Are you a fan of winter? I’m not going to lie and say that I don’t try to escape to a sun destination on occasion. But, winter is also a very magical time of year. Snowflakes float down from the sky and accumulate on tree branches, trail paths, and frozen lakes. It makes for a beautiful scene and allows for many outdoor adventures that aren’t possible any other time of the year. Thunder Bay is winter is the perfect place to celebrate the season and embrace it completely.
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Winter can be quite fickle, especially when we live in the era of global warming and climate change. For instance, we haven’t seen much snow in the Toronto area this year. The temperature fluctuates between frigid with chilly winds and rather mild conditions. It’s very unpredictable. Even Niagara Falls hasn’t frozen over like it usually does. However, if you’re planning a true winter adventure, it’s a guarantee that Thunder Bay will have the snow you’re seeking.
Where is Thunder Bay, Ontario?
For those who aren’t local to Ontario, you might not have heard of Thunder Bay. Thunder Bay is in northern Ontario on the northwest side of Lake Superior, one of the Great Lakes. It’s only an hour’s drive from the Ontario – Minnesota border. It’s sometimes hard to put into perspective that the province of Ontario is massive. For instance, it’s still an eight hour drive to get back down to Sault Ste Marie. And in the opposite direction, it’s another eight hours to get to Winnipeg.
While it’s possible to drive to Thunder Bay, it’s so much easier to fly there. You can fly to Thunder Bay direct from many destinations (Toronto, Winnipeg, Chicago, to name a few). For those of us living in the Greater Toronto Area, it’s a total breeze to get to Thunder Bay in about two hours.
Flying to Thunder Bay
Have I mentioned just how much I love flying with Porter Airlines? From Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport at the Toronto Islands, it’s just a short two hour flight from Toronto to Thunder Bay. The airport is 2.5km from downtown Toronto with complimentary shuttle service from Union Station. In comparison to flying out of Toronto Pearson Airport in Mississauga, you can chop hours off your travel time and enjoy your relaxing vacation right away.
Flying with Porter is a stress-free way to travel without the hassle of venturing through chaotic, massive international airports. The check-in process is always easy and seamless, and I’ve never once encountered a line-up. As it’s a smaller airport, there are never any lines at security either. At Billy Bishop Airport, there’s a Balzac’s coffee, lots of delicious vegan options at the restaurant, and there’s never a shortage of sitting areas with power for your electronic devices.
Once you’re on the plane, you’ll notice that there aren’t any middle seats (there are only rows of 2!). You’ll receive complimentary coffee, tea, wine, beer, or soft drinks along with premium snacks. I love how everything is served in actual reusable glass containers. It’s so much better for the environment than disposable plastic products.
Sleeping Giant Provincial Park
Planning a trip to Sleeping Giant Provincial Park is my top recommendation for what to do in Thunder Bay in the winter. Originally established as Sibley Provincial Park, it was renamed to Sleeping Giant Provincial Park in 1988. The park is located on the Sibley Peninsula, and it’s 244 square kilometers (94 square miles).
The Sleeping Giant itself is a gigantic rock formation that resembles a giant lying its back when you view it across Lake Superior from Thunder Bay. An Ojibway legend names the Sleeping Giant as Nanabijou (Spirit of the Deep Water) who turned to stone when the location of a rich silver mine (Silver Islet) was disclosed to white men.
At Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, there are over 100km of hiking trails (the Kabeyun Trail is 40km long), numerous quiet lakes, and views for days. Some places aren’t as accessible during the wintertime (for instance, the Thunder Bay Lookout and some of the trails). However, it’s worth heading up to Thunder Bay in winter to experience the park in ways that you can’t during any other time of year.
Staying Cozy in a Rustic Cabin
While the campsite at Mary Louise Lake is closed during the winter season, there are five rustic cabins where you can comfortably stay throughout your trip to Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. I stayed in cabin #5, Coral Root. Much like the cabin I called home in Bonnechere Provincial Park, the cabins at Sleeping Giant have all the comforts of home in the middle of nature.
The cabins have a place to park your car, and a ramp that wraps around the cabin that leads up into it. Once you step into the cabin, you’ll notice a heated sun porch with a couch, as well as a table and chairs. This is a great spot to gather the gang or enjoy your morning coffee while gazing out towards the forest and the lake.
