If you live in Southern Ontario, you’re probably familiar with the chore of blasting across the 401. It’s a monotonous stretch of highway between Toronto and Montreal, especially if it’s a drive you take often. What you may not know is this drive can be much more scenic and enjoyable if you take just a short detour off the highway. By slowing down and taking the roads that trace the shore of the St. Lawrence River instead, you can turn this task into a fabulous Ontario road trip.
Our drive begins in the city of Kingston, where Lake Ontario funnels toward the entrance to the St. Lawrence River. As we carry on through Gananoque, Brockville, Cornwall and beyond, you’ll discover breathtaking scenery and elements of Ontario’s history you’d never consider while sailing past on the 401.
Kingston is a fascinating city that’s far richer in history than most people realize. It was the capital of the United Province of Canada for a brief period in the 1840s, when Canada was still a British territory. It’s also a long-time important military location, a fact that shines through in several of its major attractions.
There’s so much to do in Kingston. Downtown, you can explore the city’s bustling restaurants and artisan shops, depart on a cruise to the Thousand Islands, or walk around to seek out the fascinating architecture. To learn about Kingston’s military history, visit Fort Henry, which is right next door to Canada’s Royal Military College.
Head to Kingston Mills locks to kick off a journey along the Rideau Canal, the historic waterway that connects Kingston with Ottawa. Or delve into Kingston’s haunting role in Canada’s correctional services by touring Kingston Penitentiary and Canada’s Penitentiary Museum.
The City of Kingston is also home to the Tragically Hip, one of Canada’s most beloved homegrown bands. Since lead singer Gord Downie passed away in 2017, fans have flocked to the city to explore the band’s origins.
Gananoque and the Thousand Islands
Imagine zipping across the 401 without ever realizing the amazing beauty that’s right on Ontario’s doorstep!
The Thousand Islands region is a true gem, and you don’t need to love boating to appreciate it. By tracing the river’s shore along the Thousand Islands Parkway, you can take in phenomenal views. Some of the best ones are accessible via short hikes in the mainland portions of Thousand Islands National Park, which are reachable directly from the Parkway. An excursion with 1000 Islands Helicopter Tours is a fabulous way to experience the region, whether or not you plan to be on the water. These tours can even include an aerial view of the famous Boldt Castle!
But if you do love boating, that’s the best way to explore this area. You’ll have the most freedom with your own boat, but it’s not necessary. Many cruises operate from towns along this stretch of the river, and you can arrange a kayaking tour with 1000 Islands Kayaking.
If you’re really the adventurous sort, perhaps you’ll be inspired by one of our favourite experiences we’ve had in any national park. We rented a tandem kayak from 1000 Islands Kayaking and took an overnight camping excursion to McDonald Island in Thousand Islands National Park. You can stay in a traditional campsite, or in an oTENTik like we did.
An oTENTik is a great option because you don’t need to carry as much equipment, which makes paddling much more accessible. We swam in the river during our early August visit, and the island’s fireflies made walking along the trails feel like floating through a starfield. We love the sense of accomplishment that comes with this adventure!
The town of Gananoque is an ideal home base for exploring the Thousand Islands. It has some great restaurants, and the Thousand Islands Playhouse makes for a wonderful night out. Parks Canada also offers additional oTENTik camping near the visitor centre at Mallorytown Landing. Here, your kids can pick up the Parks Canada Xplorers booklet and complete activities to earn a souvenir medallion to take home!
Just east of where the Thousand Islands Parkway meets back up with Highway 2, you’ll find the city of Brockville. Here, the St. Lawrence River narrows and the American side is easily visible from the shore. From the 401, Brockville looks like an endless stretch of hotels and chain restaurants. But venture into downtown and you’ll find there’s plenty to do!
Perhaps the most surprisingly fun activity is the Brockville Railway Tunnel. This is the oldest railway tunnel in Canada and dates back to 1860. Today, you can follow the tunnel underground for 525 metres, the length of four city blocks. Along the way, you’ll experience a light show synchronized to music. Best of all, there’s no charge to access the Brockville Railway Tunnel. You can make a donation if you wish at the entrances and in collection boxes.
On the waterfront, the Aquatarium is a fun stop, especially for families with young children. This aquarium highlights the area’s marine history and conservation efforts. It’s also home to several aquatic animal exhibits, including fan favourite Justin Beaver. (Get it? Think of another Canadian superstar with the name Justin B.) If you time your visit right, you can watch as Justin commutes from his demonstration area to his private enclosure at the end of the day.
Brockville has several waterfront parks including Blockhouse Island, and 1000 Islands Cruises also has departures from Brockville Harbour.
For its size, Prescott has had an inordinate amount of responsibility throughout history for protecting the lands that became Canada.
To get a taste of this, visit Fort Wellington National Historic Site. Unlike many of the British fortifications maintained today by Parks Canada, Fort Wellington actually saw combat during its history. Through several transformations, it was active from 1814 to 1869 and played a role in the War of 1812 and the Upper Canada Rebellion.
Today, the fort consists of a blockhouse surrounded by ramparts. Interpreters explain the fort’s history, and visitors can view a number of artifacts from the era. (Many of them were found during an archaeological dig of the fort’s latrine. Yes, these are items the fort’s soldiers threw down the toilet!) This is a Parks Canada Xplorers site, meaning young visitors can earn another souvenir badge here.
