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New Ontario Hiking and Biking Trail: The South Algonquin Rail Trail

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

If you’re looking for the best Ontario hiking trails, look no further than the newly upgraded Old Rail Trail in South Algonquin!

South Algonquin offers scenery second to none in the province, accommodators who go above and beyond to offer one-of-a-kind experiences, and a host of free or nearly free things to do while you’re here, which makes planning the best hiking vacation ever an absolute breeze.

With a growing number of businesses joining the Ontario By Bike network, it’s also one of the best biking vacations ever!

Plus, even in the busiest summer season, not only can you carve out time away from the crowds here, you can actually enjoy solitude if that’s what you’re looking for.

In this article we’re sharing everything you need to know about the revitalization of the Rail Trail in South Algonquin.

Be one of the first to hike and explore this newly upgraded trail!

Whether you travel by bike, or hike trails by day, check out the My South Algonquin business directory for a current list of places to stay!

Historic Rail Trail

The former Ottawa-Arnprior-Parry Sound Railway operated from 1897-1959 and for much of that time was among the busiest routes in the province, carrying timber, wood products and grain from Canada’s west and Ontario’s North to the St. Lawrence River for the JR Booth Lumber Company.

In addition to serving a supply chain purpose, its length through Algonquin Park was a popular tourist route, carrying people to the Highland Inn on Cache Lake for many years.

Long since decommissioned, portions of this old rail line have become a staple among the best hiking places in the province.

The Park To Park Association, for example, began with a goal of connecting Kilbear Provincial Park in Parry Sound to Algonquin Park’s west gate at the edge of Muskoka, resulting in what’s now known as the Park to Park trail. And the Old Railway Bike Trail at Lake of Two Rivers that runs from Mew Lake to Rock Lake is also a refurbished portion of this old rail line.

A New Hiking Trail in Ontario: The Old Rail Trail in South Algonquin

In South Algonquin, the trail is known as The Old Rail Trail, crossing a distance of about 45km along the north side of the township heading east/west.

A map showing the route of the Old Rail Trail in the Township of South Algonquin.
The Old Rail Trail in South Algonquin

Primarily used by ATVs and Snowmobiles up until recently, thanks to $300,000 in partnership and grant funding, the South Algonquin Business Alliance has brushed the trail and upgraded the surface to multi-season, multi-use, accessible standards.

The new surface means that the trail is now open for use by all kinds of motorized and non-motorized sport purposes also, such as dirt bikes, atvs, snowmobiles, walking, hiking, running, cycling, and adaptive/para sports such as electric bicycles, adult tricycles and trail accessible wheelchairs.

No matter your age or physical ability, whether you’re pushing a baby buggy or being pulled in a bicycle wagon, the trail is not only peak outdoor sport enjoyment for any sport, the trail is wide enough for multiple uses at the same time.

The Eastern Ontario Trails Alliance investment in our community is a real gift to our community.

In addition to funding the redevelopment, they will be active partners in helping the community maintain the trails and keep them up to standards which they fund through a voluntary, paid trail pass system and their own grant writing activities. EOTA’s interactive trail system map, including the portion in South Algonquin, is available at no charge on their website and can help you plan both day trips and multi-day excursions along their extensive network of trails.

Hiking the Rail Trail: One of Ontario's best hiking destinations

South Algonquin’s Old Rail Trail starts at the boundary of Algonquin Park in Whitney, Ontario, ending at the eastern boundary of the township where South Algonquin meets the Township of Madawaska Valley (Barry’s Bay).

Across that distance, it passes through two additional provincial parks - Upper Madawaska River Provincial Park and the Opeongo River Provincial Park. Although there are no visitors’ facilities available at these parks (or perhaps because there are no visitors’ facilities), these are amazingly quiet places to visit even in the busiest seasons.

While Opeongo River Provincial Park is a canoe access-only park outstanding for water sport enthusiasts (you start your journey by canoe in Algonquin Park and canoe south to Madawaska), the Upper Madawaska Valley Provincial Park follows the Madawaska River east, is closer to the Old Rail Trail, and has a highway access point in Madawaska making it easier to access both the river and the trail. Whitewater canoeing is possible in spring at Opeongo River Provincial Park.

