Ten Fine Places to Lay Down Your Picnic Basket
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. In 10 minutes, 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.
Here are my top 10 picnic spots. Some are within walking distance of Parliament Hill, others a short drive to Gatineau Park. Whatever your mode of transportation or wherever you may be in the National Capital Region, this list will have the perfect spot for you. So lay down your blanket, open the hamper, and come exploring with us.
1. 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. Commerce was his main pursuit (the mill once turned out two million board feet of lumber a year). 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), the 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, we 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.
2. 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 Parliament Hill — yet almost no one uses it. (The National Capital Commission even tried to operate a museum here for a few years but had to shut it down because no one bothered to go.) 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 to Rideau Falls, you will find meticulously maintained lawns, a panoramic view of the Ottawa River, and an abandoned museum that is fun to explore, if only from the outside.
3. Pink Lake (Gatineau Park)
You’ll have to drive to this location, but it’s worth the effort. 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 el fresco. In those days, you could catch 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.
4. The Arboretum
Hardly a secret to picnic lovers, the NCC’s Arboretum is still one of our favourite spots in the city to break bread. With more than 2,000 species of trees and shrubs, several grassy knolls, and idyllic views of creeks emptying into the Rideau Canal, there’s something here for every nature lover. The arboretum is also large enough to handle a busload of picnic devotees, if such a thing were ever to happen (which it can, on a warm spring weekend). Just take your hamper and go for a short walk from the visitors’ parking lot off Prince of Wales Drive, and you’ll have no trouble claiming a tree of your very own. While many people like the knolls of the arboretum (which become some of the best toboggan runs in the city during winter), our preference is the lowland beneath, with its wooden bridges, softly burbling creeks, and ducks hanging around to see what you might leave behind.
5. Jock River Landing (Barrhaven)
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. Officially a boat launch — although only for canoes and kayaks, since there is no ramp or wharf — this spot is less than 100 feet from the highway, but you’d never know it. The land is recessed just perfectly; the trees are aligned just right so that only headlights in the evening let you know there is nearby traffic. 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. We hemmed and hawed about including it on our list, for fear it would soon become overrun. Definitely worth checking out, though, if you have a backup plan.
6. Long Island Locks (Riverside South)
And here is your backup plan. Less than a 10-minute drive from the Jock River Landing, the Long Island Locks have been a popular picnic area since John By finished building the Rideau Canal in 1832. There’s no shortage of room here, 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. There is also a wooden dock to fish from. When you’re picnicking at Long Island, make sure to check out the nearby dam. This stone dam is one of the engineering marvels of the Rideau Canal. A bigger version of this dam, upriver at Jones Falls, was once the largest dam in the British Empire.
7. Rockcliffe Park (Rockcliffe)
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). For our money, though, 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 at Rockcliffe Park (something that can be a problem at other city parks), and if it’s mature trees are what you’re wanting to dine under, you have just found paradise.
8. 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 30 tables and a large firepit, which you can use for “Kumbayah”-type singalongs — 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 almost goofy what you can do (swim, boat, fish, birdwatch, hike) within a 10-minute walk of your picnic blanket.
9. Étienne-Brûlé Lookout (Gatineau Park)
Champlain Lookout may have the panoramic view that gets all the attention, but if you’re aiming to host a panoramic picnic, check out Étienne-Brûlé Lookout first. Located just a few hundred metres down the Gatineau Parkway from its better-known lookout cousin, Étienne-Brûlé has picnic tables, barbecues, and an almost identical view. From here you can see the Canadian Shield running headlong into the St. Lawrence Lowland and gaze over the Ottawa Valley (on a clear day, almost from Pembroke to Hawkesbury). Even on the sunniest day, chances are, you’ll also have the place almost to yourself. Most people are drawn to Champlain Lookout — the highest point of the parkway — and Brûlé tends to be overlooked. Which is history repeating itself, as Champlain was the one who got all the praise 400 years ago, even though it was his trusted guide, Brûlé, who visited every place first.
10. Victoria Island (Lebreton Flats area)
You won’t find picnic tables or barbecues, but we think we’ve saved the best for last. 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 all but forgotten. 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. 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. A true hidden gem, right in the heart of the city.