I grew up 30 minutes from Wasaga Beach Ontario. I have spent countless hours exploring and swimming the longest freshwater beach in the world from Balm beach to Collingwood. Lake Huron and by extension Georgian Bay, is my most favourite of all the great lakes. Whether you dip your toes in at Parry Sound or walk the beach at Grand Bend, the water is always crystal clear and the sand and rock a light pale beige. So with the amount of time I have spent on this lake it seems odd I have never ventured to Bruce Peninsula National Park. Oh sure, I’ve hiked a section of the Bruce trail at Blue Mountain, but for whatever reason I never made the drive north past Owen Sound up to the Bruce.
The peninsula is part of the Niagara Escarpment that runs through Canada from Niagara Falls to Tobermory, Ontario then trailing off to Manitoulin Island before returning back down into the USA. The escarpment is a World Biosphere Reserve and Bruce Peninsula National Park is one of the largest protected areas in southern Ontario. Diverse geology and ecology lures visitors from all over the world to this slice of paradise right here in Ontario, Canada. You can read about Bruce Peninsula National Park here. Summer and winter activities abound from camping, canoeing, swimming, skiing, snowshoeing, bouldering (a form of climbing) and of course hiking. Unique floral and fauna can be found here as well. There are over 60 species of orchids home to Ontario (who knew?) and 43 can be found at the Bruce. Wildlife from black bear to the endangered Massasauga rattlesnake call this area home – although Parks Canada say these are rare sightings.
Recently Q and I had the pleasure of spending a weekend at the Bruce. Funny, since it is supposedly rare, we should spot a black bear while entering the park. Unfortunately I did not have my camera set correctly (it was left on a previous outings settings) so the picture is crap, but there he was in all his glory. All fluffy and cute while eating dandelions. After our impromptu photo op with the wild bear we headed into the town of Tobermory where the park’s visitor centre resides. This fairly new building provides information with area exhibits on display, theatre programs about the park and a lookout tower to allow you the opportunity to view the park from above.
There is a fee to enter the park and it is in your best interest to get an annual pass – especially if you are camping as a group or will be in the park for more than a couple of days. This pass allows you entry into over 100 national parks, historic sites and conservation areas across Canada. It is well worth it’s weight in gold if you plan on travelling to more than one of the venues covered by the pass. Short of the fee, the only other thing you should be concerned with is that the Bruce Peninsula is very popular. During their busy season (July and August) you may not find parking at any of their sites if you come later in the day. Arrive early during these months or visit during the off-season or on a week day.
There are several entry points into the park – all with their own extraordinary attraction. To see all the park you really do need more than a weekend to visit. Plan your stay for a week to ensure you get to see all the wonderful things the park has to offer – such as the singing sands, shipwrecks, cliffs, caves and beaches.
Our first stop was Cypress Lake. This area of the park contains the campground, access to The Grotto and Indian Head Cove and is the most popular by far. Trails are well-marked with a map key that instructs you where the path wanders. We began with the Marr Lake to Georgian Bay trail, which is a 3 km loop that takes approximately 3 hours to complete due to physical demands the Marr Lake portion of the trail requires. You climb up and over large rocks as the path ascends and descends different elevations. You definitely need to be able to climb and have a sturdy pair of hiking shoes, if not hiking boots.
This trail is abundant with plant and wildlife and wanders through forest, swampy areas and past Marr Lake. Flowers defy logic and grow among the rocks. Rocks sit among the flowers and insects hide on the forest floor.
You enter a boulder beach once past Marr lake which is your first glimpse of Georgian Bay. This stretch of the trail is an exercise in patience and composure. The boulders, which on average were the size of a beach ball, were slippery and moved under your feet. You are forced to step slowly, methodically and use every muscle from the tip of your toes to your neck to keep you balanced while maneuvering the moving platform beneath you. Hence the need for patience.
