Backpacking for Couples

Backpacking Ontario’s Bruce Trail from Lion’s Head to Tobermory

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Photos by Douglas and Carol Cornell

May 24-29, 2014

The Niagara EscarpmentAfter thoroughly enjoying the challenge and beauty of backpacking the Coastal Trail in Lake Superior Provincial Park, Ontario, last year, we began to research other Great Lakes coastal hikes. After a bit of web surfing, I discovered the Bruce Trail, which mostly follows the Niagara Escarpment, a rocky ridge that runs 560 miles from Niagara Falls to the tip of the Bruce Peninsula. There are another 270 miles of side trails which make the Bruce Trail a blast to explore on any long weekend or backpacking trip.

For our hike, we used the Bruce Trail Reference Guide to select a section of the Bruce Trail that offers endless views of Lake Huron, manageable daily distances, and adequately-spaced campsites. Much of the Bruce Trail is on private land, and there is very limited camping. After thoroughly examining every bit of the information I could find about the Bruce, I concluded that unless one is willing to “stealth camp,” camping options are limited to provincial or national park campsites and private campgrounds. For this expedition, we were able to find campsites that came close to our goal of hiking 10 to 15 miles per day.

We relied upon Thorncrest Outfitters to help us fine-tune our itinerary and shuttle us to the trailhead. Thorncrest has a store in Tobermory, and with the help of James, we secured our permits and scheduled a shuttle ride for 8 am on Saturday, May 24.

Due to the extremely cold winter of 2014, spring was at least 3 weeks late in this part of Ontario. Fortunately for us, the forecast was for clear skies and pleasant hiking temperatures in the mid-60 degree range (F) for the next several days. Mosquitoes, black flies, and other annoying insects were just starting to hatch an were not much of a problem.

The Lion's Head LookoutDay 1: 10 Miles – James drove us south from Tobermory and dropped us off on the Cemetery Road trailhead. This would allow us to hike the entire Lion’s Head peninsula, which features many escarpment overlooks of Lake Huron. The trail surface, which is mostly lumpy limestone, meanders in and out of the forest, but we were never far from the cool air of the the lake. While the trail is not mountainous, it is hilly. We were generally pleased with our fitness and didn’t struggle too much to haul our packs up and down the path. About halfway around the peninsula, we passed one of the few lakeside campsites where we stopped for lunch. The high-point of the hike was reaching the Lion’s Head Overlook, which is possibly the most spectacular overlook in the entire Great Lakes region. There were a few day hikers out enjoying the scenery, and it was not crowded at all. As we continued, the trail trended downhill and we eventually reached a paved road that leads into the Lion’s Head Village. Our campsite was in a municipal park (519-793-3522, reservation recommended), and while it wasn’t exactly a backcountry site, it was clean, quiet, and had running water. There is a restaurant and grocery store within two blocks of the campground.

Day 2:  7 Miles – We left the village of Lion’s Head and walked for about one mile on a paved road before returning to the escarpment trail. After a short walk upon the escarpment, we re-emerged upon another paved road, which we followed for at least 2 miles. As we walked we marveled at the numerous vacation homes that lined the road. We eventually left the road and continued upon the escarpment until we reached the Reed’s Dump campsite. We set up camp and enjoyed a quiet afternoon and evening all alone on the shore of Lake Huron.

The Bruce Trail

Day 3: 17 Miles – This was going to be a long day. We set out early and kept the pace as fast as we could tolerate. The trail was quite lumpy but not too hilly. We walked through swamps, past quiet backcountry ponds, and along the banks of Lake Huron. To reduce mileage, we used every side-trail shortcut possible. In Dyer’s Bay, we chose to follow the road instead of the trail which reduced our hiking time by at least one hour. The final three miles were fairly grueling, but eventually we reached the gravel road that lead to the Mountain Trout Camp (reservations suggested). Dripping with sweat, Carol and I walked into the camp store where we each treated ourselves to a cold bottle of pop. The friendly park hosts, Kathie and Ron, realized how tired we were so they hauled our packs for us to our large campsite with their quad-runner! We were thankful for the camp’s clean showers and quiet and beautiful private lake.

Bruce Trail Meadow

Day 4: 9 Miles – We headed out on a 4-mile long dirt-road hike to find the entrance to the Bruce Peninsula National Park. While hiking on the road was rather unexciting, we did make good time. About a mile form the park entrance, a small dog joined us on the trail and refused to leave our sides. We tried repeatedly to get the pooch to run back towards home, but were eventually resigned to the fact that she had adopted us!

We headed north towards Lake Huron, mostly walking on snowmobile trails. This was the only section of the hike where the mosquitoes were bad. Finally we felt the cooler air of the lake, and we descended down a gnarly ridge (using the provided ropes) to reach the campsites. The dog, which I had now begun to call “Jo Jo”, was on the beach, waiting for us! We set up our tent on one of the provided platforms and spent the afternoon lounging on the beach. Jo Jo slept outside our tent, under the vestibule, and never made a sound all night. If we ever decide to adopt a dog, we want it to be just like Jo Jo.

Beach Front Property

Day 5: 6 Miles – Jo Jo lead us out on the trail where we hiked one of the toughest sections of the entire Bruce Trail. Nearly every step is upon the lumpy escarpment rock. Fortunately, the air was crisp and there were abundant views of Lake Huron. Shortly after reaching the Storm Haven campsite, we met two young ladies who agreed to take Jo Jo back to the park HQ that afternoon. We were relieved, because we were running out of food to share with this delightful dog.

Day 6: 14 Miles – We had another long day ahead of us, but were confident that we would finish the hike by early afternoon. The first 6 miles featured some of the Bruce Peninsula National Parksmost popular scenic features – including the Grotto, a popular swimming hole, and Little Cove. The trail is moderately difficult here, but it was very scenic and actually quite fun. We walked in and out of the forest, past a couple of beautiful inland lakes, and walked for a mile or two upon the rocky shore of Lake Huron. After lunch we walked through meadows, passed a golf course and cemetery, and stumbled over some very rugged escarpment. Finally, we found ourselves walking on a smooth pathway as we entered the Bruce National Park Visitor’s Center. Fifteen minutes later, we walked along the Tobermory village sidewalk and soon found our hotel. Carol and I congratulated each other for our efforts and I wiped a tear out of one eye, glad to be done but sad to be back in the civilized world.

Dawn over Lake Huron

Notes:

  • Watch out for snakes! There are rattlesnakes on the Bruce, but we did not see any. We did see lots of Gardner Snakes though.
  • There are black bears in this region. We didn’t encounter one, but we think we smelled one.
  • There is ample drinking water. Just filter it right out of Lake Huron.
  • Make sure to get a backcountry camping permit from the Bruce Peninsula National Park office near Tobermory.
  • Wear hiking boots – the escarpment is lumpy!