The Sault Ste Marie to Thunder Bay drive is one of the most spectacular road trips in Ontario. Discover the best things to do along Highway 17.
The Sault Ste Marie to Thunder Bay drive offers the chance to experience some of the most breathtaking scenery in all of Ontario. In fact, the drive between Sault Ste Marie and Thunder Bay is so beautiful that you could have one of the most incredible experiences of your life without ever leaving the highway. But, this wouldn’t be much of a travel site without showing you how to get off the main strip and laying out some of the best things to see between these two northern Ontario cities. Whether you’re visiting from out of province, a fellow southern Ontarian looking to explore more of your home province, or a northern local who’s looking for some new places to explore, you may be shocked at just how many great things there are to see along Highway 17.
My family is obsessed with road trips. Road trips in Canada are one of our favourite ways to experience this great country. Sault Ste Marie and Thunder Bay are a considerable distance apart, at least in southern Ontario terms. But between these cities lie some of the most amazing provincial and National Parks in Ontario. This stretch of seemingly untouched wilderness lined with mountains, lakes, waterfalls, and forests can sometimes seem otherworldly.
We’ve written about other great Canadian drives, including the Toronto to Montreal drive along Lake Ontario. And while other road trips in Ontario are spectacular, none of them hold a candle to the drive between Sault Ste Marie and Thunder Bay, Ontario.
The route is straightforward. You’ll be sticking to the Trans-Canada Highway for almost the entire trip. But, if you’ve never done this drive before, you may never look at Ontario the same way again. And if you’re planning a Thunder Bay to Sault Ste Marie drive, just flip these directions in reverse. If you’re coming from the US and are tackling the Lake Superior Coastal Loop, you can connect to both these cities through border crossings in Sault Ste Marie, Michigan or Grand Portage, Minnesota.
You may even be so inspired by what you experience that you’ll want to continue your trip with a Thunder Bay to Winnipeg drive!
What Is The Distance Between Sault Ste Marie and Thunder Bay?
The most direct distance between Sault Ste Marie and Thunder Bay is about 705 km (438 miles). It typically takes about eight hours to make the trip with no interruptions. Of course, this will depend on when you’re making the drive.
The old adage that there are two seasons in the north, winter and construction, isn’t untrue. During the winter, don’t be surprised if the weather interrupts your trip from Sault Ste Marie to Thunder Bay. In the spring, summer, and fall, it’s a guarantee that there will be construction delays along the way. But, the construction teams up north are fantastic. And they know how to keep traffic moving as best as possible under the circumstances. It may add an hour to your trip, but really, that’s just more time to enjoy the scenery.
If you’re looking for what to see between Sault Ste Marie and Thunder Bay, you won’t have to look far. Almost everything is directly off of Highway 17. If you get lost, you must be really trying. And if you plan on continuing on to the Lake Superior Coastal Route or from Thunder Bay to Winnipeg, your adventure is just getting started.
Tips For A Drive From Sault Ste Marie to Thunder Bay (or Thunder Bay to Sault Ste Marie)
If you are looking at travel between Sault Ste Marie and Thunder Bay, here are a few road trip tips to help you stay happy and comfortable on the long road. These tips for road trips will help you if you’re doing a straight shot between the two cities, or if you are looking to check out the best attractions between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste Marie.
- Before you start out on your road trip between Sault Ste Marie and Thunder Bay, make a plan. But, keep it flexible. You want to be able to stop and see something cool if it catches your eye.
- Pack a map of Ontario. Sure, GPS is excellent, and I always carry a Garmin in my vehicle. Still, there is something far better about having a real map. You can mark it up with a Sharpie and show off all the cool places you stopped along the way. Your friends will NOT believe that this trip was in Ontario!
- Prepare for traffic. Much of Highway 17 is only two lanes. You will be stuck behind trucks on steep hills. And there will be times when construction lowers the route to one lane with lights or construction crews directing traffic. Be patient and leave extra room for delays in your schedule.
- Stay entertained. Long road trips can get tiresome. And although there are plenty of stops between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste Marie to keep you occupied, you don’t want to get bored on those stretches in between. Check out our epic list of road trip jokes (family-friendly!). Pack up some CDs or load up those MP3s and let the tunes flow.
