Canada, Features

Staying Close To Home: Exploring Ontario – Muskoka, Ontario

Muskoka, Ontario - Iain Shankland, Skeleton Lake

This is the first of several articles that we’re going to be doing… Ever since the world-wide lockdowns we have been wondering when or IF we’ll get to travel again. You’ve probably noticed we’ve been very quiet for the past 2 year – we just didn’t know what to expect going forward, and even if we were going to continue doing TravelBloggers anymore. Now that things are a bit clearer we’ve decided to continue, but we’re staying close to home… for now.

Living in Ontario for us is somewhat dull – we’d rather be off travelling around Europe or the Caribbean, but millions of people from around the world come to Canada and Ontario specifically for their holidays or vacation time. We don’t understand it, but people we talk to in other countries don’t understand why we go to their country for a holiday! Since we’re not flying anywhere anytime soon, we’re focusing on travelling closer to home by car for the time being – re-discovering home if you will.

Muskoka, Ontario - Iain Shankland, www.TravelBloggers.caWith that in mind, we managed to get away for a weekend last autumn and went to somewhere we’d never been before… Muskoka, in Ontario’s cottage country. The rich and famous have million dollar holiday homes there, so the place must be a big deal – right? There must be plenty to do if people keep returning year after year, so we booked a cottage on a lake via Airbnb for a weekend of R&R.

Since there are only two of us and a furkid, we don’t need something big to drive into cottage country, but we needed something that could transport some coolers and food – we weren’t planning on dining out or shopping at our destination and that turned out to be a good call, because there was almost nothing in the way of grocery stores within an hour of our cottage!

Muskoka, Ontario - Iain Shankland, www.TravelBloggers.caWe needed an SUV/CUV for this trip, and fortunately one came available just in time – a Ford Edge ST. We’d previously driven the Titanium not so long ago, but the ST is more appealing to us because of its sporty pretense – and it just looks better than the standard Edge. The full review of the Edge ST is published on our sister site –  Suffice to say, it was a perfect vehicle for our journey up north. Enough about the transport for now, let’s get on the road…

From our home in the Niagara Wine Region, the trip to Muskoka is about 3 ½ hours with minimal traffic. We left on the Saturday morning (check in time was 3pm), so we knew we weren’t going to be caught up with all the traffic heading North on Friday evening – that would have added 1-2 hours to our journey. Plugging the destination into GoogleMaps made the trip easy to pre-plan, and as luck would have it, there were a couple of different routes to the cottage. Perfect – we’ll go up one way, and back down the other. The common denominator was Barrie – just after Barrie we’d have the choice to continue on the 400 highway, or follow highway 11. With that in mind, Barrie was our targeted pit-stop as it was around the half-way point of our trip – we could stop to re-fuel us and the Edge ST.

After re-fueling, we jumped back onto the 400 heading north. When we came to the 400/11 intersection, we stayed on the 400 – Google and the Edge’s navigation insisted we stay on the 11 for some reason, even though both routes were the same travel time. Once past Barrie, the landscape changes quite dramatically and you know you’re in “Cottage Country.” The roads up this way are far better than in southern Ontario. We get potholes and undiscernible lines, they get bright clean lines and immaculate smooth roads. There’s also far more interesting things to look at. Instead of a steady diet of drab buildings, wide traffic-covered lanes, bad drivers and flat landscape, you get wide open spaces, trees, rolling hills, rocky landscapes, two-lane roads and very few cars/trucks – I’m starting get the idea why people come here… why they make the pilgrimage every weekend in the summers.
Muskoka, Ontario - Iain Shankland,

Just before we hit Parry Sound, we turn off onto highway 141, hoping there’s going to be plenty of lakes and lots to see – based on the overhead view on GoogleMaps. As it turns out, there’s not a lot to see – trees line the road for most of the journey… but it’s a pleasant trip none-the-less. After leaving the 400, there’s no towns or villages of note until you reach Rosseau, and even then there’s not much other than a post office, liquor store, general store and a very nice-looking restaurant (at the corner of 141 and 3). This place is probably chockablock with tourists in the summer (that’s why we always travel in the spring and fall – less peoplely).

Thanks to the on-board navigation and the location of the cottage it’s very easy to find and we unpack our stuff. The location is beautiful, right on a quiet part of the lake and we’re well apart from our neighbours.
Muskoka, Ontario - Iain Shankland,
If you’ve ever been in Ontario from May onward, you know how hot it usually is (25°- 35° C) – and humid during July/August, it’s almost always a great summer. But not this weekend. No, this weekend its cold (7° to 11° C) and wet – lots of rain. Still, we’re in cottage country – there’s lots to do here!!

Lots To Do… NOT
It turns out, there ain’t a lot to do – or see around here unless you’re hiking, canoeing and maybe mountain biking.

Getting on the internet, we found the only real things to see were waterfalls. When you live just down the road from Niagara Falls, that’s not exactly what gets you revved up, but we thought we head out anyway – after all, the trees are all changing colour and there’s little else to do.

