The county of Haliburton, Ontario — about two to three hours northeast of Toronto — is an outdoorsy adventurer’s dream. Part of the famed “cottage country,” Haliburton grew up as the lumber king and there are still sawmills operating there today.
Also known as the Haliburton Highlands, the area is made up of bigger towns like Haliburton and Minden, plus some smaller ones: Wilberforce, West Guilford, Gooderham, Eagle Lake and more. And then there’s Haliburton Forest, which encompasses some 100,000 acres and 100 or so lakes all on its own.
We love using Haliburton Forest as our home base to explore the area because you can still find accommodations in the summer months without booking them six to 12 months ahead of time, and without handing over the family dowry. It’s also smack in the middle of everything we like to see and do in Haliburton, Ontario, reducing the amount of time you’ll spend getting from one spot to the other.
Why Haliburton, Ontario?
As gorgeous as Muskoka is, finding roofed accommodations there can take a lot of extra planning, be quite pricey and the drive up on Fridays and back on Sundays is nothing short of awful if you’re visiting on a weekend from the GTA.
Haliburton, on the other hand, skips that dreaded Hwy 400 traffic and instead meanders either up through Georgina, then east toward Balsam Lake and north on Hwy 48, or eastbound on the 401 before going north on Hwy 35 for most of the drive. It’s rarely riddled with the kind of cottage country traffic most people think of, even in the heart of the weekend.
And yet, you still get all of the glorious fresh air, starry nights, boating, stellar hiking and country markets that make the cottage life so appealing.
Haliburton, Ontario is also less expensive than Muskoka overall in my experience. From accommodations to dining, I find our money goes a bit farther in Haliburton. That means more room in the budget for Kawartha Dairy ice cream — and that’s never a bad thing.
Cottage rentals in Haliburton, Ontario: Haliburton Forest
From semi-wildnerness campsites with outhouses to rustic cottages with fire pits to connected cabins that feel remote but come with all of the comforts of home, there’s something for every kind of outdoor enthusiast at Haliburton Forest.
Although securing a leased site at Haliburton Forest comes with a years-long wait list, renting a cabin — some of which are lakefront — is much easier.
We come to the Haliburton Forest & Wildlife Reserve for the cabins. With air conditioning, electricity and running water. Be sure that’s what you’re getting while you’re booking because each roofed accommodation can be appointed differently.
We’ve stayed in both two- and three-bedroom cabins and, though they’re not lakefront, they’re close to the huskies, basecamp and the Cookhouse. I’m not a lake swimmer so I put air conditioning and a toilet ahead of lake views. I can just hike or drive to the onsite lakes, thank you very much!
It was just the kids and me for our first stay at Haliburton Forest last summer, so we didn’t need much space. Camboose No. 3 was perfect for the three of us.
It had a bathroom (with a shower!), living space with a fireplace and small kitchenette with a two-burner cooktop stove and bar fridge. There’s a double and single bed in one room with two single beds in the second bedroom. It also had a small deck outside and the free WiFi connection here is pretty consistent.
For larger families, it connects with a hallway to Camboose Units 1 and 2.
It’s $175 a night during the summer and pets are welcome.
We don’t need more than four beds (there are no queen or king beds here, so — yes — I need my own bed separate from my Paul Bunyan-sized husband), but now that we’ve stayed at Whiskey Jack, the extra space and expanded kitchen facilities of the three-bedroom cabins at Haliburton Forest are definitely worth the extra $100 a night for us.
Connected to The Fireplace for larger groups, I actually think The Fireplace is the nicer of the two cabins — but it only has five beds so if you need all six in Whiskey Jack, that’s the unit you want to book. The Fireplace also has a covered porch with a picnic table and better WiFi.
But Whiskey Jack was clean and comfortable and allowed plenty of room to spread out and feel home-y. It has two single beds in two of its bedrooms and in the third room there’s a double and a single. It makes playing musical beds with children a lot easier.
The best part about upgrading from the two-bedroom to three-bedroom cabins at Haliburton Forest is the bigger kitchen. There’s a full-sized oven and fridge, meaning the extra you’re spending to stay there each night can be saved by bringing more of your own food. Our routine was two homemade meals in the cabin and one from the Cookhouse each day. (You definitely want to get some Cookhouse meals — the quality and quantity of the food is excellent; try the spinach salad, fried chicken or pulled pork sandwich, the turkey club, mac n cheese with pulled pork, the ooey-gooey sourdough grilled cheese and ALL THE FRIES!)
