Photograph by Willy Waterton, Parks Canada
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The Canadian Shield landscape in Georgian Bay Islands National Park dates to the Precambrian era.
Photograph by Willy Waterton, Parks Canada

Georgian Bay Islands National Park

Location: Ontario
Date Established: 1929
Size: 3,459 acres

Windswept white pine, rock faces scraped bare, and wide, wild waters number among the most prominent features of Georgian Bay Islands National Park. These characteristics are what drew a collective of painters—known as the Group of Seven—to the area during the 1920s. Their paintings, done in strong, bold brushstrokes, wove the park into the fabric of the Canadian national identity.

Park Facts

A frontcountry park with backcountry scenery, Georgian Bay’s vistas and accessibility make it a popular destination. Beausoleil is the park’s largest island, with facilities that include docks, 130 campsites, and 8 rustic cabins. It also boasts a network of 11 well-marked and groomed trails ranging from wheelchair-accessible walking paths to more difficult scrambles across the Precambrian rock of the Canadian Shield.

Ancient History Beausoleil’s size has made it a popular seasonal stopover for centuries. Natives first used the island as a base for hunting and trading as far back as 7,000 years ago. Early voyageurs marked it as a midpoint on their travels between the Severn River and north Georgian Bay.

Ghost Town to Cottage Boom The southeast side of Beausoleil hosts evidence of a 19th-century Ojibway village, abandoned when the poor quality of the island’s thin, acidic soil drove the community west to more arable environs. But while Beausoleil’s glaciated ridges proved too rugged to work, they were perfect for settling. The Georgian Bay cottage boom that cropped up in the early 1900s surrounds the park on all sides.

Islands and Islets Thanks to a handful of locals, whose petitions led the government to establish the park in 1929, visitors today can still find pristine beauty among the 63 park islands and islets that pepper the shore between Honey Harbour and Twelve Mile Bay. Though all islands are open to the public, Bone is the only island besides Beausoleil to offer services, including docking facilities, outhouses, and picnic tables.

How to Get There

From Toronto, 103 miles south of the park, get on Rte. 400 N. Take exit 156 and follow the signs for Honey Harbour Road/Regional Road 5. From Sudbury, which lies 149 miles north of the park, take Rte. 69 S to Rte. 400 S. Then take exit 162 toward White’s Falls Road. Turn right at South Bay Road and follow it to Honey Harbour Road/Regional Road 5.

The gateway to the park is located at the Parks Canada Operations Base, across from the Honey Harbour Towne Centre. A sign at the left of the road directs you downhill to the docks, where you can catch the park’s Day Tripper to Beausoleil.

When to Go

During summer, Georgian Bay churns with the chop of powerboats. Even experienced paddlers should wait until the end of August, when visitor numbers drop and boating slows down. During fall the water is calm, the campsites quiet, and the trails less traveled. Late September to early October is the best time to see the stunning fall foliage for which southwestern Ontario is so well known. The park’s paths are quilted with a patchwork of leaves in shades of scarlet and cinnamon.

In winter, visitors must blaze their own trails across the bay via snowshoe, ski, or snowmobile, as services are not maintained. Hiking on Beausoleil’s windward west side is a trade-off—much of the snow blows into the woods, but you have to contend with December gales. Winter camping is only offered at Cedar Spring and Chimney Bay.

How to Visit

For an afternoon visit, book a seat on the Day Tripper to Beausoleil and hike a leisurely 3.4-mile loop around the south end of the island. If you have a full day, explore the immense diversity of the park. Though small, Georgian Bay Islands is home to more than 600 different plant and animal species. Beausoleil also marks Ontario’s north-south transition zone. Cycling or hiking the island’s bike-friendly Huron Trail highlights the dramatic differences between the two regions.

Despite the rugged appearance, the park’s primitive campsites are considered frontcountry camping due to constant activity on the bay. Mimic a backcountry experience with a weekend trip at the end of September, when you’re likely to pass days without seeing anyone. Rent a kayak in nearby Waubaushene, establish a base camp on Beausoleil, and hike out to the Beausoleil Island Light Range. If you happen to have your own boat, you may wish to explore the surrounding islands as well.

—Text adapted from the 2011 National Geographic book Guide to the National Parks of Canada