- Although there are quite a few gas stations along the Highway 17 route between Sault Ste Marie to Thunder Bay, it can be a good distance. Make sure to fill up when you have the chance. It never hurts to have a full tank of gas. This is especially important if you plan on exploring some of the back roads in the north.
- Bring a camera! You are going to see some fantastic things on this road trip. Make sure you capture those memories and share them with family and friends. I like this one because it’s super tough and durable. You can even bring it in the water. If you want to see the camera gear that I take with me, you can check that out here.
- Prepare for spotty cellular service. If you’re with local providers such as Fido or Public, once you leave Sault Ste Marie, you likely won’t have service again till you reach towns such as Marathon, and Nipigon. If you’re with a major provider such as Bell, Telus, or Rogers, you’ll fare a bit better. Even then you will likely have extended periods without service. Your best service will be along the highway. But if you leave to explore some of the parks or things to see between Sault Ste Marie and Thunder Bay, you may lose service again.
- Should you be worried about bears and other wildlife between Sault Ste Marie and Thunder Bay? In a word, no. But you should be prepared. Northern Ontario is bear country, so if you’re camping, keep any food away from your camp. And do your best to keep food away from your vehicle if you’re stopped overnight (they can smell through your car). Practice hanging food from a tree where it can’t be reached by other animals. Your real worry should be moose. An accident between a car and a moose is among the scariest things you can imagine. Avoid speeding, especially at dawn and twilight when moose are at their most active.
The Best Things To See On A Sault Ste Marie To Thunder Bay Drive
So you’re starting your Sault Ste Marie to Thunder Bay road trip, and you want to see the best sites along the way? Well, the first part is checking out the areas in Sault Ste Marie. Things like the Sault Ste Marie boardwalk, the Bush Plane Heritage Museum, and Whitefish Island are particular favourites. Make sure to fuel up with breakfast at the Breakfast Pig before you go. Their portion sizes will keep you fueled up for the long road ahead. But once you get in the car, it’s time to make some ground and get this Sault Ste Marie to Thunder Bay road trip in gear.
Step 1: Chippewa Falls
I’ve made the stop at Chippewa Falls on almost every northern Ontario trip I’ve ever done. Just 45 minutes north, right off of HWY 17, you’ll find the small parking lot with hiking trails down to the water. You’ll find one of the decorative easels at the top of the path marking this as part of the Group of Seven routes through Ontario. Chippewa Falls also marks the midpoint of the Trans Canada Highway, and there’s a plaque in the parking lot to commemorate this.
Batchawana Bay Provincial Park
Just a short drive up the road from Chippewa Falls is the beautiful Batchewana Bay Provincial Park. This day-use only provincial park has a fabulous beach. It is a top-rated stop for both locals and families, making the Sault Ste Marie to Thunder Bay drive. The park has a decent visitors centre with comfort stations as well. So, if you need to stop and use the washroom, Batchewana Bay is an excellent place to do it.
This is also one of the first stops for those beautiful Lake Superior views. The water in Batchewana Bay is relatively shallow. So, if you’re visiting in the summer, this may be one of the best spots to do the Lake Superior dip in what is otherwise a mighty cold lake.
Voyageurs Lodge Cookhouse
Those of you who follow me on Instagram might have noticed that I have a bit of an obsession with apple fritters. Well, Voyageurs Lodge, which is right across the road from the northern tip of Batchewana Bay, has some of the best and biggest apple fritters that I have ever tasted. Voyageurs Lodge has three separate areas. The store, which sells all sorts of snacks, camping gear, and yes, those apple fritters, as well as the local gas station. The Voyageur Cookhouse is the on-site restaurant. The homemade food is delicious, and the portions will leave you with leftovers to spare. I’m a big fan of their Whitefish tacos and the deep-fried ravioli bites are a hit with my kids.
There is a motel on-site as well. The Voyageurs Lodge has comfortable rooms to rent. Suppose you’re making a northern Ontario road trip and couldn’t secure a camping spot at popular Pancake Bay. In that case, this is the closest you’re going to get.