Make sure you head down to the community campfire just behind the Cookhouse and enjoy some hot dogs and S’Mores over an open flame. There’s free newspapers in the Cookhouse to help you start a fire if there isn’t one already going and free firewood beside the Cookhouse if you need to grab more of it. Don’t forget to extinguish the fire if you’re the last one to leave.
The sunsets from here are also lovely on a clear night.
13 fun things to do near Haliburton, Ontario
Now that you’ve decided to visit Haliburton and you’ve sorted out where to stay for a night or three, you’ll want to decide on the right balance of activities. Is this an adventure getaway? Do you want to relax by the water? Get into nature? Learn a new skill?
We’ve done so many things in the area and I suggest booking one main activity each day, which will usually take up about four hours from start to finish, and leaving the other half of your day for something more chill. The good news is you can return to Haliburton again and again and you won’t run out of things to see and do.
Here’s what we’ve done so far that I can personally recommend:
1. Husky Hike & Kennel Kisses at Haliburton Forest
This is in the number one spot for a reason. It’s our absolute, hands-down, no competition favourite thing to do in Haliburton. The Husky Hike and kennel visit are, in fact, two separate ticketed activities right in Haliburton Forest but you have to do both. You just HAVE TO.
In fact, we loved the experience so much last summer that we drove up to Haliburton just for the day again in September for the sole purpose of doing a Husky Hike. And when we told the kids we were going back to Haliburton Forest this summer, they begged us to do it again.
For $85 per family, you’ll get to take your own Siberian husky out for a walk — on a harness that tethers you to each other. This is no standard leash walk that you may do with a neighbourhood dog. This is a fast-paced adventure hike using modified dog-sled and climbing harnesses, connecting your hips to a husky’s athleticism. If you’re pregnant, have any mobility concerns, back or lower-body joint issues, this is probably not the right activity for you. Do not bring a stroller or try to babywear your way through a Husky Hike.
I wish we’d brought our bathing suits along because we could have actually gone for a swim WITH the dogs partway through the hike. Next time for sure.
You’ll also want to come prepared with hiking shoes or boots, a hat, sunscreen, bug spray and a hydration pack. You need to be hands-free because it’s a bit of a wild ride. (Don’t worry if you have little kids — they can share a tether with you or an older sibling.) If you’re going during a meal time, be sure to pack a small picnic into a backpack or pre-order a Cookhouse meal for $10. I’ve seen these lunches and they’re definitely worth $10!
Now, get ready for the most fun you can have on six legs. (That’s you plus a husky.)
Depending on how hot it is and how fast you move, you’ll be gone for at least an hour and maybe more than two — splitting up the hike with a break for a snack, meal, swim or all three at one of the lakes. There’s plenty of time for belly rubs at the beginning and end of your hike, but if you really want some husky love, you’ve gotta book a Kennel Tour.
It’s only $20 per family and gives you a look inside the husky kennel. These are well-loved dogs that are deeply cared for, so there’s nothing sad about seeing how they live. I’m not much of a zoo person, I despise commercial marine parks and I believe activities like swimming with captive dolphins do far more harm than good — so I would tell you if I was remotely concerned about the huskies at Haliburton Forest. I’m not. They’re in fantastic shape and the team there love them as if they were their own pets.
The Kennel Tour lasts around half an hour and you’ll get loads of time for cuddles. The dogs are so lovely and friendly and you won’t have to worry about aggressive or unpredictable behaviour.
Honestly, even if you only book ONE day of activities at Haliburton Forest, make it this combo.
2. SUP yoga
Whether you’ve tried standup paddleboarding (SUP) or not, and even if you’re not a practised yogi, SUP yoga is for anyone who wants to get out onto the lake and relax with the sounds of rippling water, rustling leaves and birds in the distance.
You can make it as easy or challenging as you like depending on how deeply you get into the postures and how comfortable you are balancing in those postures on the SUP.
If you don’t own your own SUP or you’d like some private instruction, book a guided SUP yoga session with Karley from Wolf Flow SUP Yoga through Yours Outdoors. They’ll choose the right location based on where you’re staying, bring everything you need to get out onto the lake and customize your experience based on how many people are in your group, your experience level and how much time you have together.
