Muskoka is one of, if not the, most popular tourist destinations in Ontario. Ontarians, themselves, are particularly fond of the region, which extends to those lakelands lying north of Huronia between Georgian Bay and Algonquin Park. From Barrie, the town of Gravenhurst, Muskoka’s southernmost major center, can be reached on Hwy 11 in just over forty minutes.
Muskoka is lodge country, and if you do visit the area you should certainly try to indulge, at least for a couple of days, in this unique sort of vacationing. In 1870 a wealthy New York banker, W.H. Pratt, built a mansion on Lake Rousseau and began to charge visitors to stay overnight. Though locals thought Pratt was daft, his idea caught on and in the years that followed similar lodges cropped up in the region. Originally these resort lodges served the rich from Toronto and nearby American cities, but today they cater to people of all, or at least most, financial portfolios. Basically, the lodges serve those who enjoy the great outdoors but not so much that they wouldn’t prefer a comfortable building separating them from it while they sleep. Most of the resorts, though some are more luxurious, offer only the most basic amenities, along with home-cooked style breakfasts and dinners. The rooms are clean, the decor simple, and the living slow and easy – ice tea on the veranda with a board game before a walk to the local community hall for a bingo match might make up an evening’s schedule. The day, of course, would be spent at the lake, canoeing, waterskiing, or swimming, and in the winter, crosscountry skiing or skating.
The lake system is particularly ideal for vacationing because the 1600 lakes are dotted with hundreds of small islands. This geographical feature gives the lodges both a sense of intimacy and isolation as well as canoe and boat access to long (uncharted, for the visitor) stretches of water. The land itself is dominated by forest and rock. The Canadian Shield underlies the region and, though the area is rich in dark greens, the greys and browns of this billion year old rock bare themselves, crashing through the landscape, where the trees can’t find enough soil to grow.
If you are driving, the best way to investigate Muskoka is by touring the three largest lake areas: Lake Muskoka in its central southern region, Lake Rousseau in the northwest, and The Lake of Bays in the northeast.
The Lake Muskoka route, which covers about 37 mi (60 km) begins at Gravenhurst, which is a typically pretty Ontario town, given a kind of elegance and instant stature by its Victorian architecture. The town acts as a dock for the R.M.S. Segwun, North America’s last authentic steamship. Built in Scotland in 1887 and reconstructed in 1925, the ship provides a scenic cruise (May to October) of Lake Muskoka. There is plenty of room to roam on deck but the ship best serves the romantics along for the journey. There is a windowed restaurant on board, affording sweethearts an opportunity to watch the Muskoka sun set below the horizon while sharing a frosted desert. The town also offers an exciting floating barge at nearby Gull Lake Park, and concerts are held in the bandstand on sunday evenings in summer.
From Gravenhurst travel north on Hwy 169 to Bala. The small rural community is called the “Bridge Town,” because, set as it is between the Mill Stream and Bala Falls, it boasts eight bridges. The Falls are the best feature of Bala. Though the entire area, not surprisingly, is awash with the sounds and smells of rushing water. The highway continues on through Glen Orchard and turn east or right on Hwy 118 to Port Caning. (A turn onto Route 7 north, just before Port Curling, would set you on your way on the Lake Rousseau circle tour). Sitting between Lake Muskoka and Lake Rousseau, this pretty little town offers an ideal lodge setting. It was originally an Ojibwa village but white settlement forced its original occupants to leave. In the mid-1880s, however, Mohawk and Caughnawaga Indians moved into the area, and today a small Indian village, selling native handicrafts, lies along the shoreline. In the summer the town’s Muskoka Festival offers first-rate theater at the Memorial Hall. And if you’d like a vigourous diversion, take Mortimer’s Point Rd., which is south of the town, and find Lakeview Stables (705-765-3513). A bracing, romantic one-hour trail ride on horseback through scenic woods is available there at a rate of $15.00/hr.
From Port Carling, Hwy 118 travels southeast to Bracebridge. Along the way, just beyond Valley Green Beach, is a most unusual site, the Huckleberry Rock Cut. For a short stretch, the highway steers a course between two sheer walls of pink granite. This roofless tunnel was blasted out by man, but the deep geometric cut looks like it was carved by a steady knife-wielding hand extending down from the heavens. Bracebridge completes the circle tour of Lake Muskoka. The town is another major tourist center in the region. Sitting on the cascading Muskoka River, it is an ideal place to go for walks or cycling. A 2.5hour boat cruise through Lake Muskoka leaves from its downtown waterfront. Or there is the amusement complex Santa’s Village just 2.5 mi (4 km) west on Santa’s Village Rd., offering a huge entertainment program for children.
The Rousseau Lake circle tour begins at Port Caning or, if you’re getting off the Lake Muskoka route at Glen Orchard, at the junction of Route 7 and Hwy 118. This tour is a must because the road cuts through terrific nature offering breathtaking beauty. It is utterly free of any contrived tourist snare. Take 7 north until it becomes Hwy 632 north. At the top of this highway, just before it meets Hwy 141, you will discover Shadow River.
The rivers in this area are widely known for their stillness and thereby for their ability to reflect. Named for the overhanging branches mirrored in its placid waters, the Shadow River creates a magnificently tranquil environment. From the river take Hwy 141 south until you reach the Rousseau River rapids some 7 km away. You may wish to stop here for a picnic or continue through on the next spectacular stretch of road which, around Skeleton Bay, includes dramatic cliffs, the Bent River, and the bay so close it threatens to overflow into the car. At Ullswater take Route 24 south. On this route you may wish to turn left at North Shore Rd. to see the Dee Bank Falls, or, if you’re resorting, you may wish to travel just a little farther on 24 until you see a sign which directs you to the town of Windermere, where one of
the areas oldest and most elegant resorts, Windermere House, sits. The entire tour lasts about 38 mi (60 km).
The Lake of Bays circle tour, at over 62 mi (100 km). is considerably longer than the other two tours. It is also farther from Huronia, requiring a 38.5-mi (61km) trip north up Hwy 11 from Orillia and then, just above Bracebridge, another 10-mi (16-km) ride east on Hwy 117 until you reach Baysville. From this former logging village you can travel up either side of the Lake of Bays. Hwy 17, along the western shoreline, offers the more interesting of the two trips. The colors along this hilly stretch are particularly beautiful in the fall. After traveling 7 mi (11 km) to Browns Brae, be sure to get on to the Old Highway 117 for a short stretch. It brings you closer to the shoreline and also to the lovely, relatively new, Lake of Bays Park. A giant sturgeon is said to terrorize the swimmers in the bay here. Back on the new 117 the town of Dorset is no longer very far. Here stands the famous Dorset tower in
Fire Tower Park (follow the signs). Originally used to spot fires, this enormous construction now attracts a steady stream of fearless visitors, who, wishing to take in the breathtaking panoramic scenery which surrounds it, must climb its creaking metal staircase to reach its boxed in upper deck. The trek up is a bit unnerving but well worth the effort. Dorset is also home to Robinson’s General Store, generally, or at least locally, known as Canada’s greatest general store, primarily for its wide variety of first-rate goods.
From Dorset Hwy 35 passes by, first, magnificent rock cuts at Birkendale, and then the robust Marsh’s Falls, before reaching the junction of Hwys 35 and 60. Turn right and now you’re just a short drive away from Algonquin Provincial Park’s west gate. If you wish to complete the Lake of Bays circle tour, turn left on the 60 and then left again when you reach Route 9 south. It will take you back to Baysville. There is nothing particularly noteworthy along the way, but the drive provides many chances to see and get close to the lake. Its cool, shallow waters are ideal for wading and splashing around in.