Each cabin has three bedrooms (two with double beds, and one with a bunk bed), sleeping up to 6 people. There’s a washroom with a shower inside the cabin. You’ll also find a fully equipped kitchen with all of the conveniences of home (large fridge, stove, microwave, coffee maker, kettle, cutlery, dishes, pots and pans). There’s a large kitchen table for the whole crew, and you can get cozy by the fireplace, too. They provide pillows, linens, and blankets for the bed. The only thing you really need to bring from home are towels and any food that you’d like to prepare while you’re there.
Outside the cabin, there’s a picnic table and campfire pit. Beyond the campfire area, you can admire gorgeous panoramic views of Mary Louise Lake. In the winter, all you can see is a giant sheet of ice and snow right to the row of trees in the distance. Mary Louise Lake completely freezes over in the winter, meaning that you can safely walk on it.
Winter Activities at Sleeping Giant
There are so many things to do in Thunder Bay in the winter, and you’ll find many of these fun activities at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. With 100km of hiking trails, you won’t run out of places to go winter hiking or snowshoeing. Cross-country skiing is extremely popular at Sleeping Giant, too. There are 50km of groomed trails to get out there on the skis or snowshoes.
You’ll find some of the best Thunder Bay hiking at Sleeping Giant, even in the wintertime. Be sure to pick up a Sleeping Giant information guide from the park staff. There’s a trail guide inside it with a full listing of the hikes. They’re divided up into lists of short hikes, half-day hikes, and full day hikes.
Some of the hikes are going to be more difficult than others in the winter, especially with massive snow drifts. For instance, I didn’t attempt the Top of the Giant Trail as it’s a steep trail that’s challenging enough without the snow and ice. Definitely ask the park staff about the trail conditions, as well as their recommendations. Here are a few trails that you can access in the winter:
- Sea Lion Trail: A moderate trail that takes you around Perry Bay to the magnificent Sea Lion rock formation.
- Kabeyun Trail: You can certainly hike sections of the Kabeyun Trail, especially in the southern portion of the peninsula. I hiked part of it to reach the Sea Lion Trail. You can hike the Kabeyun Trail down to Tee Harbour for beautiful views.
- Middlebrun Bay Trail: This one leads hikers to a sandy beach that will look equally as pretty covered in snow and ice.
Hiking on the Sea Lion Trail
The Sea Lion Trail is a very rewarding hike with spectacular scenery for very little effort. Aside from hiking Sleeping Giant itself, this is one of the top hikes to experience in Thunder Bay in the winter. Start at the southern Kabeyun trailhead and hike until you reach the big sign that says “Sea Lion” with an arrow. The hiking trails at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park are incredibly well marked with directions and distances.
As you hike around Perry Bay, you’ll have the chance to admire stunning views of the lake, complete with chunks of floating ice and powerful waves crashing all around. The hiking trail itself is pretty well trekked, and there’s a clear path so you only need a good pair of boots (no snowshoes required!). The path twists and turns, and there are inclines and declines that can get a little bit icy. As I did slip and fall once (it didn’t hurt at all!), I came up with a new strategy. As I was wearing snow pants, I decided that I’d sit and slide down any little icy hills that I encountered. It actually ended up being a lot of fun!
It didn’t take very long to reach the Sea Lion itself at the end of the trail. The Sea Lion rock formation is a natural arch that formed over a billion years of erosion, glaciation, and weathering. Before the 1900s, the rock resembled a sea lion before its head fell off. As the powerful waters of Lake Superior continue to sculpt the archway, it will also eventually collapse, leaving a stack.
Take the time to enjoy the brilliant views of the Sea Lion, the lake, and your surroundings. It’s a little icy near the best place to view the Sea Lion, so please take care and be cautious when you visit.
The Community of Silver Islet
After hiking around the Sea Lion, you can take a drive around the sleepy community of Silver Islet. The story of Silver Islet is an intriguing one, where workers were drawn to the Silver Islet Mine, the world’s richest silver mine. The work was extremely dangerous, especially in such a remote location.