The bonus of booking a guided experience is that Karley’s paddleboards are outfitted with weights so you can be anchored to the lake floor; so even though you’ll feel the gentle sway of the water, you don’t have to worry about drifting away while you’re shavasana-ing.
Miss Q and I shared SUP yoga together without the boys and Karley was INCREDIBLE with her. She’s a natural with kids and had my 10 year old paddling successfully in mere minutes. Miss Q got so comfortable on her SUP that she decided to skip the yoga part and just play on her board — including jumping on it (over and over and over) making Mommy’s SUP shift around more than it otherwise would have and creating an extra balancing challenge for me.
We loved learning about Karley’s story, rich with Métis heritage and a deep connection to the wolf and its Indigenous symbolism. Her soothing voice and calm instruction created a kind of presence that my brain isn’t always able to easily access. SUP yoga is the perfect early morning activity to set your day in motion.
3. Rock hounding
This is SO NEAT! It’s another Yours Outdoors activity, this one taking place in Wilberforce. Part of Haliburton County, this section of the Canadian Shield is rich in mineral deposits and features unique geological formations.
Although you could certainly do this activity on your own if you’re a rock-hounding pro, if you’ve never gone in search of special rocks and minerals, you definitely need a guide.
Our guide, Mitch — a cool hippie with dreads — knew his stuff, and brought everything along that we’d need to start hunting for minerals, some of which (like red apatite) can only be found at this site. We learned what to look for and how to unearth these treasures. You get to keep whatever you find, too!
Mitch even showed us where chaga mushrooms grow on the side of birch tree trunks and chopped one down for us to take home and make into tea, which is said to treat diabetes, some cancers and even heart disease. I’ll need to do some more Googling before I embark on this, though. (See what I did there?)
4. Haliburton Sculpture Forest
My kids loved exploring this forest-based, outdoor installation art “gallery.” The Haliburton Sculpture Forest is perfect if you have a spare hour or two in the area and want a free and easy, kid-friendly walking trail that brings you to several pieces of art along the way.
There’s more hiking to do in the Haliburton area than you could possibly cover even after years of returning. It’s a hiker’s paradise!
Wolf Howl & Hike
While our first visit to the Haliburton Forest Wolf Centre last year left us wanting more, pairing it with the Wolf Howl & Hike experience was amazing. It starts inside at the Wolf Centre (masked and with reduced capacity right now, of course) and you’ll get to see the wolf pack that lives on the property if they decide to grace you with their presence.
There’s plenty of plexiglass for maximum viewing pleasure but there’s no guarantee they’ll all be hanging out there. This is what I love about the Wolf Centre — there’s a lot of acreage just for the wolves and they aren’t forced to be in an enclosure for human gawking. They choose when they want to be there. There’s a lot more to learn and see in the Wolf Centre, so all is not lost if your visit fails to coincide with a live wolf spotting, though chances are good it will.
After the indoor component, you’ll head out into a nearby hiking trail where you can take in the beauty of Haliburton Forest and get more time with the wolf-expert guides. Ask them all your wolf-y questions on your way to the wolf howl spot. You might even luck out like we did and hear the huskies howling en route!
Once you reach a specific area, the guide will teach you how to howl life a wolf — and hopefully you’ll get a reply! It took a couple of tries, but we had a choral response from Luna (the alpha female) and a few others who eventually chimed in with her. It was super cool and a moment we’ll remember forever.
If you’d rather go off and explore the impressive network of hiking trails — all 400 kilometres’ worth — throughout Haliburton Forest all on your own, you should first grab and review the map you can get at the main office (Basecamp). This place is HUGE and once you’re deep in the forest, there’s no cell service if you get lost and want to call for help. The map is easy to follow — and I write this as someone who is generally directionally challenged.
There’s also a downloadable map (here), but it won’t do you much good if you don’t have cell service so grab a hard copy for sure or download the interactive map here. The great news about the interactive map is that it doesn’t require data once installed, so it can be used anywhere in the forest.
Try the Wild Woods Walk near Basecamp, which will take you to the barn that’s currently home to some very cute piglets, or The Lookout which is steep but offers a rewarding vista view from the top.
6. Canopy Tour
I really wanted to do the Canopy Tour last year — the world’s longest canopy walkway — but the minimum age requirement is 10 and Miss Q was only 9.5 at the time, so I was excited to add it to this year’s itinerary.
