Canada’s Rideau Canal is over 125 miles of peaceful, scenic waterways, used primarily for boating. Historically, it was used for transport, but these days, it’s mostly pleasure boating. It’s the oldest continually operated canal system on the continent, and is even a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Rideau Canal is a great place to spend a calm afternoon on the water, especially because tons of landmarks line the route. But the historic canal, opened originally in 1832, isn’t just useful for boats; even though the locks shut once winter sets in, the waterway is put to good use … as the world’s largest ice skating rink.
Each January, a 4.8 mile-long section of the canal is cleared away and frozen over—turning it into the massive skating rink. To put that in perspective, it’s roughly the size of 90 Olympic hockey rinks. The dates are flexible, depending on the weather (for the 2018-2019 season, portions started opening December 30), but when the skateway is open, it’s open 24 hours a day. You know, in case you get the urge for a midnight spin on the ice.
All this is, of course, provided the ice is safe for skating. Canada’s National Capital Commission, which maintains the skateway, is diligent at updating the public on the condition of the ice. This interactive map, for example, shows which sections are open, as well as where to find access points, booths for rentals, concession stands, and more. They’ll rent you skates (or even a sleigh!) if you don’t happen to have your own. Other than renting skates, visiting the skateway is totally free.
Besides being the largest skating rink, there are tons of things to do along the canal. During the day, you can purchase snacks—like coffee, hot chocolate, pancakes, maple taffy and (best of all) the doughy, fried Beaver’s Tails—from kiosks along the rink. You can see the fairy-tale-like Chateau Laurier and other landmarks as you make your way down the skateway through the city—it’s all especially beautiful covered in snow. Some Canadians are even able to skate to work along the canal.
Prep to turn the canal into a safe skateway starts in October—various ramps, stairs, and hookups have to be installed. Even after it’s all in place, the ice is constantly being tested for safety, and snow is always being removed to ensure a smooth rink. If cracks do appear, they’re filled in each morning when water is flooded onto the ice to smooth it out. And if you see holes along the edges, fear not: they’re supposed to be there to provide even more water for a slick and slippery skating experience.
The skateway is the focal point of Ottowa’s Winterlude festival, which runs from February 1 through February 18 in 2019. It features ice slides, snow sculptures and playgrounds, skating performances, concerts, displays, and more, all across the city.
If you’ve ever wanted to experience pure winter wonderland magic, you can’t do any better than Ottowa during Winterlude.
This story was originally published on December 16, 2015