what is thunder bay known for-nature scene with calm water before waterfall

The calm Kaministiquia River waters right before the drop off of Kakabeka Falls.

What is Thunder Bay, Ontario, known for?  Northwest Ontario’s Thunder Bay is in the heart of nature. It beckons you with natural wonders, rich cultural heritage, and outdoor activities and sports that span all four seasons. Yes, even winter, which is not for the faint of heart! 

Even when you don’t consider yourself an “active” person, you’ll want to get out and enjoy this adventurer’s playground. As a bonus, the city and the Ontario Parks system have intentionally made many trails and activities accessible for all ability types. On land and on water, Thunder Bay has a lot to offer.

With shorelines hugging Lake Superior, Thunder Bay is the gateway to 150,000 lakes and waterways. Along with the influence of the Canadian shield, awe-inspiring rock formations, and an ancient boreal forest, water has shaped the city, its people, and the outdoor activities they enjoy all year long. In this article, we’ll show you some bucket-list worthy adventures you can have in Thunder Bay…

Natural Wonders in Thunder Bay

porphyry point island lighthouse from an aerial view

The Sleeping Giant rock formation in Lake Superior can be seen for many vantage points in Thunder Bay. Boaters can enjoy a view from the other side too!

From the big lake to the highest peaks and every area in between, you’re never far away from the powerful beauty of nature. It’s impossible to identify all of Thunder Bay’s inspiring natural landmarks; here are a few notable ones:

  1. Lake Superior: Thunder Bay’s most prominent feature is its proximity to Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes. The lake offers swimming, fishing, paddling, and boating opportunities, and its rugged coastline has been a feature of paintings and photographs for centuries.
  2. Sleeping Giant Provincial Park: This iconic park features the Sleeping Giant, a massive land formation resembling a sleeping figure that has a magical story to go with it. Hiking and camping are popular activities, and the views from many trails are breathtaking.
  3. Kakabeka Falls: The “Niagara of the North” Kakabeka Falls is a heart-pounding waterfall just outside Thunder Bay. Visitors can hike the trails around the falls, following the footsteps of Voyageurs from the past, and enjoy nature.

Thunder Bay’s Water Sports and Activities

Bridge over a forested canyon in Thunder Bay, Ontario

Prince Arthur’s Landing in the Waterfront District in Thunder Bay has a marina where residents and visitors can dock their boats. It’s also where you can board a chartered cruise. This catamaran with Superior Sail is one of the options for getting on Lake Superior even when you don’t own a boat.

Thunder Bay’s proximity to Lake Superior and its extensive network of lakes and rivers make it a haven for water sports and outdoor enthusiasts. It’s beautiful to see, fun to play in, and challenging and even dangerous without being prepared with the proper knowledge and gear. 

Lake Superior is notoriously cold. How cold is Lake Superior? Well, that depends on the season; however, the water temperature at the surface rarely gets above 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Go down 50 feet or so, and that temperature drops to the mid-30s. The weather can change quickly, catching you by surprise if you’re unfamiliar. Be sure you know the forecasts before heading out on the water. Waterways inland are a bit warmer.

As an important note, when you search online for things to do on the water in Thunder Bay, be sure you include Ontario and/or Canada in your search phrase because there is another Thunder Bay in Michigan on Lake Huron. The “other” Thunder Bay is home to the United States’ Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary associated with the NOAA. 

Looking for more things to do in Thunder Bay? Check out our Three Perfect Days In Thunder Bay Itinerary and the Guided Journal and Destination Guide.

Here are some of the notable water sports and activities that Thunder Bay, Ontario, is famous for:

canoes on the river near Fort William in Thunder Bay Ontario - water sports are what thunder bay is known for

Canoes at Fort William Historical Park demonstrate how the Indigenous tribes and early settlers traveled the lakes and rivers around Thunder Bay.

Kayaking and Canoeing: 

Thunder Bay’s history is on the water, so it makes sense that kayaking and canoeing the seemingly endless miles of water trails is one of the top activities. Whether a beginner or an experienced paddler, you can choose your adventure from serene lakes and winding rivers. The Kaministiquia River, known for its calm waters and scenic beauty, is popular. Paddlers can also venture out on Lake Superior for a more challenging experience. You can explore routes like Path of the Paddle, six connected water trails from Thunder Bay to Manitoba. Find a good paddling map and explore Thunder Bay by water!

Interested in learning more about what it takes to map out the canoe route? I think you’ll enjoy this article

Fishing: 

Thunder Bay is a paradise for anglers. Lake Superior and the surrounding waters are home to Pacific and Atlantic salmon, lake trout, bass, walleye, northern pike, and more. You can fish from the shore, fly fish, fly into remote destinations, charter a boat, or try ice fishing in the winter. Be sure to get Ontario, Canada fishing license information, dates for fishing seasons in the areas you intend to fish, and information about any lakes designated as Fish Sanctuaries that cannot be fished. The areas around Thunder Bay are zones 6, 7, and 9.

