Home Canada Charming Rideau Canal Towns – A Scenic Road Trip to Ottawa

Charming Rideau Canal Towns – A Scenic Road Trip to Ottawa

by Valerie Vanr
Reflection of mill in pond

Explore charming towns along the historic Rideau Canal on this road trip to Ottawa. You’ll see stunning scenery, quaint towns and historic places. Many of the towns were founded in the early 19th century directly as a result of the building of the Rideau Canal.

The locks and the beautiful stone buildings have survived the test of time. Visit the museums, stores and tourist attractions which keep the buildings relevant in the 21st century. See a couple lockstations on Ontario’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The landscape of beautiful lakes, rivers and woods along the route provides the perfect backdrop for this fantastic road trip.  Buckle up and enjoy these must-see places!

Vehicle on road surrounded by coloured trees

Ottawa Road Trip Itinerary

This itinerary takes you from Kingston to Ottawa, stopping at these lovely places.

  • Jones Falls Lockstation
  • Chaffey’s Lock
  • Perth
  • Smiths Falls
  • Merrickville
  • Ottawa
Map showing road trip route to Ottawa
Ottawa Road Trip Map

This scenic road trip follows much of the historic Rideau Canal. 

Rideau Canal UNESCO World Heritage Site

The canal runs from Kingston to Ottawa.  It links 16 lakes, the Rideau and Cataraqui Rivers and 19 kilometres of man-made waterway. There are 24 lockstations along the route controlling 47 locks. You can visit all of them. Most of the locks operate by hand-cranking, as they have since the canal opened in 1832. 

Person turning hand crank to open lock door behind
Most of the locks are still operated by manually cranking the lock doors open and closed.

The canal was awarded a UNESCO World Heritage designation in 2007 in recognition of being the only 19th century canal in North America operating along its entire original length with most of the original structures still in place.  Today, boats cruise leisurely up and down the 200 kilometre-long canal.

In the 1820s tensions still existed between Great Britain and the United States over control of North America. Built between 1826 and 1832 as a secure military supply route, the canal included many fortified buildings. Many of these buildings still stand and are open to the public for tours.

Rideau Canal Locks and Bytown Museum
The Ottawa Locks are about 2 km from where the Rideau River meets the Ottawa River at Rideau Falls.

Rivers and lakes were the highways of the 19th century and the canal prospered in that role. The waterway became very busy, carrying settlers to their new homes and transporting products to market from the business enterprises along its route. When the railway arrived in the area, in the mid to late 19th century, the canal’s use by industry slowed significantly.

Parks Canada maintains and operates the Rideau Canal for everyone to enjoy, whether by water or by land.

The canal and locks are central to the history of many of the towns on this road trip and continue to be important to their economic health.

Jones Falls Lockstation

Sign showing buildings at Jones Falls Lockstation
Walk the loop from the parking lot to the different buildings at the lockstation and back to explore Jones Falls.

This is a perfect picnic stop and a great place to learn more about the Rideau Canal. Leave your car at the Parks Canada parking lot on Road 11 and walk the trail to the locks and the Stone Arch Dam.  The loop is about 1.5 kilometres. It’s a nice way to spend an hour.

On your walk you’ll pass 2 sets of locks, Sweeney House, the penstocks to the powerhouse and the Stone Arch Dam. The blacksmith shop on the other side of the waterway is reachable by trails from both sets of locks.

Rideau Canal Locks 39-42

Here at Jones Falls there are 2 sets of locks with 3 locks in the first flight and a single lock a short distance away.

Lower lock door with upper door in background
There are 3 locks in the first flight at Jones Falls.
Lock doors opening to 3 kayakers
The 4th lock at Jones Falls is set apart from the flight. Water craft of all kinds use the locks.

Blacksmith Shop

Stone building mid picture, kayakers foreground
Follow the trail from either set of locks to reach this former blacksmith shop.

The small building on the other side of the waterway has thick stone walls and a metal roof making it a defendable building in case of armed attack. The hearth is in the center of the shop which is an unusual position for a blacksmith’s forge. Built in 1843, a blacksmith operated here until 1933.

Sweeney House

Aerial view of stone building

This stone building was both the lockmaster’s home and a fortification. Built in the late 1830s, it also has thick walls, a metal roof and gun slits on all sides. Security was always on the mind of the British Army as tensions continued after the war of 1812.

Penstocks and Powerhouse

3 wooden tubes lead to powerhouse

Three huge wooden tubes at the west end of the dam carry water from Sand Lake above the dam to the powerhouse below. You can also see the powerhouse from Jones Falls Bay across from the lower entry into the locks. The powerhouse, constructed in 1947, provides power to the regional power grid.

