The Bruce Peninsula. A rocky extension of the Niagara Escarpment, projecting into Lake Huron, outlined by the glimmering water of the Georgian Bay. Its rugged limestone shorelines crafted by the glacial activity that carved the Great Lakes 600 million years ago.
Where dramatic cliffs rise from shimmering waters that bear an uncanny resemblance to a tropical sea. And where pristine stretches of boreal forest provide refuge for black bears, rare reptiles, ancient cedars, and a dazzling array of wildflowers.
The tip of the Bruce Peninsula is home to two National Parks. Bruce Peninsula National Park – a hiker’s paradise – and the Fathom Five National Marine Park of the Georgian Bay – the mecca of freshwater scuba diving.
By the way its coastal waters sparkle, the Bruce really is a gem, both in a figurative sense and an almost literal one
This was my fourth trip to the tip of the Peninsula. I’m not sure if its my increasing familiarity with the area, or my growing fascination with its ecosystems and geology, but it seems like every visit holds a bit more magic than the last. And this last visit was no exception.
Although it wasn’t a long one, we still managed to pack our itinerary with plenty of exploring, chasing sunrise, and some time spent beneath the surface of Lake Huron’s sparkly, clear waters.
If you’ve never been to the Bruce, this post is for you, because I’ve put together a list of all the most important must-see’s, must-do’s and where-to-stay’s to make your first trip to this freshwater paradise unforgettable.
Indian Head and the Grotto
Photos of Indian Head and the Grotto draw countless visitors to Bruce Peninsula every year. Its sheer cliffs, white cobble beaches, and dreamy blue waters draw you in to explore its picturesque shoreline and breathtaking sea caves.
The (arguably) most stunning of those sea caves is the Grotto. Carved by wave action through ancient limestone, the Grotto is filled the turquoise water of Georgian Bay, and illuminated by the sun’s rays slipping through openings in the cliff beneath the surface.
I’ve visited this spot many times – from both the shore and under water, at sunrise, at sunset, and in the middle of the day. And can honestly attest to its magic, from all angles.
But, be warned: The Grotto is no longer considered a “hidden gem”, thanks to the rise of social media. And it is no longer uncommon to find yourself enjoying this spot with hundreds of your closest friends on a nice summer day.
However, no visit to Tobermory is complete without a visit here. So here’s all the information you need to plan your trip to this super cold oasis:
- Indian Head and the Grotto are most directly accessed via the trailhead at the end of Cyprus Lake Road off Route 6
- If you’re visiting in the summer, you need to book a time slot in advance!
This reservation system is new as of 2018. It’s now implemented during summer months due to excessive crowding at Indian Head in peak season. It was set in place by the National Park in an effort to curb the negative ecological impact of heavy foot traffic on the trails and along the shoreline.
Tip: If you want to experience Indian Head outside of time slot hours or without crowds, consider visiting in the off season (spring or fall) when time slots aren’t enforced, or book a campsite at the Cyprus Lake Campground, where you have direct 24-hour access to the trail, even in the summer.
The Town of Tobermory
Tobermory is the charming little town at the tip of Bruce Peninsula. Encompassed within Bruce Peninsula National Park and perched along the glimmering shoreline of Fathom Five, Tobermory has become one of Bruce Peninsula’s main tourist destinations. Once a designated fishing village, the streets of downtown Tobermory retain all of their original character.
Here you’ll find quaint little shops and restaurants lining picturesque streets, tour companies, and the largest car ferry on the Great Lakes. And as Canada’s SCUBA diving capital, its where you’ll find the diving and snorkel vessels ready to take you out to historic shipwrecks.
Take a day to explore the streets, go shopping, and catch the sunset from the boardwalk along the harbor.
And the town is about the only place you’ll find food around this area of the peninsula. But don’t worry, because there’s no shortage of restaurants. Fish n chips are really popular, as is whitefish. But if you’re in the mood for something different, check out the finger foods at the Crow’s Nest, Ancient Cedars Restaurant for vegan eats, or Tobermory Brewery for some amazing burgers and locally crafted beer.
Know before you go:
- You’ll find live entertainment at the pubs almost every Saturday night
- Almost all parking downtown is paid parking until 6pm
- Parking costs about $3 per hour for a maximum of 3 hours
Little Cove is a picturesque inlet in the rugged Lake Huron shoreline, featuring a white cobble beach and one of the many entries to the Bruce Trail – the oldest and longest marked hiking trail in Canada.
This spot is becoming increasingly popular, especially on summer weekends, as it offers a great alternative to Indian Head Cove. You can enjoy the beach or go explore the portion of the Bruce Trail that will lead you around the the surrounding cliffs and overlooks.
Know before you go:
- Parking at the trail head is free.
- Park at the top of the hill and hike 300m down to the shore.
- If you choose to hike, be aware that this trail is steep and rocky in some sections and not recommended for small children.
To access Indian Head Cove from Little Cove, follow the white-marked trail for about 5 km. This hike takes about 2-3 hours one way. Note that the trail is considered back-country hiking, so be prepared, know your limits, and be aware that you have to hike back out the same way you hiked in. There are no shuttles.
Halfway Log Dump via Emmett Road
This is my favorite place to catch the sunrise because the beach is wide open and faces almost directly to the east.
The main trail is 1km from the parking area and leads you to a cobblestone beach. Be sure to leave enough time in your schedule to explore the flat rocks and perfect swimming spots a short way down the coast.
Know before you go
- Day parking at the trailhead is $11.50.
