- Trail is 104 kilometres in length
- ATV’s are not allowed except on a few sections so landowners can access their land
- Plenty of lakes, hilltop views, farmland, and thick woods that make it exciting and keep your eyes and ears engaged
- Great website about the trail (see link at bottom)
Steamy hot, salty and bathed in ketchup, the french fries tasted so delicious. With a jug of ice-cold water from the grocery store, fried potatoes were a welcome change from the usual cycling snacks of nutty granola bars and apples. In Sydenham, Ontario there is a grocery store on the Cataraqui rail trail and beside it, a well-placed chip shack, that also serves fish and burgers. After almost 70 kilometres on our first hot September day, we devoured our fries like we hadn’t seen food in weeks.
I had heard of the rail trail, and it had been on my bike-it list for a while. It starts in Smith Falls, Ontario, about a one-hour drive from Ottawa, Ontario and finishes in Strathcona, a small community less than 12 kilometres from Napanee, Ontario.
We parked my truck on Ferrara Drive, a dead-end street in Smith Falls, right at the start of the trail. The white crushed stone and large sign lead you to the rail trail corridor about 300 metres beyond where we had parked. The first number of kilometres passed quickly as the trail was either stone dust or well-packed dirt. As we found out, this end of the trail is definitely more rugged compared to the southern end close to Napanee. That does not mean it’s not rideable, it is very rideable with a gravel bike or mountain bike, it is more rugged, less stone dust, more gravel and low-cut grass. The other end near Napanee could be cycled on a hybrid quite easily.
The first 40 kilometres is the most rugged portion of the trail, and there are beautifully maintained sections along the first 15 kilometres with stone dust or well-packed dirt which we cycled at a steady pace. Several sections of the trail where the brush has been cut down felt as though you were riding over a farmer’s field that had been compacted slowed our pace a bit and kept our attention. It’s lovely and picturesque, passing through rolling farmland, a golf course, fields of hay and depending on the time of year, there are pops of yellow and purple wildflowers. A few well-positioned wood benches in front of lakes made for welcoming rest stops.
From the 40-kilometre mark to Sydenham, it is isolated. There are few cottages, houses or farms and you may see one or two buildings near the road crossings, but that is it.
It is a quiet section, dotted with lakes and ponds and at times you are riding above the water, 40 feet up along the rail bed looking down like a hawk stalking its prey. There are also grey rocky outcrops in places, with crumbling old stone fences piled by the sides and railway ties, remnants of a different time. Sometimes, staring ahead, your eyes held captivated by the endless canopy of trees, which formed a tunnel in the distance that seemed to carry on forever. The leaves changing colour and long sections of the marsh where the tall grasses leaned over the trail, gave you a feeling of being part of the backwoods, away from civilization. We spotted blue herons, squirrels, chipmunks, and wild turkeys. There was scat from at least one wolf and a fox.
Arriving in Sydenham was a perfect midday stopping point. Hence the French fries. But there is also a café and a general store about 400 metres down the main road. We stopped at the General Store – Trousdales – and enjoyed a coffee and perusing the many crafts and books they had for sale on the way back.
Knowing we were over the halfway point, we were excited to see how this next section compared to what we had just cycled. Our legs fueled by lunch, we met people along this next section as it is well used by local residents and cottagers. The last 20 kilometres was a fine stone dust cycling surface and we ran into many dog walkers and a few runners. The topography was different as well – a mix of rolling corn-on-the-cob farmland and one long section of squatty pine trees, that made us feel as though we were riding through a Christmas tree farm, minus the snow.
The end of the trail finishes at an old garage and is rather uneventful. We weren’t sure at first if we had reached the end of the trail. We rode out to the Highway (#1, Newburgh Road) that led into Napanee and cycled the last 6 kilometres into town on the Highway with broad paved shoulders.
Since we booked a hotel and didn’t camp like other trips, we walked into the downtown core from our hotel and found a spot to relax along the River. We enjoyed dinner at the Waterfront Pub and Grill, and it was worth the walk despite our tired legs; the food tasted so good – chocolate kale salad + salmon… need I say more? And an adult beverage (or maybe two) and dessert guaranteed we lounged beside the river for a few hours.
Sunday morning, we traipsed across the street from the hotel to Denny’s which served all sorts of lumberjack-sized breakfasts. After packing up our bikes and fueling our bellies, we pedalled back towards Smith Falls returning on the route we came.
It truly is a land ‘o lakes gem.
Things to Consider:
- Great website with lots of details about the trail: http://cataraquitrail.ca/