Muskoka is known as the centre of Ontario cottage country for weekend and summer refugees from the Golden Horseshoe’s concrete jungle. To most cottagers, Muskoka is also a chair – from which to stretch out one’s legs on the dock with a cold beer (or glass of rosé) close at hand.
But the Muskoka region is home to treasures that offer much more than lounging and decompressing from urban life. Its landscape lends itself perfectly to outdoorsy adventurers looking to soak in spectacular scenery.
The region’s trail network covers approximately 4,000 square kilometres of rugged terrain, weaving through vast forests of spruce, pine, poplar, tamarack, balsam and birch. The region is also home to approximately 1,600 freshwater lakes, each with cool waters that act as the perfect remedy after a long day’s excursion.
Heading north on Highway 11, Gravenhurst, Ont., is the self-proclaimed gateway to Muskoka. The town has been welcoming guests since the 19th century, offering a variety of outdoor activities, including steamship rides on the RMS Segwun – the oldest steamship operating in North America – and a vast network of hiking trails. A popular trail is Torrance Barrens Dark-Sky Preserve, a 30-minute drive northwest of the town.
Stretching six kilometres over low ridges of Precambrian bedrock and exposed wetlands, the trail can make for a difficult hike – and wet feet. But the trek is worth it, especially at night. Torrance Barrens was the first permanent Dark Sky Preserve in the world. The area is protected from development by 4,700 acres of Crown land, providing stargazers with unparalleled views.
To enjoy the night sky, it’s best to book accommodation nearby. Just north of Gravenhurst, wrapped around the southern edge of Lake Muskoka, is Taboo Muskoka. Carved into the dramatic scenery of the Canadian Shield, the resort’s 18-hole golf course is consistently voted among Canada’s best. After a day on the links, hit the water for a quick dip or rent a motorized boat or Sea-Doo for some fast-paced action. At the end of the day, settle into your luxury room with a lakeside view.
From Gravenhurst, Highway 11 forks right, winding northeast to Bracebridge and the heart of Muskoka. Located along the Muskoka River, the town plays host to the region’s true gems: its frothing waterfalls, carved into the granite rock of the Canadian Shield – starting with Bracebridge Falls, a roaring waterfall covered by the steel girders of the iconic Silver Bridge, which cuts straight through town. The falls include an easy 1.3-kilometre hike along the river.
Bracebridge also offers one of the region’s only treetop trekking adventures. If you like to feel your heart pounding and nothing but air under your feet, head to the Muskoka Zip Lines and Aerial Park. Located 10 minutes west of Bracebridge at Santa’s Village – yes, the big guy even makes appearances during the summer – the aerial park offers guided zipline tours, allowing you to screech through the air 13.5 metres above the ground. Guides lead you from platform to platform, whizzing past staggering white pines overlooking the Muskoka River. If this doesn’t have your amygdala firing, the park offers an aerial adventure course strung between the treetops. Don’t look down as you navigate tires, ropes and all kinds of swings. Or take a leap of faith from the park’s jump tower, where you’re clipped into an auto-belay device to free-fall 12 metres to the ground.
Back on solid ground, it’s time for a scenic hike. Located 18 kilometres northwest of Bracebridge, near the community of Milford Bay, is Huckleberry Rock Lookout trail, a 2.5-kilometre jaunt that climaxes in a breathtaking lookout over Lake Muskoka. Take time to check out the pink granite lining the trail – it’s more than a billion years old. For an optimal view, visit the lookout during sunset. As the sun creeps behind the tree line, the popsicle orange glow of its final rays will give you the feeling of being in a Tom Thomson painting.
After all this, you’ll be pining for a comfortable night’s rest. Look no further than the Patterson Kaye Resort. A 10-minute drive west of Bracebridge, the resort has been offering rustic and quaint lodgings for five generations, and guests can choose between 24 diverse cottages, from a full-service house to a cozy one-bedroom. During your stay, forge your way up the historic Muskoka River in a canoe or kayak, or enjoy the summer breeze on a cruise around Lake Muskoka in one of the resort’s motorboats.
