This one’s been brewing for a while.
An epic showdown.
A frosty rivalry.
A battle between wintry giants.
Which one deserves the title of The Big A?
“It’s somewhat like the David and Goliath story,” Jason Dwyer, Arrowhead’s former superintendent says.
It’s true that Arrowhead is much smaller than Algonquin in area, but Arrowhead is busier in the winter than its more famous cousin just 30 minutes to the north.
Years ago, Jason’s staff had stickers made up reading, “The Big A since 1971” that Jason himself put on the door of Algonquin’s East Gate late one night.
He also mailed Algonquin Superintendent John Swick a t-shirt with the same logo, signed “Love, Arrowhead Provincial Park.”
“I want to make sure we keep an eye on those Arrowhead folks,” John cautioned from Algonquin.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if they have staff, family and friends go in and comment just to skew the results,” he added.
A tale of two wintry parks
The title fight of “The Big A” is really a tale of two parks, each worthy contenders in their own right.
Arrowhead has the legendary forest skate trail — including its wildly popular Fire and Ice Nights — ski trails groomed daily, and a cozy Visitor Centre, all within walking distance of each other.
But Algonquin is world-renowned for its rustic beauty and nearly infinite opportunities for winter enthusiasts. Not to mention bountiful wildlife spotting opportunities and its old growth forests!
What follows is a side-by-side comparison of Ontario Parks’ two Big A’s to help you know what to expect when planning a visit to each.
Winter at Arrowhead has become extremely popular in recent years in part because of its 1.3 km skating trail that winds through the forest.
Skates can be rented within the park and visitors can warm up in the Visitor Centre with a warm cup of cocoa. Even better, weather-permitting on weekends, staff light torches that line the skate trail for an unforgettable experience we call Fire and Ice Night.
Algonquin has been popular for a lot longer than Arrowhead. Every summer and fall, tens of thousands of visitors drive right by Arrowhead en route to Algonquin. They pass West Gate to take in the many forested lakes along Highway 60.
At Kilometre 30, you’ll find Mew Lake Campground, where staff have built an outdoor ice rink. Here you can borrow hockey nets and sticks for some shinny. But you’ll have to bring your own skates.
And while there’s a warm-up centre, there’s no hot cocoa in the immediate area, so you’ll have to bring your own! If you forget your thermos, the Visitor Centre — another 10 km down the highway — has hot drinks during open hours.
2. Skiing and snowshoeing
Algonquin offers over 70 km of groomed ski trails that cater to every skill level.
Start off at the Mew Lake Trail for an easy ski or take on the 36 km Leaf Lake Loop or the 18 km loop at Fen Lake.
But be forewarned: cross-country skiing at Algonquin is not for the faint of heart. Many of the ski trails are not groomed as often as the ski trails at Arrowhead — there’s simply too much trail to get to!
And for snowshoeing — well, the whole park is basically your oyster (except for the groomed ski trails). For a feeling of infinite wintry landscapes, you can’t beat skiing or snowshoeing at Algonquin.
Arrowhead’s ski trail system is nothing to scoff at either. It boasts 28 km of classic ski trails and 16 km of skate ski trails. These trails are groomed daily, so if you love fresh corduroy, Arrowhead is the place to be.
It also has over 8 km of marked snowshoeing trails and more unmarked trails through hardwood forests.
Unlike Algonquin, you can rent cross-country skis and snowshoes at Arrowhead.(though you’ll want to get to the park early because rentals are only available while supplies last).
Arrowhead is also more beginner friendly when it comes to skiing and snowshoeing because of its regularly groomed trails.
3. Facilities and conveniences
Arrowhead’s rental building is right beside the Visitor Centre, which houses a Park Store that staff say is legendary! A cozy indoor fireplace seating area is available for you to relax and warm up in while sipping on hot cocoa. Meals are not available, however, so plan to pack your own food.
Arrowhead’s skating and ski trails are within walking distance of the Visitor Centre. Especially if you have less-experienced winter wanderers in your group, you’ll love how central all of Arrowhead’s activities are.
Algonquin has a larger Visitor Centre with an impressive museum, viewing deck, and programming like guided hikes let by Discovery staff. The Friends of Algonquin Park sell light refreshments here, but these are the only snacks to be had within the park this time of year.
You’ll definitely want to come prepared with your own food, drinks, and snacks. If you are planning a day of outdoor activities, please pack enough food and supplies!
Looking for some souvenirs or mementos? You won’t want to miss the bookstore and nature shoppe, inside the Algonquin Visitor Centre. It’s full of great books, merch and gift ideas!
Algonquin and Ontario Parks merchandise is also available at West and East Gate on either end of the park.
NEW THIS YEAR: join naturalists at an outdoor firepit at West Gate on weekends where they talk about Ontario’s many creatures – so make sure to bring your pictures and questions!
Remember: people flock to Algonquin in large part because of its remoteness. You should prepare for that.
4. Staying overnight
Algonquin offers plowed car camping spots and a heated comfort station at Mew Lake Campground, as well as roofed accommodations like yurts and cabins. The park’s backcountry is open during the winter months between ice-in and ice-out seasons.
You can also pitch a tent or stay in a roofed accommodation at Arrowhead. However, weekend availability fills up fast so you might want to aim for a midweek stay. This park does not offer backcountry camping.
Roofed accommodations and tent camping spots are highly sought after in both parks and often get booked at the beginning of the five-month reservation window.
Whether you camp at one park or the other, winter camping requires a bit more planning than summer camping, which you can read about in this blog.
There you have it…
…the battle for the title: The Big A.
How do you vote?
Wherever you land on this debate, don’t bother asking the staff at either park — they’re a bit biased and will likely claim that their park is better than any other.
But they’ll still be kind to you if you make the ‘wrong’ choice.
Alonquin staff might secretly think you like to be spoiled and pampered by the ease and amenities of Arrowhead. Arrowhead staff would sympathize if you chose Algonquin and had to trudge through heavy snow and over long distances to go from one activity to the next.
But staff at both parks would be happy to welcome you.
Incredible experiences can be had at both, but with important differences that make each park’s winter experience unique.
Arrowhead offers more convenience and one-of-a-kind skate and ski trails with top-notch convenience and on-site rentals.
Algonquin boasts rustic and infinite landscapes that might take a bit more grit, planning, and time to enjoy, which make them that much more satisfying.
For a trip to either park, make sure to read each park’s blog and plan as much in advance as possible.
You’ll also want to check the Snow Report for each park.
We hope to see you this winter at Arrowhead or Algonquin to share our love of these places with you!