Skating the Rideau Canal is a quintessential Canadian winter experience. The world’s largest naturally frozen ice rink runs right through our nation’s capital, and offers a scenic skate through the city. It’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for free, and attracts up to 1 million visitors per season. Last year, I was finally one of them!
I’ve wanted to skate the Rideau Canal for years, but it seemed as elusive as the Northern Lights. See, like so many outdoor attractions, the Rideau Canal Skateway is very much weather dependent. I’ve visited Ottawa too early in the winter season, when it wasn’t cold enough yet to open the rink. I’ve also visited Ottawa during a massive snowstorm, when they closed it for safety. So this time I decided to plan a getaway to Ottawa specifically for skating on the Rideau Canal – on short notice, when the forecast was in my favour — and it worked.
For me, the appeal of the Rideau Canal Skateway is its long length. In Toronto, and most other places in the world I’ve gone ice skating, you get to go round and round an oval rink. Maybe a figure 8 trail if you’re lucky. The Skateway is 7.8km long. I felt like I was actually going somewhere. (Some Ottawa residents apparently use it to commute to work or school.) The skating surface is equivalent to more than 140 National Hockey League rinks, or more than 122 Olympic-sized hockey rinks. So yeah, it’s big.
The location itself is also unique. The Rideau Canal is a UNESCO heritage site dating back to the early 1800s. You’re surrounded by heavy metal marvels of engineering, skating underneath bridges, and imaging the locks in action during the summer months.
The Rideau Canal Skateway is operated by the National Capital Commission. They maintain an excellent website that’s updated with ice conditions twice daily. If you’re planning a trip to Ottawa, I recommend keeping an eye on it as well as the weather forecast, to have the best chance at skating. The season is different every year, and can close without much warning if the temperature gets too warm. This is one time you will be wishing for the coldest weather possible.
My first experience skating the Rideau Canal was the best thing I’ve ever done in Ottawa and one of my favourite winter adventures ever, one I plan to repeat annual when the weather is on my side. The physical challenge, the scenery, and the satisfaction of finally spotting a window of opportunity and going for it. If you’re enthusiastic about skating, there’s really nothing like it.
Here are five things to do at the Rideau Canal Skateway
Stay in a nearby castle
OK, so the Chateau Laurier isn’t a real castle. It’s only “Chateau-esque.” But Ottawa’s most famous hotel is stately and historic and a Goth Girl can pretend, right? It’s also so close to the entrance for the Rideau Skateway you could walk over there in your skates if you want to. If you like to picture yourself skating in a long wool coat and a muff (as I do) this 4-star hotel stay will compliment your skateway adventure perfectly. (As would their traditional afternoon tea service.) I was lucky enough to score a pandemic-era deal on the room rate and stay when their 60-foot Art Deco style indoor swimming pool was open. It made my solo Ottawa weekend that much more special.
Skate the entire thing. And back.
I was determined to start at km 0 of the Rideau Canal Skateway and make it all the way to the end and back. But since I had never had the chance to skate 7.8km x 2 all at once before, I had no idea how that would feel, physically. Not going to lie, the way back my legs started to wobble. But! They have distance markers along the way to chart your progress and each time I saw one I was motivated to keep going. Plus each section of the canal offers different views and moods, and I was curious to see what’s around the next bend. Finishing back at the start felt a lot like completing a challenging hike, satisfying and the perfect excuse for a snack. Which brings me to…
Eat a Beaver Tail
One of Canada’s most famous treats is called a BeaverTail. No beavers are harmed in the making of this doughy desert, which you can top with cinnamon, chocolate, etc, like a crepe. BeaverTail booths are the pitstop of choice for most visitors to the skateway, and this year there are 4 locations along the trail, open 10:30am to 9:30pm. So go get your sugar fix!
One of the coolest things I witnessed skating the Rideau Canal was a small group dragging a large speaker on a wooden slat with blades, blasting club music. I also saw young men riding on fat bikes equipped with boomboxes doing the same. I have no idea if this is allowed, but I do know it was a lot of fun to skate alongside for a while and on my next visit I will bring my own (albeit smaller) speaker to have my own soundtrack.
Skate late at night
Yes, the 15km+ daytime skate did tire me out. But I could not miss the chance to return at night for another round. The rink was a lot less crowded, and I felt zero pressure to do any distance, so I just glided around in the dark, practised my twirls, and enjoyed the cold air in my lungs. Reminder the Rideau Canal Skateway is open 24 hours a day, so you can pop down at any time.
Know Before You Go
The Rideau Canal Skateway website will tell you everything you need to know about what sections are open, ice condition, accessibility, etc.
The 2022 season started January 14, and includes skate rentals and sharpening, washrooms and food and drink stations. Change rooms are closed.