Jim Byers photo
Stunning George Lake is an easily accessible lake in Killarney Provincial Park, with campgrounds and nice beaches just off the main road.
KILLARNEY PROVINCIAL PARK – Some of the best hiking in Canada. Incredible kayaking and canoeing in pristine lakes surrounded by white quartz mountains and pale red rock. And brilliant sunsets over glorious Georgian Bay.
There’s no place like this in Ontario.
There’s probably no place like it anywhere in the world, for that matter.
I had the good fortune to spend a few summer days in the town of Killarney and in the park, about four hours north of Toronto. I managed a short boat ride to a brilliant bay, took a kayaking trip on a quiet stretch of coast to a beautiful lighthouse, canoed in one of Ontario’s prettiest lakes and took a contemplative hike up Granite Ridge, where I was rewarded with stunning views of the rugged, pale white LaCloche Mountains and views of Georgian Bay stretching out to somewhere near infinity.
It was my first visit. It won’t be my last.
My first day I was lucky enough to snag a boat ride with Bungy, who works part time as a tour guide with Killarney Outfitters and the Killarney Mountain Lodge . Bungy is not his real name, but I was told that many of the men in Killarney, a small town of a few hundred souls, have odd nicknames, including Strawberry, Rug Bear and Teapot. Women are often given their husband’s nickname as their go-to last name, so somewhere you might find a Mrs. Bungy or Mrs. Teapot.
Jim Byers photo
Indian Head Rock is a cool formation in a pretty bay close to the town of Killarney.
Anyhow, Bungy takes me up to Covered Portage Cove, where a giant branch of the ancient LaCloche Mountains (once higher than the Rockies but worn down by eons of time and sun and snow and ice and rain and wind, they say) can be seen rising up behind this pretty, tranquil bay. The protection of the mountains helps shelter the bay from north winds on even the most blustery of days, thus making this a perfect haven for boats of all kinds.
As we cruise past a point of rocky land, Bungy angles the boat perfectly so I can see what looks like the outline of a native American in the rock, a formation known as Indian Head Rock.
We slide over the open water, admiring flat Georgian Bay rocks pounded by water and sun over the centuries. Some rocks are brilliant red dashed with inky black swatches. Others look like they’ve been dusted with iron rust or gold. Some are rounded but others are jagged and slanted and twisted and beaded and braided into wildly imaginative shapes.
“Everyone who comes here, generally speaking, is interested in some activity: kayaking or canoeing or sailing or hiking or rock hounding or fishing, that sort of thing,” says Maury East, owner of the Killarney Mountain Lodge for some 52 years.
“It’s every one. Old, young, fat, thin. You name it,” says his wife, Annabelle.
Maury, an old hand at running hotels in Ontario, says every property needs its unique selling point. Killarney’s is the unique mix of parks and forests and lakes that feel like a more mountainous version of Algonquin Provincial Park, mixed or contrasted with the smooth, rocky shores that have beckoned cottagers and vacationing city folks to Georgian Bay for decades.
The next day, Killarney worker Megan Roulet takes me on a two-hour walk on quiet George Island. It’s just a few feet across the channel from the lodge but another world. Once you get past the scattered cottages on the south side of the island it’s all nature; woodsy trails under massive boughs of fragrant pine and lush marshes the colour of an Irish field after a spring rain.
As we cross through the marsh I glance to my left and see a young bear sunning himself on a rock. We pick up our noise level to let him know we’re around and keep marching.
Megan tells me about the nearby tar vats that natives dipped their fishing nets into for added strength. We talk about the forest and stop to admire the views along the way, especially when we get to the edge of Georgian Bay and soak up a glorious vista including wildflowers, open stretches of blue water and the LaCloche range in the distance.
“We often see turtles and deer and otter or beaver,” Megan tells me. “Lots of people just come over and camp, but there’s no organized campground.”
Jim Byers photo
A hike along George Island provides lovely views of Georgian Bay.
You can take a three-hour loop on a marked trail on your own, but the folks at the lodge suggest you check in with them first so they can track you if needed.