If you want a bird’s-eye view of Haliburton Forest and you’re comfortable with heights when you know for certain you’re hooked into a system that’s built to support tens of thousands of pounds of weight and prevent your untimely death, this is the activity for you!
The entire tour is somewhere between 3.5 to four hours long, including transit time to and from the site plus the time it takes to suit up and learn the ropes. Literally.
It involves some easy canoeing and hiking and then plenty of canopies to get the heart pumping. You also get to take in the sights and sounds of the Pelaw Rapids:
And even though both of my kids are heights-averse, they did it — pushing through some scary moments on the Canopy Tour, breathing deeply, communicating fears and getting out of their comfort zones. It’s an exercise in trust, to be sure, and if your child is less than five feet tall, s/he will need your help with the safety clips along the way. And it’s all hella worth it.
The views — especially at the platform where you’ll have a short BYO snack break — are spectacular and you’ll enjoy a vantage point that you can’t really otherwise get without doing something like zip-lining:
If you wear a sunhat, be sure it fits well or has a chin strap — because if you lose it, it’s a gonner. You likely won’t need to bring extra sunscreen since most of the excursion is under tree cover, but you absolutely need to douse yourself in bug spray. I also recommend wearing a hydration pack since four hours is a long time to go thirsty.
Have a fishing license and your own gear? Bring them along to Haliburton Forest where you can either rent a canoe from Basecamp to take out into any of the onsite lakes, fish off the back of your SUP or simply stand on the public access dock at McDonald Lake to catch some of the sneaky fish living right under the dock — a perfect spot for kids and beginners.
If you don’t have fishing rods or have a clue how to attach bait or tackle, let alone how to cast, then you’ll want to hire Jamie at Haliburton Forest. He’ll bring everything your party needs and take your group out on a dock or in canoes to fish for small mouth bass, rock bass and the other fish native to the lakes in Haliburton, Ontario.
Though Big B and I didn’t have much luck, I still enjoyed practising the art of the cast that I learned last summer when I did some deep Lake Ontario fishing in Whitby. The kids, on the other hand, caught 10 fish between them in just a couple of hours! They were all fairly small, which meant it was easy for them to reel them in themselves, and it also meant teaching them the value and importance of catch and release. (I’m all about keeping big fish to eat, but it’s pointless to kill a fish for no reason in my opinion.)
Contact Haliburton Forest to inquire about Jamie’s availability and the cost for a half or full day of guided fishing.
8. Haliburton Locomotive & the Avro CF-100
If you’re already planning to drive around the Haliburton Highlands, make sure you add the Haliburton Rotary Locomotive and the Royal Canadian Legion Avro CF-100 to your route. They’re right beside each other and for kids who like planes and trains, this is a fun little stop as you pass through the area.
I’ve mapped them both out and included links to learn more about them in my road trips from Toronto post in the Haliburton road trip section.
9. Abbey Gardens
This place is so beautiful and eclectic! Housed in what is one of the country’s rarest ecosystems — and one of the first to be settled back in the day — Abbey Gardens is a community garden and charity, a space that offers complementary businesses (like a brewery, solar and wind energy company and cancer care retreat) a place to call home and now an 18-hole disc golf course all in one.
The 300-acre property, which was once a gravel pit, was dreamed up by John Patterson after he was inspired by similar projects in B.C. and England. It’s grown exponentially during the last 13 years and still has plenty of room to keep growing.
We tried the new disc golf course — though we didn’t get very far. This is not our sport, which showed when we lost one of the discs on the second hole. Many of these holes aren’t built for novices who don’t have bottomless $10/disc deposits to risk, but pro disc golfers will be wowed. There are water features and dense forest to contend with, making it a fantastic challenge for those who’ve been playing for some time and who have better aim than we do.
You’re free to tour the gorgeous community gardens, stroll the grounds to see the Ojibway horses (one of only three horse breeds native to Canada — and who nearly went extinct in the 1970s and are still considered rare) and you definitely want to pop into the market. The prepared foods are delicious and I was finally able to find a locally made jam after searching three other country markets (more on those below). I also picked up some buckwheat honey and a spicy drinking chocolate bar.
Before you set off, be sure to grab some goodies from Haliburton Highlands Brewing onsite. Big B is a discerning beer drinker and gives this award-winning micro-brewery two thumbs up. He said everything he tried (and he tried five different brews) was outstanding.
