Ontario is full of amazing attractions and historical locations worth a visit. If you really want to appreciate everything the province has to offer though, you'll need to take a step off the beaten path.
There are incredible gems to explore in Ontario that you probably have never heard of! When you're planning your next vacation, or just come down with a case of wanderlust, keep the following locales in mind as places you need to visit!
Fathom Five National Marine Park
The beautiful blue waters of Lake Huron conceal a secret just beneath their sparkling surface. An underwater museum of history, tragedy, and eerie beauty in the form of over 20 shipwrecks that still lie beneath the waves.
These ships, ranging from antique schooners, to steamboats, and even modern barges are a testament to the dangers of nautical travel and the resilience of sailors and fishermen everywhere. A historical wonder you can experience from the comfort of a glass bottom boat tour thanks to the crystal clear waters of Lake Huron and surprisingly good condition of many of the wrecks.
Have a flair for adventure? Aside from the popular glass bottom boat tours that allow you a bird’s eye view of the wrecks, more ambitious explorers can snorkel or dive to witness many of the wrecks up close and personally! There are several tour and rental dive companies operating in the area that will help you safely explore these sunken treasures for yourself.
While you are in the area, Fathom Five also contains plenty of islands and cute little spots to explore. Among these is Flowerpot Island, named after a pair of rock pillars that stand on the eastern shore of the island. These pillars, a kind of sea stack, have been naturally formed and molded by centuries of exposure and erosion. Over time, the softer rock layers that once stood at the base of these pillars have been worn away, leaving only the harder rock at the core, creating the unique, top heavy, flower pot shape of the formations – like hills that have grown upside down! Definitely a phenomenon you have to see if you're in the area!
Lion's Head rock climbing
Not far from Tobermory lies Lion's Head, a small community in the Bruce Peninsula. While sporting a lovely beach and several comfortable camping locations, Lion's Head true attraction is also its namesake – the lion shaped rock formation that overlooks the bay. There are multiple trails that explore the outcropping for a bracing sampling of the beauty of Northern Ontario, but for rock climbing enthusiasts, it's all about the cliff side.
Lion's Head boasts a beautiful white limestone cliff with bountiful climbing opportunities. Considered by many climbers to be one of, if not the best, climbing location in Ontario, would-be grapplers should be warned – many of the most popular climbing sites are highly challenging. Several spots are only accessible through hanging belays that require complicated rappelling and free hanging movement to get across. While beautiful, Lion's Head is not a climb for beginners! For adventurous and experienced climbers though, it doesn't get much better than scaling the mane of this great natural beast.
Never underestimate Ontario's biodiversity! The Cheltenham Badlands may be located in Caledon (only an hour out from Toronto), but looking at the sea of rolling hills of sandy red clay and rocks that make up the Badlands, you'd swear you were in a remote Saharan desert!
While you may not believe it now, thousands of years ago Cheltenham was the location of a large running river. In the many centuries since, the river dried out while foliage took over the surrounding areas, creating the illusion of an isolated desert hidden the middle of typical Ontario trees and wildlife. The unique hills that make up the Badlands are actually the remains of that ancient river bed!
The hills gain their unique reddish hue from iron oxide deposits found in the ground, creating a otherworldly feeling. In fact, if you look closely, you can find faint green streaks in the hills here and there, the result of oxidation caused by exposure to underground water sources.
Sadly, while visitors used to be able to walk the Badlands themselves, concerns due to overuse and the reckless behaviour of some tourists, have led to the closure of the site itself. This is a delicate ecosystem that demands care and preservation if future generations are going to be able to enjoy it. Fortunately, you can still enjoy an excellent view of the Badlands from designated observation points that stand at the top of the slopes overlooking the Badlands. This closure is temporary while the Ontario Heritage Foundation and Peel Region municipality develop a long-term strategy to safeguard the Badlands while allowing tourists to experience them up close, so hopefully it won't be long before you will be free to experience them fully!
Located in Dorion, Ontario (about 65 km northeast of Thunder Bay), the astounding, steep-sided volcanic rock gorge of Ouimet Canyon stands as one of Ontario's most majestic, and massive, hidden sites.
Over 100 metres tall, and more than 150 meters wide, Ouimet Canyon is a simply breathtaking display of nature. As impressive as its sheer size is, it's the unique appearance and formation of its cliff sides that really stand out. An interesting vertical jointing in the rocks caused by glaciers receding thousands of years ago has given the cliff side protrusions an almost column-like formation. The impressive dark stone and suggestion of columns resembles something like a natural castle that has emerged out of the ground.
At the floor of the canyon rests not only piles of rock and massive slabs of dark stone worn smooth by centuries of rain, wind, and ice, but a bounty of unique flora. The massive walls of the canyon and the cool winds that blow between them from Lake Superior combine to create a unique ecological condition in the canyon's base. Shielded from sunlight for must of the day and blanketed in a thick bed of insulating moss, the canyon traps cold air like a refrigerator. You can find ice in the bottom of the canyon even during the hottest days of summer! This unique micro-climate allows arctic vegetation to not only survive, but thrive in the canyon. There are plants at the bottom of Ouimet that you literally cannot find anywhere else in Ontario!
Ouimet Canyon is one of Ontario's natural jewels. It's remote location and relative obscurity also makes it one of the provinces best kept secrets. If you want to visit a truly unique vacation spot, Ouimet Canyon is more than worth the trip!
Norfolk Country is generally considered just another quiet stretch of small towns in Ontario. But, just off Highway 24 near Normandale lies a hidden secret you might not expect - the forebodingly named woods of Spooky Hollow.
A small stretch of scenic woods just off the beaten path, Spooky Hollow checks off every horror movie cliche you can name. Enveloping woods characterized by an eerie stillness and strange lack of bird and animal life? Check. Poorly maintained gates and rickety bridges spanning muddy streams that groan and creak as you cross them? Check. An abundance of strange fungi and mushrooms sure to fascinate the amateur mycologists among us? Check. A spooky ghost story about the area? You better believe it!
While there are plenty of tall tales to go around in regards to Spooky Hollow, the most bone chilling of them have to do with the old hotel that once stood on the edge of the forest. There are plenty of variations on the tale, some say the hotel burned down by accident, some say by arson. Some say the hotel owner's daughter was tragically caught in the blaze, others say she was intentionally trapped in the flames for some dark reason. Another version tells of a wandering salesman who was murdered, his body hidden in the hotel basement. In this version of the story, it was his angry spirit trapped in the hotel that eventually burned the place to cinders in an act of spectral revenge.
Are these simple ghost stories? Legends that have been passed down and embellished through the generations? Or is there a grain of truth to be found in these old tales? Who can say. What we know for certain those is that Spooky Hollow is a magnificent example of Ontario's woods and fantastic hiking trails!
While only about a kilometer and a half long, the twisting trails and winding paths through Spooky Hollow intersect and weave with other trails creating a fun and mysterious area to explore for a quick afternoon that is still safe for novice hikers. Located in as it is in Norfolk County, Spooky Hollow can make for a quick day-adventure for people living in the area. Be sure to visit in the fall while the leaves are changing and the Halloween spirit hangs in the air for the best effect!