Once at the water’s edge I laid down on the rocks to snap some photos. With the camera to my eye I felt something bite me. I began thinking about how peculiar it was that we had not seen one mosquito while in the woods but now I was at the beach being bitten. How was the wind not blowing them away? Why was there none in the forest? It took a second bite before I put the camera down and looked down at my legs, strewn across the rocks. It was then that I saw my assailant. I should say, assailants! These were not mosquitos eating me for lunch, but rather large, thick black spiders probably perturbed that I was sitting on their home. And there was not one or two, there were hundreds of them, the size of a half a tangerine, climbing all over and under the rocks. I love the great outdoors, I really do. I can be intimidated and frightened by bears or other large predators. I don’t like bats swooping my head or other small critters getting aggressive. But I absolutely hate bugs! Especially large, disgusting spiders.
Needless to say I jumped to my feet fast now that my spidey sense had been alerted. Funny how Parks Canada didn’t mention this little gem in their wildlife advertisement! Now under different circumstances, hysterical screaming would have ensued followed by violent crying while I fled the area to safety. In fact, I would have made it all the way to Owen Sound before calming down… but remember two paragraphs back? I’m on a boulder beach where every step is calculated and slow so you don’t break a leg. Ahhh, we at last get to the exercise in composure! There I was deep behind enemy lines, the little buggers scampering all around me, people in every direction and short of looking like a psycho who had lost my mind, I tried to compose my self as I began my exit from the beach. Oh sure, I was screaming like a lunatic in my head with frenzied sobbing intermingled, but externally I was as cool as a cucumber. The only hint something might be awry was when I screamed at Q to grab my arm and haul ass towards the nearby cliffs. As we approached the cliffs my heart began to settle realizing my terrifying ordeal was almost over. That’s when a half a metre long, black snake slithered underneath me as I stepped over the last few boulders to safety. I almost puked on my feet. It wasn’t until days later when I finally saw a picture of a snake exactly like the one that wiggled underneath that I realized it was a Massasauga rattlesnake. Yes, a rattlesnake. An endangered snake at that and the second animal Park’s Canada said was rare to spot. I had now witnessed both rare sightings. I guess I’m just lucky. But it got me thinking. Maybe that’s why they don’t mention the spiders – with hundreds of them in the rocks, they’re not rare!
Once at the base of the cliffs I noticed this seagull. He seemed to be watching me almost with a smile on his face like I was providing entertainment for his pleasure. I snapped this photo as it seemed he was posing for me. Strange this seagull.
We never did find The Grotto – due to the panic attack from the boulder beach episode, but we did find another cave along the cliffs. These caves have been carved out by the water, pounding against the rocks for thousands of years. Some even have rabbit holes (holes on land that lead into the cave) that allow for exploring by land. Once on the cliffs we were now hiking the famous Bruce trail to Indian Head Cove. Again, there is a lot of climbing up and down the cliffs and one has to be careful as you are near the edge on much of the hike.
Tired from battling spiders and snakes, we had decided we would stop at the cove for lunch. The views are spectacular and the topography amazing. What I wasn’t thrilled with was the hundreds of people at the cove – splattered at all levels all over the cliffs. After the gruelling climb we just had I was dumbfounded. How the hell did all of these people get here? How did these seniors I see perched on a ledge make it past the spiders on Boulder Beach? My first instinct was to keep moving since I really wanted this to be about me and nature. Not me and hundreds of others and nature. But I was tired… and hungry and maybe just a wee bit pouty.