Later I meet with Kris Puhvel, executive director of the non-profit group Friends of Killarney . It’s a group where volunteers work to keep the park clean and the eco-system working smoothly. One weekend might be clearing brush or planting trees, and another smoothing out the park’s 130 or so campsites so folks can enjoy their nature experience a little more.
We chat briefly about the massive, 645-square-kilometer park as we make our way to a lovely campsite (number 77 if you want to know), where you’ll find a picnic table overlooking a sensational part of Lake George.
“A lot of people really have their hearts in Killarney,” Puhvel tells me. “There’s no roads except the main access point and we don’t allow snowmobiles. Folks hike and canoe and kayak in spring, summer and fall. In winter it’s great for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.”
In addition to camp sites, Killarney Provincial Park offers small tent-like units called yurts, complete with gas bbq’s and electric heat. The yurts can be rented year-round.
This year marks the 50 th anniversary of the park, an area made famous in part by Group of Seven painters, who loved the mountains and the 50-odd lakes inside what is now a provincial park and the lovely light in this part of Ontario.
Puhvel tells me some of the lakes were damaged by acid rain but that they’re coming back.
Jim Byers photo
A paddle along George Lake is a must-do activity in Killarney Provincial Park.
“Fish are reproducing naturally now in George Lake so it’s hugely promising.”
I take a short canoe ride around the lake on my own, paddling in the shadow of 20 to 30 meter high cliffs of sheer rock and admiring the white quartz of the LaCloche Mountains, one of the oldest mountain ranges on this good earth of ours. It’s about as pretty a spot as you’ll find; tranquil and majestic and serene.
I admire the glorious pink/red rocks along the shores of the deep blue lake under a shimmering summer sky. A canoeist at one end of the lake is paddling behind a friend who’s making a long-distance swim. At the other end, kids are playing Frisbee at one of the beaches near the park’s campsite.
The folks at Killarney Outfitters will rent you a canoe for an hour or two if you like. They also can arrange full trips for several days or longer, complete with camping gear and meals (think Angus steaks, frozen pasta and even bacon and eggs that can last several days) and even gravity fed water purifiers.
The store offers up gear for purchases, as well as cool sweatshirts and nice coffee for the road.
“We only have one level of service and that’s the best we can do,” says the head of operations, Ted East (Maury’s son). “We’ll take care of everything. We’ll plan your route and get your gear and your maps, the whole shebang. We like to say that all people need to bring is a toothbrush.”
Jim Byers photo
The Granite Ridge hike in Killarney is fairly easy but hugely rewarding.
In addition to my canoe ride in the park, I also find time to do the Granite Ridge hike, a two-km long loop trail that rises through gorgeous forests.
(Trails in Killarney can go as long as 78 kilometers, so I was basically crawling where others actually walk.)
The trees are so thick at the first part of the trail that I can hardly see the sky. I’m soon in a pretty meadow, and then traipsing through a light forest with filtered sun slanting through the trees. I spot an old, rusted out truck in the shade of a thicket of trees and part of another car later on. It’s not natural, but it’s kinda cool and adds to the atmosphere of the hike.
I quickly start a pretty nice climb, scrambling over small rocks and thick pine tree roots that look like a tangled mess of cooked spaghetti. I reach the top after perhaps a half hour of walking and am rewarded with fantastic views of the mountains on one side and Georgian Bay on the other.
Jim Byers photo
Be sure to take a kayak ride out to East Lighthouse if you’re in the Killarney area.
It’s not a difficult trail at all, but it could be sloppy and slippery if it’s rained so stop in the park headquarters for advice. And a map. I foolishly forgot a trail map but didn’t have much trouble owing to the steady markings along the way.
The next morning is quiet and still, so I grab a kayak from the shore of the Killarney Mountain Lodge and head out along the channel. I paddle down to what’s called East Lighthouse, spotting loons and cormorants bobbing in the water and watching boisterous Canada geese flying overhead. I admire the open skies and listen to the water slap against that famous Georgian Bay rock.