Home Canada Ottawa Scenic Drive – Charming Small Towns along the Rideau Canal

Ottawa Scenic Drive – Charming Small Towns along the Rideau Canal

by Valerie Vanr

Discover the beautiful and picturesque small towns near Ottawa, Canada.

Our 2-day drive to Ottawa follows the Rideau Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Learn about this amazing 19th-century canal system.  Explore Perth and more charming towns along the canal.

Ottawa Scenic Drive Itinerary

Enjoy this 2-day road trip from Kingston to Ottawa. This route also makes for a great road trip from Ottawa. Just reverse the itinerary and drive south from Ottawa. This road trip follows much of the Rideau Heritage Route

Day 1:

Day 2:

  • Visit a museum at Smiths Falls.
  • See the many beautiful heritage buildings and fun shops in Merrickville.
  • Visit Rideau Canal Locks 1 to 8 in downtown Ottawa.

Spend another day touring Parliament Hill and the museums of Ottawa.

Road Trip to Ottawa Map

Map starred towns road trip Ottawa
Click on the map for an interactive version.

Jones Falls Lockstation

Walk the trail to the Jones Falls locks and the Stone Arch Dam in a clockwise direction. Leave the car at the Parks Canada parking lot on Road 11. The loop is about 1.5 kilometres and a nice way to spend an hour or the morning. Walk west on Kenney’s Road, past the hotel. From the bridge the powerhouse is visible to the north. The trail passes 2 sets of Rideau Canal locks, Sweeney House, the penstocks and the Stone Arch Dam. Beyond the dam, the trail turns right through a woods back to the parking lot. The blacksmith shop is on the other side of the waterway. There are trails from both sets of locks.

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

The four locks at Jones Falls are Rideau Canal Locks 39 to 42. The first 3 locks are in a single flight and the fourth is a short distance away.

The 1843 Blacksmith Shop is the small building on the other side of the waterway visible from both sets of locks. With its thick stone walls and metal roof, it was defendable against an armed attack. The hearth, in the centre of the shop, is an unusual position for a blacksmith’s forge. A blacksmith operated at Jones Falls until 1933.

Sweeney House, just east of the upper lock, 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 with the Americans continued after the war of 1812.

Three, huge, wooden tubes, the Penstocks, carry water from Sand Lake, above the dam, to the powerhouse below. The powerhouse, constructed in 1947, provides power to the regional power grid.

Aerial view of stone building
The lockmaster’s house was both a home and a defensible position.
3 wooden tubes lead to powerhouse
The 3 wooden penstalks carry water to the powerhouse below which generates power for the regional grid.

The 20-metre high, Stone Arch Dam is about 100 metres across.  It was the highest dam in North America when it was completed in 1831. Setting the blocks vertically, rather than horizontally, increased the stability of the dam. Oxen carts carried the blocks from the quarry to Jones Falls over muddy cart roads. These early 19th-century roads made the 10-kilometre journey a difficult, strenuous trip.

Stone Arch Dam Jones Falls
The shape of the dam allows sound to travel along it. Talk normally on one side of the dam and someone will hear on the other side.

Chaffey’s Lock

Samuel Chaffey set up an extensive milling operation starting in 1820 at the current location of Rideau Canal Lock 37. Chaffey died in 1827. The British Army purchased the operation, demolished the mill and built 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 a private residence.

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

At the Lockmaster’s House Museum, learn about the history of the lock and the village. The house 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.

2-storey stone building Chaffey's Lock Museum
The lockmaster’s home was continuously occupied between 1844 and 1967. It is quite incredible that, over the 122 years, there were just 5 families in residence.

Perth

On our road trip to Ottawa, Perth is the perfect spot to stop for the night. There are plenty of restaurants. Enjoy a walk around the pretty downtown and see many beautiful stone buildings which have stood the test of time.

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 was 1500 people and, in 1822, the town became the county seat. Learn more about the town’s founding and the development of the Tay Canal from historical markers and plaques around town.

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

Matheson House, on Gore Street East (the main street) just southeast of Foster, is the home of the Perth Museum. The exhibits 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.

The old Fire Hall and Tower are on Herriott Street, northeast of Gore. They are part of the local library. The engine house was built in 1855. The second storey and tower were added in 1883. From behind the library, look across Colbourne Street to the Mammoth Cheese, commemorating the cheese Perth dairy farmers sent to the 1893 Chicago World Fair.

Small building with tower
This building was used as a fire hall until the 1940s.
Barn holding reproduction of large ring of cheese
In 1893 Perth dairy producers made a 22,000-lb block of cheese and sent it to the Chicago World Fair.

The beautiful 1863 Town Hall, at Market Square in the centre of downtown, is open daily for town business. The bell and clock tower were added in 1874.

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

Stewart Park is a great place for a picnic or to just stretch your legs. The Stewart family donated the land for this park behind the town hall in the 1920s. The slow moving waters of the Tay and Little Tay Rivers meander through the park, creating mirrors for amazing photographs.

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

On the north side of the park, Code’s Mill is an events facility with a restaurant, pub and specialty shops. 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.

3 storey Codes Mill Perth
This former woollen mill is now an events facility.
Mansion reflects on calm river
This stunning home called Kinivie was built by T.A. Code.

Water access was the key to a town’s prosperity in the early 19th century. Perth residents funded the construction of the first Tay Canal in 1834 to connect Perth to the new Rideau Canal. This canal fell into disrepair by the 1870’s due to the high cost of maintenance and was 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. It rejoined the Rideau system in 1890. There are trails and parks along the Tay Canal and throughout town. Canoe and kayak rentals are available.

The Tay River 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 lockstation on the Rideau Canal.