Sailing: 

Lake Superior is excellent for sailing enthusiasts. The lake’s clear, cold, deep waters offer relaxation and excitement on the surface. There are sailing clubs and marinas where you can rent boats, book a sailing tour with outfits like Sail Superior, or learn to sail. From Prince Arthur’s Landing, you can watch the Thunder Bay Yacht Club’s sailboat races every week during their season.

suspension bridge over river in Thunder Bay ontario - high cliffs and forested terrain

With miles of rivers, Thunder Bay is a paddlers dream. At many points you can get off the river, hike, or even walk a suspension bridge to higher elevation and epic canyon views.

Windsurfing and Kiteboarding: 

The consistent winds and large open waters of Lake Superior create ideal conditions for windsurfing and kiteboarding. The lake’s vastness allows for exhilarating experiences in these water sports, and there are places to rent equipment and take lessons. Remember, the water is cold, so understand your abilities and watch the weather forecasts. This advice is true for every water sport on Lake Superior.

Stand-Up Paddleboarding (SUP): 

SUP has gained popularity in Thunder Bay. Paddleboarding on Lake Superior or any of the waterways gives you a unique perspective of the stunning shorelines and crystal-clear waters. Because the boards are wide, balancing is easier than you might initially think, and standing up is preferable for some people rather than sitting in a canoe or kayak. You can venture onto no-motor lakes, adding to the serenity of your paddling experience. It’s you, nature sounds, the gentle ripple of your oar in the water, and maybe a splash as you dive (or fall) into the water!

Swimming: 

Lake Superior’s waters can be chilly but are swimmable, especially during summer. Beaches like Chippewa Park Beach and Boulevard Lake have safe spots for swimming and sunbathing. There are warmer waters on the inland lakes. 

Boating and Cruises: 

You have much to explore if you own your boat! Boat slips are available at Prince Arthur’s Landing at Marina Park from mid-May to mid-October. Six boat launches are located in/around the city; others are provided by Lakehead Regional Conservation Authority (LRCA). Of course, there is plenty of boating to be enjoyed on Lake Superior; however, leave the big lake and venture into one of the rivers, and you’ll get calmer conditions, meandering waterways, memorable views, and new stories to be created. Boat tours and cruises are available for a few hours and up to a few days. And when you want to explore more of Lake Superior, larger cruise ships make port in Thunder Bay, or you can tour with Alexander and Roberts Victory II from Thunder Bay City to Detroit. Be sure to check out all the boating in Thunder Bay and Ontario.

Scuba Diving: 

Lake Superior is known for its clear waters, making it famous for scuba diving. Divers can explore underwater shipwrecks, geological formations, structures, and machinery from Silver Islet, once the largest silver mine in the world. Dive shops provide equipment rentals and guided dives.

Winter Outdoor Adventure and Sports in Thunder Bay, Ontario

Winter in Thunder Bay is cold - however, winter sport and outdoor activities keep people outside - cool blue lake scene in Thunder Bay

Winters in Thunder Bay are not for the faint of heart; however, with year-round options for winter sports and outdoor adventures on and off the water, Thunder Bay is known for being a year-round outdoor playground.

They say Thunder Bay looks good in white. Good thing, because there is plenty of that in the winter months! Even when the city is covered in snow and temperatures are cold (really cold), it’s still the sunniest city in eastern Canada. This is why locals don’t hibernate. Sure, they may cozy up to a fire or take in a Finnish sauna, but many venture out in the coldest temperatures to enjoy something indoors (like a night at the theater) or in the city (chock full of great restaurants), while others venture out to get out (hello outdoor adventures).

There is a seemingly unending list of outdoor activities in the extensive parks system and along miles of waterways and trails. And then there are winter sports. The city has turned out 94 Hockey League players. And in the summer, you may see people practicing cross-country skiing using adapted skis with wheels. Locals take their sports life seriously all year round. So winter in Thunder Bay is alive and well; bundle up and choose your adventure!

Here are some popular winter options and sports to enjoy in Thunder Bay:

porphyry point island lighthouse trees on the beaches

The accessible bridges and boardwalks throughout Thunder Bay’s trails help make nature more accessible all year round.

Downhill Skiing and Snowboarding: 

The Loch Lomond Ski Area is popular for downhill skiing and snowboarding. There are 18 slopes suitable for all skill levels, beginner to expert. The stunning views of Lake Superior add to the experience. 

