Rideau Canal National Historic Site

A summer and winter playground in a spectacular picturesque setting...


The Rideau Canal National Historic Site is a 126 mile (202 kilomtere) long waterway connecting the City of Ottawa on the Ottawa River and the City of Kingston on Lake Ontario.

The canal begins right in the heart of the Ottawa under the shadow of the Parliament Buildings on Parliament Hill.

It is the oldest continuously operated canal system in North America and was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1925 and in 2007 was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Originally a military structure, today the Rideau Canal is operated by Parks Canada as a recreational waterway for pleasure craft and vacationers who enjoy fishing, cruising, and relaxing in unparalleled surroundings. The locks on the system are open for navigation from mid-May to in mid-October.


History of the Rideau Canal

The initial purpose of the Rideau Canal was military, as it was intended to provide a safe and secure supply and communications route between Montreal and the naval base in Kingston, Ontario. The supply route at the time was down the St. Lawrence River bordering New York State, a route that would have left supply ships vulnerable to an attack or blockade. After the war of 1812 between the British and the Americans this was a real threat that had to be prevented as a blockade of the St. Lawrence River would have severed the lifeline between the British Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada.

Construction of the canal began in 1826, and after 6 years it was completed in 1832 at a final cost of £822,000. Lieutenant-Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers supervised construction of the canal and it is after him that Bytown, later Ottawa, is named.

The canal did however also serve a commercial purpose. It was easier to navigate the Rideau Canal than the St. Lawrence River, due to the rapids that exist between Montreal and Kingston. As a result, the Rideau Canal became a busy commercial artery from Montreal to the Great Lakes.

Most of the original structures of the canal remain intact and in use today with most of the 45 locks at the 24 lock stations still hand-operated, much as they were when the canal first opened in 1832. The canal system as a whole incorporates sections of major rivers, including the Rideau and the Cataraqui, as well as some lakes including the Lower, Upper and Big Rideau lakes. Only about 19 kilometres (12 miles) of the route is man-made.

As no further military engagements ever occurred between the British and the Americans after the War of 1812 the canal never had to be used for the military purposes for which it was designed but it did however play a pivotal role in the early development of Canada as it allowed Montreal to compete with New York City and the Erie Canal as a major commercial North American shipping port. It served as the main travel and commercial shipping route between Upper and Lower Canada prior to the taming of the St Lawrence rapids by the completion of a series of locks in the late 1840s after which shippers were quick to switch to this more direct route.


Getting to the Rideau Canal National Historic Site:

For the most part the Rideau Canal can easily be located once you reach Kingston Ontario. Therefore follow the directions by the various transport modes below and then once in the city directions to the Rideau Canal will be clearly marked.

By Car:

Kingston lies on Highway 401, the main east-west traffic corridor across the province linking Toronto to Montreal and Ottawa. Driving times from major cities are:

  • Toronto approx. 2.5 hours
  • Montreal approx. 3 hours
  • Ottawa approx. 1.5 hours

From Eastern Ontario:

Navigate to Highway 401 and travel west until reaching the city.

From Western Ontario:

Navigate to Highway 401 and travel east until reaching the city.

From Northern Ontario:

Navigate south on any of Ontario’s secondary highways until you reach Highway 401 then head either east or west depending upon your intersecting point.

By Public Transport:

By Bus:

Kingston Ontario is easily reached by bus as it is a major stopping point on the main east-west transportation corrido linking Toronto to Montral and Ottawar.

By rail:

As Kingston does lie on the main east-west transportation corridor across Southern Ontario it is well serviced by passenger rail and there is frequent and regular daily service.

By Plane:

Norman Rogers Municipal Airport located in the western part of the city unfortunately does not cater to any international flights but has regular domestic flights to a number of communities.

If you wish to fly to Kingston you will have to take a connecting flight from one of the main international destinations such as Ottawa or Toronto. This is however quite an expensive option and since the city is so well serviced by other modes of public transport and travel times are comparative to flying I would recommend that visitors simply choose one of these options instead.

By Ferry:

Kingston is also connected to Wolfe Island lying just offshore by a year round free of charge ferry. The Kingston Terminal for the Wolfe Islander III is locatedright downtown at the intersection of Barrack and Ontario Street’s. Another Ferry connects Wolfe Island to the United States so it is possible to travel from Kingston Ontario to New York State by car via Wolfe Island and during the busy summer months many visitors do make use of this route.