The Silver Islet Mine closed over 100 years ago, but there’s a small display in the visitor’s center to learn more. Everything in Silver Islet appeared to be closed during the winter, but it’s a very peaceful loop drive. There are rows of cottages and homes looking out to Sibley Cove, and it’s quite pretty.
Frozen Lakes and Winter Sunsets
All the small lakes at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park are frozen in the wintertime, even the largest one, Mary Louise Lake. A portion of the ski and hiking trails cross over the frozen lake in the winter, and the ice levels are thoroughly tested. Don’t worry, you’re not going to fall through if you walk out onto the lake in the middle of the winter.
I walked out onto Mary Louise Lake from my cabin. There was a dense layer of snow on top of the ice, so you’ll want to wear snow boots and possibly snow pants if you attempt this one. I do have pretty short legs though, so maybe it’s just me! My footprints were the only set of footprints out on Mary Louise Lake. One of the best things to do in Thunder Bay in winter is walking out onto a frozen lake. It isn’t very often that I have the opportunity to do that.
For the best place to watch the sunset at Sleeping Giant, visit the place where Highway 587 intersects with Mary Louise Lake. You’ll see a sign for the lookout, and there are places to park your car. Walk a short distance out to the lake, and walk onto the frozen lake itself. In the distance, you’ll see the Sleeping Giant rock formation. The sun will slowly set down into the Sleeping Giant. It was windy when I visited, so the snow drifting across the ice looked purely magical.
While Sleeping Giant Provincial Park is about an hour southeast of Thunder Bay, you’ll also want to visit Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park. It’s about a 25 minute drive from Thunder Bay towards the west. Kakabeka Falls is the second highest waterfall in Ontario (40 meters) and it’s known as the “Niagara Falls of the north”.
In the winter, you can walk a very short distance from the parking lot to the boardwalk. There are wooden platforms with brilliant panoramic views of Kakabeka Falls, the gorge, and the Kaministiquia River. Apparently, there are 1.6 million year old fossils at the bottom of the canyon, carved out by the intense, rushing waters of the river.
Kakabeka Falls is a very powerful waterfall with fast flowing waters. In the wintertime, definitely bundle up. There will be some mist off the water, and it’s just a very cold place to be. Cold, but beautiful. If you can, make the detour to Kakabeka Falls. It’s one of the most wonderful things to see in Thunder Bay.
Things to Do in Thunder Bay in Winter
While you need to immerse yourself in the natural places surrounding Thunder Bay, like Sleeping Giant and Kakabeka Falls, there are lots of things to do in Thunder Bay in winter, too. Spend time right in the city, especially if you’re a fan of scenic views, public art, and delicious food and drink. Here are some suggestions for what to do in Thunder Bay in the winter.
Discover a Wintry Waterfront
In downtown Thunder Bay, walk down to the waterfront to view one of the best sightings of the Sleeping Giant rock formation. There’s a pedestrian walkway across busy Water Street that will lead you directly to the waterfront. Admire the views of the Sleeping Giant and the iconic Thunder Bay Main Lighthouse out on the harbor.
There are a few interesting statues and works of public art around the waterfront. I also had the opportunity to admire some snow sculptures around the park, too.
Check Out the Street Art
Street art lovers, rejoice! Thunder Bay has lots of colorful and interesting murals dotted around the downtown core. The best area to view street art is along Thunder Bay’s “graffiti alley” on Cooke Street. The Die Active Art Collective, comprised of young artists around the city, painted several works of art across each wall on Cooke Street. There are several other intriguing murals around town (on the public library, behind some businesses, and on the side of the local youth hostel, to name a few).
Visit the Terry Fox Monument
Just on the outskirts of town, be sure to stop at the Terry Fox Monument and Lookout to remember the legendary Canadian icon, Terry Fox. He was a cancer researcher and activist. Terry Fox had one leg amputated due to cancer, but he still attempted to run across Canada in his Marathon of Hope for cancer research. Sadly, he was forced to end his run at a point that is closed to this memorial.
There’s a memorial to Terry Fox and a statue at this site. The statue is nine feet high, and made out of bronze with a local amethyst base. You can also admire the views of the Sleeping Giant from this location up high on the hill.