Canadian Carver And Agawa Crafts
If you’re looking to pick up some true northern Ontario artwork or souvenirs from your trip, an excellent place to stop is at Canadian Carver and Agawa Crafts. It is in the same parking lot just a few minutes south of Pancake Bay. The business just came under new management in 2020. However, this popular spot for artwork, crafts, and hiking gear is sure to remain an iconic stop.
Both companies are now owned by the Serpent River First Nation, making this wonderful stop one way to enjoy an Indigenous road trip through Ontario.
Pancake Bay Provincial Park
If you’re looking for an excellent spot for camping or RV travel on the Sault Ste Marie to Thunder Bay route, Pancake Bay is a hit. Pancake Bay Provincial Park has a fantastic stretch of beach and a few beautiful hiking trails. One of these trails, the Lookout Point Trail, takes you up to spectacular overlooks where you can gaze upon Lake Superior from up high. From this viewpoint, you’ll be able to see where the famed Lake Superior cargo ship, the Edmund Fitzgerald sank. The ships’ end was made famous by singer Gordon Lightfoot in the song; The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Lake Superior Provincial Park
Lake Superior Provincial Park is one of my favourite parks in the entire province. This park is massive. Honestly, it takes almost an hour to drive from one side to another. For those who have driven HWY 60 through Algonquin Provincial Park, this is similar, but with even more incredible views.
I could go on for paragraphs about what to do in Lake Superior. My favourite spot is the Agawa Rock Pictographs where you’ll find hand-drawn images of the guardian of Lake Superior. The 1,000-metre cliffs in Old Woman Bay might be the most awe-inspiring view in the province. And the plethora of LSPP hiking trails (The waterfalls along the Sand River trail is one worth checking out) offer enough variety to keep you here for weeks.
I recommend spending at least a few days at Lake Superior Provincial Park. You can check out my guide to Lake Superior Provincial Park to help plan your visit.
One of the first significant towns that you’ll hit on your way up Highway 17 is the town of Wawa. You can’t miss it. Just look for the towering Canada Goose sculpture gazing out over the highway. If you need to get groceries, do car maintenance, or are dying or a Timmies, Wawa is the place to do it. Wawa got its unique name from the Ojibway word for the Canada Goose. That’s why you’ll find these geese decorating storefronts throughout the town.
You’ll find some decent restaurants in Wawa. Vikings and the Fireside Dining Room, are two popular stops. Expect traditional northern Ontario portions. You will not leave hungry.
There are quite a few gas stations in Wawa, both on the highway and in town. About halfway through town, you’ll also find a Valu-Mart grocery store where you can stock up on anything you need.
Where To Stay In Wawa, Ontario
If you’re looking for accommodations in Wawa, you’ll find quite a few. It’s not uncommon that things get booked up pretty quickly. So, if you want a hotel in Wawa, it’s best to book ahead. A few worth considering are the Mystic Isle Motel. This quiet and pretty motel has great views and comfortable beds. You can check out their rates and availability here.
Another nice Wawa accommodation is the Parkway Motel. This cozy spot offers spacious rooms and a lovely location. You can check out their prices and availability here.
White River is a 7blink and you’ll miss it town about an hour north of Wawa. But this town has a few claims to fame that make it much more than just a dot on the map. I’ve visited White River about 10 times over the years, which seems like a lot for someone who doesn’t live or work there. I’ve hopped a train at the White River Station for a train-in-fly-out fishing adventure at Mar-Mac fishing lodge, taken part in the town’s Winnie the Pooh Festival, and even spent a night at one of the local motels.
But the biggest claim to fame is that White River is where a small, orphaned, black bear was found here as a cub. He was transferred to Winnipeg, where he was made the mascot of one of the local military regiments. The bear, which was named Winnie, eventually made his way over the pond and into London, where he lived out the rest of his life at the London Zoo.
Make sure you stop at the Winnie The Pooh Memorial. Here you’ll find a wonderful park and playground that kids will really enjoy. There are a few small restaurants in town. The White River Bar and Grill has decent barbecue and pub fare. You’ll also find two motels in White River. The owners of both are amiable, but the motels are clean but nothing to write home about.