Muskoka, Ontario - Iain Shankland, www.TravelBloggers.caHere’s what we found close by…

Skeleton Lake Fish Hatchery Trail
On the same road as our cottage – Fish Hatchery Road – there’s a former… wait for it – fish hatchery!! Most of it is broken up and has long been abandoned, but there are two “waterfalls” just off the road. The first one (Hatchery Falls) is no more than an elevation change from Skeleton Lake down a river. The second one (on the other side of the road) is a real waterfall and with a little bit of a walk (500m) through the trees you come to the top of the falls. Climbing down to the bottom isn’t difficult and it’s worthwhile. There are several short trails meandering along the river between the parking lot and top of the falls.
Muskoka, Ontario - Iain Shankland,
Rosseau Falls
(NOT to be confused with Minnehaha Falls)
Driving from Fish Hatchery Road back onto Highway 141 and heading towards Rosseau, you come upon the upper falls before the village. We didn’t realize it, got to town and had to come back to the falls – that’s how big they really are! When in Rosseau, we punched “Rosseau Falls” into the navigation and we were directed back to the upper falls, but there is actually a much larger set of falls down by Rosseau Lake – Ford’s navigation system apparently wasn’t told about the good ones!! We ended up going to the upper falls (there are actually 2 at this location), completely missing the real ones. To get to the real ones you have to drive down Rosseau Lake Road 3 (it looks like a small road to cottages). After PASSING Rosseau Lake Road 3 we arrived at the Upper falls.
Muskoka, Ontario - Iain Shankland,
There are no signs, no indication anywhere until you get there. The giveaway is the new bridge. The road is semi-hidden, to the left of the river – look for a sign with a picnic table – that’s where you park. The upper falls are quite small, but if you cross the two lane highway on foot there’s a ‘road’ that leads to nowhere. To the left you can climb down to the much larger lower falls – there are no signs and no path to follow, but you can see where people have walked before. Be forewarned though, the going is somewhat difficult and slippery. The bottom falls are worth the effort though.

After all that excitement we spent the rest of our time lounging around the cottage.

Monday morning we had to head home, our time in cottage country was over. The sun came out, the temperature climbed and it was a lovely warm day. After another post breakfast trip to our private dock, we headed off along highway 141 towards highway 11 and Barrie – via Bracebridge. There was yet one more waterfall to see before home and it was just before we reached Bracebridge. Right off highway 11 are three waterfall – all at the same location!!! It’s very easy to get to and just as easy to get back onto Highway 11 to head either north or south.Muskoka, Ontario - Iain Shankland,

High Falls, Little High Falls and Potts Falls
One thing of note – Google (on the phone) does a pretty lousy job of locating these falls. Originally we were going to go from Highway 141 to 4 and then left onto 50 (High Falls Rd) because it said the falls were right in the middle of 50 and 11 – no point on going past it only to come back the way – right? But it is not true – they are right off Highway 11, you can almost see them from 11!!
Muskoka, Ontario - Iain Shankland,

The first big parking lot you come to is where everyone parks – don’t park there. Don’t bother stopping and walking over the hydro bridge/dam – nothing to see. Continue on and park along the road in other parking spots (the road is a one-way loop). High Falls and Potts Falls are right beside each other and literally flow into the same location in the lake. If you follow the river back from Potts Falls you come to Little High Falls (aptly described) – there’s a bridge you can cross to look down on the falls or continue on the many trails in the park area.

Muskoka, Ontario - Iain Shankland,

The area is very photogenic with plenty of mini and large falls around, you could spend a bit of time exploring the little river and trails. Some paths are more obvious than others – make sure you’ve got good shoes, we wouldn’t recommend sandals etc.

What’s The Verdict?
On the drive home we discussed if the trip was worthwhile and we agreed it was OK, but not anything to write home about (yet here we are, writing about it!). It’s nice in cottage country, but only if you’ve got nice weather and on a lake with a dock. Fighting with all those tourists in the summer would be our idea of hell. We had the cottage on a lake with a dock in a beautiful area, but the weather was deplorable. Still, even if we were guaranteed perfect weather, we probably wouldn’t return. Been there done that, got the pictures to prove it. Renting the cottage – even in off-season was still extremely expensive, and although the drive there and back was very good, but to be honest – a couple more hours and we’d be in Mont Tremblant, QC which is nicer and there’s a lot more to do and see…. stay tuned, we’ve got a visit already booked for there!

As for the Edge ST – it was the perfect vehicle for the trip. It swallowed all our luggage, firewood, pet crate and bed – plus on the laneway where our cottage was located, we needed the ground clearance and oomph to get over some surprisingly steep hills. For long distance driving between stops, the seats were very comfortable and fuel mileage was exceptional.

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Text: Iain Shankland / Images: Iain Shankland / Maps: GoogleMaps