By Craig Nicholson, The Intrepid Snowmobiler
For most riders, itâ€™s hard to get your head around how big snowmobiling is in Ontario, Canada. Each winter, I sled about 5,000 miles there and still havenâ€™t seen it all.
Usually, I take off for a ten-day tour and never ride the same trail twice. Thatâ€™s because the Province of Ontario is almost twice as large as Texas and much of it is criss-crossed with 25,000 miles of topnotch snowmobile trails. In fact, Ontarioâ€™s snowmobile trails rank as the worldâ€™s largest recreational trail system, with more miles of snowmobile trails than there are miles of highways in many States!
During my years as a snowmobile journalist, Iâ€™ve visited most popular snowmobile destinations in North America and frequently had the opportunity to compare them. For my money, Ontario tops the list as a “must-ride” destination. Hereâ€™s why.
Iâ€™m a high miler who loves to ride. Itâ€™s easy to put on 200 to 300 miles day after day in Ontario, without feeling beat or riding after dark. My personal high has topped out just over 400 miles on several occasions â€” once with my wife, so this isnâ€™t a guys only kind of place!
If you share my passion for distance, head for Northern Ontario, where youâ€™ll discover an endless trail network comprised of old logging roads, mining routes and utility corridors that will far surpass anything in your previous experience.
Regardless of how often I ride in Ontario, the thrill never seems to end. During a normal riding day elsewhere, I may have a couple of really memorable moments, where the trail was spectacular, that make me wish I could ride like this forever (or at least the rest of that day). Thatâ€™s the feeling I get continuously in Ontario, day after dayâ€” and just when I think it canâ€™t get any better, it usually does.
Part of the reason is that Ontarioâ€™s trails are under used. As anyone who rides regularly in the other popular snowmobile havens knows, they can be way too crowded. So itâ€™s hard to imagine riding trails that are virtually empty â€” no traffic, no gas line-ups and no waiting at pit stops.
I guess their lack of traffic is because Ontarioâ€™s so vast and has so many trails that thousands of sleds simply disappear, absorbed each day by a network thatâ€™s much, much bigger than the number of sleds it attracts. Iâ€™ve stayed at lodgings where a hundred or more sleds are parked overnight, but when they leave next morning, I never see any of them again.
One analogy for this phenomenon is that in many other destinations, riding is like driving during the day in a bustling city; in Ontario, riding is like day time driving in that same cityâ€” but with the much lower volume typical from midnight to pre-dawn.
Season length and snowfall are two more good reasons Ontario is a snowmobiling standout. Throughout Southern Ontario, a 12-week season is the norm, fed by lake effect snow coming off the Great Lakes, especially in the areas of Grey Bruce, The Georgian Triangle, Muskoka and Parry Sound.
In many parts of Northern Ontario, normal season length can be up to 16 weeks, with snow that comes early and stays late. Personally, my choice for the best time to ride the North is during March, when daylight hours are longer, temperatures moderate and trails well set up. Besides, March riding is a great way to extend my season, long after many other riders are putting their sleds away because the ground is bare where they live or normally ride.
Trail riding is what Ontarioâ€™s all about, thanks to the Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs (OFSC). Thatâ€™s the provincial association whose 240 local clubs have been operating the trail system for almost 40 years, investing a total of more than $365 million into trail development.
The benefit to visiting riders is that OFSC trails are connected and consistent. They are also mapped and marked for touring, and maintained by a provincial fleet of about 330 heavy industrial groomers. The OFSC trail system was well planned to connect hundreds of friendly snowbelt communities, so that fuel, food, service and lodging stops are frequent, findable and accessible for visitors.
The OFSC system consists of two interconnected networks, their trails equal in quality and ridability: Trans Ontario Provincial (TOP) Trails and regional trails. Over 11,000 miles of TOP Trails are the main thru routes that link each of Ontarioâ€™s nine major snowmobiling tourism regions. Within these regions, OFSC clubs operate over 14,000 miles of connecting trails. Together, these two networks deliver an unrivalled opportunity for visitors in search of great riding.
Ontario also welcome touring riders with state of the art information and planning tools. The OFSC produces a TOP Trail Guide that provides a provincial trail system overview. Each of 17 OFSC districts also produces a snowmobile trail map that shows comprehensive detail. Meanwhile, the Ontario government produces a booklet called â€œThe Ultimate Snowmobiling Tour Plannerâ€ (also available on line), written by snowmobilers for snowmobilers, that answers every question you might have.
Like any product, you get what you pay for. As a snowmobiler, Iâ€™m more than willing to pay for the exceptional quality and quantity that Ontario offers touring riders. Unlike in the U.S., where trails are mostly funded by government gas tax or sled registration rebates, OFSC snowmobile trail operations are funded by permit revenues. So I buy a Full Season Snowmobile Trail Permit for $230 CDN ($180 if purchased on or before December 1. Seven day permits are also available.)
Remember that in Ontario, the U.S. dollar is worth more, so your real permit cost would be closer to $200/$155, with a similar saving on everything else you purchase there. The math works out to as little as $15.50/day for one ten-day tour to ride some of the best trails anywhere. The permit is good for unlimited use anywhere in Ontario at any time during the winter, so the more I ride, the better value it becomes.
Ontario borders on three States with easy highway access to border crossings â€” Minnesota, Michigan and New York. From these, American riders can be on the snow in Ontario in less than an hour or two, or can trailer on four lane highways to points farther north. Thanks to this proximity, many Americans already make long weekend getaways to Ontario a regular part of their snowmobile plans each winter. They especially like Grey Bruce (near Detroit), Muskoka & Haliburton (near Buffalo) and Eastern Ontario (near Ogdensburg, NY).
Best of all, youâ€™ll quickly discover an easy familiarity with this Province. Ontario is more like traveling into another State than entering a foreign country. Youâ€™ll feel right at home with most of the major fast food and retail chains. Meanwhile, communicating in Ontario is no problem. Unlike in Quebec, English is the primary language. So all you have to do is get used to metric measurements for fuel and distance â€” and folks who seems to end every sentence with â€œeh?â€
If the main objective of going snowmobiling is to discover the best trail riding possible, Ontario is THE place to go â€” just donâ€™t expect to ride it all in one trip! The only downside is that Ontario has raised my snowmobiling bar so high that Iâ€™m not satisfied riding anywhere else!
Craig Nicholson’s syndicated column â€œThe Intrepid Snowmobilerâ€ appears in newspapers throughout North America. He also hosts â€œThe Intrepid Snowmobiler on Radioâ€ and appears regularly on Snowmobiler Television.
Who to Contact
1-800-ONTARIO or www.ontariotravel.net/snowmobile