Q and I climbed to a higher cliff to the side of where the majority of people were. I swung my feet over the edge marvelling at the view. I then pulled my legs back up when I remembered the spiders. A scare like that might send me over the edge quite literally should something crawl on my leg while I’m dangling off the cliff. With my knees up to the edge I sat eating my lunch while devouring the view. I turned towards Q to my right as we chatted. Suddenly I heard an “excuse me” to my left. I turned to some guy’s crotch thrust in my face as he attempted to step over me to pass. All I have to say is this guy is pretty friggin lucky. I’m a jumpy person and after an episode like that on spider beach, I mean Boulder Beach, he’s lucky I didn’t scream and just push him off the cliff. I did scream but instead of pushing him, I grabbed him. The momentum of my grab put him off-balance and he grabbed back at me so as not to tumble off the edge. People fall from these cliffs often enough. Why? Because they do stupid shit like this idiot and step in front of you to pass when there are alternate routes behind you that are safe. If you go to the Bruce please don’t be a moron.
I kept eating, trying to calm down from the excitement of the shithead almost losing his balance. It was no more than mere minutes when this seagull landed within feet of me. I swear to God it was the same friggin seagull from Boulder Beach. Why do I say this? Because I never saw another seagull the entire time I was there. Just one. It was like this guy had bought rights to the Bruce or something and no other seagull was allowed to poach for bread crumbs and such from the unsuspecting tourists. I brought my bag up to my chest as I began to whine, swatting him away to no avail. Then I thought, why am I scared? He’s just a hungry bird. I threw him some seed treats I had, hoping he’d stop staring at me with those eyes… You know those eyes – the one your dog gives you. They stare, putting you in a trance and communicate via ESP “give the __ (insert whatever animal) some food”.
After Q, the seagull and I finished our meal we climbed down from the highest cliff to find the Georgian Bay trail back to the parking lot. Right at the apex of the cove we found outdoor toilets. Not crappy ones either. These were clean, environmentally friendly and easily accessible. I would have climbed Boulder Beach just to get to such a nice bathroom. It’s at these toilets that the Georgian Bay trail converges with the Bruce trail. And holy shit – the Georgian Bay trail was like a paved highway and it was moving about the same amount of people on it. This is how so many people, young and old, strong and weak had made it to the cove. You could be in a wheel chair and make it to the toilets this path was so maintained. It’s funny, I remembered reading a post on Trip Advisor where someone had stated that the trails at Bruce Peninsula were horrible and unkept – not maintained at all. I realized the stupid fool should have asked for a map and researched the trails – they were probably on Marr Lake which is rated difficult. They obviously didn’t see the Georgian Bay trail which was close to needing traffic signs it was so highly used because of how “easy” and “maintained” it was.
Any way, what a great idea. Anyone has the ability to see Indian Head Cove and I was no longer annoyed by the number of visitors sitting on the cliffs. Although I did pause, concerned that there were more people than mosquitoes in this area of the park.
Even though we stopped for lunch, our hike still took us 3 hours back to the parking lot. If you don’t stop and are in relatively ok shape you can probably make it in under the 3 hour estimate.
Although our day had been pretty eventful thus far, I wasn’t done. I wanted to hike Halfway Log Dump trail, a 1 km path through a wooded area which lead to another beach. Unlike Cypress Lake there were no people at this area but there were a ton of mosquitos. It was like the dinner bell rang as we arrived and entered the woods. We moved quickly and made it to the beach. The rocks here were the size of one or two baseballs, were still slippery and moved when you walked and yep, just like Boulder Beach it was loaded with those damn giant spiders. But unlike Boulder Beach you can move easier and swifter. We spent time at the water taking pics and then just before we left that lone seagull found me and flew by. I thought he was going to follow me home.
The geology of the bay and Bruce Peninsula is really marvellous. With it’s lush forest, aquamarine, clear waters, blue sky and giant bugs it really feels like something tropical. And yet it is here, right in our own back yard. Canada has many beautiful, breathtaking landscapes and the Bruce is one of her greatest. I urge you to take a visit when in Ontario or even if you live in Ontario.
Pictures are great but you don’t get the sense of being alive as you do when you feel the wind in your hair, the sun on your face and spiders up your pant leg.
~True North Nomad
What is your favourite activity or location at Bruce Peninsula National Park?
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