BY CRAIG MOY
According to the 2011 census, 81 per cent of Canadians now live in urban areas. In Ontario, that number is even higher—86 per cent. And yet a significant part of our national identity remains tied to the frontier, the wilderness. We may live in condos and work in cubicles, but our hearts still yearn for open spaces.
Fortunately, Ontario boasts bounteous natural expanses (national and provincial parks, as well as locally administered conservation areas) for exploration and recreation. Many of these sites are within reasonable distance from the Greater Toronto Area, but not so close as to be overrun with visitors.
If total relaxation is the goal of your outdoor excursion, set your sights on Sandbanks Provincial Park. This oasis at the southwest edge of Prince Edward County is a superb summertime destination, with sprawling white-sand beaches—secluded from the rest of the park by a network of dunes—that slope gracefully into the cool water of Lake Ontario. Aside from your swimsuit, be sure to bring a big blanket and a book to maximize your leisure time. Or pack a picnic lunch with local ingredients from the county’s many farm-fresh markets.
The rolling dunes tend to be a little more windswept at Pinery Provincial Park on the eastern edge of Lake Huron, just a short drive from Bayfield and Grand Bend. The occasional bout of blustery weather, though, is more than made up for by the often-stunning sunsets viewable from the park’s 10 kilometres of shoreline. And by the trails that travel through verdant forest and rare oak savanna. And by the Old Ausable Channel, a lovely, calm waterway that’s perfect for an afternoon paddle. Indeed there’s much to see and do across the park’s 6,330 acres, which helps explain why it’s also very popular with campers seeking a multi-day getaway.
Of course, the most rugged among us will claim there is but one true way to experience park life Ontario: interior camping at Algonquin Provincial Park, the vast swathe of wilderness north of Muskoka. Find yourself lacking the appropriate equipment and expertise for that endeavor? There’s still all manner of adventure to be had—from hiking more than 20 scenic trails to fishing for trout and bass to renting a canoe and gliding through a 2,100-kilometre-long system of lakes and rivers. And be sure to bring along your camera: although autumn is when you’ll find Algonquin at its most photogenic, the diversity of its ecology and wildlife ensure there’s more than enough opportunity to capture beautiful memories year-round.
5 THEMED EXCURSIONS
• Thrill seekers get wet at the Elora Gorge, a stretch of the Grand River notable for its Limestone cliffs and rushing rapids. Here, experienced canoeist and kayakers test their mettle in the whitewater, while others rent inner tubes and float down the river at a slightly more languid pace. The nearby Elora Quarry is a popular swimming hole.
• Serious hikers head to the Bruce Trail, a nearly 900-kilometre route tracing the geologically significant Niagara Escarpment all the way from Queenston to Tobermory. Walking the whole way (yes, it’s been done!) can take two or three weeks; of course, entry points abound for shorter strolls.
• By dint of its geography and protected mix of forests, grasslands and wetlands, the Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area, about 20 kilometres southeast of Picton, is one of Canada’s best spots for bird watching. More than 350 species—everything from ruby-throated hummingbirds to golden eagles—have been recorded here; it’s an especially busy spot during the spring and fall migration.
• It may go against your better judgment, but you’ll be rewarded for waiting until dusk to visit Muskoka’s Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Preserve. The rugged, nearly 5,000-acre plain of Precambrian Shield is remote from urban light sources, making it an ideal site for stargazing. Don’t forget to bring a tripod to help capture some great long-exposure photos!
• If you can’t make it out of the big city, but still need to escape the concrete jungle, make Rouge Park your destination for the day. At Toronto’s northeastern edge, this “urban wilderness” covers more than 10,000 acres of forest, meadow and marsh, and is crisscrossed by rustic hiking trails.