Wave goodbye to Highway 11 as you head to Muskoka’s northern town of Huntsville. On the doorstep of Algonquin Provincial Park, the town offers access to some of the region’s most beautiful sites.
Ragged Falls, along the Oxtongue River Trail, is one of the few untouched waterfalls in the region, offering a serene refuge in the Muskoka wilderness. The entrance to the hike is east of Huntsville off Highway 60, near the entrance to Algonquin Provincial Park. A short hike rewards you with a wonderful view of Ragged Falls – a powerful demonstration of the raw force of glacial meltwater.
A more challenging hike awaits at Beetle Lake Trail, also off Highway 60, near Algonquin Outfitters. The trail stretches five kilometres through a hardwood forest and over shimmering creeks, culminating in a 30-metre rocky ridge overlooking Oxtongue Lake. The hike takes about two-and-a-half hours with a steep ascent and descent to and from the lookout. Prepare yourself: It will test the mettle of your quads.
The trail loops back to its start off Highway 60. If you’re not feeling too beat up after the hike, visit Algonquin Outfitters. Opened in 1961 by a former park ranger, the store has everything you need to explore nearby Algonquin Provincial Park, including canoes, kayaks and camping gear. If solo bushwhacking isn’t your thing, the store offers guided canoeing day trips on Oxtongue Lake or Lake Opeongo.
Those with an appetite for something faster and on dry land should follow Highway 60 north to Algonquin Outfitters’ sister store on the Lake of Two Rivers inside Algonquin Park, where you can rent cruiser, mountain and fat bikes. Couples who like to share can rent tandem mountain bikes. Hit the Old Railway Line Bike Trail for a smooth ride that follows the historic Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway, decommissioned in 1959. The trail is mostly flat and provides a leisurely 16-kilometre ride along the Madawaska River.
If navigating steep hills and rugged mountain terrain is more your speed, grab a mountain bike and take the Minnesing Mountain Bike Trail. The trail runs 32 kilometres long over rocks, roots, hills and mud and is not for faint-of-heart riders who prefer to keep both hands on the brakes.
With all this activity, you’re bound to have worked up an appetite. The Portage Store, a short drive west of the Lake of Two Rivers location, offers some of the best homemade burgers in the region. Grab a window seat with prime views of Algonquin Park and Canoe Lake, and order a round of fall-off-the-bone baby back ribs, marinated in chef Bonnie’s secret recipe of herbs and spices. The store also rents canoes and offers guided tours through Algonquin Park.
After a day of adventuring, you need a place to lay your head. Camping is an option in Algonquin, but for those who prefer the support of a good mattress, there are a number of options in the Huntsville area. For an authentic cabin experience, check out Cedar Grove Lodge. Operating since 1927, the resort stretches along 450 metres of Peninsula Lake’s picturesque shoreline. Rent a canoe, kayak, rowboat, paddleboard or windsurfer and explore the shimmering waters. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, take a bounce on the resort’s water trampoline or a whirl around the lake on a free water ski or tube ride. At the end of the day, curl up in front of your private log cabin’s wood-burning fireplace and relax.
Deerhurst Resort is another great option. On the northern shore of Peninsula Lake, the resort is known for giving country-pop goddess Shania Twain her start – but don’t spend all your time in the lounge. Get on the water with all manner of boards, boats and tubes, including the gravity-defying flyboard. Connected by a hose to a watercraft, the flyboard propels you into the air, reaching heights of 15 metres. For land-based fun, rip through the backwoods on an ATV, or head to nearby MJD Paintball to fire off a few rounds. Later, when looking for a spot to ice the resulting welts, settle into the resort’s newly opened Lakeside Lodge and choose from a range of cozy hotel rooms and vacation rentals.
A weekend trip is great, but won’t be sufficient to do it all. The more time you spend in Muskoka, the more you’ll realize how much is left to discover.