Stone Arch Dam

Stone Arch Dam Jones Falls
The dam is also called the Whispering Dam. The shape of the dam allows sound to travel along it. Talk normally at one side of the dam and you’ll be heard on the other side.

The stone dam is almost 20 metres high and about 100 metres across.  When completed in 1831, it was the highest dam in North America. Setting the blocks vertically rather than horizontally increased the stability of the dam. Oxen cart carried the blocks from the quarry 10 kilometres away to Jones Falls. The muddy cart roads of early 1800s Canada made that a difficult and strenuous trip.

Chaffey’s Lock

Person in front of waterway to mill at side
Enjoy the picnic area between the main canal and the overflow channel

The current location of Rideau Canal Lock 37 is where Samuel Chaffey set up an extensive milling operation starting in 1820. He died in 1827. The British Army purchased the operation and demolished the mill, building the lock in its place. The low dam in line with the lock gate to the west of the main channel helps regulate the flow of water especially during the spring flood season. The 1872 mill beside the dam is now a private residence.

Lockmaster’s House Museum

2-storey stone building Chaffey's Lock Museum

Learn about the history of the lock and the village at the museum in the former lockmaster’s house. The building was built around 1845 as fortified housing for the lockmaster and his family. The second storey was added in the late 19th century. It was a residence until the 1960s.

Perth

This town is a road trip gem. There is something here for everyone.

For history buffs, learn about the town’s founding and the development of the Tay Canal from historical markers and plaques throughout town.

Barn holding reproduction of large ring of cheese
The 22,000-lb block of cheese made by Perth dairy farmers in 1893 went to the Chicago World Fair.

Perth began as a military settlement of emigrants from Scotland, England and Ireland and discharged soldiers after the War of 1812. By 1816, the population had grown to about 1500 people. In 1822 the town of Perth became the county seat.

For architecture lovers, see many beautiful stone buildings which have stood the test of time.

Matheson House/Perth Museum

Perth Museum also Matheson House
Originally the home of Roderick Matheson, one of Canada’s first senators, it is a National Historic Site and the Perth Museum.

Exhibits in the museum highlight the history of Perth. Roderick Matheson had the sandstone home built in 1840. The parlour, dining room, drawing room and kitchen are restored and furnished reflecting the Matheson’s 1840s lifestyle.

Town Hall

Perth Town Hall
Town business has been conducted here since the 1860s.

The beautiful 1863 town hall is open daily for town business. The bell and clock tower were added in 1874.

Fire Hall

Small building with tower
This building was used as a fire hall until the 1940s.

This former fire hall and tower are now a part of the local library. The engine house was built in 1855. The second storey and tower were added in 1883.

Code’s Mill and Kinivie

3 storey Codes Mill Perth
Mansion reflects on calm river

Code’s Mill is an events facility with a restaurant, pub and specialty shops as well. In the late 1800’s, T.A Code operated a very successful woollen mill from the building.  He built the nearby Edwardian mansion, Kinivie, in the early 1900s. Steam, carried through underground pipes from the mill, heated the home in winter.

For outdoor enthusiasts, there are trails and parks along the Tay Canal and throughout town. Canoe and kayak rentals are available.

Boat moored on Tay Canal
Enjoy a leisurely trip down the Tay Canal. Rent a canoe or kayak to enjoy the fun!

Tay Canal

Water access was the key to a town’s prosperity in the early 19th century. This prompted Perth residents to fund the construction of a canal in 1834 to connect Perth to the new Rideau Canal.

This first canal fell into disrepair over the next 50 years due to the high cost of maintenance. It was eventually abandoned. Local mining and manufacturing interests petitioned government for a proper shipping canal. Their successful lobbying led to federal funding in the 1880s to alter, deepen and widen the Tay Canal, bringing it back into the Rideau system in 1890.

Stewart Park

Reflection of bridge and trees in river
Stewart Park is a beautiful tranquil spot.

The slow moving waters of the Tay and Little Tay Rivers meandering through the park create mirrors for amazing photographs.  This is a great place for a picnic or to just get out of the car and stretch your legs. The Stewart family donated the land for this park behind the town hall in the 1920s.

Tay River Trail

The trail follows the Tay River along a former portage route. Walk upstream toward Bobs Lake or downstream to where the river meets Lower Rideau Lake at the Lower Beveridges lockstations on the Rideau Canal.

Picnic tables and shelter Last Duel Park
Enjoy a picnic or pitch a tent in Last Duel Park along the Tay River.

