Getting your car onto the open road is a wonderful way to travel. But in the context of human history, it’s also a relatively new one. For millennia, waterways have been the highways and byways that connect us. And for many people, even today, spending time out on the water is a salve for the soul that stirs us on a deeper level. The waterways around Peterborough have long been a crossroads. This makes a desire to paddle and portage a great reason to take a Peterborough road trip.

In Peterborough, Little Lake acts as a centrepiece. Many of the city’s best destinations can be found lining its shores. It’s also a central location on the Trent-Severn Waterway National Historic Site. This waterway connects 386 kilometres of lakes, rivers, and canals between Lake Ontario and Georgian Bay. A Peterborough road trip is a natural destination for traveling by land to explore on the water.

We explored Peterborough and the Kawarthas by strapping a kayak onto a 2024 Subaru Outback. Check out this video of our Peterborough road trip experience, created in collaboration with our friends at Modern Traveller:

Canadian Canoe Museum reopens on Peterborough waterfront

Given its position on an ancient canoe route in the Otonabee River and its more recent history as a hub for canoe manufacturing, Peterborough is a natural host to the Canadian Canoe Museum.

This May, the museum has moved from its former landlocked location to a newly built facility directly on the waterfront of Little Lake. This beautiful space now houses the museum’s entire collection of 550 watercraft from Canada and around the world.

While much stands out about the redesigned museum, there are two elements that make it truly exceptional. One is how thoroughly the museum is taking advantage of its water access. Canoe and kayak rentals and Voyageur canoe tours now launch from a dock located directly behind the facility. And part of the waterfront is being reverted to constructed wetland to restore the habitat and promote ecological diversity.

The other exceptional element is how thoroughly museum staff have consulted with Indigenous peoples. With its new Anishinaabe name, Jiimaan Kinomaagewin, and the addition of information panels in Anishinaabemowin, the Canadian Canoe Museum is on its way to becoming trilingual. There are cedar boughs hanging from entryways to protect and purify the spaces. Chief Laurie Carr of the Hiawatha First Nation held a smudging ceremony to awaken the dormant spirits in the canoes upon their arrival at their new home.

Visitors will find a wide variety of significant watercraft, from modern examples owned by Gordon Lightfoot, Pierre Trudeau, and Farley Mowat to historic canoes constructed from birch bark, dug-out wood, fabric, and much more. There’s also an outpost of the Silver Bean Café. This Peterborough favourite has been slinging classic sandwiches on the Peterborough waterfront for more than 20 years.

Read more about the Canadian Canoe Museum here >

The Peterborough Lift Lock is a crown jewel of the Trent-Severn Waterway

The Peterborough Lift Lock is central not only to the city of Peterborough but also to the Trent-Severn Waterway. While the 386-kilometre waterway is administered by Parks Canada as a national historic site, the Peterborough Lift Lock at Lock 21 independently holds the same status. And that title is well-deserved. For years, it was the highest-lifting boat lock in the world that operates entirely on hydraulics. No electricity is used to operate the lock apart from raising and lifting the gates.

Passing through the Peterborough Lift Lock feels like a momentous occasion. When the lock is ready, boat operators navigate into one of the caissons and wait for the gate to lower. To operate it, the lockmaster triggers a release of water from one of the caissons. This causes a counterbalance that lifts one caisson 65 feet (20 metres) into the air while the other side lowers.  Once this movement is complete, the gate lowers and boaters continue along their journeys. This remains an engineering marvel today, never mind when it was built in the early 1900s!

Curious visitors can rent watercraft—including single-day rentals from the Canadian Canoe Museum—and pass through Lock 20 at Little Lake before continuing on to the Peterborough Lift Lock. Note that a small lockage fee is payable before navigating through the locks. You can keep your visit shorter by staying close to these two locks, or they can become a launching point for a longer journey. The Trent-Severn Waterway operates each summer from the Victoria Day long weekend until Thanksgiving.

Take a Peterborough road trip to start the Lock and Paddle Triple Crown

One of the most beloved events on the Trent-Severn Waterway is the annual Lock and Paddle. It’s exclusive to hard-sided paddlecraft and sees hundreds of canoes and kayaks swarm into the Peterborough Lift Lock in a dazzling display of colour and community.