Boat moored on Tay Canal
Enjoy a leisurely trip down the Tay Canal. Canoes and kayaks can be rented in town.
Picnic tables and shelter Last Duel Park
Enjoy a picnic or pitch a tent in Last Duel Park along the Tay River.

The 27-acre Last Duel 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 first land grant in the area went to Lt. Thomas Smyth in 1786. Smyth capitalized on the close to 11-metre in the Rideau River 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 river. The original mill was purchased, demolished and replaced by a flight of 3 locks and a dam. The dam created a basin and a separate lock was added upstream at the end of this basin.

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

The Rideau Canal Combined Lock 29a at Smiths Falls is one of the few automated locks on the Rideau Canal. Most of the canal’s locks continue to be operated manually. A new low level bridge was built across the canal in the early 1970s. The combined lock was built just north of the old flight of 3 lock to allow boat traffic to pass under the bridge.  The old locks remain in place beside the new one. It’s interesting to see the differences.

The original grist mill was demolished to build the canal locks. It was replaced in 1830 with the mill which is home of the Rideau Canal Visitor Centre. There are 3 floors of displays and artifacts about the canal.  Get a panoramic view of the canal and Smiths Falls from the top floor.

Smiths Falls Rideau Canal Visitor Centre
Visit the top floor for an aerial view of Smiths Falls and the canal.

Boat mooring is to the southwest of the combined lock adjacent to Victoria Park and a small serviced campground. 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.

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.

On the northwest side of town, the Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario is housed in the former Canadian Northern Railway’s 1913 station. The museum displays railway memorabilia and the adjacent rail yard holds a collection of historic rolling stock. The museum opened in 1985, 6 years after the railway abandoned the track.

Across town, on the southeast side, the Smith Falls Heritage House Museum offers exhibitions, art shows, day camps, educational programs and more. Some rooms are decorated to reflect Joshua Bates’ 1860 home’s heyday.  His grist and saw mills were nearby, built in the 1850’s adjacent to the Old Slys locks.

Rail passenger car and engine
The museum’s collection includes railway rolling stock.
Smiths Falls Heritage House museum
The museum opened in 1981 after being used as a residence until 1977.

Merrickville

Merrickville is yet another cute town near Ottawa. The area’s first mill was built around 1790. The town didn’t begin to prosper until the mill was purchased by William Merrick who set up both grist and lumber mills. The plan for the canal locks bypassed Merrick’s mills so, unlike other owners on the canal route, his mills continued to operate long after the locks were in operation.

With the improved transportation provided by the canal, by 1851 Merrickville had developed into the area’s industrial centre. When the railway arrived in nearby Smiths Falls, the fortunes of Merrickville began to slow but a woollen mill operated in town until 1954.

Rideau Canal Locks 21 – 23 are separated by small basins. The engineers used the natural landscape and minimized the amount of trenching needed, saving both time and money.

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 basins are a great place to enjoy a break.

The local historical society operates the Blockhouse Museum. The building was the largest blockhouse built on the Rideau Canal. It 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. The blockhouse was also the lockmaster’s home.

The Merrickville Mill Ruins, on the small island beside the locks, are all that remain of the mill buildings.

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.

Iron fences in front of stone walled mill ruin
This is all that is left of Merrickville’s prosperous mills.
Turbine Generator Merrickville
This turbine generator produced electricity here from 1915 to 1993.

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
There are many shops with unique gifts and sweet treats to investigate in Merrickville.

Prince of Wales Falls and Hogs Back Lockstation

The Rideau Canal and the Rideau River each follow their own path from the falls to the Ottawa River. Multi-use paths follow both all the way. There are walking trails around the locks, falls and dam.

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

Beautiful Prince of Wales 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 the falls were named Hogs Back Falls. When the ridge could no longer be seen, the falls were renamed Prince of Wales Falls but the nearby lockstation 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 and their width narrowed. The dam controlled the flow of water over the falls. Every decade between 1840 and 1940 saw changes made to the structure of the dam 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.

Ottawa

The city of Ottawa is a sprawling municipality formed in 2001. Ottawa has lots of things to see and do. These are several sites along the canal and the river in the city that are worth a look.

The Rideau Canal 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 30 centimetres of ice forms, the world’s largest and second longest skating rink opens for everyone’s use and enjoyment. 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. Hartwells Locks are at the southern end of the famous Rideau Canal Skateway.

Rideau Canal Locks 1 to 8 are the 8 locks at the Ottawa River, the highest and longest single flight 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.

Chateau Laurier behind Ottawa Locks
Beautiful Chateau Laurier, opened in June 1912, is a nice backdrop for the Ottawa Locks.

Learn about the history of Ottawa at the Bytown Museum beside the locks. The Museum’s permanent and temporary exhibits have Victorian timepieces, tools used to build the Rideau Canal, even antique children’s toys and much more. 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.

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

At Rideau Falls, the Rideau River drops 9 metres over 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, producing products including flour, timber, woollen cloth and liquor. The power generated today at the falls is provided to the regional power grid. The factories and mills were demolished when Rideau Falls Park was developed in the 1950s.

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.

For more things to do in Ottawa, see our article, Ottawa in a Day.

Parliament Buildings on hilltop above Ottawa River

Rideau Canal, UNESCO World Heritage Site

The canal runs from Kingston to Ottawa, linking 16 lakes, the Rideau and Cataraqui Rivers and 19 kilometres of man-made waterway. There are 24 lockstations controlling 47 locks, all open for visiting. 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.  Boats still cruise leisurely up and down the 200 kilometre-long canal.

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

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

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.

Know before You Go

What is the best time to visit the Rideau Canal?

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 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.


Interested in more Itineraries? Sign up here.