Just a few hours outside Montreal, the Laurentian Mountains and the surrounding small towns offer visitors miles of hiking trails, spectacular views, and sparkling lakes.
Although there’s plenty to keep visitors busy in Montreal itself, just outside the city you’ll find beautiful regions offering an incredible range of activities: lake cruises and mountain biking, leisurely antiquing and wine-tasting.
For a day out in nature that’s the perfect mix of adventure and recreation, head north toward Mont-Tremblant—and put aside plenty of time for unscheduled stops in the charming towns along the way.
FIND SMALL-TOWN CHARM
Your first destination out of town should be the lakeside hamlet of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, just over an hour northwest of Montreal. The town sits a few miles off Highway 15, the main artery in these parts, but feels a world apart. The town dates back to 1849, when pioneering traders settled here. By the early 20th century, the town had become a popular destination for travelers. In the winter, visitors came to cross-country ski and ice-skate. In the summer, people stopped to enjoy the beautiful, forested hills and wholesome, restorative setting. In fact, the area was home to several sanatoriums where folks would come to convalesce in the healthy air.
These days, you’re more likely to find friendly locals and day-trippers around town. Wander down the Rue Principale, or Main Street, to browse the storefronts and cafés. Be sure to stop by a particularly delightful antiques store called Antiquités Les 2 Continents. Digging through the treasures, you’ll likely find century-old china, estate jewelry, or vintage lawn decorations. It’s a fun hodgepodge to explore for a while and a nice way to get a feel for the town.
EXPLORE BY BIKE AND BOAT
Down toward Lac des Sables, you’ll find the wooden kiosk of Croisieres Alouette. The tour company has been operating here since the 1940s and sends out several daily cruises in two vintage boats from the end of May through the end of October. However, they only go out if 10 or more passengers have booked the tour, so be sure to call ahead and reserve your space. The 50-minute journey glides across the lake’s placid waters, navigating through its center and along its shores, while the captain gives a brief history of the area and its grand houses in both French and English.
Cyclists who come to town can pick up the path of the linear park P’tit Train du Nord at the old Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts train station. Found at kilometer 45 of the 232-kilometer trail, there’s adventure to be found in either direction. However, if you head to Sainte-Lucie-des-Laurentides and then Saint-Donat along the Inter-Vals trail, that makes a tidy route of about 40 kilometers (24 miles). There’s also a 58-kilometer (36-mile) Aerobic Corridor that passes through several villages, including Amherst, Arundel, Montcalm, and Lac-des-Seize-Îles, as well as through forests and valleys, and past small lakes that dot the area. In the winter, visitors can use the paths as pistes for cross-country skiing and snowmobiling, making it a fantastic year-round destination.
HEAD TO MONT-TREMBLANT
Hop back on the rural Route 117 toward Mont-Tremblant—the name of both the city and nearby national park. One of the most famous destinations in the Laurentian Mountains, the area includes the park, with its hundreds of lakes and streams, a mountain resort, and a village with several hotels and restaurants.
The resort is less than two hours from Montreal and contains an easy-to-access system of trails, gondolas, and lifts. It’s the perfect day-trip destination from the city if you’re looking for adventure but are short on time.
Of course, in the winter, the hundreds of miles of trails are perfect for downhill and cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, and the newly popular “fat-biking,” which has adventurers racing through paths on mountain bikes with extra-wide wheels. In the warmer months, though, the mountain and the surrounding national park come alive with a whole different set of possibilities, thanks to well-maintained but uncrowded trails, where you can easily find an hour to yourself.
HIKE THE LAURENTIANS
Take the Cabriolet, an open gondola, up from the Place des Voyageurs at the resort. It will bring you to most of the resort’s hotels, restaurants, and shops. From here, you can pick up many of the trails leading up the mountain. Ruisseaux is an easy trail near the base of the mountain that takes you past burbling streams and peaceful waterfalls, then deposits you back near the main gondola. For something a little more difficult, branch off Ruisseaux onto the Caps trail. Halfway up the mountain is a breathtaking viewpoint worth the hour or so of moderately strenuous hiking required to reach it.
Ducking through groups of birch, fir, and spruce trees, you’ll emerge onto a series of rock ledges that you can traipse across for a fantastic overlook toward the lower slopes, with Lake Tremblant shimmering in the distance and the rolling ridges of the Laurentians in the background. It’s utterly awe-inspiring, and, in the autumn, the panorama is accented by vast swaths of orange, yellow, and red leaves on changing trees.
From here, you can continue on the Caps trail up the rest of the mountain (plan about three to four hours for the whole trip). Or, if you’re pressed for time, make your way back to the main downhill trail, the Grand Prix des Couleurs, and walk back to the base. There, you can catch the gondola up to the summit and spend some time on the 360-Degree trail around the top of the mountain—with panoramic views back toward the resort and over the backcountry.
ADVENTURE IN THE MOUNTAINS
Adrenaline junkies have a panoply of possibilities in the Laurentians. There are various zip lines that cross through the mountains, including the four-kilometer (2.5-mile) Mont Catherine Mega Zipline Trek. There are also guided rock-climbing outings along Via Ferratta, dune buggy adventures, helicopter tours, fishing trips, horseback-riding treks, Rouge River white-water rafting runs, and Lake Tremblant kayaking excursions to be had.
Mountain bikers have several options to choose from, too, and can rent bicycles from Vélo Mont-Tremblant before taking to the trails in the national park or exploring a different section of the Le P’tit Train du Nord park network.
On your way back to Montreal, stop off the highway at one of the region’s other gems, the storybook town of Saint-Sauveur, for a late-afternoon snack. On the main street, you’ll find colorful houses, home to upscale restaurants, art galleries, antique stores, and bustling cafés. The Brûlerie des Monts, which offers fresh sandwiches and hot coffee, is one that’s worth a stop.
On Avenue de l’Église, across from the beautiful stone Paroisse Saint-Sauveur church, is the sweetest store in town—literally. Michaël Cotard is the award-winning mind behind Chocolatier Cotard. His fanciful truffles, with flavors such as a particularly palatable rosemary-clove-beer combo and a lime with coriander, helped earn him the title. Treat yourself to a mix-and-match bag of treats for your hour-long drive back into the city.
This feature originally appeared in National Geographic.