Winter Wonderland? Ottawa Has It All!

Published: March 6, 2021
Last updated: April 1, 2021
Winter wonderland in Gatineau Park Ottawa

There are basically two types of people in our National Capital Region. Those who love winter, and those who hate it. Before Covid-19 hit us, considerable numbers of the latter group headed south to Florida or beyond to enjoy the sun and the beaches. The rest of us enjoy the winter and make the most of it by skiing, skating, snowmobiling, snowshoeing and fat-biking.

Healey hut with skiers outside
Healey hut can be reached by ski, snow bike and snowshoe

Those who love winter in Ottawa have the best time. Some would even express they love the winter over the summer: no sweat, no insects and a good night sleep! The region around Ottawa Gatineau offers an abundance of activities to enjoy the snow, the ice and the food.

ski landscape
Skiing along the Ottawa River is very special

What can you do in Ottawa in winter?

There is so much to do that we should really give you a bucket list to tick off:

  • Skate on the Rideau Canal
  • Ski along the Ottawa River
  • Snowshoe in one of the regional’s nature areas
  • Cross country and downhill ski in Gatineau Park
  • Have a fondue in one of the Gatineau Park huts
  • Admire the ice sculptures during Winterlude in February
  • Rent a snow bike and go exploring
  • Enjoy some of the craft breweries “apres ski”

Can I skate on the Rideau Canal?

In February, the Rideau Canal that runs through downtown Ottawa is frozen over. Sometimes skating starts in December, sometimes in February, depending on the weather obviously. Although we definitely see the effects of climate change, there is still a very reasonable change that the canal is skatable in early to mid-February. Around 8 km of skating is waiting for you, all the way from downtown to Carleton University. Did you know the canal is the longest skating rink in the world (unless the canals in Holland freeze over…)

skaters on Rideau Canal
Winterlude attracts tens of thousands of people

Where can I ski along the Ottawa River?

There are currently several places where you can skate ski or classic ski. The 16 km SJAM wintertrail was established by volunteers a few years ago. It runs from the war museum to Kitchissippi beach and is maintained by groomers.

If it is really cold and windy, the river won’t give you any protection, so you might want to keep an eye on the wind before you head out. It is free, but donations are welcome. There are other places such as Britannia (opens in Twitter) and a place on the east end, but they are a bit less accessible if you are staying downtown.

However, volunteers are working hard to connect the different trails and you can now ski for an entire day inside the nation’s capital along the Ottawa and Rideau rivers.

Snowshoeing in winter is a special experience

There are many places where you can snowshoe. Make sure you get the right size snowshoe though, else you still sink into the snow. The horse shoe shaped Greenbelt lies around the old city of Ottawa and is easily accessible.

Alternatively, go and take a hike in Gatineau Park. Check the NCC website for more information. Read here about one of the snow shoe experiences by our own bicycle tour guide Hans.

Gatineau Park in winter

This federal park just outside Ottawa in Quebec is a heaven for skiers. The Park has over 200 km (130 miles) of perfectly groomed XC ski tracks with often in the centre of the path a track for skate skiers.

It is one of the best places on earth to cross country ski so if you are in the region, make sure you get to enjoy the superb tracks. Access for adults is 20 dollars (2021). Just under 10,000 folks have a season pass, in the 2020/2021 Covid winter the NCC sold over 15,000 passes: the organisation even had to expand parking lots due to overwhelming demand.

Passholders can go as often as they want, but it still feels empty in the park.

woman in hut in Gatineau Park
Enjoy a home made lunch in one of the huts

Where are the Gatineau huts?

You may want to check this site for an interactive map, but generally the huts are in the centre of the bottom half of the park. The huts are very different. Some are purpose built, some are old and others are new(er). Some of them are former extensively renovated homesteads. Don’t expect food and drinks. You bring everything in yourself, unlike the huts in the European Alps for example. The huts do have a wood stove and people do bring in candles, their own little cooking stoves and sometime an alcoholic beverage in the evenings. And remember: take it in, take it out.

What is Winterlude exactly?

It is a celebration of winter, organized by Heritage Canada and it bundles a number of winter activities in two weeks/three weekends. How about ice sculptures in the downtown area, skating on the canal, some other sponsor led activities on the canal, a big snow mountain on the Quebec side of the river, from which you slide down (kids love it) and a real hockey rink on the canal. Winterlude is usually during in first half of February.

snow biking in Ottawa along river
Karen is enjoying a ride on a snow bike along the Ottawa river in Ottawa

Can I snow bike in Ottawa?

Since a few years, snow biking (fat bike in the snow) has become more popular. The Gatineau Park has several options to bike in the park in winter, and one trail even gets you to a hut (Healey hut). You can also snow bike along the SJAM wintertrail. If you arrive by bike via the road at the trails, make sure you do a few rounds in the loose snow before you hit the trails to ride the sand and salt off your bike. The Greenbelt offers options too and in the city of Gatineau volunteers are working on a circuit that gets you out of town straight to the Gatineau Park.

ski in Gatineau PArk

Try out cross country skiing on of the parkways. They are closed for traffic in winter in Gatineau Park but open for skiers

There is so much to do that you need a week to take it all in (blog). The hundreds upon hundreds of cafes, restaurants, bars and coffee shops in Ottawa and Gatineau are waiting for you for those cozy winter evenings.

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