Wilderness playground attracts visitors in all seasons
Gatineau Park, a bare 15- to 20-minute drive from the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, has always been a great place for politicians and mandarins to blow off steam built up by the stresses and strains of running a sometimes bilious country.
The park took shape around the magnificent estate of William Lyon Mackenzie King, who sought escape in the beauty of the Gatineau Hills especially in summer. King, one of our loopier prime ministers (he liked to commune through spiritualists with dead family members and pet dogs), took pride in activities like fashioning a splendid garden and collecting intriguing architectural pieces.
But sporty types are attracted by the park’s 35,600 hectares of rugged wilderness. And winter activities (which King seemed to disdain) like skiing, snowshoeing and camping (yes, it’s also done in the cold) are almost as popular as hiking, biking and camping in the summer.
In fact, the park is a winter playground of unparalleled allure, close to the museums and hotels of Ottawa and the city of Gatineau and surrounded by rustic inns and bed-and-breakfasts in nearby villages.
With 200 kilometers of superbly groomed cross-country trails, the park is a magnet for classic and skate-skiers alike. And there’s downhill skiing at Camp Fortune near the southern tip of the park.
The geographical characteristics of the park, which rises high above the Ottawa Valley, assure skiers of four solid months of snow and a lung-searing climb of 30 to 45 minutes from the parking lots on the perimeter.
But the park, in Quebec, appeals to people of all levels – not that cross-country skiing requires a huge amount of skill, although the demand of high exertion will soon have you sweating buckets. There are world-class endurance athletes training on the trails along with moms and dads pulling their babies on sleds.
One of the great trails follows the Champlain Parkway along the Eardley Escarpment and is accessible from several points at the south end of the park.
From the escarpment towering 300 meters above the valley, you can see the winding path of the Ottawa River below. On a mild day you can rest on park benches and watch ravens soaring on the rising thermals.
A ski run to the fire tower and back can take up to three hours or more, so it’s wise to pack a lunch. The trails are dotted with shelters where skiers can stop and warm up.
The southern end of the park can become extremely busy on the weekends, and trails have been developed accordingly. Some trails can accommodate classic and skating in both directions.
At the north end, around Lac Philippe, the variety of activities and facilities for people attuned to the outdoors include snowshoeing and camping. It’s not unusual to see groups of students camping out for a couple of nights as part of their high-school physical-education courses.
One of the twisting trails in this area leads up (and it’s a climb) to Lusk Lake, where a cozy cabin can be rented for overnight stays. It has a terrific view across the lake and several bunks for overnight visitors. Meals are prepared on a wood stove, which keeps the cabin toasty.
The park has cabins, yurts and four-season tents available for overnight stays, and they must be reserved. The cabins are suitable for six to 16 people.
The cabin most in demand seems to be Brown’s, which is just inside the park. It’s three kilometers from P17, near Wakefield. The cabin also has an electric stove and fridge and a wood stove.
The best time to reserve a cabin is during the week when there are fewer people in the park. There is a service available to transport your gear and food in by snowmobile.
GOOD TO GO
You can check snow conditions and find out about overnight stays at ncc-ccn.gc.ca or call the visitor centre at (819) 827-2020. The visitor centre is located at 33 Scott Rd. in Chelsea.
Parking permits and cross-country ski passes are available at the centre.
The Web site has links to many points of interest, including activities in Ottawa like skating on the Rideau Canal.
Gatineau Park is at the west end of the Outaouais region, which stretches from Montebello in the east to Pontiac county in the west. It has a large variety of winter activities, from hay rides and dogsled trips to downhill skiing and maple sugar outings. For information on activities and accommodation, go to the Web site www.tourismeoutaouais.com.