By: Scott Way
Muskoka is More Than the 'Big Three,' You Just Have to Know Where to Look
You might know the name 'Muskoka,' you may even know a bit about her, but to experience her wilderness firsthand is something that can't be undersold. National Geographic Traveler Magazine once named Muskoka the #1 place to live in the world during the summer, and it's no exaggeration if you have an affection for sunshine and solitude. And frankly, who doesn't?
There are few better escapes than cottage country. The term itself might even be a misnomer, because while many lakes are indeed full of cottages and the matching laissez fair attitude, there is no shortage of untouched shoreline and rugged wilderness. The ‘Big Three’ lakes of the Muskoka region (Lake Muskoka, Lake Rosseau, and Lake Joseph) may get the media's idolatry, but the hidden gems among the smaller less lakes are equally, if not more appealing, given their seclusion. The options are too many to list, but there's no excuse not to get exploring both on water and on land, provided you have a day off and a full tank.
For boaters, if you trailer from the south, you can launch from the wharf in Gravenhurst at the southern tip of Lake Muskoka. Restaurants, boat rentals, museums, and amenities all reside next their classic steamships, the RMS Segwun and the Wenonah II.
Depending on your equipment and your plans, you can travel in your boat, in a rental, or by steamship. If it’s an adults only trip, there are sunset ‘Dinner & Dance’ cruises aboard the Wenonah II that’ll make you feel like you’re in first class on the Titanic (but with a happier ending). If you’ve got kids, the ‘Pirate Cruise’ is a riot and will have the whole family speaking in sailor jargon aboard your own ship. Shiver me timbers seadogs, it’s time to give the anchor the heave ho and explore Muskoka further.
Like every city and town, behind the glare of downtown city lights or the mysterious tall pines lies the 'secret spots' that locals know but visitors seldom take time to discover. Turtle Lake is one such paradise. Nestled among the many obscuring pines outside of Gravenhurst, Turtle Lake is everything that Muskoka is, albeit with less boat traffic and fewer magazine covers.
One of her little tricks is that to reach Turtle Lake you must connect to it via Loon Lake and a narrow 16-foot wide canal. If you didn't know about the secret passage, you'd miss it hidden between two granite ridges that confuse the navigational skills of all but the most seasoned locals. Those with a small dayboat, which nearly everyone runs on the smaller lakes in Muskoka, or better yet a PWC, is the perfect vessel for jetting around. If you're in search of a quiet bay for a shore lunch or a swim, or you're looking for a wide open passage to let your PWC rip, Turtle Lake and Loon Lake are two treasures of the region.
If you do indeed want the glitz and glam, the 'Big Three' of Muskoka are only minutes away. Turtle Lake is less than 10 kilometres from Gravenhurst, which includes the standout Gravenhurst Wharf and its charming vista, but also a boat launch for those wishing to explore lower Lake Muskoka. If you're not in a rush, soaking up the local history at the Muskoka Steamship and Discovery Centre at the wharf is a great introduction to the region. If you want to experience the region's history by water but you don't want to be the captain, taking a dinner tour aboard one of Muskoka's steamships is incredibly scenic (not to mention remarkably romantic). The Segwun happens to be the oldest operating passenger steamship in North America, which has a stunning deck to watch from as you mingle amongst classic wood boats taking in their sunset cruises.. You'll feel just how deep the history of boating in Muskoka runs.
If you're up for a bold single day adventure, or perhaps a weekend boating trip, boating from Lake Muskoka to Lake Rosseau and Lake Joseph will have you following the Indian River from Gravenhurst to Port Carling, a quintessential cottage country stopover with all the kitsch and charm you can fathom. The original Turtle Jack’s restaurant sits at the water’s edge next to the locks, with its dock serving as a boat resupply headquarters and a waterfront patio during the height of summer. It’s too easy to pull into a slip for a re-supply and end up sitting dockside soaking in the atmosphere. There's no reason you shouldn't do it.
But the lakes are just half of what Muskoka brings to the proverbial table. If you trade in your dock shoes for hikers, within a stone's throw of Gravenhurst is the Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Preserve, an internationally renowned conservation area with some of the best stargazing in the world. Astronomers and scientists from around the globe, as well as locals looking to experience the vastness of the universe, can be found perched atop its granite rocks after sundown all summer long. If you're lucky, the nighttime scenery is sometimes serenaded by wolves who use the wide-open expanse of the barrens, coupled with the sound projection caused by the lakes, to carry their howls far and wide. Bring a blanket and a telescope.
Once the sun is back up, there's no shortage of daytime adventures if you've got the energy. Traveling through cottage country- the winding two-lane roads through boreal forest -- is a sightseeing escapade all its own. But if you have a guide map and a little local know-how, which the locals are always happy to offer, the options are nearly limitless.
If you hop on scenic highway 169 outside Gravenhurst and head for the town of Bala, just 28 kilometres northwest from Turtle Lake, the "cottage town" vibe rings even louder. Ice cream shops, bakeries, and locally-themed retail stores can easily fill up a day. It's easy to go overboard at Overboard, a luxury clothing store that oozes the cottage country aesthetic. A butter tart from Don's Bakery will keep you plenty energized, and if you need downtime, lunch or dinner at the Bala Falls Pub offers popular favourites like fresh caught fish 'n chips and locally brewed IPAs.
The pub is also conveniently located next to the famous Kee to Bala, which is inarguably one of the best concert venues on Earth. As anyone who's ever been can attest, 'The Kee' is a unique experience. Not only does it boast a stunning location directly on Bala Bay, but since it's built on wood posts overhanging the water, when the crowd gets rocking you can feel the building moving with the music. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday night.
Those in search of downtime and a place to rest their head can find exquisitely quaint accommodations at the nearby Bala-Hy Motel & Cottages. If you're looking for luxury accommodations to go with a luxury trip, follow Highway 169 out of town and hop onto Highway 118 heading further north, which will take you towards the affluent villages of Port Sandfield and Port Carling and the shores of Lake Rosseau. With a similar jovial nature to Bala, both hubs embody the essence of Muskoka. If your pitstop happens to be overnight, consider the Crestwood Inn for the full local experience, or go glamorous at the JW Marriot Muskoka Resort & Spa to be pampered with luxury amenities.
No matter where you may travel throughout Muskoka, remember that the region is equal parts land and water. Few visiting boaters realize that the 'Big Three' and have limitless avenues for those with a sense of adventure. If you travel by land, cruising with the windows down and the music up through winding backroads is an experience unto its own. No matter how you experience the region, rest assured you'll bring its spirit home with you. Muskoka isn't just a name, it's a mindset.