The Whistlestop Trail in Ontario, Canada from St. Thomas to Port Stanley is a must-add to your southwestern Ontario road trip list. There are beautiful parks, beaches, historic monuments and museums, foodie stops and more. If you’re an uber active person you can hop on a bike to see everything, or if you’ve got elderly members in your family you can follow the trail by car. Whatever way you choose to experience the Whistlestop Trail, it’s going to be a fantastic time!
Where is the Whistlestop Trail?
If you’re starting your day in St. Thomas, Ontario it’ll take around 2 hours to drive to from Toronto or about 30 minutes to drive from London. Those coming from Windsor to St. Thomas will have about a 2 hour drive. Port Stanley is only a short 15 minute drive south from St. Thomas.
What is the Whistlestop Trail?
The Whistlestop Trail connects the historic Railway City to the relaxing beachy shores of Port Stanley on Lake Erie. You can “Run Ride Roam” along the natural trail by bike, foot, or car, leisurely taking a day or two (or three!) to complete the self-guided itinerary. I can only surmise that the inspiration for the Whistlestop Trail came from the oft-travelled historic PSTR (Port Stanley Terminal Rail) passenger route. There is a lot of history along this corridor, dating all the way back to 1856! It’s so neat to see these travel traditions continuing today.
What Stops are Along the Whistlestop Trail?
There are 24 stops in total, with 12 in St. Thomas, 4 in the countryside, and 8 in Port Stanley. During my 1-day trip, I visited 9 of the stops when I visited with Railway City Tourism.
St. Thomas Stops
Jumbo the Elephant
Jumbo the Elephant spent a short time in St. Thomas with the American P.T. Barnum Circus in 1885. Unfortunately his story ended tragically when he was struck by a freight train. Today much of the town’s history, art, and folklore is interwoven in the tracks that simultaneously birthed St. Thomas and brought Jumbo’s life to an end. There is a memorial for the beloved animal near the Elevated Park and beside the old caboose shop, with a view over the city where you can sit by Jumbo’s feet and have a pensive sit down.
St. Thomas Elgin Public Art Centre
The St. Thomas-Elgin Public Art Centre is a non-profit organization with 1,700 artworks from local and international artists. Talk about impressive! Classes and workshops are offered for all ages on skills like drawing, watercolours, printing, and more. They also hold auctions, nostalgia nights, and different online and in-person exhibits for the community.
St. Thomas City Hall
Remember the architect Neil Darrach from the Princess Avenue Playhouse? He also designed the St. Thomas City Hall in the late 1890s. It’s considered “Richardsonian Romanesque”, which I had never heard of before but learned that it’s a style of Romanesque Revival architecture and named for the American architect Henry Hobson Richardson. Typically the style requires a prominent round Roman arch and a round or square tower. If you love architecture and history, check out this document which is the official notice of its heritage designation.
Railway City Tourism Office
The Railway City Tourism Office is housed in a replica of the L&PS Station at 605 Talbot Street in downtown St. Thomas. It’s often a central point in festivals, such as the Track to the Future Mural Festival. The best way to contact them is on the phone at 1-519-631-1680 ext. 4132 or by email at [email protected]
Princess Avenue Playhouse
The Princess Avenue Playhouse is one of those buildings that makes you stop and stare a moment longer. Designed by the architect Neil Darrach and built in 1907 by the Church of Disciples, the Elgin Theatre Guild purchased the former church in the late 1980s and transformed it into the interactive dramatic space that it is today. The volunteer-run community theatre group has been performing there for over 50 seasons. In addition to a variety of plays, musical acts like Hawksley Workmen, Jimmy Rankin, and the Juno Award-winning band Sloan have lit up its stage.
Horton Farmers’ Market
I finally had the pleasure of attending the Saturday morning Horton Farmers’ Market in downtown St. Thomas in 2022. It was a sunny day and I could feel the pride from the local vendors selling their farmed goodies and artisan crafts. Families, high school students, seniors, and travellers like myself roamed around the covered market stalls and adjacent building, looking for something delicious to bring home. Since 1878, this pet-friendly market has been a hub for the community to source local fruits and veggies, fish, meat, house plants, herbs and potted flowers, natural sweets like honey and maple syrup, household items like soap and lotion, delicious baked goods, artisanal foods, and unique handmade items.
