The writer and her faithful companion in Canmore (photo: Whitney Arnott)

A Canadian Winter Road Trip to Remember

By Whitney Arnott

In elementary school, we learn about Canada’s geography. From the Rocky Mountains to the Prairies to the Great Lakes and the East Coast, we’re told that our country is vast and ever-changing.

What we’re not taught is what it’s like to experience the landscape first-hand: to measure ourselves against its immense scale; to feel the texture of the different rocks and crops at our fingertips; to witness the dramatic changes in scenery that occur over just a few short hours of driving.

I grew up in Lindsay, Ontario, and moved to Canmore at age 23. Four years later, it was time for a road trip to visit my family back east during the 2018 Christmas holidays.

My mother offered a long list of reasons why I shouldn’t drive across the country in the middle of winter. Bad weather, fatigue, roadside breakdowns… the list went on. Her caution did give me pause, but as a new AMA member, I knew I’d be looked after if anything went awry.

5 pre-winter car repairs you can make right now

I set out on the 36-hour journey in early December, accompanied by my brother, Walker, and dog, Creek. On the first day, we drove from Canmore to Medicine Hat, and then onto Regina. Darkness arrived early, presenting us with a endless view of the stars above. At first light, blues, purples and pinks painted the winter-morning sky, and the open plains of Saskatchewan and Manitoba only extended our show.

As we approached the Ontario border, the land changed from cropland to forest to Precambrian rock, while the pavement narrowed from four lanes to two. And so began our favourite part of the drive—along roads created in the early 1900s, when men first blasted and cut their way through the Canadian Shield. We stopped in Kenora to refuel our bellies. It felt like a northern Ontario version of Banff. Quaint cottages lined the lakes and a small but bustling downtown collected tourists.

After a night in nearby Dryden, we were determined to make it to Sault Ste. Marie more than 1,000 kilometres away. But we also wanted to sightsee. We stopped at Kakabeka Falls and felt nearly as cold as the frozen cascade below us. Tracing Lake Superior, we then caught sight of the Sleeping Giant, a peninsula (that looks like an island) watching over Thunder Bay. The perfect viewpoint can be found at the Terry Fox Memorial, where you can also pay your respects to the late athlete and Canadian hero.

The dos and don’ts of driving on icy roads

Not yet discouraged by the cold, we also made it to Aguasabon Gorge. Feeding into Lake Superior, the roaring gorge sprays mist on the surrounding foliage, leaving it covered in thick bulbs of ice.

We arrived in Lindsay the following day—the fourth and final of our epic Alberta-to-Ontario road trip. We were exhausted, of course, but ready to share the story of our journey with family.

canadian winter road trip ontario whitney arnott
Crossing into Ontario (photo: Whitney Arnott)

Essential knowledge for spending winter on the road

Get a grip: It should be old news by now, but use winter tires, which provide better traction on icy and snowy roads. They’re mandatory for winter driving in Quebec and parts of B.C.

Be prepared: Pack water and healthy snacks—plus an emergency roadside kit. Pick one up at any AMA centre or assemble your own, including blankets, candles, waterproof matches, batteries, jumper cables, first aid essentials, a reflective triangle, a high visibility vest, and a collapsible shovel.

Room at the inn: Know where you’ll be overnighting in advance. Pick up a Best Western prepaid card at AMA to collect 5% in reward dollars on the purchase price.