Autumn in southern Ontario is a magical time of year as the deciduous forests transform into a palette of fiery red, vivid orange, and golden hues. From late September to mid-October, the hills and road sides are awash with the radiant foliage of the sugar and red maples, white and yellow birches, trembling aspens, and red oaks that are native to Ontario.
Although autumn colours are readily visible from the highways and thoroughfares, the best way to fully enjoy them is by hiking or biking the nature trails that traverse the province. Four such scenic trails that snake their way through several counties in southeastern Ontario will provide such a pleasure.
Owned and maintained by the Cataraqui Region Conservation Authority (CRCA), the Cataraqui Trail was born out of an abandoned Canadian National (CN) railway that was decommissioned in 1986. After the railroad ties and tracks were removed, the trail was used extensively by members of the local snowmobile clubs that struck a deal with CN to transfer trail ownership to the CRCA. Kilometre / Mile 0 begins at Smiths Falls and travels southwest for 104 kilometres (65 miles) to just outside of Napanee, crossing the counties of Leeds and Grenville, Frontenac, and Lennox and Addington. Passing through farmland and forests, the trail also includes several scenic sections that hug the coasts of small lakes and traverses the original railway bridges at Yarker, Sydenham, and Chaffey’s Lock.
The Cataraqui Trail can be accessed by one of 48 road crossings, many with designated parking lots. Because it crosses so many urban communities, is level and well maintained, the trail is popular among dog walkers, families, and cyclists.
The historic K&P trail is named for the railway that was built to connect Kingston and Pembroke in the 1870s to serve the forestry and mining industries. An arduous undertaking with gruelling challenges, including the unyielding bedrock of the Canadian Shield, the railway made it to Renfrew in 1884, 180 kilometres (112 miles) north of Kingston. Due to the construction delay, by that time another railway had already been built by the Canada Central Railway connecting Renfrew to Pembroke, about another 60 kilometres (37 miles) west, thereby rendering the final segment of the K&P unnecessary.
After the rise of the automobile and the depletion of natural resources, the K&P Railway fell into financial hardship and was eventually abandoned in the 1960s. The rail bed was converted to a multi-use trail in three unconnected sections. The longest continuous section runs 75 kilometres (47 miles) from Kingston to Sharbot Lake. A second and more remote section spans from Wilbur to Barryvale, and a third stretches from Calabogie to Renfrew.
The most famous cargo that the K&P Railway delivered was the remains of Sir John A. MacDonald in 1891. The funeral train with the nation’s first prime minister travelled from Ottawa to Sharbot Lake before connecting onto the K&P to Kingston where he is buried.
Located in Prince Edward County (PEC) one hour west of Kingston and two hours east of Toronto, the 49-kilometre (30-mile) Millennium Trail was formerly the PEC Railway that connected the county’s communities with Trenton at the western end of Bay of Quinte. The transformation of the abandoned railway began in 1997 and today it is a hard-packed trail originating from Carrying Place, travelling east through farmlands, wet marshes, and the communities of Wellington and Bloomfield before arriving in Picton. There are multiple access points throughout the flat and easily negotiable trail.
PEC is one of Ontario’s fastest-growing wine-producing regions with more than 40 wineries, as well as multiple craft-beer breweries and cideries. The area also offers gastronomic delights with farm-to-table restaurants, farmers markets, and county-made delicacies. The Millennium Trail can be easily incorporated into a day trip or weekend stay at one of several inns and B&Bs.
The 327-kilometre (203-mile) Rideau Trail begins in Kingston and travels northeast to Ottawa, and is part of the 27,000-kilometre (16,777-mile) Great Trail (previously called the Trans-Canada Trail until 2016). In certain sections north of Kingston, the Rideau Trail shares the same path as the Cataraqui and K&P trails, which means easy walking. But in rural areas, it is a true hiking trail with varying terrain, elevation gain, and wilderness paths that are not maintained.
Trail sections that are closest to urban communities see more traffic and therefore are more defined, while rural sections may entail some bushwhacking, especially in the summer. Trail markers are posted on trees although in overgrown areas the markers and the trail itself may not always be immediately evident.
With multiple access points throughout the counties, the Rideau Trail makes for a pleasant day outing, and ambitious backpackers can take on the entire trail by camping along the way.
Although they are perfect for observing fall colours, all trails can be enjoyed year-round and are dog (on-leash) and family-friendly. The Cataraqui Trail, the K&P Trail, and the Millennium Trail are suitable for walking, jogging, biking, and horseback riding. ATVs are allowed except in certain sections as posted (and not at all on the Cataraqui Trail). Winter trail activities include cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling. The wilderness sections of the Rideau Trail are suitable for hiking only.