3-Day Getaway in the Bruce Peninsula
Summer in Canada is a fleet fox—a flash amongst the trees and then gone. It’s a reminder “to make much of time.” Fortunately, in doesn’t require much effort to shuck the bonds of urban sprawl in Canada and “front only the essential facts of life,” as Thoreau once pined. We are blessed with vast tracts of pristine wilderness.
The Bruce Peninsula in Ontario is one such highlight. Home to 2 National Parks, 8 Provincial Parks, 80 Conservation Areas, and more than 1000km of trail, the Bruce is a nature lover’s delight.
From Toronto, it’s a four-hour drive to the northern-most tip of Tobermory, and as such, the ideal location for a long weekend adventure.
Where to Stay
Land's End Park
Only three minutes from the village of Tobermory is the campground of Land's End Park. In addition to tent and trailer camping, Land's End rents a small number of rustic cabins. Set into the trees, these are the perfect way to unplug for a few days. The cabins are roomy and clean and offer immediate access to the outdoors. They each have one double bed and a set of bunks, as well as a table and chairs and shelving for storage. They are finished in rough-sawn pine and fully serviced with both electricity and water. Outside, there is a fire pit and a picnic table. Showers and toilets are conveniently located within a two to three-minute walk. The campground also offers access to a beach and boat docks.
Summer rates are $120CAD/night. In peak season (mid-June to early September), the park requires a minimum three-night stay. Bring your own bedding.
What to do?
Day One: It’s the journey, not the destination
In the AM...
First of all, take it easy. We suggest you begin the first leg of your journey two-and-half-hours north in the village of Thornbury. Start early and arrive for lunch. Nestled on the shores of Georgian Bay, Thornbury is gem of quaint shops, funky cafes, art galleries, and a fine selection of eateries. You can easily walk its Fishway Trail through the historic downtown, past its pebbled beach and tidy marina, over its pedestrian bridge and up to the famous fish ladder in under an hour. The fish ladder is a unique passage which allows migrating Salmon and Rainbow Trout to pass up and over the dam, where they can spawn in the Beaver River Basin. If you take your summer holidays in September, you might even catch them in the act.
We suggest a light lunch at Winifred’s next to the Fishway, overlooking the river and the park across the street. The pub is a sprawling historic home built in 1862, located right on the scenic Mill Pond. They serve upscale pub fare and Thornbury’s local Craft Cider. Don’t leave without trying the Posh Poutine.
From Thornbury, head north-west to the region around Owen Sound. Famous for its National Parks, the Bruce Peninsula also has numerous Conservation Areas worthy of a stop. Depending on your energy level, choose one, or a combination of the following sites for your afternoon. And if you’re still hungry, make a stop at Big Bay General Store, just off Grey Route 1 for some homemade ice cream. You can choose from such unique flavours as Chocolate Chai, Aztec, or Pumpkin Pie. It’s worth the detour.
In the PM...
Indian Falls Conservation Area
Indian Falls is a 0.7km hike on the outskirts of Owen Sound to a gorgeous bridal falls. The trail to the top of the Falls is an intermediate-to-difficult hike with rocky terrain, some steps, and slight elevation gain. Hiking to the bottom of the falls is not encouraged and can be somewhat more difficult. This lower "unofficial" trail is sometimes washed out after heavy rains. Parking is free.
Inglis Falls Conservation Area
Just outside Owen Sound is the Inglis Falls Conservation Area. This spectacular falls is the largest in the area and a popular day trip from Toronto. The falls is immediately present next to the old mill and parking lot. There are also hiking trails and picnic areas on site. Parking is $10CAD and must be paid in cash. Be aware, some outlooks are not fenced and present significant drops.
Bruce Caves Conservation area
Formed 8000 years ago, the Bruce Cave System is an easy twenty-minute round-trip hike not far from Wiarton, Ontario. The hike winds through rolling hills and forest and culminates at a sizeable cave system. A good visit can be had in about an hour-and-a-half. Parking is $10CAD and must be paid online or by phone on site. Note that the parking lot is small. As such, the caves are best visited in the morning.
From the Bruce Caves, it’s a one-hour drive to the village of Tobermory. Enjoy a meal of all-you-can-eat fish and chips at Shipwreck Lee’s and wash it down with a can of their proprietary Light Lager, Island Time, brewed by MacLean’s Ales of Hanover.
You can finish your day around the campfire at Land’s End.
Day Two: The Grotto & Flowerpot Island
In the AM…
Bruce Peninsula National Park is a wonder of windswept pebbled beaches, craggy cliffs, and mixed boreal forest. The Grotto (a shoreline sea cave), by far its most popular attraction, is where you’ll start you second day, a mere 15 minutes from Tobermory. Here you’ll take a short hike from the Cyprus Lake Parking Lot down to the shores of Georgian Bay. The path is an easy one, broad and flat. The gentle hike takes about an hour out and back, but you’ll want to stay and test crystal blue waters of nearby Indian Head Cove, and of course gape in awe at the turquoise waters of the Grotto.
Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit the Grotto each year, so you’ll need to plan ahead. Parking passes and access to the park should be booked in advance. These are available in four-hour blocks. Because the summer months are busiest, we recommend booking the morning block from 8am to noon. Crowds are smallest then.
Be sure to bring a swimsuit & towel, along with some water shoes. Also pack bug spray; black flies are an issue in the summer.
If you are more adventurous, there are two other hikes back to the parking lot. Horse Lake Trail is an intermediate hike, and Marr Lake Trail is a more advanced path. Neither is much longer than the Grotto hike.
TIP: If you find the beach at Indian Head Cove too crowded for your liking, backtrack a few hundred meters to the beginning of Horse Lake Trail. There is water easy access to the water there and you might be the only ones swimming!
In the PM…
Return to Tobermory for a light lunch once your time at the Grotto is up. Your afternoon and evening will be spent in Fathom Five National Marine Park . Fathom Five is a treasure trove of islands, lighthouses, shipwrecks, and marine ecosystems. As such, to fully experience everything it has to offer, you’ll want to book a glass-bottomed boat cruise to the wrecks in Big Tub Harbour with a stop on Flowerpot Island.
Blue Heron Cruises has the largest glass-bottomed boats on the peninsula. The cost is $60/adult. The cruise to Flowerpot Island lasts about 50 minutes but includes a stop at two of the areas more than twenty shipwreck sites. You will get up close and personal with the ironically named Sweepstakes—a Canadian built Schooner that ran aground near Cove Island in 1885 and eventually sank, after being towed into Big Tub Harbour. The wreck lists only a dozen feet below the surface and is easily visible over the rails of your cruise ship, or through the glass portals inside the boat. The wreck is huge (36m in length) and occupies much of the harbour. Despite its age, the schooner is known as one of the best-preserved eighteenth-century wrecks in the Great Lakes system. You will also be able to view the The City of Grand Rapids wreck only meters away, which went down after a fire in 1907.
Once on Flowerpot Island, there are a number of hikes from which to choose, which range from easy to difficult. It is a short but pleasant walk from the pier to Lighthouse Keeper’s Residence on the far side of the island. There are washrooms there, as well as a small snack bar. Along the way, there are numerous rocky beaches and coves where you can picnic and swim, not to mention the iconic “flowerpots” which have made the island famous. The two remaining flowerpots (one collapsed in 1903) are actually more appropriately known as sea stacks—rock pillars that endured after wind, rain, and waves eroded the softer rock in the cliffside behind them.
A couple of hours is enough to experience what the island has to offer. The last cruise leaves Tobermory in the neighbourhood of 3pm and returns before 7pm in the summer. Be sure to obey the return time on your ticket, or you will be open air camping until morning! The return trip takes only 20 minutes.
Try the Tobermory Brewing Company & Grill for supper. Conveniently located above the harbour, you enjoy views over the village while you enjoy a pint of their very own craft beer. In fact, you take a “growler” with you to enjoy back at the cabin around your campfire.
TIP: Firewood is available for $10/bundle at the Land’s End Office; however, many locals sell similar sized bags at the roadside for half the price if you wish to plan ahead.
Day Three: Halfway Log Dump & the Tobermory Shops
In the AM…
It’s nice to see things while your on vacation, but a little rest and relaxation can’t hurt. Day three is all about R&R. Another highlight of the Bruce Peninsula National Park is Halfway Log Dump, about 25 minutes south of Tobermory at the end of Emmett Lake Road. Almost as popular as The Grotto, Halfway Log Dump is an area formerly used by loggers to “dump” their cuttings and float them down to the southern sawmills.
You’ll need to book a parking pass, as you had with The Grotto. These come in 6-hour blocks. It is only a short hike to HWLD, but once there you’ll have a choice of three beaches: Shelf, The Maze, and Terminal. These are great places to swim and snorkel. The waters are crystal clear, and the rock formations pose many points of interest. While popular, this area is much larger than Indian Cove Beach at the Grotto, allowing denizens to spread out. Pack a lunch and make a day of it.
Tip: These are not sand beaches. Bring water shoes to best enjoy the locale. As always in the National Park, bring plenty of bug spray, as well!
In the PM…
When you’ve had your fill of sun and wind and water, head back to Tobermory for a slow afternoon of browsing the shops. For a town of its size, Tobermory has a surprisingly vibrant harbour community with dive shops, clothing outlets, art galleries, and more. The Blue Heron Cruise Line owns and operates three of them: Blue Heron Clothing & Outfitters, The Net Shed, and the Mariner Chart Shop. A purchase in one of them will get you a 10% discount in the others.
Losing weight? Fight back. Make a stop at the popular Sweetshop.
When you’ve completed your retail therapy session, settle into Coconut Joe’s Harbour Bar and Grill. Taco’s and burgers are the order of the day, and if you time it right, you’ll be in the best spot to watch the sunset.
Spend your last night around the tranquility of your campfire. Head home in the morning refreshed.