Outdoor activity guide: Ten sporty, adventurous things to do near Toronto this summer
With summer holidays, festivals and most camps on 2020 hiatus, Torontonians are probably wondering exactly how they’re going to fill the upcoming sun-drenched months. While certain popular al fresco attractions (like the Elora Gorge and the waterfalls along the Bruce Trail) are still closed to the public, there are plenty of outdoor activity providers that are operating under new restrictions. And really, there’s never been a better summer to pick up a new hobby. Here are 10 we can get behind:
You don’t need to stray too far from home to get in some lakeside aquatic activity this summer. In the height of summertime chaos, the Beach is decidedly more peaceful when you’re gliding off the shore, taking in the crowds from a safe distance. Ipaddle Adventures, located at the end of Willow Avenue where the boardwalk ends at Balmy Beach, provides SUP boards, kayaks, paddles and lifejackets to Torontonians looking to venture out to the islands, or take in the sights slightly further east at the Scarborough Bluffs. Board rentals start at $30 for an hour’s use. We also recommend their group lessons, especially the sunrise, sunset and full moon paddles. There aren’t currently any restrictions on group sizing due to Covid.
Scenic Caves Nature Adventures is located in the town of Blue Mountain, a couple hours north of Toronto on the shores of Georgian Bay. The park reopened on June 23, opening their winter-only hiking trails so visitors will have more space to spread out. Certain activities (like the children’s adventure playground and tractor wagon ride) have been cancelled, but visitors are free to explore the 15 kilometres of trails winding through 370 acres of untouched nature—including a bunch of natural caves and caverns. Perhaps coolest of all is the 420-foot-long suspension bridge that floats 82-feet above the forest floor, and provides exceptional views of the old-growth forest and Georgian Bay vista. Admission is $27 each for adults.
If your regular Lakeshore route is getting a little tired (and crowded), Prince Edward County’s rolling hills, quiet country roads and scenic lake views make for seriously enjoyable rides. Plus, there are now plenty of places for socially distanced pitstops, like the expansive white sand beaches at Sandbanks National Park, or one of the area’s wineries, some of which, like the Grange, are now open for small groups to enjoy an al fresco chardonnay. For those looking to rent, County Bike Rentals has a fleet of 50 bikes available, including easy-to-use seven-speed MEC commuter bikes and eight-speed Revelo folding bikes. Since the pandemic started, all paperwork, including payment, equipment instruction and bike and helmet sizing will be done digitally, and bikes will be disinfected with hydrogen peroxide between each use.
While indoor climbing gyms remain closed, Ontario has plenty of rocky outcrops for you to attempt to scale. Zen Climb teaches outdoor rock climbing on the Niagara Escarpment. This year, they’re still able to offer courses, just at a limited capacity—they’re only operating at Rattlesnake Point and only during the week. All participants need to sign a health and exposure declaration before signing up, and wear masks where possible. For first-timers, they offer an introductory outdoor rock climbing class that covers all the basics, including the best risk management practices, how to tie strong knots and appropriate movement skills and belaying technique. If you’d rather a more private experience, certified instructors are also available for your own guided climbing trips along the craggy bluffs of the Niagara Escarpment.
Torontonians looking to channel their inner cowboys can head out to the Niagara region, where it’s possible to gallop along the beach atop a majestic stallion. Horseplay Niagara has a herd of rescued horses, including thoroughbreds, Clydesdales and paint-splattered ponies. They’re open now, but are limiting group sizes to 10 riders and are sanitizing helmets, saddles and reins in between each visit. They offer a variety of guided tours, including a family-friendly trail ride, a leisurely sunset beach ride and a two-hour adventure ride ($80 each), which takes you through remote backcountry trails and into knee-deep lakewater.
The Grand River in southwestern Ontario is, as its name suggests, the province’s largest, and it flows from Dundalk down to Lake Erie, passing though picturesque towns like Elora, Cambridge, Paris and Brantford. Grand River Rafting rents all kinds of aquatic vehicles, like kayaks, canoes, SUP boards and rafts—and you can also bring your own boat if that suits. They offer numerous routes, depending on whether you want to float leisurely in a raft or embark on more of a canoe-tripping quest (a few are not running due to Covid-related restrictions in some of the parks the river runs though). The longest trip is Cambridge to Paris, which is nearly 18 kilometres downstream, consisting mostly of calm waters punctuated by a few easy rapids. Canoe rentals start at $75 per boat, and new regulations require everyone to bring their own sanitizer and face mask.
The Ottawa River is one of the best white water rafting destinations in the province, with a powerful main channel, a tighter middle channel that cuts through a series of beautiful islands and a calmer lower level, with stunning rock formations and hidden beaches. Wilderness Tours offers a variety of white water adventures—all of which involve a mixture of rushing rapids and calm pools so you can catch your breath and take in the natural scenery. There’s a gentle rafting day trip along the middle channel ($99 per adult) and a more adrenaline-pumping four- to six-hour adventure ($129 per adult). During the pandemic, they’ve gone cashless, are no longer offering shore lunches and are asking guests to follow a variety of safety restrictions, including bringing a mask and practicing physical distancing with anyone not in your bubble.
Camps may be closed, but that doesn’t mean your kids have to abandon their outdoorsy inclinations for a full summer. Algonquin Park, nearly 8,000 square kilometres of protected forests, lakes and wildlife, is open for exploration. The area’s developed campgrounds are accessible by car and usually offer electrical sites, running water and flushing toilets—which are currently open, but shower and laundry facilities are closed due to Covid. The backcountry campsites, which are usually reached by the more than 2,000 kilometres of canoe routes, are also available to more adventurous campers. Visitors can reserve one of the thousands of sites online—and if you’re lucky, you may just spot a moose.
The Bruce Trail consists of 900 kilometres of marked paths, running from Niagara to Tobermory, and is the country’s oldest footpath. Eighty-five per cent of the trail is currently open, however, most of the waterfalls remain closed. Those looking for a scenic stop can now trek to the grotto, which reopened at the end of June. The Georgian Bay shoreline cave is filled with sparkling turquoise water—an underwater tunnel running from the cave through the rock to Georgian Bay makes the pool look like it’s glowing on sunny days. Plan in advance, because it fills up quickly. The grotto is currently operating with 50 per cent capacity, and visitors have to reserve four-hour parking time slots ahead of time.
A multi-hour plane ride to a tropical locale is not necessary before strapping on your snorkel this summer. Fathom Five National Marine Park in Tobermory has some of the best freshwater diving in the country (Tobermory is often referred to as the scuba diving capital of Canada), with crystal-clear waters, submerged cliffs and caves and over 20 historic shipwrecks. Divers Den is a dive shop in the area that can outfit you with equipment and take you out on a boat to showcase the best sites. Right now, they’re only offering morning charters, which are for experienced divers travelling with their own equipment. Snorkellers can still rent a mask and wetsuit, and one of their two-hour snorkelling trips costs $80 per adult (you can also charter a boat for a private tour starting at $600 for a half day). They’re currently operating at limited capacity, and social distancing and masks are required when you’re in the shop.