In our Road Trip Ontario series for summer 2019, we’ve already taken a tour of Bracebridge, Ont., provided a round up of the province’s antique and vintage markets and, more recently, offered a guide on renting and operating an RV.
Now, we’re actually going to take you across the Ottawa River, out of Ontario and into Quebec, to Gatineau Park. The 36,131-hectare (or 361-square-kilometre) conservation park, managed by the National Capital Commission (NCC), is quickly and easily accessible by car if you’re already in the Ottawa area this summer and craving a day of outdoor activity.
“What makes it special is its proximity to the capital, how close it is for people who, on the one hand, are living in a mid-size city but on the other hand, can get out into this vast, beautiful natural park within 15 minutes,” says Tobi Nussbaum, chief executive officer of the NCC.
The park is a popular destination for Ontario and western Quebec residents and is the second most-visited park in Canada behind Banff, according to Nussbaum. He said the park averages about 2.6 million visits a year from people who come to hike, bike, swim, canoe, fish, rock climb and camp, or who simply want a scenic place to picnic or lay on a beach.
“But I think what’s sort of interesting for people who are visiting the capital is they may not know that we have overnight camping, we have canoe camping … so some of those more wilderness backcountry experiences are also available.”
Intrigued but can’t make it this summer? Many areas of the park are open year-’round and the park is also home to the Camp Fortune ski hill. It’s always an option to come back in the fall for a hike in cooler temperatures, or in the winter for snowshoeing, skiing and cross-country skiiing.
Getting there from Ottawa
Depending on where you’re headed in the park, your destination could be anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour away.
Gatineau Park Welcome Area (Gatineau, Que.): Go here if you’re looking for some short and easy walking trails and don’t want to stray far from Ottawa. The centre is located at the southern tip of the park. From east or downtown Ottawa, take either the Macdonald-Cartier, Alexandra or Portage interprovincial bridges to the other side of the river, make your way west on Hwy 148 and turn right on the Gatineau Parkway, which leads right to the welcome area. From west Ottawa, cross the Champlain Bridge, take a right on Boulevard Alexandre-Taché and turn left on the Gatineau Parkway.
Gatineau Park Visitor Centre (Chelsea, Que.): Accessing the park through Chelsea will lead you to many of the park’s most popular destinations. From east or downtown Ottawa, cross the river and get onto Autoroute 5 (Autoroute de la Gatineau), travelling northbound. After about 15 to 20 minutes, exit the highway either at Chemin Old Chelsea or the next interchange (exit 13). The visitor centre is located on Chemin Scott.
Paid shuttle: If you’d rather leave your car behind, you can book a seat on a paid shuttle, run by non-profit Parkbus, on eight dates in August and October. On two Saturdays in August, the shuttle will travel up the Gatineau Parkway, stopping at several popular destinations in the park. For the remaining six dates in August and October, the bus will head to Lac Philippe (more on that lake below).
Free shuttle: If you end up planning a visit to Gatineau Park in the fall — specifically October — you may be able to catch a free shuttle to several of the park’s most popular destinations.
What to bring
- Water (lots of it, if you’re exercising intensely)
- Insect repellent
- Proper footwear for hiking/cycling
If it’s a nature walk or a hike you’re looking for, Gatineau Park should have you sorted, whether you’re a rookie or an experienced trail blazer. We’re not going to detail all the trails in the park — here, have a map — but here’s two hikes we tested out in July and can recommend. One is moderate and the other is more challenging. If you’re looking for an easy and universally-accessible hike, check out the 1.3-kilometre Pioneers Trail, reachable from Gatineau Park Welcome Area, near Gamelin Street.
The Carbide Willson Ruins
An easy-going, shaded and kid-friendly hike is trail 36 to the Carbide Willson Ruins, the remains of a property that once belonged to Canadian inventor, engineer and electrochemist Thomas Willson. If you’re walking at a steady clip, the hike should take about an hour round-trip, not including any breaks.
To get there, you’ll want to park in lot P11, off Chemin du Lac Meech, by O’Brien Beach. (It’s a paid lot so bring money.) The lot fills up quickly, especially in the summer and on a weekend, so arrive early to claim a spot. If you strike out, backtrack south down Chemin du Lac Meech and turn right onto Chemin Dunlop. Park in P10 (Fortune) and walk up Lac Fortune Parkway until you hit trail 36 on your right. It’ll lead you right to P11 and will add about 20 minutes (one way) to your hike.
