The Rideau Canal is the oldest continuously operated canal system in North America.
The 19th century canal runs for 202 km from Ottawa, Canada's capital, to Kingston on Lake Ontario. The canal's initial purpose was military, later it opened up the area for settlement and commerce. The canal was completed in 1832.
The 202 kilometres (125 miles) of the Rideau Canal incorporate sections of the Rideau and Cataraqui rivers, as well as several lakes, including the Lower, Upper and Big Rideau lakes. About 19 kilometres (12 miles) of the route is man-made.
Map of Rideau CanalLoad map
To ‘visit’ the Rideau Canal WHS there are a couple of approaches possible: you can (1) ‘tick’ it as part of a city trip to Ottawa, (2) focus on the 5 locations in and around Kingston, or (3) spend some time following the Canal on its flow between those cities. The latter is what I did: after an overnight stay in Montreal, I drove south and visited Burritts Rapids Lock Station, Merrickville Lock Station, and Jones Falls Lock Station. This part of Ontario is a flat and green farming area, like a supersized version of the Netherlands or Northern Germany.
I started at Burritts Rapids - a small, deserted site where I was the only visitor. Here you can do the 4km long ‘Tip to tip trail’ that runs from the locks via a swing bridge to the dam. It provides a pleasant morning stroll, but the canal features are a bit underwhelming. The trail can be muddy and some parts have a lot of mosquitoes (the blood was on my arms!). It’s a good area for spotting birds (it’s very quiet), as well as squirrels and turtles (the main road even has signs warning of turtles crossing).
Merrickville Lock Station has a very different setting: it lies in a town center. If you need to have a coffee or lunch break, this would be the best place to do so as there is little along the way or at the other locations. The eye-catcher here is the Blockhouse, a defensible building once (occasionally) staffed by the British colonial military, and designed after the example of medieval fortifications. Unfortunately, it has very limited opening hours so I did not manage to see the interior.
Finally, Jones Falls. My Waze app had trouble directing me to these locks; it’s best to navigate towards Hotel Kenney. You can park in front of the hotel or at the Parks Canada overflow parking a bit further down the street. These locks were the most impressive of the trio that I visited: it is a very scenic wooded area and the locks have to overcome the highest difference in altitude. There were 2 pleasure boats making their way down when I was there. As in the other locations, Parks Canada staff operate the locks – a reminder that it isn’t a commercial canal anymore, and only in recreational use.
P.S.: At none of these three places I saw any indication that they are part of a World Heritage Site….
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Since my mother has family in Ottawa, I have visited the Rideau Canal several times. However, these were family waterfront strolls and not discoveries with a WHS hunting mindset. During the Covid 19 pandemic, all Quebec borders were closed except the one with Ontario. We therefore chose Kingston as the destination for the Labour Day long weekend in September 2020 and visited (or at least saw) all the components of this site.
Of the five fortifications listed by UNESCO, only Fort Henry could actually be visited. During the pandemic, they cancelled all guided tours and special activities and replaced them by a self-guided tour using a map and by interpreters in period costumes. This route allowed visitors to see both sections of the fort and to tour the museums and exhibition halls. It is possible to walk along the ramparts and understand the importance of this military structure in the defense of Kingston harbour. The ramparts offer the best view of Cathcart Tower on Cedar Island.
The other two listed Martello towers, Shoal and Murney Towers, are currently only open to visitors from the outside. The Shoal Tower, located on the marina docks in downtown Kingston, is a fairly mundane building. From the marina, you can get a good view of Fort Frederick, while access to the Royal Military College of Canada (where it is located) was still impossible due to the pandemic. The Murney Tower is located a little further west on the shores of Lake Ontario. It was among the last (1846) and most technologically advanced of the Martello towers built in Canada by the British. The rapid evolution of military technology, however, has quickly rendered it obsolete. The tower museum was also closed due to the pandemic.
Of course, we also made a stop at Kingston Mills to take a closer look at some of the canal locks. This section was particularly interesting, as the facilities still have the historical mechanisms for opening and closing the locks. Four locks and a defensive blockhouse can be seen there. The natural setting, on the shores of Colonel By Lake at sunset was very pleasant and made for a wonderful picnic after a busy day.
The various elements of the Rideau Canal are interesting and well preserved, but not exceptional. One day is enough to drive around the different components. Without possessing other World Heritage attractions, Kingston is nevertheless a friendly city with a beautiful town center and nearby natural attractions.
The Rideau Canal may have been constructed for military purposes, but the waterway today is one of the more peaceful and relaxing World Heritage Sites I've visited. I spent a few days in Ontario last summer to see the canal, and had quite an enjoyable time. I started in Ottawa, where the canal picturesquely drops through a series of locks to meet the Ottawa River. Ottawa's Parliament is located on the hill above the canal, but unfortunately it was closed due to a state visit by the king and queen of the Netherlands. After a day and a half in Ottawa, I spent the next day driving along the Rideau Canal on the way south to the United States, passing the Rideau Lakes and several small mill towns like Merrickville. I particularly enjoyed the stop at Jones Falls, which had a grassy park and walking trails along the locks on the canal. A pleasure boater was traveling through the locks while I was there, and I think he had the right idea for an even greater appreciation of this World Heritage Site.
Logistics: Ottawa's downtown is extremely walkable, but a car is necessary to follow the canal route from Ottawa to Kingston.
The stretch of canal in the Canadian capital Ottawa turned out to be a rather pleasant surprise, as did much of this charming capital city.
My first glance of the canal however made it look a little sorry for itself; in summer it seems to be full of pleasure cruisers whilst in winter it becomes the world's longest ice rink. However on the autumn Sunday when I visited there was no water except for a few puddles clustered around bits of detritus. Not to be discouraged I headed down to the locks that lead to the Ottawa River. Despite the lack of water in the locks they are a rather magnificent ensemble. It isn't just the engineering that impresses but the fact that they are in such a wonderful urban setting, with the striking Parliament Hill on one side and fine edifices and bridges on the other, it really was much better than the dull bit of infrastructure I was expecting.
I wasn't able to venture onto the canal so instead I headed to the lovely Bytown Museum housed in a former storehouse used in the construction of the canal. The enjoyably languid audio guide did a great job of explaining the building of the canal and the role it played in the development of the city and even the country. Much to my surprise I spent several hours just exploring the area around the locks and taking large amounts of photos, before strolling across the bridge to spend a bit of time in Francophone Canada.
I rounded off my few hours in Ottawa by trying to eat and drink as many Canadian essentials as I could in and around Byward market. So after filling up on Maple Syrup, Micro Brews, Poutine and BeaverTails I headed off to one of the nicest airports I have travelled through, which incidentally has the canal running around its perimeter.
Ottawa also turned out to be perhaps the friendliest city I have ever been to: from the baggage staff who waived my fees, to the wonderful lady on the bus who bought me a ticket as I didn't have enough change, the city could not have been more welcoming. At no stage did I have any interaction with anyone that was not thoroughly pleasant, and I will add my hospitality threshold was exceptionally high after 2 weeks in and around Utah which itself sets great thresholds in friendliness.
The Rideau Canal and Ottawa came as a wonderful surprise at the end of my trip around north America, the rather delightful setting and supreme hospitality provided great memories for the tail end of my trip, and the food was great to.
[Site 4: Experience 8]
What a wonderful surprise the canal and fortifications was! I spent a couple of happy hours exploring Fort Henry and enjoying the views over the canal. The staff at the fort also do a super job with the 'interpretive history' experience.
A worthy WHS!
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