In both parks, visitors can enjoy recreational activities such as canoeing, kayaking, fishing, hunting, camping, cross-country skiing and some of the best hiking in Ontario. Home to more than 34 distinct forest communities, including mixed hardwood, speckled alder, winterberry, holly and shrubs, white birch, white pine, sugar maple, and poplar, visitors may also encounter wet meadows and shoreland habitat in the area.

If you’re looking for a more low-key activity to do while hiking the trail, try forest bathing. We’re proud to be located near an expert Nature and Forest Therapy Guide program at Eco Wisdom Forest Preserve. Take a moment to review their tips for forest bathing and get the most out of a mindful nature experience!

You can also access the Old Rail Trail in all seasons from the centrepoint, located at the Recreation Complex in Madawaska. Staying at a mid-point accommodator like Four Seasons Algonquin Cabins located almost directly on the trail, lets you enjoy both directions of the trail from one starting point. It also makes a great mid-point stop along a one way journey in either direction. With the Madawaska Country Store nearby, Madawaska makes a great basecamp from which to enjoy the trail without straying too far from amenities.

On the eastern portion, trail route #159 that runs south from the Old Rail trail connects to the Spectacle Lake, Bear/Burnetts Mountain (SLBM) Trail system, another great all-season hiking opportunity with spectacular sunrise and sunset views at different points.

Interestingly, the SLBM Trail sits almost entirely within the territory of the Algonquins of Ontario Land Claim area. According to the government of Ontario, “the claim covers a territory of 36,000 square kilometers in eastern Ontario, an area with more than 1.2 million people. If successful, the negotiations will produce the province’s first modern-day constitutionally protected treaty.” The South Algonquin Business Alliance supports the Algonquins of Ontario in their claim to “Aboriginal rights and title that have never been extinguished.” Planned upgrades by the end of 2023 include the #159 trail Multi-season, multi-sport accessible surfacing and a new parking lot at the trailhead mean more and better travel and parking options. We are grateful to have received support from the Algonquins for the parking lot project, as well as funding from the Enabling Accessibility Fund and EOTA to pay for these upgrades, which we hope will improve safety and encourage more people to get out and enjoy the trails.

Visitors who travel the entire distance of the trail will also enjoy the stunning scenery of four waterfalls, as well as an ecologically sensitive turtle breeding area.

While the trail’s eco-sensitive area is accessible by foot or non-motorized sports for people who seek an up close and personal look at turtle habitat, a portion known as the Turtle Bypass allows motorized sport enthusiasts to avoid disturbing the turtles. Many online reviews highlight how bumpy this bypass has been. Now leveled out and regraded, the bypass also includes an elevation change, which adds an enjoyable level of difficulty for enthusiasts crossing the otherwise level terrain on ATVs and snowmobiles, without all the bumps.

A map showing the Turtle Bypass portion of the Old Rail Trail, near Madawaska
The Turtle Bypass Trail (dotted pink line) takes you around important turtle nesting habitat and adds challenge to the route for snowmobilers and ATV riders.

Planning a Hiking or Biking Trip in Ontario: Go to South Algonquin

Let’s face it. Summer is a busy time.

Just because you might be on holiday, doesn’t mean you get to - or maybe even want to - rest. There are goals, budgets, hopes and dreams, promises and plans to make and keep.

What you really want is to make the most of your weekends, vacation, and precious family time and come away with equally precious memories. Now imagine a place where you could do it without breaking the bank, or even breaking a sweat (unless that’s your thing). Sounds nice, eh?

South Algonquin offers scenery second to none in the province, accommodators who go above and beyond to offer one-of-a-kind experiences, and a host of free or nearly free things to do while you’re here, which makes planning the best hiking or biking vacation an absolute breeze.

Plus, even in the busiest summer season, not only can you carve out time away from the crowds, you can actually enjoy solitude if that’s what you’re looking for. (Try finding that in Muskoka these days!)

