehicle, and your passengers.
The crossing from Cape Vincent to Point Alexandria on Wolfe Island in Ontario takes roughly 10 minutes. When you drive off the ferry at Point Alexandria, you’ll once again clear customs before continuing onto Wolfe Island. The only people using this border crossing point are ferry passengers, so it rarely gets overly busy.
Wolfe Island, Ontario: A scenic country drive
Ontario’s Wolfe Island is the largest of the Thousand Islands and is home to residents year-round. The 12-kilometre drive across the island to the ferry dock near Marysville, Ontario, is scenic and pastoral with rolling farmland and rural homes. We haven’t yet spent much time on Wolfe Island but hope to on a future Thousand Islands road trip. If you love Wolfe Island, share your favourite spots and activities with us in the comments section below!
To return to the mainland, head to the ferry dock at the north end of Wolfe Island. After a 20-minute ride, you’ll drive off in downtown Kingston. This ferry service is offered completely free of charge. Click here for more information on departures times and locations.
Kingston, Ontario: A hip city ready to explore
The historic city of Kingston deserves its own spotlight. This one-time capital of the United Province of Canada is home to military installations, several of Canada’s most notorious jails, a bustling downtown core, and much more!
Learn more about Kingston’s important strategic location by visiting Fort Henry. Take a three-hour Thousand Islands cruise complete with a three-course meal. Kick off a journey up the historic Rideau Canal. Tour Kingston Penitentiary and Canada’s Penitentiary Museum.
Kingston is also the city that gave life to The Tragically Hip, one of Canada’s most beloved bands. Take a self-guided tour to explore the band’s origins in this classic university town.
After a short eastbound drive along Highway 401 or Highway 2, you’ll complete your Thousand Islands road trip around the International Loop by returning to Gananoque. We hope you’ll agree that this is a fantastic way to explore the 1000 Islands region from all angles!
Do you plan to give this weekend Thousand Islands road trip a try? Have you done it before and want to share your experiences? Let us know what you think in the comments section below!