White Lake Provincial Park
Just 30 minutes from White River off of Highway 17 is one of the best stops for anglers between Sault Ste Marie and Thunder Bay. White Lake Provincial Park contains White Lake, this vast 6,500-hectare body of water is one of the largest on the Lake Superior Circle Route. It’s also one of the best places to catch Walleye and Northern Pike.
The park has excellent hiking trails, thrilling canoe routes and both back and front-country camping. White lake is famous for being warm and sandy. It makes a great place to stop for a swim during the summer months.
Pukaskwa National Park
If there is one place in Ontario that can compete with Lake Superior Provincial Park for northern Ontario beauty, it’s Pukaskwa National Park. This gorgeous spot sits a ways off of Highway 17. You’ll need to take some back roads to access it, but the journey is worth it. The Pukaskwa Lake Superior coastal trail is one of the most beautiful hikes in all of Ontario. Pukaskwa is the largest and most remote of all of the national parks in Ontario. If you can knock this off your bucket list, your friends will be envious.
Pukaskwa, like LSPP, is a place where you could easily spend a few days. You’ll want to spend some time paddling the lakes and rivers or hiking along the rocky Lake Superior coastline. To help you plan your visit, you can check out my guide to Pukaskwa National Park here.
The town of Marathon is a popular stop on the route from Sault Ste Marie to Thunder Bay. Like Pukaskwa, Marathon is actually a little ways off of Highway 17 off of Peninsula Rd. If you’ve made it to Marathon, congratulations! This is the midway point between Sault Ste Marie and Thunder Bay.
Popular activities in Marathon include a visit to Pebble Beach and a walk down to Mink Creek Waterfall. It’s also a great place to stop for a nice meal at one of the local Marathon restaurants. The Oar House serves up diner and barbecue fare that will fill you up nicely. Make sure to grab a coffee from Rumours Coffee House to help you through the rest of the trip.
There aren’t many hotels or accommodations in Marathon. Your best bet is to continue a little further down the highway to Terrace Bay or Schrieber. Both of which have some lovely places to stay. I’ll mention them in just a few paragraphs.
Neys Provincial Park
As you leave Marathon and head towards Terrace Bay, you’re rounding the corner onto the northern edge of Lake Superior. Along the way, you’ll find Neys Provincial Park, one of the parks that, in my opinion, is one of the most underrated provincial parks in Ontario.
Neys Provincial Park has a unique history. It was the home of Camp 100, a POW camp that imprisoned mostly high ranking German soldiers and Japanese-Canadians during WWII. Although much of the POW camp has been reclaimed by the earth, you’ll still find some evidence of the bunkers and houses if you look closely (or ask the park wardens).
Neys has both serviced and unserviced campsites. All of them are a short distance from the gorgeous driftwood-strewn beach. There are some great hiking trails in the park as well. The Under The Volcano hike was by far our favourite. The combination of coastal and forest routes offers breathtaking views and enough of a challenge to make it fun.
You can’t miss Terrace Bay as you pass Neys Provincial Park and head west. Look to the right, and you’ll see the towering 50 ft. replica of the Slate Islands Lighthouse. From May to October, visitors can climb the lighthouse and take in Lake Superior’s views from the observation tower.
Terrace Bay is a popular fuel and food stop along Highway 17. At the Terrace Bay plaza, you’ll find a range of options for food and shopping. Drifter’s Motel and Restaurant serves up a mean whitefish and chips. JJ’s Family Restaurant has a wide selection from traditional Canadian fare to Vietnamese and Chinese.
Where To Stay In Terrace Bay
If you’re looking for a hotel in Terrace Bay, Ontario, you’ll only find one. The small and quiet Terrace Bay Motel is an excellent place for an overnight. If you’re looking for a few more options, heading down the road to the small town of Schrieber opens up a few more possibilities.
It’s a cinch to miss the turn-off for Aguasabon Falls. As you drive out of Terrace Bay and round the first bend, you’ll find Aguasabon Gorge Rd. The road is about 1 km from the lighthouse and will be on your left (or right if you’re heading from Thunder Bay to Sault Ste Marie). When you get to the parking lot, you’ll be presented with two hikes. The one on the left of the parking lot (as you drive in) takes you down some stairs to an overlook of Aguasabon Falls and Gorge. It’s a beautiful view and is definitely worth the ten-minute walk.