Free Things to do in the Summer in South Algonquin

  • Animal watching: Easily in the top 3 of “free things to do” here, so many people arrive hoping to leave with memories of an encounter with a moose, bear, fox or other wild animal to share with friends. Animal sightings are all rather random, but plenty of people leave absolutely thrilled to have had their wish come true!

  • Swim at one of our beaches: The township has 3 gorgeous beaches within a 20 minute drive of each other.

    • Watch the sun go down at Galeairy Lake Beach in Whitney

    • Watch the sun come up at the Tom & Mick Murray Beach in Madawaska

    • Splash in the water at Booth Memorial Park in Madawaska

  • Stargaze: be dazzled by the magnitude of the night sky and the Milky Way from one of our beaches or Trestle bridges along the Old Rail Trail

  • Fish from Shore: check out google maps to find locations that are great for shore fishing with your friends or children.

  • Go for a Walk: listen to the sound of water crushing over the rocks along the Madawaska River in Whitney or Madawaska as you one of the best hiking places in Ontario

  • Visit Algonquin Park: Some of our accommodators include a free park pass with your reservation, or complimentary sport equipment rentals (Check out Algonquin Accommodations and Four Corners Algonquin).

  • Enjoy that Campfire Culture: Smores anyone? Whether grilling veggies for dinner or enjoying a lakeside fish bbq, absolutely nothing beats good food, good friends, and a good campfire.

  • Visit one of our art galleries: whether for an hour or for a day, the Algonquin landscape offers plenty of creative expression, and you can take it all in at one of the three art galleries in our township, or at the two galleries in Algonquin Park.

If your budget is higher than zero dollars and thrills are your currency, maybe some more advanced outdoor sport opportunities are up your alley? Check out Algonquin Outfitters in Madawaska, or Opeongo Outfitters in Whitney for the low down on day trips, self-guided water experiences and renting canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards. Or use South Algonquin as a basecamp for a day trip further afield, like this hiking trip at the Barron Canyon and High Falls. Talk about one of a kind views and the best hiking in Ontario!

If you prefer cycling, bring your own bicycle or rent one locally from Algonquin Accommodations. Ontario By Bike also hosts an interactive map of local bicycle friendly businesses if you’re looking for great places to stop or stay.

Four Seasons Algonquin Cabins in Madawaska, and Algonquin Accommodations, MadMusher Restaurant & Four Corners Algonquin in Whitney are listed as bicycle-friendly businesses (Maps).

If being one (and alone) with nature is more your speed, try a mindful nature or forest bathing experience offered through Ecowisdom at Hay Lake Lodge.

All of these activities can be done together with or interspersed with a hiking trip to South Algonquin.

Winter Hiking in Ontario on the New Rail Trail

Winter enthusiasts are a special breed - all weather champions of snow, ice and cold, unbothered by the white stuff in the air or on the ground. While some like to rough-it outside in the winter (yes - winter camping is a thing!), and others like it warm by the fireplace after dark, South Algonquin is ready to deliver whatever it is about the winter that calls to you.

Also read: Winter activities in Ontario for more inspiration for your winter bucketlist!

Typically by early December and lasting into late March, our winter hiking trails transform into a frosty paradise and can accommodate nearly whichever winter sport fills the desire, including winter fat-biking.

Trails groomed by SnowCountry and the Opeongo Snowbirds mean that with proper permits, snowmobilers can ride directly to the township from destinations in southern or eastern Ontario, no car required. Imagine a trip from Toronto to South Algonquin and back again entirely on snowmobile. We see lots of people every year who do just that!

Programming in Algonquin Park continues through the winter as well, with ice skating and winter camping at Mew Lake, back-country camping and some of the best winter hiking places available in the province.

South Algonquin’s overnight accommodators are increasingly offering winter outfitting, making cross-country skis, snowshoes and skates available for rent saving you both the cost of owning and inconvenience of transporting these bulky items to and from home.

Best saved for January and February, Spectacle Lake Lodge in Madawaska even offers ice fishing experiences for those who want to try a hand at a Canadian winter sport as old as time itself.

And if all you can stand of the cold stuff is ten minutes, well, feeding the chickadees is a much less labour-intensive experience that never ceases to thrill.

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