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You Can Discover This Small Ontario Town That's Been Called Canada's Best-Kept Secret

Scenic hikes, ancient pictographs, sandy beaches, and more!
You Can Discover This Small Ontario Town That's Been Called Canada's Best-Kept Secret

If sandy beaches, swimming, and adrenaline-pumping activities are what you want from your next vacation, we have the perfect spot for you — no passport required.

Sault Ste. Marie, more affectionately known as the Soo, offers the kind of lifestyle people dream about. Located at the heart of the Great Lakes, this beauty boasts one-of-a-kind scenery and nature, great shopping, amazing food and drinks, activities, and a rich history you won't find anywhere else in Canada.

Where else can you scale rock cliffs to marvel at ancient pictographs in the morning, ride some of the best mountain bike trails in Ontario in the afternoon, then stroll along the downtown boardwalk, ice cream in hand, to watch 1000-foot ships pass by as the sun sets? As much of an adrenaline-boosting getaway as it is a put-your-feet-up-and-stay-awhile type of city, the Sault is the ultimate summer experience for anyone looking to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Whether you're canoeing deep into the wilderness or learning about the history of flight at the plane museum, Sault Ste. Marie has something for everyone — especially during the summer. Here are 11 incredible experiences that will inspire you to experience this gem for yourself.

1. Soak up the sun at tropical Pancake Bay

Price: Regular walk-in day-use fee for 18+ is $2

Address: 12729 Hwy 17N, Batchawana Bay, ON P0S 1A0

Why You Need To Go: Pancake Bay Provincial Park is hands down the only tropical vacation you need this year. With tons of campsites and over 3 kilometres of sandy beach with crystal clear water, a day trip here will have you feeling like you're on the shores of Mexico in no time. The beach also has some of the warmest water anywhere along Lake Superior. Oh, and it's great for stargazing, too — you can find one of Ontario’s only nationally certified Dark Sky Preserves just 10 minutes north of the Bay!

2. Mountain bike the best trails in Ontario at Bellevue Mountain and Hiawatha Highlands

Price: Free

Address: 1100 Fifth Line East, Sault Ste. Marie, ON P6A 5K7

Why You Need To Go: In the summer months, you can ride to Crystal Falls in Kinsmen Park, a popular waterfall that borders the Hiawatha Highlands Conservation Area, which boasts a 31-kilometre-long network of single-track bike paths and incredible views of lakes, creeks and wetlands. But if you’re looking for something a bit more adventurous, try Bee Sting at Bellevue Valley. This adrenaline-fueled descent is so fun, it’ll make you feel like you’re riding in B.C.

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3. Enjoy a relaxing riverside stroll on the boardwalk

Price: Free

Address: 5V4, Hub Trail, Sault Ste. Marie, ON

Why You Need To Go: Walk, cycle, or rollerblade along the Soo's downtown boardwalk, which follows the St. Marys River from the Great Lakes power plant to the city's public library. Head to one of the observation decks to watch the ships pass by and check out the U.S. border, which lies across the river. Plus, make sure you take a walking tour of the murals downtown. Not only are there lots of beautiful, eclectic local street art to discover, but you can stop off at Outspoken Brewery to rest, recharge, and refresh!

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4. Check out the sacred Agawa Pictographs

Price: $10.84+ to access Lake Superior Provincial Park*

Address: Agawa Bay, Highway 17, ON P0S 1K0

Why You Need To Go: Set in the landscapes that inspired the Group of Seven, this sacred site is where generations of Ojibwe have come to carve dreams, visions, and historical events into stone. Agawa Rock is home to hundreds of pictographs, including the famous Mishipeshu — the Great Lynx. This dragon-like creature is one of the most significant and enigmatic Canadian public works of art.

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5. Go waterfall-hopping

Price: Free

Address: Varies

Why You Need To Go: Northern Ontario is home to a huge variety of jaw-dropping natural sights, and embarking on your own waterfall tour is a phenomenal way to discover some of nature’s most awe-inspiring offerings. Whether you decide to start at 22-metre-high Magpie Falls, Chippewa Falls (featuring a bridge for optimal viewing) or Silver Falls, which you just might need to hop in a canoe in order to enjoy, or anything in between (Crystal Falls is also stunning!), one thing’s for sure: water lovers, the Soo is the destination you’ve been waiting for.