Where to Eat in Thunder Bay
There’s no shortage of delicious vegan restaurants in Thunder Bay, or at least restaurants with vegan and vegetarian options. I’ll be compiling a list of the best vegan establishments in Thunder Bay soon. I recommend checking out Bliss Restaurant as it’s the only 100% vegan and gluten-free place in town. I enjoyed the most delicious harvest winter soup and kale Caesar salad there for lunch. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, they also have tons of tempting desserts and cakes.
Another favorite restaurant of mine was Thai Kitchen. There are several items on the menu that you can order vegan, and the staff are very knowledgeable about the vegan diet. When I asked for my Pad Thai without any egg, the server immediately asked, “Do you want this made vegan? The sauce is different for the vegan version.” I’m glad that she mentioned that! The food was absolutely delicious, and the portion size was great, too.
Next, Bonobo’s Foods is a vegetarian (almost entirely vegan) cafe serving up vegan burgers, daily specials, appetizers, and so much more. They’ve also got a little grocery section in the store if you’re looking for vegan goodies. I tried the Seed Burger and it certainly didn’t disappoint! Believe it or not, but this is the second time I’ve dined at a “Bonobo” restaurant – the other restaurant is a vegan cafe in Aberdeen, Scotland.
Where to Stay in Thunder Bay
If you’re looking to explore downtown Thunder Bay in winter like I did (walking around town, checking out street art, and seeing the waterfront), you’ll want to book a hotel that has a great location to wander around on foot. I spent two nights at the Prince Arthur Waterfront Hotel, which was in the perfect location. My room featured beautiful views of the waterfront, and I could even see Sleeping Giant from my window.
The Prince Arthur Hotel is a historic hotel that has its quirks. With that said, the front desk staff is very helpful and friendly. There’s free parking included with your stay, and remember to bring your bathing suit so you can enjoy the swimming pool. Check out hotel prices to book your stay at the Prince Arthur Hotel, and I also recommend reading more reviews written by fellow travelers.
If you’re looking for a more luxurious stay, I recommend checking out the Delta Hotel in Thunder Bay. It’s also right on the water, so you can absorb those stunning views of Lake Superior and beyond. The amenities and rooms are a little more updated and modern than the Prince Arthur Hotel, which might be a deal breaker for some seasoned travelers. Book your stay at the Delta Hotel Thunder Bay and read more reviews written by travelers who have stayed there.
Thunder Bay Map
Here’s a map of everything I’ve mentioned above so you can visualize where everything is located in Thunder Bay. There are so many great things to do in Thunder Bay all year long. Get out there and explore!
|Essential Thunder Bay Travel Guide|
|Getting There: There are lots of Toronto to Thunder Bay flights with Porter Airlines. In addition, there are plenty of flights from other Canadian cities to Thunder Bay, too. Compare flights to Thunder Bay from your destination of choice to find the best rates.|
Getting Around: I recommend getting a rental car to drive around Thunder Bay. You’ll need a car to reach Sleeping Giant Provincial Park and Kakabeka Falls. Compare car rental prices to get the best rate in Thunder Bay.
Fast Facts: Currency is the Canadian dollar. Power voltage is 110-120 V 60 Hz using Power Sockets A and B. You do not need an adapter if you’re from Canada or the USA.
SIM Cards & Mobile: You can rent a portable Wi-Fi device with unlimited data that works in 130+ countries worldwide. We’ve used our portable device all over the world and love how we’re always connected!
Travel Safety: Don’t forget to get travel insurance before your trip. Whether you have an accident, have a flight delay, experience a theft, or need to return home sooner than anticipated, it’s always best to cover your bases. Get a travel insurance quote now for the best rates.
|Browse all of our Canada photos and read more of our Canada travel blog posts.|
There’s still plenty of winter out there to enjoy. Why not embrace it? Take a trip to Thunder Bay in winter to experience the “Great White North” for which Canada is famous. There are so many things to do in Thunder Bay that you’ll be able to plan an entire fun-filled week of activities and adventures.
Thank you so much to Ontario Parks, Porter Airlines, and Visit Thunder Bay for hosting my trip.