- The parking area tends to fill up completely in the summer, so get an early start or plan an alternative destination
The hike from Halfway Log Dump to the Grotto is approximately 8km round-trip and will take approximately 5 hours. Note that the trail is considered back-country hiking, so be prepared, know your limits, and be aware that you have to hike back out the same way you hiked in. There are no shuttles.
Sick of cobble stone beaches? No worries. Just hop on over to the west side of the Peninsula to find this sweeping white sand beach.
Located just south of Tobermory, Singing Sands is a nature area that features lots of white sand, warm(ish) shallow water, and a boardwalk/hiking trail through fen wetlands, famous as the home to over 40 species of orchids and endangered reptiles and amphibians.
And given its west-facing orientation, it’s a great spot to view the sunset. The area is also part of a Dark Sky Preserve, making it a perfect spot for stargazing.
Know before you go:
- The Singing Sands Natural Area is located on Dorcas Bay Road off Route 6. The parking area is located on the side of the road opposite the beach.
- The natural area is closed for renovations during Summer 2018.
Flowerpot Island is hailed as a must-do while visiting Bruce Peninsula.
Personally, I’ve never done it as it is only accessible by boat. I also never wanted to dedicate the time and money to explore the island after finding out that the unique “flower pot” rocks are actually only still there because they’ve been reinforced with plaster and steel rods for the sake of tourism.
However, I’ve heard the island is pretty nice, with some good hiking trails and spots to swim. It’s one of the only “natural areas” that also has facilities, so it makes a good option for a leisurely day or to spend with family. And you can take a glass bottomed boat to get there, which takes you over some of the shallow shipwrecks in the bay.
For more information on visiting Flowerpot Island, visit Parks Canada.
Fathom Five National Marine Park is Canada’s first established National Marine Park and the country’s SCUBA diving capital. You can expect crystal clear visibility, submerged forests, underwater cliffs and canyons, and 21 historic shipwrecks to explore.
There are shipwreck’s and dive sites for all diving skill levels ranging from beginner to the most advanced, accessible from the shore or by dive charter.
Full details about diving in the park and surrounding area are available in the Park’s Canada Visitors Center off Chi sin tib dek Road or at Diver’s Den in the town of Tobermory.
Know before you go:
- Whether you are diving from the shore or from a boat, you MUST register with Parks Canada before you get in the water.
- Day permits ($9/day) or season permits ($20) can be obtained at the Parks Canada Visitor Center or at Diver’s Den Dive Shop in the town of Tobermory
- Dive shops and charter dive vessels are all available in Tobermory
- The water might look tropical, but it is COLD. Be prepared and know your limits if you have never been diving in cold water.
If you don’t dive, don’t worry – snorkeling has become hugely popular on Bruce Peninsula…and you don’t need any experience! Snorkelers can rent a charter, or just rent/buy the equipment and head out on their own.
The area around Big Tub Harbour, the Grotto, and the Tugs site in Tobermory are excellent options for exploring snorkeling on your own.
Know before you go:
- Snorkelers don’t need dive permits, but extra caution must be taken to remain in designated areas.
- Care must be taken to be mindful of boat traffic, under currents, and dangerous wave conditions.
WHERE TO STAY’S
There are really beautiful Airbnb’s available for rent right at the tip of the Peninsula. The average price hovers between $100-150 per night, depending on the season.
If the comforts of home (and some of the best views in town) are within your budget, I say splurge. You won’t regret it.
New to Airbnb? Click HERE to sign up and save $40 on your first stay!
Camping at Cyprus Lake Campground
I’d be lying if said I didn’t have a super soft spot for camping at Cyprus Lake. There’s just something about waking up with a cup of hot campfire coffee and lake front views that gets me every time.
The campground sits right on the shores of Cyprus Lake and has 232 drive in campsites.
And not only are the views of Cyprus Lake amazing, but the water is warm, shallow and crystal clear – perfect for swimming, kayaking, or stand up paddle boarding. You also get direct 24 hour access to the Indian Head/Grotto Trail without needing to make a reservation. Not to mention that this is your cheapest option if you’re traveling on a budget. #winning
Know before you go:
A WORD ON WILDLIFE
- Bears. Bruce Peninsula is teeming with wildlife, including black bears. Please practice bear safety while camping and backcountry hiking. Carry bear bells, bear spray, make noise, and do not leave food out.
- Snakes. There are a dozen species of snakes on Bruce Peninsula. The only one that is venomous is the Massasauga Rattlesnake, but sightings are extremely common. You’ll find them sunning themselves on open rock or in the middle of trails. Luckily, you often hear them rattle before you see them, but keep a lookout because they will bite in self defense
- Invasive Species. There are over 180 invasive species wreaking havoc in the Great Lakes Basin, having arrived as “hitchhikers” on boats, paddles, life jackets, and other water equipment. To help keep these gorgeous waters healthy, ensure that any equipment you have used in other bodies of water have been checked, washed thoroughly, and allowed to fully dry for 24 hours before using them in Lake Huron.
OTHER VALUABLE INFORMATION
- Plan in advance. Perhaps it could go without saying, but summer months and holiday weekends are considered peak season on Bruce Peninsula. And its only getting busier. So this trip is planned best in advance if you visit during peak season. If you choose to visit on a whim, I suggest getting a very early start to avoid missing out on parking spots.
- Pack out what you pack in. The vast majority of wildlife areas are near pristine, despite the thousands of visitors that they see every year. There are no garbage cans or restrooms at many day spots or along hiking trails, so plan accordingly.
- Bring proper footwear. Leave the flip flops at home and opt for hiking boots. The trails are slippery, the cobble stone beaches are hard on your feet, and even some parts of easy hiking trails pass over “rugged” terrain.