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6. Fly-fish the Soo Rapids and check out Whitefish Island

Price: Free to enter; guides available for varied prices

Address: 1 Canal Dr, Sault Ste. Marie, ON P6A 6W4

Why You Need To Go: Known as the meeting ground for Annishanbee culture since time immemorial, Whitefish Island is located along the shores of the St. Marys River, near the downtown core of Bawating (the Soo). An original meeting ground for the Anishinaabe people of the Great Lakes, the area has an abundance of fish, once being lauded by author Ernest Hemingway as having “the best rainbow trout fishing in the world.” While you’re there, make sure to check out the Sault Ste. Marie Canal National Historic Site. It provides an in-depth glimpse of a historic lock, as well as easy footpaths on South St. Marys Island, bike rentals, and access to St. Marys Rapids.

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7. Explore the history of flight at the plane museum

Price: $13.50

Address: 50 Pim Street, Sault Ste. Marie, ON P6A 3G4

Why You Need To Go: Located across the street from the Ermatinger-Clergue National Historic Site is the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre. Explore 30 different aircraft displays, two theatres, flight simulators, and interactive activities, or organize a guided group tour. If airplanes aren't your thing, the museum hosts several events each year, including Sault Ste. Marie's annual Holiday Gift & Crafts show in November. Plus, it’s even got an insectarium and brewery, Northern Superior, attached right to it!

8. Hang out in warm, Caribbean-like waters at Katherine Cove/Bathtub Island

Price: $10.84+ to access Lake Superior Provincial Park*

Address: Off of Highway 17, along the coast of Lake Superior

Why You Need To Go: You'd be forgiven for mistaking the sandy beach and shallow blue-green waters of Katherine Cove and/or Bathtub Island for a tropical island. A little slice of heaven in Lake Superior Provincial Park (just a couple hours north of the Soo), this is a perfect place to go for a swim and have a picnic. The beach is available for day-use and has public washrooms. Parking permits are required if you're driving up with friends.

9. Get romantic at Haviland Lookout

Price: Free

Address: Best accessed through Haviland Shores Road

Why You Need To Go: Located just 35 kilometres north of Sault Ste. Marie is the breathtaking Haviland Lookout. To access the lookout, you'll need to park at Haviland Shores Beach and head (carefully) across the highway to the marked blue side of the Voyageur Trail. A 500-metre walk leads straight to the lookout over Lake Superior. Remember to bring your camera and go cool off in the water after your hike! Robertson Cliffs is another great place to reconnect with nature (and your partner) and make some unforgettable memories together.

10. Take a long canoe or kayak trip away from all signs of civilization

Price: BYO canoe or rent one nearby, prices vary

Address: Access is by way of launches at Mijinemungshing or Gamitagama lakes

Why You Need To Go: If an adrenaline rush of exploration is what you crave from your next vacation, then this is your trip. Actually called the Pinguisibi Trail, but known to most as Sand River, this 56-kilometre-long, four or five-day journey takes canoeists deep into the wilderness of Lake Superior Provincial Park, north of Sault Ste. Marie. The trip isn't for the faint-hearted though. It's suitable for intermediate paddlers who can land safely at portages above large rapids and falls. It's the ultimate getaway for those with a serious adventurous side. Alternatively, you can opt for a half-day paddle across St. Marys River in a voyageur-style canoe.

11. Enjoy epic sunsets at Batchawana Bay

Price: Free

Address: 12729 Hwy 17N, Batchawana Bay, ON P0S 1A0

Why You Need To Go: Another fun-in-the-sun gem, Batchawana Bay has fantastic views and some of the warmest waters you'll find in the area. Bald eagle, beaver, mink, and osprey are often seen along this shore. You can also paddle to the Flower Pot Islands to check out a heron colony.

For more information on planning your trip to Sault Ste. Marie, check out the city's website and find them on Instagram and Facebook.

*This article has been updated.

We strongly advise that before you go swimming or visit any location, you check the most recent updates on potential hazards, security, water quality, and closures. If you do plan to visit a location, respect the environment and obey any local laws.