The 61metre (200 feet) long Wolfe Islander III can carry up to 330 passengers and 55 vehicles and the trip from Kingston to Wolfe Island takes about 20 minutes. For more information visit: www.wolfeisland.com.

By Boat:

This is usually not an option I list when creating information on how to arrive at a destination but Kingston Ontario’s location at the intersection at some of the country’s greatest waterways make listing this information a necessity.

Whether arriving from the Rideau Canal, St. Lawrence Seaway or from other points along the Great Lakes, Kingston’s strategic position at the eastern end of Lake Ontario has long made it an important stopping point for craft of all sizes.

Today most cargo traffic passes by the city as its harbour is too small for the St. Lawrence Seaway’s huge container ships but the city is still at the epicenter of dense pleasure craft traffic especially from the Rideau Canal. Many visitors arrive by their personal watercraft especially down the Rideau Canal after starting in Ottawa and the city has numerous marinas to accommodate them including:

  • Rideau Marina
  • Kingston Marina
  • Collins Bay Marina
  • Confederation Basin
  • Blue Woods Marina
  • Music Marina
  • Portsmouth Olympic Harbour
  • Treasure Island Marina
  • Kingston Yacht Club

The Rideau Canal National Historic Site today...

Many communities have sprung up along the waterway and boat tours of the canal are offered in the city of Ottawa, Merrickville, and at Chaffeys Lock. Houseboat rentals are also a popular activity for visitors and locals alike and can be arranged in a variety of places.

The canal is also an angler’s paradise as the various waterways and lakes within the system teem with:

  • panfish
  • pumpkinseed
  • black crappie
  • small and largemouth bass
  • lake trout
  • pike 
  • muskellunge (muskee)

In Ottawa proper during the warm weather you can rent bicycles and ride alongside the canal or take a short cruise along its shores to enjoy its wonderful sites. The winter however is where the Rideau Canal has become world famous. When the canal freezes over it becomes the Rideau Canal Skateway, the world’s largest skating rink, allowing you to skate through the heart of downtown Ottawa.

The Skateway is 7.8 kilometres long, and begins just steps from Canada’s Parliament Buildings and the Chateau Laurier. It includes numerous rest areas where you can warm up in front of toasty fires and enjoy a hot drink or snack. There is also an outdoor art gallery on the ice at Dow’s Lake. The Skateway is typically open in January and remains open for skaters as long as conditions remain safe, usually 40 – 50 days. In February it serves as the focal point for Ottawa’s Winterlude festival.


Open for navigation from mid-May to mid-October most of the original canal structures are still in use and are operated as they were the day the canal opened in 1832. In total there are 45 locks of which 24 are hand-operated.

Only about 19 kilometres (12 miles) of the Rideau Canal system is man-made as the majority incorporates natural waterways including:

  • Rideau River
  • Cataraqui River
  • Big Rideau Lake
  • Upper Rideau Lake
  • Lower Rideau Lake

In Ottawa the Rideau Canal begins right under the gaze of the Parliament Buildings on Parliament Hill while in Kingston it ends right in the Kingston Harbour outlet of Lake Ontario at Kingston Mills under the watchful gaze of Fort Henry, which was constructed specifically to guard this important passageway.

Now an angler’s paradise with fish species such as:

  • Pike
  • Muskellunge (muskie)
  • Panfish
  • Small & largemouth Bass
  • Black Crappie
  • Lake Trout

to be found in the various waterways of the system.

During the navigation season, Kingston harbour teems with pleasure craft entering and departing from the canal entrance at Kingston Mills and the city still receives a great economic boost from this historic waterway. Many Canadians will often partake in a Rideau Canal cruise vacation aboard a rented houseboat at least once in their lifetimes as this makes for a great way to spend a leisurely week with the family.

During the summer, the Rideau Canal at Kingston makes for a nice pit stop to sit at one of the waterfront cafes and enjoy a meal and beverage. If you are in the Kingston Ontario area during this time, I would highly recommend you plan on spending at least half a day enjoying the sights the Rideau canal has to offer.

Visitors to Ottawa must put a trip down to the locks at the beginning of the waterway on their itinerary. It is such a picturesque area that the memories will linger for a lifetime. If you are fortunate enough to visit in winter, (or brave enough to handle the cold), head down to the canal, rent a pair of skates and glide down the frozen waterway and marvel at the sights. It’s an experience you will never forget!

For more information visit: Ontario Parks


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