IT IS OFTEN SAID that no matter where you are in Ottawa, you can drive 10 minutes in any direction and find yourself surrounded by nature. You can feel as though you’re in the middle of northern Ontario — deep in a forest or tucked away on the edge of a small bay. You’ll experience a little shiver of surprise as you hear the chimes of the Peace Tower somewhere in the distance.
Ten minutes. That’s all you need in Ottawa to find a perfect little piece of nature. You’ll need about five more to find the perfect picnic spot. West to east, north to south — it doesn’t matter where you are, that perfect, idyllic picnic spot is never far from reach. Some of this city’s finest al fresco locations are well known — so popular that you’ll have to arrive well before noon to claim a patch of grass. Others are hidden gems known only to locals and those intrepid souls who spend their days travelling off the beaten path. So lay down your blanket, open the hamper, and come explore the city’s top picnic spots.
Jock River Landing (Barrhaven), Long Island Locks (Riverside South)
The first is a true hidden gem. Most commuters going in and out of Barrhaven by way of Old Highway 16 have no idea what can be found by taking the poorly marked turnoff to the foot of the Jock River where it empties into the Rideau. It’s officially a boat launch — although only for canoes and kayaks, since there is no ramp or wharf. As beautiful and charmingly remote as this spot can seem, be forewarned — it is also a popular fishing spot, and there is not much space to spread out a picnic blanket. A good backup plan is the Long Island Locks, less than a 10-minute drive from the Jock River Landing. There’s no shortage of room, with picnic areas at both the top and bottom of the three locks. Most people prefer the top, which is the size of a good city park, with plenty of mature trees and a nearby lockmaster’s office with restroom facilities. Make sure to check out the nearby stone dam, one of the engineering marvels of the Rideau Canal.
Petrie Island (Orleans)
This ancient sandbar in the Ottawa River, left behind when the last glaciers retreated 12,000 years ago, is a natural wonder of the region, with more birds and amphibians per square foot than any other place in the city. It also has a large picnic area, located just west of the main beach. Run by the city, the picnic area has tables and a large fire pit, which you can use for “Kumbayah”-type sing-a-longs — after first getting a permit from the city. All this, and the Ottawa River right on your doorstep. Although Petrie Island would not be our first choice for a secluded picnic repose, it can be a lot of fun. And it made the list because it’s astounding what you can do (swim, boat, fish, birdwatch, hike) within a 10-minute walk of your picnic blanket.
Pink Lake (Gatineau Park)
People have been picnicking on the shores of Pink Lake since the days of Queen Victoria, when the lake was considered the premier spot in the capital to spread out a blanket and dine al fresco. In those days, you could take a streetcar right to the shore, such was the popularity of this little lake in Gatineau Park. Named after an early settler in western Quebec, the lake is actually a perfect turquoise hue. Ringed by steep cliffs, clumps of hardwood trees, and veins of commercial-quality mica, it is a kaleidoscope of natural elements. It is also one of the most environmentally sensitive lakes in Canada, with no swimming or fishing allowed. Take a camera though. You’ll want to use it.
Rideau Falls (New Edinburgh)
This is a picnic spot in the heart of the capital — within easy walking distance of 24 Sussex, the ByWard Market, and the Hill. Rideau Falls, despite its importance to the city’s history, has always been slightly off the beaten path. There is no parking to speak of — not even a hint of the falls until you are standing almost on top of them, and with so many other attractions in the area, it just gets forgotten. Take advantage of this. If you make the trek, you will find meticulously maintained lawns and a panoramic view of the Ottawa River.
Virtually any park in the city of Ottawa makes a good picnic spot. Some of our city parks are even renowned for their weekend picnics and barbecues, events that can draw extended families from across the region (think Andrew Haydon Park, along the Ottawa River). Although, it’s hard to beat Rockcliffe Park. Built high on the cliffs overlooking the Ottawa River, this park is one of the oldest in the city, with the stone pathways and bandshell to prove it. You won’t have any trouble finding a secluded spot (something that can be a problem at other city parks), and if it’s mature trees you want to dine under, this place is paradise.
Victoria Island (LeBreton Flats area)
Victoria Island was once a focal point for Ottawa, located a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill, the Chaudière Falls, and a main streetcar line. Families lived here. It was a booming industrial area. Today Victoria Island is tranquil. The little-known Aboriginal Experiences tourist attraction is on the far eastern tip of the island, a seldom-used naval mess on the western tip — the rest of the island is pretty much yours, anytime you want. It’s the perfect place for a secluded picnic on the shores of the Ottawa River. Victoria Island has the added charm of offering breathtaking views of both the Parliamentary Library and the Supreme Court of Canada.
Watson’s Mill (Manotick)
Moss Kent Dickinson didn’t have picnicking on his mind when he opened his grist and sawmill on the bank of the Rideau River in 1860. Picnicking has just turned into a spinoff benefit. Built on the west channel of the Rideau River where the water courses around Long Island (which gave Manotick its Ojibwa name), Watson’s Mill ceased operations in 1972. When the machinery fell silent, a perfect picnic spot was left behind. While many picnic devotees are partial to nearby Long Island Locks, where you can spread your blanket and watch the boats pass by, I like the mill because it is slightly off the beaten path and the trees in autumn are picture-perfect. The stone mill isn’t hard to look at either.