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Skating the Rideau Canal – the world’s largest ice rink

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.

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 Rideau 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.

When is the Rideau Canal skating open?

Visiting the Rideau Canal to skate can be 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. And then…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.

The Rideau Canal Skateway generally opens in early to mid January and stays open until early March. But every year is different, and the rink can close without much warning if the temperature gets too warm. This is one time you will be wishing for the coldest weather possible. Keen skaters will keep an eye on the Skateway website before booking any travel.

Skating the Rideau Canal

It’s worth the extra effort to fine the right time to go. 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.

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

Rideau Canal Skateway with Chateau Laurier
The Chateau Laurier and the Rideau Canal Skateway. Photo by RenaudPhoto via Flickr.

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.

A sign marks the end of the Rideau Canal Skateway trail in Ottawa

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…

BeaverTail treats are available for sale at the Rideau Canal Skateway

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. There multiple locations along the trail, so go get your sugar fix!

Rideau Canal skating Ottawa

BYOBeats

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.

Ottawa winter at night
Ottawa winter at night, Photo by Asif A. Ali via Flickr

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.

Liisa skating on the rideau Canal in Ottawa

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. This can change daily, so always look before you head out.

The skateway has multiple rest areas, washrooms (including gender-neutral washrooms, change rooms, fire pits, and food/beverages. There are three places to rent or sharpen skates.

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