Last Duel Park

The 27-acre park along the Tay River has a number of serviced campsites, a public boat dock and launch and a picnic area with a shelter. The campground is generally open from mid-May to mid-October weather permitting. The last fatal duel in Upper Canada occurred here in 1833.

Smiths Falls

The Rideau River dropped about 11 metres in under a half kilometre here before the canal was built. The first land grant in the area went to Lt. Thomas Smyth in 1786. Smyth capitalized on the falls and built a small mill. The vibrant town of Smiths Falls grew around his mill. The falls were a major obstacle to boat traffic on the Rideau River. The original mill was purchased, demolished and replaced by a flight of 3 locks and a dam. A separate lock is upstream at the end of the basin created by the dam.

New hydraulic lock beside old locks
The new hydraulic combined lock replaced the old flight of 3 locks.

Rideau Canal Lock 29a Combined

This is one of the few automated locks on the Rideau Canal today. Most of the other canal locks are operated manually. Built in the early 1970s, just north of the first flight of 3 locks, it allows boat traffic to pass under the low level bridge.  The old locks remain in place beside the new one. You’ll immediately notice the differences.

Rideau Canal Visitor Centre

Smiths Falls Rideau Canal Visitor Centre

The former grist mill, built in 1830, has 3 floors of displays and artefacts about the Rideau Canal.  You can get a panoramic view of the canal and Smiths Falls from the top floor.

There is mooring available for boats to the southwest of the combined lock adjacent to a small serviced campground and Victoria Park.

2 boats moored foreground Smiths Falls watertower background
There are lots of spots to moor beside Victoria Park in Smiths Falls.
Harvard Trainer plane right side busy playground equipment
The Harvard Trainer Memorial was added to Victoria Park in 1967.

Victoria Park

Enjoy the gardens, paths, wading pool, children’s playground and picnic areas. The mounted aircraft is a Harvard Trainer.  It is a memorial to RCAF members who died in WWII.

Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario

Rail passenger car and engine
The museum’s collection includes railway rolling stock.

The 1912/13 station displays railway memorabilia and the adjacent rail yard holds a collection of historic rolling stock. The museum opened in 1985, 6 years after Canadian Norther Railway abandoned the track.

Heritage House Museum

Smiths Falls Heritage House museum
The museum opened in 1981 after being used as a residence until 1977.

The museum offers exhibitions, art shows, day camps, educational programs and more. Some rooms are decorated to reflect the home’s heyday when Joshua Bates built it in 1860.  His grist and saw mills were nearby, built in the 1850’s adjacent to the Old Slys locks.

Merrickville

Be sure to tour town, often called the Jewel of the Rideau, to see the many beautiful heritage buildings and fun shops.

People with ice cream in front of ice cream shop
Enjoy a sweet treat from the Downtowne Ice Cream Shoppe.

The first mill on the Rideau River was built here in about 1790. The town didn’t really prosper until the mill was purchased by William Merrick who set up both grist and lumber mills. The locks bypassed the mills so, unlike other mill owners on the canal route, Merrick’s mills continued to operate long after the locks were in operation.

By 1851 the improved transportation provided by the canal helped Merrickville develop into the area’s industrial center. Soon after, when the railway arrived in nearby Smiths Falls, the fortunes of Merrickville began to slow but a woollen mill operated here until 1954.

Rideau Canal Locks 21 – 23

Couple standing in front of Merrickville lock
We’re standing on the gate of the westernmost Merrickville Lock.
Still water of lock basin Merrickville
Picnic tables beside the calm basin are a great place to enjoy a break.

Small basins separate these three locks. The engineers used the natural landscape and minimized the amount of trenching needed, saving both time and money.

Blockhouse Museum

The local historical society operates the museum in this former blockhouse. It is the largest blockhouse built on the Rideau Canal. The blockhouse provided a defendable mustering point for local militia and acted as a supply depot. The military used it in the late 1830s and again in 1846, when tensions with the Americans were high. There was never an attack on the canal. It was also the lockmaster’s home.

Iron fences in front of stone walled mill ruin
This is all that is left of Merrickville’s prosperous mills.

Merrickville Mill Ruins

Ruins of some of the abandoned mill buildings are on the small island beside the locks.

Merrickville Power Generation

Turbine Generator Merrickville

The water power that ran the mills provides power to the regional power grid today. The current hydroelectric generator was installed in 1993.  The first generator is on display by the mill ruins. Starting in 1915, it provided the electricity for the mills, a foundry and the village.

Ottawa

About 5 kilometres northeast of Merrickville, you enter the city of Ottawa, a sprawling municipality formed in 2001. Ottawa has lots of things for you to see and do. Here are several sites along the Rideau in the city that are worth a look.

