The end of May is a beautiful time to go to places like Almonte (now part of Mississippi Mills) and Carleton Place. Spring is out in full force, everything is greener than green, the rivers run wild and the cows are out in their pastures. Time to discover a bit of rural Ontario by bike.
Quick update here: I received some feedback which I always appreciate. Based on the comments, I added some updates to clarify, hope that helps. I just want to assure everyone that I really love Almonte. I guess I took too much for granted that that was clear in the blog. Some of my well intended thoughts did not translate well in the text though. Being from the Netherlands originally, I love rural Ontario as it is something so different from what I grew up in in terms of space, vegetation, rock formations, gravel roads, log cabins.
But first: Crazy Horse Trail on March Rd
On a Saturday morning, we decided to load the bikes in the car and go for a hike and a ride just west of Ottawa. We were early at the Crazy Horse Trail on March Road for our first stop. This trail is only a few kilometers long with a loop at the end around a beaver pond. It is a bit of a gem here, with exposed rock, the iconic Precambrian Shield landscape, that makes you feel you are on the escarpment in Gatineau Park (without the views).
It is not very big and squeezed between private properties. Don’t let the warnings about ticks, hunters, ATVs, dog poop and property owners deter you, it is quite a unique landscape. I even discovered an orchid along the trail, hopefully it won’t be run over by an off leash dog. You can read more about this unique place here: Friends of Carp Hills. Stay on the trails though as it is a very fragile landscape. You can probably spend two hours here. After I wrote this blog, I learned the next day someone stole a kayak off the roof of a health care worker’s car when she was hiking on this trail. She was devastated. Fortunately, a kayak company stepped in and donated a new kayak.)
A bit further west is Almonte, now part of Mississippi Mills, a small town that once had several woollen mills. Its main street appears to be struggling (Update: I owe an apology here: this was a poor choice of words. I have been reading a lot about North American main streets losing businesses to box stores but I should not have assumed that that is the case in Almonte without doing more research first) but the several independent shops do survive. There is a seasonal ice cream shop on the main street and a short board walk along the river. There are several restaurants, save them for dinner when you return to Almonte after your bike ride.
The Barley Mow right on the river is a great spot to enjoy a late afternoon drink. I heard good things about the Greene Mill Food Truck too. Almonte has been the location for a quite a number of Hallmark Christmas movies. (Admit it, you have watched them too.)
Drop by at Equator Coffee’s roastery on your way in and try to plan your visit around the farmers market. Equator coffee is unfortunately in the business section near the Dollarama, RBC and the Subway, so expect lots of asphalt. By the way, you can also find Equator Coffee at the National Art Centre on Elgin and in Westboro in Ottawa.
Parking in Almonte
We parked our car ‘downtown’ on a large dilapidated square (update, I got some flak for this description, it wasn’t my intention to put it down of course, I was just wondering out loud how such a prime location next to Mill St could enhance the visitor experience – I appreciate everyone’s feedback, it was unintentionally poorly chosen and I want to make it clear I thoroughly enjoy Almonte), where you can leave your vehicle for four hours without paying. In Europe such a square would be packed with patios and lovely old plantain trees, but not in Almonte, which is probably part of rural Ontario’s charm. (Update: I was thinking here how it would look with some patios on the right side of this image with a few maple trees here and there to enjoy our summer evenings. I visualised some green space, some lights strung across a patio and people enjoying a wood fired oven pizza).
Where to ride from Almonte
We definitely wanted to ride part of the rail to trail between Carleton, but not in and out the same way. I found it suprisingly hard to find a cycling route that appealed to us. (Update: we like routes that start and stop in a town so we can also enjoy some of the local foods and have dinner, we like a stop halfway at a bakery, ice cream shop or a small cafe for examples. We are very modest cyclists, cycling at 16-17 km an hour and love to watch bird life, pastures and farms – suggestions for routes are always welcome, we are less comfortable riding on paved shoulders). There are some awesome and expensive looking maps, but they are designed to fold out and not for the Internet. I found it hard to visualise what to expect but after riding a few roads, it turns out to be much easier than I thought. We now have a better understanding of the lay of the land.
