Bruce Peninsula National Park
Ice pans on Georgian Bay. Photo by Jim Baird

We stand on top of a weather worn limestone cliff, peering past thousand-year-old cedar trees to lay our eyes on an oceanic vista of crystal clear, radiant blue water. The cliffs of this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve stretch to our left and right as far as the eye can see, and the lake in front of us emulates the ocean as it leads the eye to the distant horizon. Thick pans of ice sweep out over half a mile from shore and clatter as they bump together while the waves travel underneath them. The weather is relatively warm despite the ice— it’s Easter weekend in Southern Ontario at Bruce Peninsula National Park. The peninsula is the last hurrah of the Niagara escarpment before it plunges into the depths of mighty Lake Huron. The massive 57 mile long cape acts as the physical boundary between Huron and Georgian Bay, and the national park encompasses 96 square miles of the Bruce Peninsula.

We step over 500 million year old fossils on a short walk from the cliff and discover a surreal icicle-clad cave surrounded by what seems like a never ending spectacle of unique and breathtaking geological formations. I look at my girlfriend Tori, “We have to come back here this summer with friends,” I say, and she agrees.

The national park is heavily visited, by Canadian standards, but very few visitors seek anything but day use in the off season when there are no fees or reservations required. The gates to the drive up sites are closed at this time of year, but don’t let that deter you. Just park in a designated lot and haul your stuff a couple hundred yards to a site if you want to spend the night.

With a toboggan, Tori and I drag our gear along a gravel road to a nice campsite. We burn the local wood we bought from an enterprising peninsula resident, one of several people selling firewood along Highway 6 near the park. Cutting wood in the park is illegal, as is bringing in any non-local wood. Invasive insects can be carried in transported firewood and, with the destructive Asian Longhorn Beetle encroaching on more regions in southern Ontario, this rule is undoubtedly important, as are 99% of the rules put in place by Parks Canada.

Bruce Peninsula National Park
One of many facinating geological formations in the park. Photo by Jim Baird

A sunny and brisk spring morning meets us the following day. Once again the Bruce’s meandering trails draw our attention. We trek through melting snow while traversing through shadowy forests of mixed hardwoods and evergreens on our way to check out some of the back country sites along a portion of the Bruce Trail. The 560-mile backpacking trail passes through the park and stretches for almost the entirety of the escarpment. Later we learn that fires are not permitted at any of the park’s back country sites.

Tori knows we are going to have to book well in advance and makes a call to the Parks Canada Reservation Service when we return home the next day. Reserving a site ahead of time is a must, especially for people planning a visit in peak season during the weekend. However, on weekdays during the summer, sites are available on shorter notice. Tori does most of the planning, I just nod. She books a site close to the water in the park’s Cypress Lake campground. The camping areas in the park are about a mile inland from the Georgian Bay coast where the dramatic cliffs and caves of the escarpment lie. This leaves the coast open for visitors to explore freely. Within a couple months, a few more friends join in. Luckily, we have two campsites booked— there are now twelve friends on board for this three-day summer extravaganza, and the park has a limit of six people per site.

Bruce Peninsula National Park
From left to right, Tori, Kelly, Jahrell, Heather, Ted, Jim, Will, Hailey, Brad, Tyler, Jay, Mary and Doser (bull dog). Photo by Mary Pawelek

“We’re going car camping and there will be other people around?” my brother Ted exclaims as I explain our fast approaching trip to the Bruce. Ted’s been booked for some time, but is just learning the details. He looks at me with a puzzled face.

You see, I’m not a car camper. In fact, I always try to get as far as possible into the back country. I want to be where there are no people and preferably as far away from roads as possible. My brother and I have even undertaken several multi-week canoe expeditions, deep into the roadless wilderness of Canada’s far north. I answer Ted with a resounding, “Yes! That’s how good this place is.” Fact is, Bruce is so amazing that even the most hardened back country adventurer can see past the increased traffic. Plus, there is always the option to backpack or paddle into one of the park’s water or foot access only sites.

The trip is underway, and I feel the cold water of the bay slap my skin. I open my eyes underwater and see an array of pocked limestone boulders through frothy bubbles in the clear water. I just broke the rules. A sign I unfortunately read on the way in from our Cypress campsite barked “No Cliff Jumping.” “Surely that sign didn’t mean this part of the park,” I tell my cousin Brad after my jump.

Bruce Peninsula National Park
Some other people (certainly not us) enjoy the rush of cliff jumping. Photo by Mary Pawelek

“Tell that to the judge” is his reply. I laugh, and we venture off the beaten path on the hot July day and find an area that sees less traffic, likely because of the minor spelunking and rock climbing efforts it takes to reach it. We spot a couple poison ivy patches on route and cautiously walk around them. It’s a good idea to learn what this nasty plant looks like, as it could become an issue on almost any outdoor pursuit in its range. I swim with Tori, Brad, Mary, Jay and Jaharell while others from our group explore the fascinating caves and rock formations at the water’s edge.

Bruce Peninsula National Park
The frosty Grotto Cave in early spring is a far cry from the renown swimming hole it becomes in summer. Photo by Jim Baird

The Grotto is a massive cave at the bottom of the peninsula’s limestone cliffs. You can swim or paddle in the cave where you’ll see glowing blue water illuminated by light that penetrates through an underwater entranceway; a passage that can be swum through by those daring enough to take the risk. Just south of where the Grotto can be viewed from the cliff tops, there is easy access to the water and this, the busiest part of the park’s coast, provides a beach-like environment. A few of us observing the Grotto cliffside want to get at the real action inside the cave. Luckily, we have canoes back at the site and we decide to explore it from the water the next day. A few friends head back to camp and spot a rare Massasauga Rattle Snake on the way. Will snaps a few good pics despite its intimidating rattling. The rest of us stay to brave the cool water and explore an overhang.

Bruce Peninsula National Park
These rare snakes are venomous, show them some due respect. Photo by Will Wilkinson

The following afternoon, two portages from Cypress Lake puts seven of us in canoes on the bay. We take some caution paddling in swells as we troll for trout and salmon. Tori, Mary and I paddle into a huge cave at Indian Head Cove. The view from the canoe to the cliff tops provides yet another amazing perspective and further deepens our appreciation for the majesty of the park. We pull our canoes up on the rocks in front of the Grotto. Inside the cave Tori and Mary jump off an eight-foot ledge into the Mediterranean-like water. The miracles of geology that created this place are beyond me, but it stands out as the most prominent geological formation in the park.

Bruce Peninsula National Park
The author explores a limestone ice cave. Photo by Tori Farquharson

In the Grotto we meet a group of friends from the Detroit, Michigan area who say they make a yearly pilgrimage to the park. “About a five-and-a-half hour drive from their end” they tell us. It took our group of friends about four hours to reach the park from Toronto, following Highway 10 through Orangeville, and then passing through Owen Sound and Waitron before arriving at the park. The park entrance is about 40 minutes from the tip of the peninsula and the town of Tobermory off the east side of Highway 6.

Chicken quesadillas, camp poutine and fresh fish seared in French fry oil makes for a delicious meal fireside as we raise cold beers in a toast to a great day. We booked a site outside of the designated Radio Free Zone, where the noise from our large group is more tolerated. On our final day, a patio lunch of fresh, locally caught whitefish in Tobermory enjoyed with the whole group provides a great send off to the highlight of my summer.

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