Park life: Exploring Ontario's Provincial Parks
With 250,000 lakes, thousands of islands, waterfalls, canyons and endless acres of forest, Ontario's landscapes are some of the province's greatest riches. The only problem is knowing where to start. But whether you want to go hiking and canoeing, to spot moose, beavers and other Canadian wildlife, or just to spend a night under the stars and toast marshmallows over a campfire, then you'll find somewhere to suit you in Ontario's Provincial Parks.
Ontario's 330 Provincial Parks span the province and cover a huge range of different landscapes and activities – if you added them all together then they'd make up over 7% of Ontario's landmass. They provide public access to some of the province's most beautiful areas. The parks are split into different categories – nature reserves, natural environment, waterways, wilderness, cultural heritage and recreation. Each has different things to see and do, and different reasons to visit.
Some parks focus on one special feature – like Kakabeka Falls near Thunder Bay. At 40 metres tall the 'Niagara of the North' is ten metres shorter than Ontario's most famous waterfall – and a lot less busy. But it's still an impressive sight, especially when the light catches the spray and it seems like the water's flowing through a rainbow. Down at the bottom of the canyon, the Kaministiquia River has cut into the rocks and revealed some of the world's oldest fossils which date back 1.6 million years. You can follow the boardwalk around the falls or take a hike out along the Mountain Portage Trail in the footsteps of the first visitors to the falls. Or in winter you can cross-country ski and skate.
Other parks focus more on recreation – like Aaron Provincial Park near the border with Manitoba. Thunder Lake in the park was formed by glaciers and its shallow waters make it great for swimming and boating. Or there are those parks where it's more about the landscapes themselves, whether that's because they're habitats for local wildlife or just because they're especially beautiful – like Killarney Provincial Park. It's one of the 'wilderness' parks so there aren't a lot of facilities. Instead the focus is on the natural, wild landscape, heading out on foot on in a canoe and getting away from it all.
Then there are some parks where it's their history that makes them special – like Lake Superior. This Provincial Park runs for 60 miles along the banks of the worlds' biggest lake. With sandy beaches and water stretching as far as you can see it's easy to forget you're not by the ocean. There are hiking routes along the shoreline or you can explore by canoe and fish for trout. But as well as its natural beauty, the park's also the site of some of Canada's best-preserved rock paintings. The Agawa Rock Pictographs were created by the Ojibwe people to record their dreams and stories. Red painted people, snakes and a mythological spiny animal with horns called the Misshepezhieu have been preserved on the rocks for hundreds of years.
What all the parks have in common is that they make the outdoors accessible to everyone. You can pick up a park newsletter or go to a ranger talk if you want to learn more about their history, wildlife, flora and geology. Hiring a car makes it easy to get around the parks and means you can choose a few favourites and create your own Provincial Park road trip. But if you don't want to drive then there are some parks which have a Park Bus service. From Toronto or Ottawa you can access parks like Algonquin, Gundy Lake, Killarney, Six-Mile Lake using the seasonal shuttle bus.
Some parks are only open for day use, but many have campgrounds so you can stay overnight. Camping inside the park means you're right in among everything – great for wildlife spotting and catching the park when it's at it most peaceful at sunrise and sunset. Each park has different camping options and there's usually a choice of pitches with and without electrical hookups. Prices vary depending on how busy the site, what facilities there are available and the size and position of your pitch, but usually range from $35–$51 a night (2016 fees). It's a good idea to book in advance, particularly on weekends and holidays. Or if you don't fancy camping then some parks have yurts or cabins you can rent instead.
The facilities in each park vary but the Ontario Parks website will tell you what you can expect from each one. Most have toilet blocks with hot showers and laundry rooms. If you're in an RV (motorhome) then there aren't usually water and sewage hookups on the pitches, but there are pumping stations where you can fill and empty your tanks, and plenty of freshwater taps. Most pitches come with a picnic table and bench, and a metal fire pit for your campfire. You can buy logs from the park office for that all-important campfire, and it's where you also register when you arrive. And on larger parks like Algonquin you also find visitors' centres, shops, and interpretive events like talks, films and tours.
If that all sounds a bit too hectic then there are a lot of backcountry campsites out in the wilderness too. You can only reach them by canoe or by hiking in and you have to carry all your own equipment, but it's a chance to uncover your very own patch of Ontarian natural paradise.