Finding an alternative route to create a loop wasn’t easy: routes were either too long (as in 80 km, 100 km) or the maps didn’t show the details I wanted to know, or the map was too detailed to print out. I don’t really like databases such as Ride with GPS as a lot of lycrosi just dump their speedy rides on it: it becomes too quickly too unwieldy and really doesn’t tell you much about what to expect.
Old Perth Road
We settled on Old Perth Road to leave town. I saw on Mapillary that Heather Shearer had been riding there and hardly any of her images showed a car, so I figured that was a safe bet. (Update: someone mentioned it is not his favourite route. I was surprised to read that as we encountered only one car and liked the winding road and watching the many attractive properties along the road). It is not a smooth surface by any means (gravel), but we did just fine on our 32C and 35C tires on our city bikes. (I just want to mention that, so that you are prepared with the right tires). Cautious as I am, I brought a repair set and a pump though.
We turned south on somewhat hilly (but very doable) Concession Rd 4A for a few kilometers and then turned east into Quarry Road. Quarry Rd is yet another lovely road that eventually turns into Bridge St once you approach Carleton Place.
Carleton Place feels somewhere between a rural town, a retirement community and a bedroom town for Ottawa. Situated on the Mississippi River, it has a nice olde towne charme, but its Main Street definitely has seen better days. As in so many North American cities, the business districts on the edge of town suck all the life out the cores. My main impression of Carleton Place has always been the malls at the intersection where Highway 7 meets Highway 15 but there is a gem when you go beyond that. You might want to consider the historic walk (see bottom of this post).
Carleton Place has a farmers market too but we were already too late (it closes at noon) so we decided to have our lunch at the waterfront and head back via the rail to trail, recently built on the former tracks of the Brockville & Ottawa Railway Company.
I personally find rail to trails somewhat boring to ride on, but sometimes it is the only viable option if you don’t want to share the road. Not every community is blessed with a network of multi use trails like large cities such as Montreal and Ottawa-Gatineau, simply because of the different size of municipalities. The trail from Carleton to Almonte goes through farmers fields and has some variety and it a pleasant place to bike and a great addition. Someone who wants to do the route emailed asking if the entire route are only roads. The answer is no. About ten km of the 32 km route is trail as shown above. The other roughly 22 km are super quiet gravel roads and some paved kilometers.
Back in Almonte
10 kilometers later, we were back in Almonte. I have always had a weak spot for Almonte as Jeff Mills, a long time Mississippi Mills cycling advocate and community developer, was one of the first ones who approached me for a cycling presentation in Almonte about cycling in the Netherlands after I spoke at the Perth Chamber of Commerce the year before (with Laura Mueller in the audience as a reporter).
I spoke at the Almonte Old Town Hall in June 2011, exactly 10 years ago, down to the day basically. At that time, cycling advocates such as Jeff Mills and Kerry Hamilton worked really hard to turn the abandoned rail into a trail between Carleton Place and Almonte and beyond. I have a lot of respect for Jeff, humble as always but gently pushing his ideas forward.
In non covid times, you may want to stop at Il Postino in the old post office for food and drinks. The former post office was built in the late 1800’s (a national historic site now) and was designed by Architect Thomas Fuller, who also designed the Parliament buildings in Ottawa.
This is a really nice route, we hardly encountered any traffic and the traffic that passes gives you lots of space and isn’t going very fast. It is mostly gravel and stone dust you will be cycling on. We used our city bikes with 700 x 32C and 700 x 35C and it was very doable, definitely on the rail to trail part but also on the gravel roads: it is so quiet you can bike on the smoothest part of the road, which is usually in the middle. If you are a CAA member, you can actually call them for help if needed. Yes, for your bike.
Help promote cycling in the region
If you like to look more into gravel riding, do read this post about the 800 km Log Driver’s Waltz route around Ottawa and Gatineau (it has several links to other gravel websites too). If you want to help promote cycling in our region, do share this post too.
Lanark county cycling map (2017): https://mmbm.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/lcta-cycle-map.pdf
Mississippi Mills cycling map (2017): https://mmbm.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/mississippi-mills-cycling-map.pdf
Carleton Place walking tour: https://carletonplace.ca/self-guided-walking-tours.php