To dive deeper into the Upper Canada Rebellion, visit the Battle of the Windmill National Historic Site not far from the fort. This simple site is not an Xplorers location, but it has an interesting history. Learn about its important role in a young and changing Canada, and how it transformed from windmill to functioning lighthouse.
Iroquois to Cornwall, the Lost Villages
Continuing east along Highway 2, the riverside towns and villages tell an interconnected story.
It begins in the village of Iroquois, home to one of the locks of the St. Lawrence Seaway. This marine transportation system was built in the mid-1950s to create a thoroughfare along the river from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. One of the locks is located in Iroquois.
You can observe from the shoreline as massive ocean freighters travel through the lock to go around the control dam to the east. This is fun to watch, especially for kids, but it can take some time to see the lock in action as it operates on demand. It’s an entertaining way to slow down for an afternoon.
Next, you’ll pass through Morrisburg before reaching Upper Canada Village. This is a fully operational British loyalist village that appears frozen in time in the 1860s, just before Canadian Confederation. You can visit the flour mill, bakery, blacksmith, newspaper office, and more to see how each location contributes to the village’s daily life. You can even purchase some of the fresh bread, cheese, wool blankets, and posters made on-site to take home.
And a little further to the east, you’ll reach the Long Sault Parkway. This scenic road is made up entirely of parkland maintained by the Parks of the St. Lawrence. This is a provincial entity along the same lines as Ontario Parks. It’s responsible for maintaining many of the parks found along the river between Kingston and the Ontario-Quebec border, including Upper Canada Village and Kingston’s Fort Henry.
(If you’re looking for waterfront campsites and your favourite Ontario Parks are booked, check with Parks of the St. Lawrence! Their campgrounds are maintained to the same standard and are less well-known than Ontario Parks. You just might find a new hidden gem!)
The Long Sault Parkway itself is a 10-kilometre road that connects 11 islands in the St. Lawrence River. But what’s especially interesting about the Parkway and these islands is that they weren’t always here. Remember that lock and control dam in Iroquois? Those pieces of infrastructure were built as part of a plan to flood this section of the river, which allowed the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway and a hydroelectric station near Cornwall. The 11 islands that exist today were 11 hilltops back before the flooding took place in the 1950s.
In the area below and surrounding these hills, there were six villages and three hamlets. The lands were expropriated by Ontario Hydro, and some 6,500 residents were relocated out of their homes to prepare for the floods. These are now collectively known as the Lost Villages. Many of the area’s parks are named after the Lost Villages, including Milles Roches, Farran’s Point, Woodlands, and more.
A museum dedicated to the Lost Villages is houses in Ault Park, just off the eastern terminus of the Long Sault Parkway. Several buildings were relocated from the villages to the surrounding area, including to Upper Canada Village. At the Lost Villages Museum, you can tour several of these historic buildings in a self-guided tour. Rarely throughout the season, the Lost Villages Historical Society hosts guided tours with its President, Jim Brownell. Mr. Brownell is a former resident of the Lost Villages and weaves intricate tales that bring this area’s history into full context. It’s well worth taking in one of these tours if you can.
You could end your St. Lawrence River tour in Cornwall and have a complete picture of its historic impact on Ontario. But the river’s legacy runs even deeper in Quebec, so it’s fitting to continue eastward.
For a final stop before the St. Lawrence reaches Montreal, visit Coteau-du-Lac National Historic Site. It’s on the north side of Grande Île, while on the south side is another component of the St. Lawrence Seaway, Beauharnois Canal. The latter diverts around a series of rapids on the north side of the island that has been creating navigational challenges for millennia.
As a result, you can view an evolution of boat travel here, from a rough rigolet dug out by the French to the remains a British-built lock from the late 1700s, one of the oldest in North America. The site is also home to a blockhouse, a replica of the one built on this site by the British during the War of 1812. It’s a fitting way to wrap up a historical tour of the St. Lawrence.
2021 Dodge Durango R/T
We took this trip during the summer of 2021. Travel was still somewhat restricted during that time, so we decided to camp in a small trailer towed by a 2021 Dodge Durango R/T. The Durango hasn’t changed much since then as a new generation is due for 2024, so it’s still relevant to discuss today.
This one had the Tow ‘n Go equipment group (which we didn’t truly need with a trailer this small), and its new as-tested price was $81,635 including a $1,895 destination charge. When properly equipped, the Durango can tow up to 8,700 pounds. The towing capacity of ours was lower due to the smaller 5.7-litre Hemi V8, but it more than did the job for us. Tow ‘n Go adds a Class IV receiver hitch, upgrades to the all-wheel drive system, an electronic limited-slip differential, trailer brake controller, four- and seven-pin wiring, an adaptive suspension, and a towing drive mode.
The Durango was less fuel-efficient than we’d hoped at an average of 20.2 L/100 km. Nonetheless, we’re big fans of towing with an SUV instead of a truck. It’s a no-brainer if you need to bring more than five people along. But even if you don’t, it’s a big advantage to have plenty of in-vehicle storage that’s fully protected from the elements. It’s worth considering whether you’d also appreciate that space when choosing your next tow vehicle.
We should note we found some of the locations along this route to be unfriendly for truck-and-trailer combinations. Parking in Gananoque with a trailer is challenging, especially overnight. We received a parking ticket in Brockville for parking in a lot that looked safe for trailers but was intended for boat trailers only. If you’re towing, plan ahead, read signage carefully, and be prepared for some headaches.