The Rideau Canal runs between Kingston and Ottawa, going along lakes, rivers and 19 kilometres of canals cut into the soil and rock between the natural bodies of water. It was built between 1812 and 1832 to create a supply route from Ottawa to the Great Lakes, away from the St. Lawrence River, based on the lessons learned from the War of 1812. Since then, it has seen many upgrades and was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.
The waterway runs for 202 kilometres via 45 locks at 23 lock stations from the Ottawa River to Lake Ontario at Kingston, plus two additional locks on the adjoining Tay Canal. In 2019, 61,145 boats travelled through the locks, with two-thirds of them coming from Ontario, one-quarter from Quebec and the rest coming north from the United States.
To explore Rideau Canal National Historic Site, you may drive along the route, go on a luxury cruise, guided boat tour, or navigate your own canoe or boat. If are thinking of going on a boating trip on the Historic Site, here is a beginner’s guide to planning a trip on the waterway. For in-depth and up-to-date information, see the Parks Canada website.
I. Guided Lake Cruises
If you want to be a passenger along the waterway, there are several companies who will take care of the driving for you:
1. Rideau Canal Cruises – Get a waterfront view of some of Ottawa’s most historic and culturally significant sites while aboard a quiet electric-powered boat. You’ll see the National Arts Centre, Lansdowne Park, Dow’s Lake Pavilion and so much more on the 90-minute tour. You can catch a ride at any of six points during any day from mid-May to mid-October. Get aboard right downtown at 2 Rideau Street. You can also combine this ride with a tour of the Ottawa River, the Bytown Museum or a chocolate lovers’ tour. The base ticket costs $30.
2. The Rideau King – The fifty-foot steel tour boat sails from its homeport of Merrickville on the historic Rideau Canal. You have a choice of cruising from Merrickville to Ottawa and Merrickville to Westport and vice versa. Transportation is available to get you back to starting location. Rideau King did not operate in 2020 due to COVID-19. 2021 – TBA.
3. Chaffey’s Lock Boat Cruise – If you prefer a more rural tour, jump aboard at Chaffey’s Lock (Lock 37) near Elgin, then rise and fall with the water levels as you enjoy seeing the landscape and small towns along the route. You can go through three locks for $75 (add a gourmet picnic lunch for $25) or three lakes for $50 per person. An evening sunset cruise is also available for $40. If you don’t want to dine on the water, opt for lunch or dinner at the Opinicon Hotel.
4. Cruise the Rideau – Tour the waterway between Kingston and Hartwell Locks in luxury with a comfortable room, meals and snacks, without lifting a finger for $2,400 over five days. Evening activities range from bocce ball, skits, readings, guest speakers or a quiet night with a book or your tablet.
You may like: Ottawa Sightseeing Cruises
II. If You Want to Be Your Own Captain & Do not Own a Boat:
If you want to travel the waterway and do not have a boat, you can rent a houseboat or a boat. Be aware of all safety information, visitor regulations, and weather warnings. Do not forget to carry a nautical chart and a first aid kit.
Due to the size of the locks, the canal system can only handle boats up to 27.4 metres long, 7.9 metres wide and 6.7 metres tall (so they can get under the lowest bridge).
Rent a houseboat – Le Boat in Ottawa has eight different styles of luxury houseboat to accommodate your friends or family for meals, sleeping and even showering aboard. You can book them for three to seven nights, with a week costing $1,719 to $36,89, depending on the model you choose. No boating licence or experience is needed to rent their boats.
If you are of age 25 and above, proficient at driving a boat with a driver’s license and a boater’s license and 25 years of age and above, you can rent houseboats from Big Rideau Lake House Boats.
Rent a boat – If you are launching further south, Len’s Cove Marina near Portland has a variety of boats to borrow, from pontoon boats to bowriders and speedboats. Pontoon boats rent for $364 for a day to $1,380 for a week while a bowrider will cost $856 for two day or $1,630 for a week. If you want to start midway, you can book a pontoon boat (starting at $225 to $245 per day), bowrider (starting at $225), or small fishing boat (starting at $105) in Perth and have it delivered wherever you want to launch (towing fee extra).
Due to the changes in topography along the route, you will often find yourself in one of the locks, rising or lowering your boat before you can continue on your journey. This could mean staying in a canal while water levels are changed or riding into a lift lock chamber that works like an elevator. There are four steps each time:
- Approach the lock slowly so you don’t create a wake. Respect other boaters that are coming and going. Blow your whistle three times for five seconds each to request to enter. Wait at the blue line until waved in.
- Enter upon seeing a green light, following the staff’s instructions at all times. Loop your vessel lines around black drop cables so you will rise or fall with the water level. Keep your life jackets on and push away from the walls with a hook, not your hands.