If you head straight to the end of the parking lot, you’ll reach the starting point for the 52 km Casque Isles Trail. If you follow the trail down to the beach, which is about a 5 km trip, you’ll reach one of the prettiest sections of the trail. Near the end of the Aguasabon River is a beautiful set of cascading waterfalls.
The town of a Schreiber is another northern Ontario town that is really easy to miss. But the town has a funky old-west vibe to it and it’s worth a quick stop to take it in. The main strip along Highway 17 is lined with buildings with false-fronts that harken back to the frontier days. Schrieber also houses the Schreiber Railway Museum. The museum celebrates the town’s history as the oldest railway community on the North Shore of Lake Superior.
Where To Stay In Schreiber, Ontario
Schreiber is surprisingly stocked with places to stay. Aside from Marathon and Terrace Bay, Schrieber may be one of your best options for a comfortable night’s stay on this side of Nipigon. The Voy, located right near the town center, has big, comfortable and bright rooms. You can check out their prices and availability here. If the Voy is booked, you can also stay at nearby Villa Bianca Inn, which has an on-site bar and barbecue facilities. You can check out their prices and availability here.
Rainbow Falls Provincial Park
An excellent spot for camping and exploring west of Terrace Bay is Rainbow Falls Provincial Park. Many locals set up summer camps at one of the two great campsites in Rainbow Falls. Many love the private lots and access to the Whitesand Lake campground’s small lakes, while others like the open sites and access to Lake Superior provided by the Rossport Campground.
Camping or not, it’s worth stopping at Rainbow Falls to hike the beautiful waterfall cascades that inspired the park’s name. Rainbow Falls has some great hiking trails, and you could easily spend a few days exploring them.
If you’re travelling through northern Ontario with kids, it’s definitely worth a stop in the town of Nipigon. As you enter the town, you’ll cross a gorgeous bridge and on your left (or right if you’re travelling from Thunder Bay to Sault Ste Marie), turn onto Railway St. and follow it into town. Nipigon has a lot to offer travellers making the Sault Ste Marie to Thunder Bay drive.
Paddle-to-the-Sea Park is a fantastic series of splash pads and playgrounds that will give kids a chance to stretch their legs and have some fun. The setup follows the Great Lakes’ history and geography, allowing kids to learn as they play. The Nipigon Lookout Tower offers incredible views of the town with Lake Superior as a backdrop.
You’ll also find an incredible variety of excellent restaurants in Nipigon. La Luna Cafe is a particular favourite for wraps and sandwiches. The Edgeview, which is located at Sunnyside Cabins, serves up a decent chicken parmigiana.
Where to Stay In Nipigon
If you’re looking to stretch out your road trip from Sault Ste Marie to Thunder Bay, Nipigon is a great place to spend the night. The town is charming and a perfect place for an evening walk. There are lots of spots for shopping and exploring. The walk under the bridge is a nice one to catch the views. There’s a lovely Airbnb for rent in town. If it’s available while you’re visiting, spend the time and enjoy a sunrise walk along the waterfront.
Eagle Canyon Adventures
Once you depart Nipigon, you are essentially in Thunder Bay country. If you’re planning to go straight through, you’ll find everything else in my list of great things to do in Thunder Bay. You can either continue on the stops or do the rest of the items as day trips from Thunder Bay. But, you’re still heading from Sault Ste Marie to Thunder Bay, so I’ll lay out the last few stops for you to keep planning your adventure.
Eagle Canyon Adventures is an excellent stop for adventure lovers. This outdoor park is home to Canada’s longest suspension bridge, a zipline, and some gorgeous hiking trails. Give yourself an hour or two to explore Eagle Canyon. There are comfort stations available here. Access is cash-only. Adults are $20, children 5-10 are $10 and children 4 and under are free at the time of our visit.
Eagle Canyon is in Dorion and can be accessed by taking Ouimet Canyon Road and turning right onto Valley Rd. If you have a 4×4, you might also consider taking the easily-missed road before Eagle Canyon to make the hike up to the iconic Dorion Pinnacle.
