Weekends are a great time to head up to the Gatineau Hills for a family outing. It can open your eyes to the wonders of winter — and it means only a short time in the car to get there.
The best place to start is at the National Capital Commission’s (NCC) Visitor’s Centre on Scott Street — a quick trip up Highway 5 to Old Chelsea, a right turn on to Scott Street at the corner where the big log ski shop is located, and the Visitor’s Centre will be on your left. Staff at the reception counter are happy to provide you with trail maps and information on the activities that are available in Gatineau Park throughout the winter.
But be sure to take time to have a look around the centre while you’re there. Go past the reception area and follow the ramp down to a large display area, which is full of light due to the large windows all along one side of the building. Here you’ll find lifesize models of many of the animals you might see in the park. There are deer, wolves, otter and beaver and some examples of birds as well. Kids seem to love looking at the animals. With their real fur and life-like expressions, it’s the next best thing to actually seeing one in the woods. There are interactive displays as well that kids and adults can take part in. The centre also has large maps showing the whole territory of Gatineau Park. On the upper level, there’s a room devoted to photographic displays on such topics as reptiles or birds you might find in the Park.
When you’re ready to go outside, you can decide whether you want to do a winter walk or venture out on snowshoes. If you opt for a walk, the Sugarbush Trail, which begins just beyond the parking lot, is an easy trail that meanders through some beautiful woods and passes over a bridge above a creek, which is usually at least partly frozen in winter.
The Sugarbush Trail is a loop trail, ending where it begins, and takes about 30 to 40 minutes to walk, depending on the speed of the walkers. There’s an added bonus with this trail. A chalet known as the Sugar Shack is located right near the entrance to the trail. It is open to the general public and has tables and a woodstove inside it. You could bring a lunch or a snack and have a winter picnic in the chalet.
A second somewhat longer trail you could try requires a short drive from the Visitor’s Centre, but is not far. To reach it, you go back to the main road, turn right and then left onto Kingsmere Road. Continue on to Swamp Road and turn left down Swamp Road; at the end, turn right and a short way you will find Parking Lot 6, known as P6, on your left. There will be signs indicating that this is NCC property and the McKenzie King Estate. You can park for free and the Lauriault Trail begins from there. It is also a loop trail and will take about an hour to do. It winds its way through the woods and is a lovely outing.
If you’d like to try something a little different, the National Capital Commission offers guided snowshoe walks in January and February. The outings are free and are very popular, so it’s best to reserve your spots (call 800 465-1867). There are snowshoes for both children and adults, and the outing takes about an hour and a half. NCC interpreters provide a short presentation at the Visitor’s Centre before the walk starts. They talk about animal tracking in the bush and give some examples of what to look for. Then you all set off down the Sugarbush Trail to see what you can find.
If you want to venture out on your own on snowshoes, you can do that too. There are a number of designated snowshoe trails in the park; you can buy a map of the trail system at the Visitor’s Centre, which indicates where the trails are located and rates their difficulty. You can also rent snowshoes if you don’t have your own pair.
Another option is to check with The Friends of Gatineau Park. This group of volunteers also offers periodic snowshoe trips to different parts of the park. You can check out www.friendsofgatineaupark.ca
The beauty of winter, with its sparkling white snow, the dark green of the spruce or pine, and the yellow leaves of the oak tree that seem to hang on all season long, is never more evident than when you’re in the woods on a trail — looking for a rabbit paw print or the cloven hoof of a deer near the path. Winter outings for the family are something those of us who live in Ottawa are lucky to be able to experience.
And if you’re hungry after your exertions in the snow, you can always drop in to Cheezy Luigis Pizza in Old Chelsea on your way home!