- Once inside the lock, turn off your boat and all appliances, but leave your bilge blower on. Stay alert to your lines and your boat’s position. Show your lockage permit or buy one here.
- Depart slowly after getting a signal to start your boat and exit. Collect all vessel lines back into your board and go slowly.
III. How to Plan Your Trip:
If you are planning a trip, it takes four to six days to make it from one end to the other, depending on how busy each lock is and how long you need to wait. You could cover it in three days, but that pace does not allow you to enjoy the experience at the same level.
Here are some suggestions:
For a three-day trip:
If you only have a long weekend or a few days to explore, start by deciding if you want a more urban or rural experience.
If you opt for the Ottawa stretch, you can see much of the city, stop in at Manotick and still meander your way to Merrickville. For a more open water feeling, launch in Smiths Falls and head south to enjoy Big Rideau Lake and all the delights on its shores.
You should also be aware of the lockstation opening and closing times. If you are planning to cross a lockstation before the end of day, you should plan accordingly and should arrive at least 30 minutes (per lock) before closing. For example, you should arrive at Hartwell Locks (2 locks), one hour before closing or 1 hr 30 minutes before closing at Merrickville lockatstion. At swing bridges like Brass Point Bridge, boaters must arrive 20 minutes before closing. Access to lockstations is prohibited between 10:00 pm and 6:00 am. Hours of operation.
For a longer trip:
Where you want to end your trip for the day will also depend upon whether you are camping at the lockstation, staying in a houseboat or planning to stay in a hotel/resort.
Every trip’s length is determined by how many locks are on the stretch of waterway you are visiting and how much traffic is going through the lock at each location. It is best to add a buffer of time and enjoy the scenery while you wait. Even better, you can find yourself ahead of schedule so you can linger longer over lunch at a familiar haunt or a newly discovered diner.
You should also be aware of the lockstation opening and closing times. If you are planning to cross a lockstation before the end of day, you should plan accordingly and should arrive at least 30 minutes (per lock) before closing. At swing bridges like Brass Point Bridge, boaters must arrive 20 minutes before closing. For example, you should arrive at Hartwell Locks one hour before closing. Access to lockstations is prohibited between 10:00 pm and 6:00 am. Hours of operation.
For a relaxed week-long venture, you can cover the entire canal and still see many of its sights. However, if you want to stop and shop or spend a day or two on walking tours, then build in a buffer to truly embrace the experience. Each day you can go from Kingston to Jones falls (Day 1), Jones Falls to Upper Beveridges Lockstation (Day 2), to Smith Falls (Day 3), then to Merrickville (Day 4) to Long Island Locks (Day 5), to Ottawa (Day 6) or vice versa.
If you are planning to paddle the full route, the trip would take eight days with limited stops. Again, to really enjoy yourself, slow down and take it all in.
How much does it cost:
In addition to the cost of food, boat rental and fuel, you will need a Transit lockage permit which permits you to travel one-way through the entire Rideau Canal.
A day transit lockage permit costs $4.75/foot (of your watercraft). Alternatively, you can buy Seasonal lockage for $8.99/foot, which provides unlimited passage through locks at seven national historic canals across Canada.
A mooring permit is required if you want to stay at the lock. Day and overnight mooring cost $0.92/foot. A seasonal mooring and lockage permit allows overnight mooring and lockage at seven national historic canals, two national parks and one national marine conservation area and costs $19.01/ foot.
See detailed cost and fees on the Parks Canada website.
Where to stay:
If you need to stay overnight aboard your boat, you can do so as long as you purchase a mooring permit. Boaters may stay at one lockstation for up to 2 nights (48 hrs.)
Camping – You can camp at any of the lock stations, except Ottawa Locks, Hogs Back, Smiths Falls Combined, Smiths Falls Old Slys, and Brass Point Bridge. Public washrooms are located at all lock stations where camping is available. Some lock stations also have picnic tables, firepits and paddle docks. Camping fees apply.
Comfort Camping in oTENTiks – These cozy base camps allow you to stay along the waterside and enjoy the view and nearby trails. For $102 a night you get a little cabin with a verandah nestled under the trees north of Kingston at Brewers Mills (Locks 43-44), Upper Beveridges (Lock 34) or Merrickville (Locks 21-23). The rate drops to $92 per night after Labour Day. They have no power or water so you have to get your basics at the nearby lock stations.
Marinas, Hotels & Resorts: There are plenty of lodges and B&B’s along the route. See the map below and search for a full-service marina, lodge/hotel near the lock you are planning to stay. Click “View in Google Maps” and use search nearby feature.