For 2024, the annual Lock and Paddle event at the Peterborough Lift Lock will take place on July 20, which also happens to be Canada Parks Day. This year, a new feature is being added that Parks Canada is calling the Lock and Paddle Triple Crown. On the same day that Lock and Paddle takes place in Peterborough, simultaneous events will be held at the Hartwells double lock on the Rideau Canal National Historic Site and at Lock 3 on the Lachine Canal National Historic Site in Montreal. This will be a coveted badge of honour among paddlers in no time.

Learn more about exploring the Trent-Severn Waterway by car, no boat required >

Le Boat expands its houseboat rentals to the Trent-Severn Waterway

We live for long-distance road trips around these parts. That said, we think a drive to pick up a premium houseboat rental definitely counts as a Peterborough road trip. This summer, there’s a new option for houseboat rentals on the Trent-Severn Waterway. Le Boat is a Europe-based company that offers cruiser rentals in England, Scotland, France, Germany, and beyond. After launching in the Rideau Canal in 2018, the outfit is expanding its operations to the Trent-Severn Waterway beginning in the summer of 2024.

Le Boat’s home base for the Trent-Severn Waterway is Horseshoe Bay Marina. It’s located just south of Peterborough and Lock 19 on the Otonabee River. One of the company’s founding principles is that no boating licence or previous experience is necessary to operate their boats. Having joined the first group to depart from Le Boat’s new launch point, we can attest to this. We had it down in about five minutes.

A cottage and an RV on the water

The experience is somewhere between renting a cottage and camping in an RV. Many creature comforts are included such as a full kitchen and an ensuite bathroom for every cabin. There are various layouts available, from two more spacious cabins to five smaller ones. You can fit up to 12 people if a couple are willing to sleep in the shared living space. Renters are permitted to travel as far west as the Kirkfield Lift Lock and as far east as Lock 1 in Trenton. Staff can help you plan out your time with seven and 14-day itineraries.

Note that in addition to the rental fee, you’ll need to budget for fuel, water tank refills, transportation to and from the base, and groceries. With the help of Le Boat staff, you can preorder your grocery supplies for your rental and have them delivered to the base in time for your arrival. Complete a 45-minute briefing, and you’ll be sailing off into the sunset in no time.

Cultural destinations to visit on a Peterborough road trip

Peterborough is connected by these water-based experiences. Many of its cultural hubs can also be found on the shores of the waterway.

On the western side of Little Lake, the Art Gallery of Peterborough is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2024. This welcoming community space features rotating exhibitions highlighting local artists. It also houses an educational studio and a stunning gift shop full of works from the region’s local artisans.

Just north of the Peterborough Lift Lock, you’ll find the Peterborough Museum and Archives. This facility is steward to the history of Peterborough and the surrounding area, and it houses decades of artifacts and roughly half a million photos recording the region’s past. Exhibits change regularly and are curated in part by students of the museum curation program at nearby Fleming College, a relationship that has endured for 35 years. If you think you may have a family connection to this area, contact the museum and they just might be able to confirm it!

And during the summer months, consider timing your visit with Peterborough Musicfest. As Canada’s longest-running free concert series, it’s an institution in Peterborough and attracts some big names to perform in Del Crary Park. For 2024, Metric is playing on July 17, and Road Apples, a Tragically Hip tribute band, will perform on July 1 for Canada Day. Most concerts take place on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and they’re well worth planning your itinerary around.

Mapping out your Peterborough road trip

If you’re leaving from the Greater Toronto Area, driving to Peterborough will take 90 minutes to two hours on average, depending on your starting point and traffic. From Ottawa, you’ll enjoy a leisurely three-hour drive along Highway 7. A drive to Peterborough from Montreal will take roughly five hours.

While Peterborough is easily reachable from most of Southern Ontario, we recommend making a weekend of this Peterborough road trip so you can enjoy each of these activities at a leisurely pace. The Holiday Inn Peterborough Waterfront makes a great land-based home base. It’s centrally located, and half the rooms have balconies with beautiful views over the Otonabee River. When it’s time for a bite to eat, head to Publican House for a variety of craft beers and delicious brew pub fare.

No matter how you choose to explore it, a Peterborough road trip is a great way to head back to the water.

Explore more Ontario weekend road trips by clicking here >

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