Canada is the second-largest country in the world and Ontario is the second-largest province so it goes without saying that it is a pretty big place. At around a million square kilometers and most of it unpopulated it isn’t surprising that there are a lot of really spectacular places to camp.
Bordering 4 of the 5 great lakes there are many waterfront campgrounds. The great lakes are so big you would be forgiven if you mistook them for the ocean but the water is fresh and there are no sharks. Once you are an hour north of Toronto most of the province is either forest or smaller lakes so there are countless opportunities for the outdoor lover to explore.
Hiking, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, bird watching, and cycling are but a few of the activities province has to offer. Whether you are looking for lush green forests, sparkling lakes, or rugged rocky trails you will find it all in Ontario.
Algonquin Provincial Park
Algonquin Provincial Park is Ontario’s oldest and largest provincial park. It covers a vast tract of land between Georgian Bay and Ottawa River, a few hours north of Toronto. Camping in the park is hugely popular with both Ontario residents and foreign visitors alike. Due to this, you will need to book well ahead of your trip to guarantee you get a site.
There are both drive-in and backcountry campsites. Being a park covered in lakes there is 1500 km of canoe routes along with hundreds of kilometers of backpacking trails.
If you want to get out with your family the campground at Mew Lake is a great option with biking and hiking trails nearby. It has all of the amenities so you get a nice mix of relaxing nature with access to food, showers, and electricity. When camping with your family a high quality 4 person tent is great option. They have lots of head room so you don’t need to crawl around when getting dressed.
One of the unique things about Algonquin Park is there is only one road that crosses the park making most of the park accessible via canoe or on foot. You can camp along the Western Uplands Trail or Highland Trail, hiking in a loop lasting from a single night to over a week. For the canoe camper who is willing to portage deep into the backcountry, there are almost 2000 campsites, many of which are right on a lake. If you don’t own a canoe you can rent all the gear from Algonquin Outfitters.
Killarney Provincial Park
On the East side of Georgian Bay, Killarney Provincial Park is home to clear lakes and rugged old mountains. Whether you are looking for drive-in camping or backcountry you will find plenty of options awaiting your journey.
The campground at George Lake is the kick-off point for many activities including hiking the La Cloche-Silhouette Trail or heading into the interior by canoe for a portage trip. The camp has serviced RV sites as well as primitive tent sites and yurts for rent year-round. The park is open in the winter for camping, cross country skiing, and snowshoeing.
For any serious hiker, the La Cloche-Silhouette Trail is a great test of both stamina but also scrambling skills. This 80 km loop will see you crossing beaver dams, climbing pink granite boulders, and traversing the spine of an ancient mountain range. For those familiar with the Adirondacks in New York or the White Mountains in New Hampshire, the terrain is very similar minus the overall elevation gain. It is recommended to budget at least 4 days to complete the loop. You will need to book your spot there are only so many campsites along the trail.
If you are looking for a fun challenge that will see you back in the main campground at night then consider the hike up the Crack. It is named for the crack in the cliff you climb through on your way up and over the ridge. The views are great and well worth the effort. The Crack is on the La Cloche trail but accessed from the highway just outside the park. It makes for roughly a 3-hour hike there and back.
Both the front and backcountry camping is very popular in Killarney so book many months ahead to guarantee a spot during the busy season from late May until September.
Bruce Peninsula National Park
Located near the tip of the peninsula on the mighty Georgian Bay, Bruce Peninsula National Park is home to rugged limestone shores and crystal clear water. You have the option of front country camping at Cypress Lake or backcountry hike-in sites along the Bruce Trail.
At Cypress Lake, you can bring an RV or trailer, tent, or rent a yurt. The sites aren’t serviced so make sure to have your own power supply to run your fridge and lighting. There are picnic tables and fire pits at all of the campsites. There are communal bathrooms and showers. Clean drinking water faucets are located around the campgrounds as well.