Groceries and other facilities:
Parks Canada website’s lift lock station page details facilities available at each lock station, including washrooms, whether a lock station is within walking distance to groceries, and fuel stations along the route.
When to go:
Rideau Canal is open for travellers from Victoria Day Weekend to Thanksgiving Monday (May 21 to October 11, 2021).
Summer is always a great time to travel, but if you are looking to enjoy the golden colours of fall, consider a trip in early October.
IV. Must-see places or towns to stop and explore:
You can swim, fish and enjoy all normal fun water activities along the canal (Visitor guidelines). You need a permit for setting off fireworks. To truly make the best of your trip, explore nearby towns and attractions. You can moor your boat at locks or marinas along the way.
- Kingston (Locks 46-49) – Before you set sail, spend a day in one of Canada’s oldest and most walkable cities. Rather than explore on your own, sign up for one of the walking tours, either free on your own or with a guide.
- Jones Falls Cycling Loop (Locks 39-42) – To exercise your legs on land for a while, bring along your bicycle and take a 38-kilometre ride around the towns of Elgin, Morton and more. Tour by the Old Stone Mill Museum in Delta and cross the historic Lyndhurst Bridge on a quiet, level ride along paved roads. You can tack on a 10-kilometre detour to the Forfar Cheese Factory for fresh curds if you’d like!
- Chaffeys (Lock 35) – Take a historic walking tour of Chaffey’s Lock and visit Lockmaster’s house museum, restored Chaffey’s Cemetery and part of the Cataraqui Trail. Opinicon Resort Hotel is located right at the lockstation.
- Newboro (Lock 36)– This is just one of the fine fishing spots along the route, so drop your line then drop in for lunch. You can also see the Newboro Loon landmark. As you go through its lock, you’ll see one of only three sets of hydraulically-powered steel gates in the Rideau Canal system. It is also the site for one of four blockhouses built by Colonel John By to protect the canal.
- Foley Mountain in Westport – From the beach on the Upper Rideau Lake to the view from atop Spye over the lovely village of Westport, you’ll enjoy your visit to this landmark. Walk along nine kilometres of trails and enjoy a picnic lunch. Day passes cost $7 while a season cost will be $50. At the bottom of the mountain, you’ll find a town rich in unique shops and friendly faces.
- Murphy’s Point Provincial Park – Dock at the park and learn about natural history or take a guided tour of the Silver Queen Mine. It has five hiking trails, ranging from 800 metres to 5.5 kilometres. If you’re staying in the area overnight, park staff present an evening nature show as well.
- Perth – Divert along the Tay Canal to find an utterly charming little town with unique shops and fine dining on virtually every corner of the downtown. Admire the stone buildings, see the site of Canada’s last duel then walk the Tay River Trail, a historic path and portage route tramped down in 1816.
- Lockmaster’s House (Lock 33) – To immerse yourself in the waterfront lifestyle, book a stay at this restored home that can accommodate up to six guests for $279 per day. Stop over to get off the water or book it and take day trips from this home base. You can also rent out the Canalman’s Cottage at Newboro or the Davis Lockmaster’s House on Sand Lake.
- Smiths Falls – Take a picnic in the park as you watch the boats go by. The downtown location of the lock gives you a chance to have your lunch and eat it too, as you meet other boaters at Locks 29 to 31. Walk off the calories afterwards via the town’s heritage walking tour.
- Merrickville – Gardeners will thrill at seeing the community that holds the title as Canada’s Most Beautiful Village, awarded by Communities in Bloom. This tiny town has a surprising number of original shops tucked inside heritage buildings. Watch for the copious and helpful black-and-white arrow signs to make sure you don’t miss a thing!
- Burritts Rapids (Lock 17) – The four-kilometre Tip to Tip Trail will take you through the village of Burritt Rapids and the “rapids” while highlighting features along the trail that were either influenced by or important in the construction of the Rideau Canal through interpretive boards.
- Baxter Conservation Area – This waterfront natural area near Kars has a nice beach and group camping for an overnight stay. Hike its five kilometres of trails then stop in at the Patrick McManus Interpretive Centre to learn about the nut tree plantation on the site.
- Manotick – Even though you have technically entered the City of Ottawa, you’ll feel like you’re still in the countryside as you visit Watson’s Mill and shop at boutiques with a delightful number of unique wares. It boasts a gingerbread shop, scented candles and aromas from its wide range of bistros.
- Ottawa – Once you arrive in the nation’s capital, you will find an endless array of historic sites, vibrant museums and musical venues, scavenger hunts and bike tours. Many of them focus on the area along the canal so tie up and explore as many as you can.