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Adventure Stories: Jon's Road Trip to the Near North of Ontario
by Jon Moreno
It's been a long 18 months of staying put in Peterborough. Oh sure, my wife Katie and I have gone out on some great camping trips and have taken many a day trips into the Kawarthas with our canoe but we missed the feeling of adventure that we love when we travel by car to unknown destinations.
So, the Near North Ontario road trip was hashed. Next question. Where does a near north Ontario road trip take you? For us, it meant starting in Tobermory and then taking the Chi Cheemaun Ferry to Manitoulin Island. From there, we would take the bridge off the island and start heading north towards Highway 17. It was this part that Katie and I were very excited about as we would get to enjoy the vistas that would take us along the north shore of Lake Superior.
But let's start at the beginning. Tobermory. I went to Tobermory when I was a teenager. Hiking on the Bruce Trail. This time however, we would be checking out the local beaches and parks that Tobermory had to offer. With only two nights to spend there, we did our best to cram in what we could. We rented an Airbnb tiny home that was located on a property a short drive from Tobermory itself. While there we visited Singing Sands Beach and walked their boardwalk as well as the trail that skirted the beach. We also went to Little Dunks Bay Beach and found a look out tower that was surprisingly tall and had a stunning view of Lake Huron. A short hike also brought you close to the lake itself where many enjoyed the fresh air coming off the lake. With these activities under our belts we were hungry and asked our AirBnB host where to eat. We settled on an awesome authentic taco joint called Las Chulas. It did not disappoint and I was able to practice my Spanish a bit too. In town, we had a patio dinner at Tobermory Brewing Company and Grill. The beer was delicious.
An early morning start saw us on our way to boarding the very organized Chi Cheemaun Ferry to Manitoulin Island. There we would meet up with friends and enjoy some front country camping (car camping) at a private campground. While on Manitoulin we went on a very scenic hike that took us to the highest point on Manitoulin Island. The Cup and Saucer Trail. Only 4 km round trip but, with half of that climbing skyward it took a while. Also, there were many fine vistas to stop and gaze at. The highlight of the hike is located at the turnaround point. A spectacular cliff side view overlooking the island inland was our reward.
Next was Providence Bay. A beautiful beach that offered cool, clear water and a long walk along the shore line. In town, we were told we had to stop at The Muchmor and Providence Peace Cafe. Excellent coffee and a number of local artisan crafts to look at or buy. As well as a mini used book store in which I found a book I had been looking for. Some street hot dogs for lunch that we ate on the beach pretty much rounded out a perfect day in the sun.
On the road again and onto the next exciting phase of our journey. Now it felt like we were starting our road trip proper. A short bridge off the island and we were on our way towards Highway 17.
Our first Highway 17 overnight stop was at Pancake Bay Provincial Park. Pancake Bay was lovely with rows and rows of happy campers enjoying their time all within easy reach of the beach. Lake Superior was remarkably calm the afternoon we arrived and we mused that Pancake Bay was living up to its name as there were none of the waves crashing on the shore that are so common on Superior. We spent as much time as we could on the beach while there. We didn't swim but enjoyed the open expanse and sand between our toes. Later, as it got dark, we went back to our campsite to cook dinner and head to bed thinking of our travel time tomorrow.
A couple of high notes to comment on along the way to our next destination, beginning with a quick and cool swim at Old Woman Bay. Beautiful, rugged and just what we needed to refresh ourselves as we continued along our way to Neys Provincial Park. It was clear that we were not the only people interested in dipping our toes in this spot. The parking lot was busy with people coming and going. The 40 minutes we spent there was just right. Second high note along this route was the lunch stop in Wawa. Hands down the best poutine stop along the entire trip. Just off the highway no less. Recommended if you are looking to pad yourself a bit for winter. Also, a quick visit to Young's General Store to pick up a couple of their famous pickles. They have been in business since 1971 so you know the pickles must be pretty good, right? Poutine and pickles. Can't beat that.
Finally we arrived at Neys Provincial Park. Here we planned on staying for two days. As always, these road trips turn into more of a reconnaissance so that we know where we want to go back and spend more time the next time we get the itch to go somewhere different. I think we found Neys to be just that. Our campsite was situated above and along the Little Pic river. Across the river was a not too distant train track that saw a number of trains pass during the day and night. There is something about a train passing in the middle of the night that feels somewhat romantic. Not too loud to really be a bother but loud enough to let you know it's there.
The beach at Neys was long and with the familiar drift wood that is strewn along the rough waters of Superior. What was unique however was that the Little Pic river I mentioned flowed out of the lake and not into it. While Superior was rough and fun to swim in, it was too rough to paddle our SUP boards we brought with us. So, the perfectly placed Little Pic river was an excellent spot to paddle. We paddled as close as we dared to the incoming waves of Superior and then paddled down river and under the train bridge. Also, easy enough to paddle upstream when we decided to turn around and head back to our camp.
Truly, two days was not enough time to spend at Neys. But it was just enough time to make us want to come back.
As per our usual routine of creating a route which allowed us to see as much as possible we continued on Highway 17. Another quick stop at Aguasabon Falls. Spectacular. Sprayed by the mist coming from the falls, we reflect on what it must have been like to have seen this from a truly wild point of view. No look out tower. No guard rails. These amazing, natural wonders that had to be breathtaking to witness but such a huge deterrent for those needing to navigate the waters. Seemed like such a contradiction for us to be able to view it with such ease and then hop into our car and carry on.
Only a short drive further and we reached our turn around point and started the drive back on Highway 11. Now, Highway 11 is not as scenic as Highway 17 and we knew this but, as mentioned we wanted to see as much as we could in our Near North adventure. So, if you don't know already, Highway 11 is very straight and very long with not much cell service. We approached the drive back along this route as an essential part of getting to know Northern Ontario and did our best to enjoy the route. Along the way we stopped at a private campground that was pretty rough and tumble. We really got used to the service and beauty of the provincial parks we normally stay in and the private campground was not up to the standards we had become accustomed to. Needless to say we stayed the minimum amount of time and got up super early and left the next morning looking forward to our next stay at Rene Brunelle Provincial Park. It was to be our second last stop before one more night of camping at Halfway Lake Provincial Park.
However, after nine days on the road we made Rene Brunelle our last stop and settled into the idea of a long drive home the following day. In the meantime, a night spent in Rene Brunelle was very welcome after the misadventure of the private campground stay. Rene Brunelle is well off the highway and we had a lovely site by the water where we enjoyed the sunset and then a campfire.
Not too much to say about the drive home after that but it was great to see some more familiar territory as we drove south along Highway 11. We drove by areas we had visited before and reminisced about past adventures. We talked about future trips as we passed trailheads that we had read about in our many guidebooks. The drive home also gave us time to talk about our favourite parts of the road trip and which areas we would want to revisit and explore further. These are the things that make road trips so much fun for us and keep us wanting more.
Jon has been a leading figure of the Wild Rock team for 25 years, and a co-owner. He is our Camping/Paddling Department Manager and has incredible knowledge of local parks and waterways, He is very active in the cyclocross community and puts on our various film festivals as well.