Ouimet Canyon Provincial Park
Just a little further down in Ouimet Canyon Road lies the epic views of Ouimet Canyon Provincial Park. Here you’ll find a few really lovely hiking trails. But the one that really stands out is the hike to the Ouimet Canyon lookout. The trail is a relatively accessible 1 km loop to two viewing platforms overlooking the one kilometre deep canyon.
Life on the canyon’s floor is more in-line with the sub-Arctic tundra that you would find near Churchill, Manitoba, than the more southern Thunder Bay region. The canyon’s depth shelters the landscape at its base so that snow and ice last among the rocks for most of the summer.
Amethyst Mine Panorama
No one should visit the north shores of Lake Superior without stopping by one of the amazing amethyst mines that dot this part of Ontario. There are quite a few to choose from, but one of the largest and most established is Amethyst Mine Panorama. A visit here offers the chance for a tour that includes an overlook of the mine itself. It’s not quite the same as our visit to the amethyst mine in Argentina, but at Amethyst Mine Panorama we had the chance to scavenge for our own gemstones.
At the mine, you’ll find gemstones of all sizes from an earing to “you’ll need a truck.” If you’re visiting with kids, trust me, you’ll end up leaving with more than you need. But it sure makes for a fun way to stretch your legs.
Sleeping Giant Provincial Park
Sleeping Giant Provincial Park is one of the most epic northern Ontario destinations. Located about 40 minutes south of Highway 17 on Pass Lake Rd. is Sleeping Giant. This park gets its name from the Indigenous story of Nanabozho, the trickster who we talked about on our piece on hiking the Cup and Saucer Trail on Manitoulin Island. It is said that Nanabozho shared the location of a silver deposit with the white man and, as a punishment, was turned to stone. When you gaze upon Sleeping Giant from Thunder Bay, the mountain at its edge makes the unmistakable shape of a sleeping man. The silver mine, located in Silver Islet, is still believed to be one of the richest silver mines in the world. But access to the mine was stopped after continuous flooding made it too costly to run.
Sleeping Giant is also home to the famous Top of the Giant hike. This 22 km round trip is a full-day hike that offers some of the best views of Lake Superior! The trail is a challenging climb to the top of some of Ontario’s tallest cliffs.
Sleeping Giant Provincial Park has a wide variety of great hiking trails through northern Ontario’s history and most stunning landscapes. You’ll also find excellent camping at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. The camping sites are relatively open but are spacious, with easy access to comfort and water stations.
The Terry Fox Memorial Overlook
Congratulations! You’ve made it to Thunder Bay! But there’s one more stop before you roll into the city that’s worth a visit. The Terry Fox Memorial Overlook sits at a scenic spot overlooking Highway 17 and Lake Superior. This marks the endpoint of this Canadian hero’s legendary attempt to run across Canada while battling cancer. It was here that Terry Fox was forced to abandon the run due to his final battle with the disease that would shortly afterwards take his life.
Pay tribute to Terry Fox here and consider making a donation to cancer research. No one hasn’t been touched by this disease. And no one has done more to raise money for cancer research than Terry Fox.
Welcome To Thunder Bay!
Congratulations on completing the drive from Sault Ste Marie to Thunder Bay. If you’re driving from Thunder Bay to Sault Ste Marie, your journey is just getting started. And, I recommend you fill up your gas tank instead of celebrating.
For those arriving, it’s time to celebrate with ice cream from local gelato-shop, Prime. Grab a comfy bed at the Prince Arthur Hotel, and enjoy a walk along the beautiful Thunder Bay waterfront.
If you’re planning this Sault Ste Marie to Thunder Bay drive, I hope this guide helps you along the way. But if you’ve made the journey already, tell us about your experience and let us know if we missed anything. Or, tag our Instagram account with your photos. We would love to share in your travels.
Disclosure: Some of the experiences in this post were made possible with the support of Visit Thunder Bay and Ontario Parks. As always, all opinions remain our own. Wandering Wagars is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, amazon.ca. Amazon and the Amazon logo are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc. or its affiliates.
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