My nephew Anthony recently asked me for advice on where he could take his son cycling. Having gone through many years of biking with my son Trevor in tow, I know that kids can get bored easily and parents can get concerned about road safety. I gave it some thought, then sent him a shortlist of suggestions.
Then the wheels in my head kept turning (MTB wheels, lol) and I realized that other parents have the same dilemma every weekend: Where can I take my kids outside to get away from their screens, video games, and electronics?
I feel your concerns. So let me come to the rescue with some excellent kid-friendly bike rides around Ontario that the whole family can enjoy.
Are you a parent who needs to feel your children are able to exercise in a safe environment? You have come to the right place: this website features only off-road, car-free bike trails. Most of these routes are entirely on trails and paths, with at most 15% requiring you to veer off occasionally onto a side-road bypass. You can’t get better than that.
For your sanity and everyone’s better health, read on! You can scroll down to jump straight to the trail recommendations, but I advise you to read this whole post, since it’s got some great info.
Basically, kid-friendly bike routes have all of these four things:
- They’re safe – Look for off-road, car-free routes with minimal hazards and street crossings with lights
- They’re easy to cycle – You want paved, level, wide paths and small, gentle hills
- They have amenities – Playgrounds, washrooms, picnic areas, food/drink close by
- They are interesting – Winding, varied paths, bridges, boardwalks, tunnels and water features
There are a few stages you will go through as a parent with children and a fondness for cycling.
The first thing is: don’t let the arrival of a newborn end your cycling days. Sure, it’s going to be a lot of work at first and a big change. Just adapt to the circumstances and keep cranking.
Once your son or daughter is ready to be introduced to your world of cycling—probably not before their first birthday—you have a few ways to start.
Long before your child is able to propel themself, you can transporting them in a child seat on the bike or in a trailer you tow. Chain Reaction Cycle has baby seats.
No matter which option you choose, always make them wear a helmet (like you do) and strap them in!
You can balance better without another little person on board, so I went with the trailer and bought one with a ski attachment so I could take Junior cross-country skiing in winter. Double trailers can seat two little ones. MEC sells a few versions of bike trailers.
When they get to be three to four years old, they get restless and heavy to tow. Now it’s time for you proud parents to buy them their first bike with training wheels. (Those training wheels won’t stay on for long.)
Another step up for toddlers are push bikes that help the little ones work on their balance. These can eliminate the need for training wheels when they grow into a bigger bike. MEC sells push bikes.
Keep raising their seats and handlebars and replacing their bikes with larger models as the years pass. Chain Reaction Cycles has kids bikes for all ages.
As I pulled together this list, I kept in mind (and you should, too) a few things specific to riding with kids. Kids have short legs and short attention spans. They are little monkeys and need to burn energy.
Every year you can ride farther and faster—but at their pace, not yours. You need to be a patient parent to deal with all the delays, drama, and spills. Depending on your children’s energy level and desire to cycle (or not), you may only get in a few kilometres for the first few years.
Keep the ride short. (Well, at least shorter than what you may wish for until they are teens, then you may suddenly have trouble keeping up, lol.)
Always turn back sooner than you want to. Don’t wait till they complain and bonk out.
Stop often. Especially if your child is not actually engaged in pedalling and is just looking out from the trailer.
Make it fun for them. Some kids will need to check out every set of monkey bars they see. Give them opportunities to run about. Bring a ball or frisbee.
Make sure there is ever-changing scenery. I’ve found this is the most important way to keep kids on their bikes. Trails with lots of twists and turns in the path, and/or bridges, boardwalks, and tunnels are winners. Rivers, creeks, and ponds add interest, and the possibility of wildlife sightings, to keep kids moving.
Bring snacks. Juice boxes, water sippy cups, granola bars, dried fruit, nuts. Bring nothing messy like melting chocolate.
With all these points in mind here is what I recommend. Since most of these trails run flat along creeks and rivers, none of the locations I list has any large hills to climb, nor fast descents that can stress out your kids (or you, when you’re watching them!). There will still be a few short climbs, trail intersections, and street crossings you need to supervise.
Here are my Top Kid-friendly Cycling Paths:
Rouge Valley – Park Trail – twisty, ever changing, loads of bridges and boardwalks, greese
Oshawa Creek – Park Trail – winding, tons of bridges and tunnels, beach & playset at lake
Highland Creek – Park Trail – bridges, winding creek
Toronto Islands – Park Trail – ferry ride, scenic, plenty of playgrounds and beaches
Ajax Waterfront – Park Trail – scenic, bridges, beaches
Nokiidaa – Park Trail – changing scenery, playgrounds, ponds, old Newmarket
Rouge Waterfront – Park Trail – water, beaches, large bridges
Humber River – Park Trail – playsets, bridges, flower garden
Island Lake – Park Trail – long bridges and boardwalks
Taylor Creek + Warden – Park Trail – ponds, 3 water creek crossings
Beaches Boardwalk – Park Trail – beachcomb the peninsula, sailboats, swimming
Upper Etobicoke – Park Trail – playsets, bridges
Rideau Canal – Park Trail – boats, locks, falls, gardens
Upper Ottawa R. – Park Trail – views of the river, play areas, beach
Grand River – Park Trail – playgrounds, old bridges, falls
Welland Canal – Park Trail – kids love big boats, and locks
Thames Valley – Park Trail – London has lots of playgrounds + Storybook Gardens
Riding a Rail Trail with kids is a little more challenging. While these former railway beds offer an easy, largely flat ride, most are not interesting enough for younger kids, nor are there many or any amenities or playgrounds to stop at. Still, here are a few that could work out nicely with older kids.
Thornton Cookstown – Rail Trail – bridges, a creek, and nearby ice cream, in Simcoe County
Tay Shore – Rail Trail – paved, lakeside location on Georgian Bay
Brock – Rail / Park Trail – walk through a train tunnel
Greenway – Park / Rail Trail – bridges, dams and falls
(I will post a list of kid-friendly Mountain Bike locations in another article soon.)
My last thoughts:
Kids get hungry and thirsty, and they need bathrooms often. I wish I could say that Ontario city parks have an abundance of toilets and snack bars; they do not. So use ’em when you see ’em and pack your own extra nibbles or it will be hell.
Planning a picnic stop halfway is also a chance to break up the outing and get a bit more riding out of your child later. Give them a riding goal. Promise and ice cream once they get to a certain point. And bring napkins when it gets messy, as it usually does.
The last issue: Keep an eye on them. Once you give them wheels, you’ve given them freedom, and they may dash off. Stay in range and have other adults along to help watch over larger groups. Assign a lead bike and a spotter at the back. And while you are at it, work in some basic riding skills and safety and biking etiquette, and now everyone’s having a good time.
With that sensation of freedom on two wheels, you will have hooked them for life on cycling. Awesome job, Mom & Dad!