Cross-Country Skiing: 

Thunder Bay is known for its extensive network of cross-country skiing trails. The Kamview Nordic Centre and Sleeping Giant Provincial Park offer groomed trails for classic and skate skiing. The city’s snow-covered landscapes provide a picturesque backdrop for this activity.

Snowshoeing: 

If you love hiking, then snowshoeing is a great winter alternative. They say it’s a little more challenging than walking on firm ground, but the winter wonderland you’re exploring on foot may offset the extra effort! Many trails around Thunder Bay are perfect for snowshoeing, including those in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park and Centennial Park. It’s a peaceful and refreshing way to connect with nature.

Ice Skating: 

Who doesn’t love gliding along frozen ice or watching the graceful and not-so-graceful skating of others? During the winter, six indoor arenas and many public outdoor ice rinks are available across the city. Outdoor rinks are open to the public and include boarded rinks that are supervised and unsupervised, and others that are unboarded and unsupervised. The Prince Arthur’s Landing waterfront features a scenic outdoor rink with views of Lake Superior and a calendar of winter events to enjoy.

Ice Fishing: 

Henry David Thoreau is credited for saying, “Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” Those words might resonate with someone in Thunder Bay who heads to a frozen lake to sit in a hut and try to catch fish. Could they be enjoying something else in the cold winter months? It could be a bit of nature, some time in the sun, and space, albeit in a hut, to get clear and spend time with friends and family. Thunder Bay’s frozen lakes provide excellent opportunities for ice fishing. Popular catches include perch, walleye, and lake trout. You can rent an ice hut, and local outfitters offer guided ice fishing experiences.

Kakabaka water falls in Thunder Bay ontario canada

The area around Kakabeka Falls are enjoyed throughout the year. Can you imagine Ice Climbing on a frozen waterfall?

Snowmobiling: 

You can cover a lot of ground on a snowmobile riding along one of Thunder Bay’s maintained trails past trees, rocks, and frozen waterfalls. Winter landscapes are unique, and even when you are close to “civilization,” you can feel like you have the entire forest to yourself. Trails are maintained by Thunder Bay Adventure Trails snowmobile club. If you’re venturing into other areas of Ontario, Canada, check out the over 20,000 miles of trails operated by the Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs.

Winter Hiking: 

Many of Thunder Bay’s hiking trails are open year-round, providing unique winter hiking excursions. Dress warmly, use appropriate footwear for icy conditions, bring water, and check the weather forecast before you leave.

Fat Biking: 

Fat biking is mountain biking’s winter cousin. These specialized bikes with wide tires allow riders to navigate snowy and icy terrain. Several trails are designated for fat biking, providing a fun and adventurous way to explore the winter landscape.

Ice Climbing: 

For thrill-seekers, Thunder Bay has opportunities for ice climbing on frozen waterfalls and ice formations along Lake Superior’s north shore. Experienced climbers can enjoy the challenge and unique beauty of ice climbing.

Indoor Winter Activities: 

For those seeking indoor recreation, Thunder Bay offers options like indoor ice skating, swimming in heated pools, and access to fitness centers, Finnish Saunas, and indoor sports facilities.

What is Thunder Bay Known For? Your Outdoor Adventure Destination

Oimet Canyon views - with water on the horizon - Part of what to do and see in this perfect three-day thunder Bay Itinerary, ontario, canada

View from the lookout at Ouimet Canyon in Thunder Bay, Ontario. 

As you can see, nature is the main attraction in Thunder Bay and personally, I’m looking forward to returning to explore even more of Ontario, Canada. Why? 

For some, you “get it.” For others, you may wonder why looking at evergreen trees shooting up from the earth or gazing at the horizon over deep blue waters, or looking into a star-filled night sky would be a reason to travel to Thunder Bay. Make no mistake, Thunder Bay also has a culinary and cultural side to enjoy, but most people equate Thunder Bay Ontario with Nature. With no theme parks or manufactured wonders to visit, why would you go outdoors, into the elements, and feel nature, including the wildlife, bugs, and weather?

To answer that question, you have to go and experience it for yourself because each of us will draw something different. Some say we will draw exactly what we need, not necessarily what we think we want. Then, once you go, go again because, as it has been said, no man steps into the same river twice because it’s not the same river, and it’s not the same man (or woman, of course!). 

In some small way, it’s possible that time in nature opens the possibility to have a different and new appreciation for our natural world and inspires change in how we live on this one precious planet. 

Getting outside, experiencing the serenity of nature, feeling it’s life and energy, makes you think, and wonder, and want to explore more. What you feel, see, and do in nature is something you take with you throughout your lifetime and can help shape who you are and who you will become. Visitors to Thunder Bay experience something new every time, and that, in and of itself, is magical.