While long nights, snowy weather, and frigid temperatures make even the hardiest of Ontarians want to hibernate for six months, we all could use a little more fresh air in our lives especially during the deep freeze. Here are my five favourite outdoor winter adventures, all within Ontario’s excellent park system, and within an easy drive of Toronto.
Ice Skating at Arrowhead’s Skating Trail
Beginners and experts alike skate along a kilometer and a half of maintained ice at Arrowhead Provincial Park, winding through trails and campgrounds, beneath snow-covered trees, past snow sculptures. White-tailed deer bound further into the woods at first glimpse of brightly-bundled children tentatively making their away along the ice. Families stop at a campsite for lunch and an afternoon campfire to warm their toes and fingers. Guests can rent ice skates (or skis or snowshoes for groomed trails) from the park. Roofed accommodations and winterized comfort stations are available for longer stays. The skate trail is weather-dependent so park visitors wishing to skate through the forest should be sure to call the park before arriving.
Cross Country Skiing at Wasaga Beach
Glide through central Ontario’s extensive trail system, passing through mixed oak and pine forests, catching a flash of the Northern cardinal or observing the tracks of a marten. Wasaga Beach Provincial Park grooms and maintains over 30 kilometres of nordic ski trails. Beginners can try their hand at the Blueberry Trails while experienced nordic skiers can head up the High Dunes Trail. Love to race? Wasaga Beach hosts an annual loppet – the Scandinavian term for a one-day gathering of cross-country skiers – in January. Skiers can rent boots, skis, poles, and wax (to keep them gliding smoothly in all conditions) from the park. Wasaga Beach is a day-use only park so guests should make other arrangements for accommodations.
Snowshoeing in Killarney Provincial Park
Killarney Provincial Park may be a little further afield from Toronto, but it is a wilderness gem that cannot be missed. Strap on a pair of snowshoes and break trail anywhere in the park or head over to Collins Bay Inlet for a 14 kilometre packed trail to explore. Visitors can rent snowshoes from the park. Yurts or backcountry camping are available for overnight stays. The campground gates are locked so guests should be prepared to ski or snowshoe in. The park office can lend visitors a toboggan to help bring gear and food in to the yurts.
Birding in Presqu’ile Provincial Park
Birding may not be the first activity one thinks of for the winter but Presqu’ile Provincial Park is home to many species of overwintering waterfowl – long-tailed ducks, goldeneyes, and scaups, to name just a few – as the deep waters of Lake Ontario typically do not freeze here. The lucky birder may also spot northern owls and winter finches. The Friends of Presqu’ile organization maintains two feeders during the winter so an unusual sighting or two may be possible throughout the winter. Birders strolling the shoreline looking for waterfowl in February should also keep an eye out for the park’s unique winter feature: volcanoes. The wind and subzero temperatures have to be just right to build up an ice shelf dotted with these familiar conical features. Water spews from them briefly before freezing over and sending the ice volcano into extinction. Visitors should keep in mind that this is a day-use only park during the winter months (from Thanksgiving to end of April) and plan accordingly for accommodations.
Camping in Algonquin Provincial Park (Mew Lake)
The best thing about winter camping? No bugs! Algonquin Provincial Park’s Mew Lake – a car camping campground – offers yurts and tent space for the hardy winter camper on a first come first served basis. Pack the woolies (no cotton please!) and the -30 degree Celsius sleeping bag and head on up to Algonquin. Pick one of 76 spots and get creative in building a snow kitchen, lounging area, or stay warm with a snowshoe hike. The Highway 60 corridor is well plowed and sanded during the winter months.
Just the Facts:
Fees: For roofed accommodation, parking, and other fee information, go online to www.parkreports.com/fees
Ontario Parks Reservations: For camping or roofed accommodations, call 1-888-ONT-PARK or go online to www.ontarioparks.com/reservations.
Arrowhead Provincial Park: 451 Arrowhead Park Road, Huntsville; (705) 789-5105; ~2.5 hours from Toronto
Wasaga Beach Provincial Park: 11-22nd Street North, Wasaga Beach; (705) 429-2516; ~1.75 hours from Toronto
Killarney Provincial Park: 960 Highway #637, Killarney; (705) 287-2900; ~5 hours from Toronto
Presqu’ile Provincial Park: 328 Presqu’ile Parkway, Brighton; (613) 475-4324; ~1.75 hours from Toronto
Algonquin Provincial Park (Mew Lake): Highway 60 P.O. Box 219, Whitney; (705) 633-5572; ~3.5 hours from Toronto
By Kate Ming-Sun