Comfortable in your favourite sweater, surrounded with brilliant colours, and sampling everything pumpkin spice. If autumn’s your jam, you’re loving the fresh, cool wind, foliage, flavours and adventures that await you.
I love the classic summer road trip but one taken in the fall is an extra touch of special. And considering how quickly the leaves turn and drop, time is always of the essence when you’re talking about autumn in Southern Ontario, no matter which direction you decide to go.
There are quite literally hundreds of experiences to be enjoyed. Whether you’re eager to enjoy a more natural setting within the city or prefer to load up the car with snacks and supplies and hit the road, this article narrows it down to nine of my favourites that showcase the best of the season.
The Autumn in Ontario
Peak season doesn’t last very long and depending on what area of Southern Ontario you live in or plan to explore, it’s best to plan accordingly to maximize the full fall experience. That said, this article spans the region and gives you some points of inspiration for a quick day trip or weekend getaway from Toronto, Kingston, London, Ottawa and even Montreal.
Keep in mind also that due to Covid-19, access to some of these locations may be on a reservation basis or open for a limited time. Call ahead and be cool, respect the rules and respect the environment.
The Toronto Islands are coveted by locals, who access them by ferry or by water taxis. You can expect to see everything from stand-up paddle-boarding, canoeing, kayaking, cycling and swimming to gorgeous homes, parks and gardens.
15 islands make up the Toronto Islands and about 300 homes are concentrated at the eastern end, mainly on Ward’s and Algonquin Islands, making it somewhat of a totally independent community from the rest of the city. On top of that, the Islands make up what is considered to be the largest urban car-free community in North America.
In the summer, the Toronto Islands are festive and crowded. In the fall, they’re calm and serene. If you’re the type who prefers a bit solitude in colourful nature, then autumn is the absolute perfect time to hop across and explore the Toronto Islands. Who knows, they might be so empty that you may have them all to yourself.
To get to the Toronto Islands, take the ferry from the Jack Layton Terminal at the foot of Bay Street or take a water taxi.
DUNDAS VALLEY TRAIL, HAMILTON, ONTARIO
There was a time when Hamilton, Ontario was a city known for its smokestack skyline. But, the Waterfall Capital of the World has come a long way in restoring its reputation as a hiking haven. Sure, there are over 100 waterfalls in and around Hamilton, which inevitably means that there are also epic green spaces and trails that lead to them.
Besides Dundas Peak, Webster’s Falls is one of those incredible places in town where the scene you see looks like a watercolour painting. Put this place on your wishlist because, as of early September 2020, Webster’s Falls was closed to the public due to Covid-19. You can always refer to the Hamilton Conservation Authority for potential opening/closing dates, rules and regulations if and when it reopens in 2020. Otherwise, when the time is right, make sure you visit and take in the beauty.
One place that’s open and ready to enjoy is the Dundas Valley. 1,200 hectares of forest, serene streams and a 40-kilometre trail system. The gorgeous Bruce Trail intersects the Valley, as does the 32-km Hamilton-Bradford Rail Trail for those with the ambition and stamina to hike or bike it. If you want to experience the best of the fall season and take it easy at the same time, take the Main Loop Trail en route to the Hermitage Ruins and the Heritage Trail that leads to Canterbury Falls.
Bon Echo Provincial Park is one of my favourite places, especially in the fall. When the weather is hot and humid, it’s a favourite for thousands of city slickers from Ottawa and Toronto who love to flock here because of its challenging hikes, pristine lakes and ideal swimming conditions and surroundings. But come autumn, when the crowds have thinned out, you have more space to experience the best of the fall season with nature making the most noise.
Behold Mazinaw Lake, the awe-inspiring 330-foot high Mazinaw Rock and of course, Bon Echo’s 260+ infamous native pictographs, designated a National Historic Site of Canada. When you combine all that with the bright reds, oranges and yellows hanging from the tens of thousands of trees that inhabit the park, you find those colours reflected on the water whether you’re sitting in your canoe or standing on the beach.
BALSAM LAKE PROVINCIAL PARK, KIRKFIELD, ONTARIO
If you love packing the car with snacks and supplies, driving out of your ordinary to enjoy some peace and serenity, hiking and reconnecting with nature, maybe even socially and physically distancing yourself from others, then Balsam Lake Provincial Park is an ideal spot.