CASO Station is an historic Ontario gem that I cover in detail in a blog post about Ontario’s longest small town train station. It was part of the Ontario 160 series I started exploring in 2020 and is the spark that first brought me to St. Thomas in 2020!
Elgin County Railway Museum
Across the railroad tracks from CASO Station is the unique Elgin County Railway Museum. It’s a must-see when you visit Canada’s Railway City, housing a miniature replica of the Southern Ontario railway between Windsor and Niagara Falls. Can you imagine the detail and dedication that went into building that?! There are, of course, several historic trains housed inside the museum as well. I’d highly encourage you to check out this local attraction, whether it’s during your Whistlestop Trail adventures or during a weekend visit to St. Thomas.
Romantic Designs Studio
The Romantic Designs Artistic Studio was founded in the winter of 2009 and is home to Sharon and Daniel Brassard, both artists themselves. In addition to the store, they offer community classes throughout the summer and early fall.
The St. Thomas-Elgin Memorial Arena has been the home of young skaters honing their craft for over 50 years. Canadian hockey enthusiasts may recognize the name of the NHL player, Joe Thornton, who was one such youngster who starred for on the OHL’s Soo Greyhound’s for 2 years, was nicknamed Jumbo and drafted by the Boston Bruins 1st in the 1997 NHL draft. The blog Roaming the Rink has all sorts of neat information on the rink’s history.
The 160-year old Pinafore Park, like many things in St. Thomas, was created thanks to the St. Thomas Street Railway Company. This beautiful community gathering space has a wildlife sanctuary with Trumpeter Swans, a Rotary Splashpad, an accessible playground, a small lake open for the public to use all year, tennis and pickleball courts, a baseball stadium, hiking and cross-country ski trails through 25-acres of remnant Carolinian woods, and even a concert venue! During your Whistlestop Trail adventures, I’d suggest getting a bite to go from one of the local restaurants and enjoying a picnic on the grass or at one of the many picnic tables or covered gathering areas in the welcoming park.
I have yet to go inside The St. Thomas Curling Club, but even if you just venture in the area you’ll be greeted by a massive moody mural that was created in 2022 during the Track to the Future Mural Festival. There’s a neat history to the club, with humble beginnings when the community would play on a pond off of William Street in the early 1870s. Today members of all ages can join several different leagues at the rink.
Canandale Nurseries is a plant and garden centre in the south end of St. Thomas.
Elgin Heritage Centre
The Elgin County Museum is a must-see for any history buff. Located on 460 Sunset Drive, the Heritage Centre houses different exhibitions as well as a permanent one called Talbot’s Castle, which is a recreation of Col. Talbot’s ancestral castle, Malahide. The Heritage Centre is open from Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 4pm, with admission by donation.
Shaw’s Ice Cream
You don’t have to tell me twice to try ice cream! Shaw’s is the perfect quick roadside stop on your way from St. Thomas down to Port Stanley (and perhaps again when you head home!). There’s plenty of space for people to spread out and enjoy their cold treats and I can only imagine how busy it must get on really hot days. Picnic tables are available but it might not hurt to take out your fold-up chairs if you have them. There’s a massive list of options to choose from, and if I let my gluttony take over I just might have tried them all. However, I chose two flavours and left the rest to my next visit. Pro Tip: Order the Port Stanley Sunken Treasure. Mmmm!
Debackere Farm Market
Just a bit north of Port Stanley is the family-owned and operated Debackere Farm Market. If you’re wanting to have a picnic or some healthy goodies on the beach, stop here and stock up on your way.
Port Stanley Stops
Port Stanley Festival Theatre
The Port Stanley Festival Theatre is back in action for the 2022 season after 2 years of cancellations due to covid-19. The Port Stanley Summer Theatre group has been in motion since 1978, with the Festival Theatre beginning in 1992. They host an annual youth theatre summer camp and art exhibits, and run fundraisers as well.
Port Stanley Lift Bridge
Port Stanley is a little town but their lift bridge is pretty impressive! Also known as the King George VI Lift Bridge, it was built across Kettle Creek in 1939 which also happened to be a year that the King visited Canada. Coincidence? Probably not. A disaster early in its history didn’t deter the project. It eventually opened with great fanfare to the anticipation of Port Stanley’s residents who closed down schools and businesses for the special occasion. Decades later the little but mighty bridge even had a cameo in a Super Bowl commercial!