10. Plein Air painting
Oh, how I LOVED this! Even if you’re not an artist, this centuries-old way of painting — beyond studio walls, out in nature — is going to transport you into a different kind of mindset and set the stage for truly being in the moment and tuning out the world.
Join artist Harvey Walker in another Yours Outdoors guided activity inspired by the Group of Seven. Even if you’re not completely enamoured with Impressionist art like I am (it’s my all-time favourite), learning techniques with Harvey and just taking in the scenery in a way you can’t without a paintbrush in-hand will leave you with beautiful memories that you get to physically take home with you.
Working in oil, which is forgiving both on the canvas and on your clothes, Harvey will meet you at a pre-determined location that’s perfect for plein air painting. We followed Harvey to the Pelaw Rapids and he had easels, brushes, paint and everything else we needed for our three-hour lesson.
You definitely do NOT have to be a skilled artist to learn and enjoy, so if you’re hesitant because you’re afraid you won’t bring any technique to the table, just forget about it! Harvey is a fabulous teacher for both kids and adults and the four of us have very different painting skills — and all of our paintings turned into keepers.
11. Shopping at country stores around Haliburton, Ontario
I love a country market. I love the local artisan knick knacks, the homemade foodstuffs, the kitschy vibe. I love it all.
In addition to Abbey Gardens’ own market mentioned above, there are some other country markets and shops in Haliburton, Ontario, that are waiting for you to discover:
- Agnew’s General Store in Wilberforce — a real mish-mash of stuff where we grabbed some novelty snacks (hello, Beaver Balls!) plus some practical things like retractable metal rods for roasting marshmallows and a small torch to help light a campfire
- Upriver Trading Co. in downtown Haliburton — this is more a retail storefront than traditional country store, it has a beautiful collection of random things along with an artisan coffee shop inside
- Cottage Country Log Cabin Trading Company Ltd. in West Guilford — a fantastic little converted house, where each room seems to house a new category of goods, plus a great big Muskoka chair out front perfect for a photo break
- Robinson’s General Store in Dorset (this may technically be slightly outside of Haliburton, Ontario — but it’s an easy drive from Haliburton Forest) — voted Canada’s Best Country Store, it shares space with a home hardware shop and boasts enough things inside to also count as a grocery store
If you enjoy lake swimming (I do not), the lakes in Haliburton Forest are exceptionally warm in July and August. I put my hand into McDonald Lake when we were fishing and was surprised how warm it was, and when I had to step into Clear Lake for our SUP yoga session to pull the paddlboard out from shore, I couldn’t believe that I didn’t have to adjust to the temperature. It was remarkably warm underfoot.
Grab a map from Basecamp at Haliburton Forest to find your way to both of these lakes and ask them about other great spots to do some swimming if you’re not staying overnight or in lakefront accommodations.
It isn’t a vacation unless you splurge on some treats, right?! If you’re staying for a few nights, bringing groceries with you is definitely going to save you some money but you should also leave room for someone else to do the cooking — especially when the food is as good as it is at The Cookhouse, right onsite at Haliburton Forest. Just be mindful of their hours and days of operation, which are currently in flux. Order literally anything — they don’t make a bad meal — and add Kawartha Dairy milkshakes from the little store in the same building.
If you’re looking for food after working up an appetite rock hounding in Wilberforce, the South Algonquin Diner serves up an all-day menu that was quite good (even if my Montreal smoked meat sandwich was ridiculously tiny).
The Little Tart and Kawartha Dairy in Minden are must-stops, no matter which part of the Haliburton Highlands you’re visiting. Make your way to both at some point! The Little Tart will sell out every day they’re open and they do close up shop as soon as that happens, so my advice is to go early in the day to avoid disappointment.
Kawartha Dairy’s hours in Minden are generous from morning ’til night, so there’s loads of time to fit in an ice cream fix.
Looking for other fun day or road trip ideas in Ontario? Check out my road trips from Toronto post — still being updated with new itineraries for 2021!
I look forward to adding more accommodations, activities and eateries to this post down the road. In the meantime, if you have other local suggestions for Haliburton, Ontario, feel free to leave them in the comments.
DISCLAIMER: Haliburton Forest hosted a portion of our stay to facilitate some of this content; we have also done a considerable amount of this on our own dime. All opinions and suggestions are my own.