You will need to buy your wood from the camp store as they don’t allow outside wood to limit the spread of tree parasites. The car camping is right near the lake and a short hike to Georgian Bay. There you will see the steep cliffs and freakishly clear water.
If you head on a backpacking trip you will start from Cypress Lake or Halfway Log Dump depending on which campsite along the coast you have booked. None of the hikes are long in miles but the shore you will hike on is jagged limestone so the going will tend to be slow. Both Strormhaven and High Dump campsites have raised tent platforms to set up as there is no flat ground in the area. The campsites also have metal wire and poles to hang your food to keep it safe from bears.
There isn’t any clean water at the backcountry campsites so you will need to bring a micro-filter or chemical treatment to process water from Georgian Bay.
Queen Elizabeth Wildlands
So far we have looked at sites that are managed parks with fees and permits but Ontario also has a hidden gem that many people don’t know about. Queen Elizabeth Wildlands is an unmanaged provincial park so the camping is on a first come first serve basis and is free.
The park is about 45 minutes northeast of Orillia and can be accessed from the west, south, and east sides. There is no car camping at this park but the hike is worth it for the rugged beauty and true wilderness feel you get.
If you go in on the west side you will experience a mix of rocky rivers, steep gorges, and exposed Canadian Shield slabs. The hiking has a couple of loops in this area as well as the Ganaraska Trail which crosses the width of the park. There aren’t any designated campsites so you will have to look around to find a suitable spot. You have to be at least 500 meters from the trailhead when making camp.
The southside is canoe access only through Head Lake. Many of the portages are quite rugged and depending on the time of year some of the rivers may be low enough that you have to get out and drag your canoe through the shallow sections. This is called wildlands for a reason.
The most popular trailhead is on the east side at Devil’s Lake. You can either head off on foot or put your canoe in the lake. Regardless of which way you go your first major camping spot will be at Sheldon Lake. There are a number of designated sites around the north end of the lake. The landscape is rugged, the views are beautiful and the lake is warm enough for swimming in the summertime.
Sleeping Giant Provincial Park
Sleeping Giant Provincial Park is named for the rock formation that resembles a person sleeping. Located on a peninsula that juts into Lake Superior near Thunder Bay, the park offers car camping, serviced RV sites, and backcountry camping. The drive-in campground is on Mary Louise Lake with the usual picnic tables and fire pits at each campsite.
There is a beach for swimming and a boat launch for enjoying a day on the water. Canoes and kayaks are available for rent if you don’t have your own. A playground for the kids and nature tours keeps your days filled before an evening around the campfire.
The park has over 100 km of hiking trails accessing the 40 backcountry campsites. The more demanding hikes will have you climb to the top of the Giant and along the shores of Lake Superior. You will traverse past towering cliffs beside the largest fresh water lake in the world. There are also many cycling trails ranging from easy to quite challenging.
What about bears?
Ontario’s woods are home to black bears. While like any wild animal they can be dangerous if provoked, they aren’t out to harm you when you are on a camping trip. Bears are just looking for an easy meal and are attracted to the smells of food. And it isn’t just bears you need to protect your food from. Raccoons, mice, and other rodents will be attracted to the smell of your grub.
Rules of food and bear safety
- Try to eat 20 meters away from where you sleep
- Clean up any spilled food
- Store your food at night in a locked vehicle, bear-resistant canister, or hang it at least 12 feet up a tree.
- Pack away anything with odors such as toothpaste, empty wrappers, and aromatic lotions with your food at night.
- Make noise as you hike to alert animals of your presence. Attach a bell to your pack.
If you manage your food correctly you will avoid run-ins with any of our 4 pawed friends.
Ontario is a huge province that is mostly forests and lakes. It is a destination for paddlers and campers from around the world who are looking for a wilderness experience but isn’t short of more comfortable options.
Best known for canoe and kayak camping, Ontario also has lots of hiking trails and other outdoor activities to do while camping. If you are from the province the get out and explore what is in your own backyard. But if you are visitor then come experience the wonder and hospitality of the Great White North.