Once at P11, you’re going to take the continuation of trail 36 to the ruins. Since you’re in the woods, the pathway is nicely shaded the majority of the time and a good pick for a hot day. The path is fairly even but does involve one lengthy slope downhill, so bear that in mind for the return trip. About halfway there, take a minute to pause on the foot bridge and enjoy a pretty view of Meech Lake.
The loud rush of the waterfall will let you know you’re approaching the ruins.
Luskville Falls Trail
On a hot and humid day, this is not a trail for the faint of heart but it’s a great challenge with some nice views. It’s significantly steeper and rockier than the Carbide Willson Ruins, but you don’t need to be a seasoned hiker to survive the climb. It’s also shaded for the most part and it’s easy to stop and take a break. Depending on your pace, the hike may take two to three hours in total. (If you’re keen on seeing the Luskville Falls themselves, then come back in the fall or springtime; the water is pretty dried up in the summer.)
To get there you can either drive along the western border of the park on Chemin de la Montagne or cut west through Aylmer and travel north on Hwy 148. In either case, you’ll want to turn right off Hwy 148 onto the bumpy Chemin de l’Hôtel de Ville and then take a left into the parking lot (no charge!).
The way up the mountain is definitely the longest and most intense stretch. Except a steady and steep incline right off the bat; the trail will plateau about mid-way through until the finish at the fire tower. Keep your hands free both on the way up and down — there’s rocks and roots aplenty to trip on — and take advantage of the two lookouts to catch your breath and enjoy the views of Pontiac, the Ottawa River and rural west Ottawa.
Either before or after your hike, enjoy a picnic meal in the quiet, shaded green space by the parking lot.
Cycling / Mountain biking
If you prefer biking to hiking, click here for more information about Gatineau Park’s cycling and mountain biking trails. Cyclists can bike on the main parkways, but fair warning these roads are windy and hilly.
The NCC also hosts what it calls Sunday Bikedays during the spring and summer times. On those Sundays, select roads in the National Capital Region are closed to vehicles, allowing cyclists to zip around car-free.
Swimming/beaches (click here to view recent water quality test results)
Lac La Pêche: Located about an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes northwest of downtown Ottawa, it’s a go-to spot for swimming, fishing, kayaking and canoeing. Nussbuam cited the first time he went canoe camping at this lake as a particularly special memory of his in Gatineau Park. Check the NCC’s website for up-to-date directions due to road closures near the lake.
Lac Philippe: About a 45-minute drive from downtown Ottawa, there are three beaches to choose from at Lac Philippe: Breton, Parent and Smith. If you’re not in the mood for a swim, you hike on a number of trails surrounding the lake or hike to Lusk Cave, about five kilometres from Parent Beach (although, take note, you’ll need special equipment if you plan to explore the cave).
Meech Lake: If the first two lakes seem too far away, consider Meech Lake, which is about a half hour from downtown Ottawa. Set up camp at O’Brien Beach or travel a bit further north on Chemin du Lac Meech to reach Blanchet Beach.
Lac Leamy: This lake isn’t actually in Gatineau Park but it’s also managed by the NCC and is a good option if you want to go for a dip after walking the trails near the Gatineau Park Welcome Centre or after a long drive down Autoroute 5. The NCC touts it as “an excellent spot for outdoor sports and recreational activities.”
Other points of interest
- MacKenzie King Estate: The summer residence of the former Canadian prime minister in the heart of Gatineau Park. “For those who are maybe less active, [it’s] still an opportunity to enjoy the park and have refreshments without necessarily having to work up a huge sweat,” Nussbaum said.
- Camp Fortune: A ski hill during the winter months, Camp Fortune offers zip lining and aerial parks during the summer.
- Pink Lake: Despite its name, it’s really a green lake with a unique ecology. Parking here is free and the lookout is universally accessible.
Selfies and social posts — great spots to snap a picture
There’s no shortage of beautiful spots to snap a picture in Gatineau Park, but if you’re looking for that “wow factor,” the park’s scenic lookouts are a great option.