Prince of Wales Falls and Hogs Back Lockstation

The Rideau Canal and the Rideau River follow separate routes to the Ottawa River from here. Multi-use paths follow both all the way to the Ottawa. There are walking trails around the locks, falls and dam.

Still water canal with side paths
The canal diverges from the river here at Hogs Back Lockstation.

These beautiful falls looked very different two hundred years ago.  The area was dense forest and the falls were spectacular with 3 sets of rapids. One ridge looked like the back of a pig so gained the name Hogs Back. The falls were renamed Prince of Wales Falls when the ridge could no longer be seen. The lockstation nearby kept the name.

Prince of Wales Falls Ottawa
See the beautiful falls from many points on the cycling and walking paths.

The construction of the canal completely changed the structure of the falls. Their width narrowed. The dam controlled the flow of water over the falls. Every decade between 1840 and 1940 saw changes made to the structures here due to damage from ice, drifting wood and flooding. The last major reconstruction was in the 1970’s until the swing bridge and roadway were rehabilitated in 2019/20. Even with the many changes over the generations, the falls remain impressive.

Rideau Canal Skateway

Hartwells Locks are at the southern end of the famous Rideau Canal Skateway. The skateway is a 7.8 kilometre skating rink created and maintained each year by the National Capital Commission. Every winter the canal’s water level is lowered. When a solid 30cm of ice forms, the world’s largest and second longest skating rink opens for everyone’s use and enjoyment. You can warm up at rest areas along its length, where there are toasty fires, hot drinks and tasty snacks. Winter 2019/2020 was the skateway’s 50th season.

Chateau Laurier behind Ottawa Locks
Chateau Laurier opened above the Ottawa Locks in June 1912.

Rideau Canal Locks 1 to 8

There are 8 locks at the Ottawa River, the highest and longest single set on the Rideau Canal. The total height change is 24 metres. The locks are in the valley between the beautiful Chateau Laurier and the Canadian Parliament Buildings.

Bytown Museum

Handcranks and lock doors foreground Bytown Museum background
Bytown Museum operates from the oldest stone building in Ottawa.

Learn about the history of Ottawa through Bytown Museum’s permanent and temporary exhibits. There are Victorian timepieces, tools used to build the Rideau Canal and even antique children’s toys. Activities for the whole family explain Ottawa’s Bytown beginning, its lumberjack past, choice as Canada’s capital and evolution into today’s vibrant city.

The building is the oldest stone building in Ottawa. It began as a storage depot for supplies, gunpowder and materials for constructing the Rideau Canal and for the canal’s administration offices.

Rideau Falls

Dam and waterfalls Ottawa
This is one half of Rideau Falls. The second falls are behind Green Island at the top right of this picture.

The Rideau River drops 9 metres over these beautiful, twin waterfalls to the Ottawa River. Green Island separates the two falls. The falls and the island are part of the almost 3 hectare Rideau Falls Park. The park is the home of several monuments including the Commonwealth Air Force Memorial and the National Artillery Monument. Many embassies as well as the residences of the governor general and the prime minister are nearby.

In the 1800’s mills and industry used the water’s power here, producing products including flour, timber, woollen cloth and liquor. Today power is provided to the regional power grid. When Rideau Falls Park was developed in the 1950s, the factories and mills were demolished.

Know before You Go

What is the best time to visit the Rideau Canal?

You can take this scenic road trip any time. All locks are accessible by road. A summer visit will ensure that you see boats using the locks with the lockmaster and personnel turning the hand cranks to raise and lower water levels and open lock doors.

Can I cruise the Rideau Canal by boat?

Yes. The Parks Canada website provides detailed information you’ll need to travel the canal by boat. The locks are open for boat passage from Victoria Day (mid-May) to Thanksgiving (mid-October). Many lockmasters will allow overnight mooring at lockstations. Confirm with individual lockmasters.Waterway with boats docked at sides

Is there camping at the Rideau Locks? Can I stay at a lockstation?

Yes. Most, though not all, offer some form of accommodation. Some have tent campsites, restored historic accommodations, or a one-of-a-kind oTENTik, a cross between a tent and a cabin. For details see the Parks Canada Camping and Accommodations page. Reservations are not required. Space is allocated on a first-come, first-served basis at the discretion of the lockmaster.

Are there hiking trails along the Rideau Canal?

Yes.  A 387-km network of interconnected hiking trails, called the Rideau Trail, runs between Kingston and Ottawa generally following the canal and its tributary waters. See the Rideau Trail Association’s Trail Map page for more information.

Ottawa Road Trip Map


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