Port Stanley Terminal Rail
A volunteer-run tourist train and Elgin County’s longest running tourist attraction, the Port Stanley Terminal Rail (PSTR) provides a leisurely scenic option for travelling from the lakeside town to St. Thomas. It passes over the historic London and Port Stanley Railway (L&PS) train tracks. Hop on at the Port Stanley station next to the King George Lift Bridge for an hour of fun. The train runs rain or shine, with open and closed cars available.
Port Stanley Tourism Office
Located at 199 Carlow Road, the Port Stanley Visitors’ Centre is your one-stop shop for what to do, where to eat and stay, and what to see in this beachy town.
Main Beach on William Street in Port Stanley
Port Stanley is situated on Lake Erie’s northern shores, which makes it an ideal spot for lazy beach days. There are 4 beaches in total: the Main Beach, Little Beach, Erie Rest Beach, and Pumphouse Beach. Two of these beaches are on the Whistlestop Trail. The municipality has worked to make the sandy beach as accessible as possible, with a smooth cement pathway that skirts the area with enough room for 2 side-by-side wheelchairs, MobiMats that connect the boardwalk with the beach, and 2 free water-friendly Hippocampe Chairs which allow disabled beach-goers to enjoy the water, use the showers, or roam the beach. It is also one of 22 Canadian beaches with Blue Flag status.
In 2017 the 6-acre Hofhuis Park opened in honour of former Central Elgin Mayor Sylvia Hofhuis and her family. During the time she served her community, she advocated for Transport Canada to transfer the land ownership back to the community so that it could be used by the citizens. Found on the east side of the Main Beach pier at the end of Maud Street and Lotus Lane, the reimagined and relatively newly constructed public area has areas to stroll and rest by the water.
The Port Stanley Breakwater Lighthouse is located at the end of the west Port Stanley Harbour. It’s a fun spot for photos and after standing strong for over a century, holds historical and architectural significance. Today it’s designated as a federal heritage lighthouse.
The secluded Little Beach isn’t too far from the Main Beach. With 185 metres of sandy fun and shallow water, the area is protected by a berm making it a great spot for families and young children to enjoy the water. Porta-Potties and parking are fairly close as well, making it parent-friendly too.
What Does it Cost?
There are no fees or tickets required to complete the Whistlestop Trail. How much it costs is up to you, depending on how you choose to complete it (by walking, biking, or driving) and which stops you choose to see and what you choose to spend at them.
Is There a Map?
There’s a map on the Railway City Tourism website to help guide your trip. I’ve also provided an informative Google Map below that you can save to your phone right from this blog post!
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Are There Other Trails Nearby?
The Whistlestop Trail is in great company, with 4 other trails nearby. The 98-foot bikable Angus McKenzie Trail follows the shore of Lake Margaret, which is south of Pinafore Park. The second trail is The Palmer Memorial Walkway, which leads you to CASO Station. It’s named for local benefactors, John William Franklin Palmer (1918-2009) and his wife Dorothy Fay Palmer (1925-2010), who lived in St. Thomas and enjoyed many train rides over the decades along the London & Port Stanley Railway, going on day trips to Lake Erie. The third trail is The Great Lakes Waterfront Trail, which goes from Lake Erie all the way up to Sault Ste. Marie‘s Lake Superior shores. There are on- and off-road sections of the trail that can be used by cyclists, rollerbladers, and pedestrians. It spans 4 of the 5 Great Lakes, traversing 155 communities and 4 UNESCO Biospheres, 23 National Historic Sites, 3 wine regions, 12 international border crossings, and a whole lot more. The wheels are spinning in my head about when I can explore it! And last, the Whistlestop Trail also connects with the mighty Trans Canada Trail. This behemoth is 28,000km of coast-to-coast Canadian adventure. That’s definitely another one to scratch off the bucket list.
Looking for More to Do in St. Thomas?
St. Thomas is a small town with a lot to offer visitors in the form of fun, food, and history. In fact, it was one of the many stops I’ve visited on my Ontario 160 Unusual Sites series that began back in 2020 when I visited Ontario’s longest small town train station (CASO)! I’ve visited many times since, compiling a list of the 6 top fun things to do there, eaten at many food trucks and restaurants, and explored the city’s amazing street art and mural scene.