Located about two hours north of Toronto and just east of Lake Simcoe, Balsam Lake feels like a world away. Kayak on the historic Trent-Severn Waterway or stay on solid ground and enjoy a bike or hike. If you choose the latter, be prepared for a beautiful, natural forest trek with fresh air and lovely panoramic views. This park is a stunner during the summer but it’s in the fall when it really brightens up, shines and transforms into a perfect place to experience the best of autumn.
DOWNEY’S FARM MARKET, CALEDON, ONTARIO
Don’t mistake Downey’s Farm as a pumpkin farm. Far from it. It’s an entertainment hub for all things family and food! Home to Easterfest, a Strawberry Festival and Santa at the Farm, it also provides fresh, locally grown fruits and veggies from Ontario’s farms and they also grow their own strawberries, raspberries, sweet corn and squash.
But for 30 years, the best of the fall season features Pumpkinfest, which takes over with literally thousands of pumpkins scattered throughout, giving you the chance to pick your own. And although there will be pumpkins outside in 2020, there will be less of them to ensure that space and social distancing is maintained.
GET YOUR CRANBERRY ON, BALA, ONTARIO
Prefer cranberries over pumpkins? Located about 2 1/2 hours north of Toronto, Muskoka Lakes Farm & Winery in Bala, Ontario is surrounded with brilliant foliage and produces nearly 400,000 pounds of cranberries! That’s not all, this place also gives you the chance to take a Cranberry Plunge, sample tart wines, and eat cranberry baked goods.
Bala is Cranberry Capital of Ontario, and home to a decades-long Cranberry Festival. Although cancelled in 2020 due to Covid-19, makes sure you plan a trip here in 2021 when the festival returns. Meanwhile, Muskoka Lakes Farm and Winery is the oldest cranberry farm in the province and the only cranberry farm in the world with its own on-site winery. In fact, their Bog to Bottle Discovery is an Ontario Signature Experience and on a wider, regional scale, the Muskoka Cranberry Route features 26 delicious food stops with cranberries taking centre stage.
TAKE THE COASTAL DRIVE FROM FORT ERIE TO NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, NIAGARA REGION
The Niagara Region in the fall, stunning! The coastal drive between Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara Falls – along the Niagara Parkway – is easily one of the most beautiful drives anywhere! Every turn in the road showcases the best of the fall season – fruit stands, small villages, wineries, views of the Niagara River, and rows and rows of colourful trees with rich colours.
But why not make the drive a few kilometres longer? Start at Old Fort Erie, opposite Buffalo, New York and hit the Niagara Parkway going north. This is a beautiful, fairly quiet coastal drive complete with mini-parks along the way so you can park the car and dip your feet into the calm and accessible side of the Niagara River.
Niagara Falls is obviously a stunner year-round and after a stop to view the raging beauty, keep driving north along the Parkway en route to Niagara-on-the-Lake, an amazing place year-round.
APPLE PIE TRAIL, SOUTH GEORGIAN BAY, ONTARIO
Best fall experiences must always include apples, apple pie and when in South Georgian Bay, the Apple Pie Trail. But this isn’t just a simple string of restaurants and bakeries where you can eat and drink your way through the region. Nope, it’s bigger than that.
This is an experience that unites several communities, working together to showcase the best of every season through delicious harvests of food and drink, including of course, apples! From Meaford and Thornbury to Beaver Valley and Blue Mountain village, this experience gives you the chance to taste everything from apple tarts and ciders to delicious apple pies from 28 local orchards.
PUMPKINFERNO AT UPPER CANADA VILLAGE, MORRISBURG, ONTARIO
Located closer to Ottawa and Montreal, Upper Canada Village is a heritage park depicting rural life in a 19th-century English Canadian village. You’ll find 40 historical buildings, as well as staff dressed in clothing of the period explaining and illustrating daily work and daily life.
Come fall, Pumpkinferno is one of the best fall experiences. Unique and award-winning, this exhibition features over 7000 handcrafted pumpkins, all lit at night along a mile-long path. Artificial pumpkins are shaped from molds of real pumpkins, adding to the realistic look of the more than two-dozen carved displays, all made by local artists.
Recognized as one of Ontario’s Top 100 Events, Pumpkinferno continues to surpass annual attendance records for good reason. Pro tip: get there before sunset to watch the exhibits light up as day turns to night and enjoy a sensory overload experience perfect for all ages.
Yes, there’s plenty to see, do and taste in an area as massive as Southern Ontario. Yes, there are far more than nine experiences that showcase the best of the fall season in an area as massive as Southern Ontario.
These are my nine, what are yours?