As the highest point in the park, the Champlain Lookout is ordinarily the go-to spot for a spectacular view but it’s currently somewhat obscured by fencing that’s blocking off a partially-collapsed wall. (The NCC says work to repair the wall will begin this fall and should be completed by summer 2020.) You can still drive to and park at the lookout, and check out the stunning view from the right side, but it’s not the most ideal spot for a selfie or group picture. However, there are two other lookouts on the way to Champlain that will give you similar vistas, albeit not as expansive.
Étienne Brûlé Lookout: This lookout, a kilometre down the parkway from the Champlain Lookout, is easily the best option if you want to picnic comfortably with a view. It also connects to hiking and mountain-biking trails and has a roomy outhouse.
Huron Lookout: Located just 650 metres down from the Étienne Brûlé Lookout, this point also offers a great view but take note that a section of this lookout is also closed off until further notice.
Parking is free at all three lookouts.
Although you have to hike for these views, there’s also 10 lookouts on King Mountain.
Where to stop on the way back
Parts of Gatineau Park are actually in the municipality of Chelsea so you don’t have to go far to do a bit of leisurely touring after a day in the outdoors. Chemin Old Chelsea, just steps from the Gatineau Park Visitor’s Centre, is a one-stop strip for drink, food, dessert and relaxation.
If you’re craving something sweet and cold after a hike in the heat, simply cross the road from the centre’s parking lot to La Cigale, a charming ice-cream shop in a pale green house at 14 Chemin Scott. Order from their express window outside or enter the ground floor and choose from a lengthy menu boasting ice cream, sorbet, smoothies and milkshakes. Homemade ice-cream sandwiches, pies and cakes are also on offer. Enjoy your treat on their spacious outdoor patio or in a lawn chair in the backyard.
Fancy an alcoholic bevvy or a meal instead? The Chelsea Pub (238 Chemin Old Chelsea) is usually teaming with patrons and park-goers in the late afternoon and evening. While it doesn’t crack the top three user-ranked restaurants in Chelsea on Trip Advisor, it’s a population destination for its terrace and ambiance. Its menu features both homemade crafts beers and other local brews.
If you’re looking for some pure relaxation, Nordik-Spa Nature (16 Chemin Nordik) is just down the road. Nordik, which claims it’s the largest thermal spa in North America, offers a hot-cold-rest spa experience, an array of body treatments, a few restaurants and accommodation as well. The spa is open seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., or midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.
If you’re returning from a more northern part of Gatineau Park, consider stopping in Wakefield, a village on the shore of the Gatineau River (just west of the NCC-managed park) that boasts a population of about 7,000. Located about 35 kilometres north of Ottawa, it’s a popular and picturesque cottage destination for residents of the National Capital Region.
Should you find yourself there on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, consider popping your head into the Black Sheep Inn (753 Chemin Riverside) and catching some live music. The “tavern by day and juke joint cabaret by night” opened in 1928 as a logger’s tavern and roadhouse and evolved into well-known music venue that prides itself on promoting local and Canadian music and artists. You can find upcoming shows and buy tickets on their website.
Where to eat
Here are the top three user-ranked restaurants in Chelsea, according Trip Advisor Canada’s website:
Here are the top three user-ranked restaurants in Wakefield, according Trip Advisor Canada’s website:
- The Village House at 759 Chemin Riverside
- Le Hibou at 757 Chemin Riverside
- Muse (at the Wakefield Mill Hotel & Spa) at 60 Mill Rd.
Make a night of it
If you went road-tripping with your camping gear, camping overnight in Gatineau Park is an option if you’re not ready to move on to your next destination. The park boasts over 260 campsites for tents, trailers and motorhomes at Philippe, Renaud and Taylor lakes and also offers several sites for group camping and canoe camping. Reserve sooner rather than later.
If that’s not your style, here are the top five user-ranked hotels in terms of value in Wakefield, according Trip Advisor Canada’s website:
- Moulin Wakefield Mill Hotel & Spa at 60 Mill Rd.
- Les Trois Érables at 801 Chemin Riverside
- Belle de Nuit Wakefield Inn at 21 Chemin Burnside
- La Grange Country Inn at 37 Rockhurst Rd.
- Auberge de Mon Petit Chum B&B at 29 Chemin Burnside
The final pitch: Why you should visit Gatineau Park
“Whether it’s hiking or swimming, canoeing or camping, biking or zip lining, you can do it all in this natural jewel less than 15 minutes from Canada’s Parliament building.” – Tobi Nussbaum, CEO of the National Capital Commission.