Even people who don’t spend a lot of time visiting provincial parks in Ontario have probably been to or heard of the likes of Algonquin, Sandbanks and French River. But did you know we have more than 330 parks to explore across the province?
I’m so excited to share this Ontario provincial parks map and a complete guide for six hidden gems, some of which are a bit off-the-beaten path or might not have made your short-list of must-visit parks, along with what makes them worth checking out and some other fun things you can do in the area to round out your day.
IF YOU ARE IN A “HOT ZONE,” PLEASE REFRAIN FROM VISITING OTHER CITIES AND MUNICIPALITIES.
Provincial Parks are observing physical distancing; please follow health protocols. Other sites and businesses listed here may have limited hours and operations. Things may change over time as different regions move into different phases/stages, so it’s always best to look at individual websites the day before you plan to visit to ensure there are no surprises.
Before you visit, take a look at the Facilities and Activities icons for each park to see what’s currently available at the park in question. Here is the latest information on Ontario Park’s COVID-19 response.
Also, note that I live in the most eastern end of the GTA (Greater Toronto Area), so we chose parks that were within a three-hour, one-way drive for us. Six hours of driving in a single day is our day-trip max!
And before we dive in, don’t forget to check the weather and layer well. Come prepared — this is Ontario, after all, and you could see all four seasons in the same day. In addition to what might be the obvious (a park map, plenty of water, food, rain jacket, merino socks, waterproof hiking boots, sunscreen, gloves and toques if it’s starting to get extra-cool when you plan to visit), we also learned over time to take a wildlife bell attached to one of our backpacks so we didn’t find ourselves sneaking up on wild animals and we frequently used the compass app on our Apple Watches to follow park maps when we really couldn’t get a good handle on what direction we were travelling in these new surroundings. One last thing: though there were usually picnic tables all over the parks, we also started carrying a big blanket to put over the table so we were eating with our own germs and none left over from a previous family. Safety first!
(Oh, and stay tuned at the very end where I’ll also help you decide whether an Ontario Parks Pass makes sense for you, too.)
Ontario provincial parks map: the hidden gems
First up, here’s my Ontario provincial parks map that’ll help you find these wonderful hidden gems:
OK, let’s dig into each of the provincial parks and all the fun stuff you can do in and around them…
Ontario Provincial Parks map location 1: Petroglyphs Provincial Park
- Park website
- Park location: 2249 Northey’s Bay Rd., Woodview, ON, K0L 3E0 — northeast of Peterborough
- Park/trail map: available at the Visitor Centre
- Is this park bike-friendly? YES, if you stay on the main roads
If you’ve never seen a meromictic lake in person, you’ve gotta come here. McGinnis Lake has layers of water that don’t ever intermix, and they remain in separate layers of both colour and temperature. At Petroglyphs Provincial Park, you’ll find such a lake — bursting with a turquoise centre huddled in what appears to be a sandy perimeter — but don’t be fooled! You can’t swim here and that’s not a beach, just another layer of water.
There are perfectly perched picnic tables looking out at the stunning water, so definitely plan to picnic here if you’re staying for lunch. Look for the “West Day Use Parking” signs to place yourself not 200 feet from the lake.
But that’s not all you’ll find at Petroglyphs. If you drive up to the main parking lots and go to the Visitor Centre, there’s a pathway beside it that will take you to a wonderful hiking trail in one direction and, in the other, to the largest known concentration of Indigenous rock carvings (petroglyphs) in Canada, depicting turtles, snakes, birds, humans and more; this sacred site is known as “The Teaching Rocks” and both photography and pets are not permitted in this area of the park.
To protect the rock carvings, a roofed enclosure has been built around them, so you’ll need to bring your face masks to get in and view them. There are self-guided tour plaques around the carvings to learn more about them and this was an amazing lesson in both history and Indigenous culture for all of us. We stayed quite a while taking in all of the different carvings and learning more about who walked these lands so long ago.
Petroglyphs Provincial Park is a special place. You may find weekends especially busy, so be sure to arrive early. Better still — visit during the week if you can.
Things to do near Petroglyphs Provincial Park:
- The Boathouse Pub, located at Viamede Resort, is a short drive from the park and has an awesome patio that overlooks Stoney Lake. You may need to call ahead to make a reservation to be allowed to dine there as guests not staying on the property
- South of the park, in Lakefield, Stuff’d Ice Cream has (you guessed it) ice cream and baked goods; The Nutty Bean has regular and specialty coffees; the Chocolate Rabbit has loads of amazing chocolate yummies; and the OPG Dam across from Stuff’d is super cool to walk across and feel the power of water being harnessed right beneath your feet
- The Peterborough & The Kawarthas map I created for my road trips from Toronto post has lots of other ideas
Ontario Provincial Parks map location 2: Murphys Point Provincial Park
- Park website
- Park location: 2243 Elmgrove Road, R.R. 5, Perth, ON, K7H 3C7 — just south of Perth proper
- Park/trail maps: park overview map & winter trails
- Is this park bike-friendly? YES, on the main roads and both the McParlan House Trail and gravel road section of the Silver Queen Mine Trail
Murphys Point Provincial Park was a last-minute choice for us — truly at the eleventh hour the night before we had a day of hiking planned and had originally opted for John E. Pearce Provincial Park. Weather conditions turned us around and instead of heading three hours towards the Sarnia area, we did an about-face and went three hours towards Ottawa instead. You can see on the Ontario Provincial Parks map above how close it is to the Ottawa region!
And we were so glad we did, because Murphys Point turned out to be so incredible that I swear all four of us would want to go every weekend if it was closer to home!
The cool factor was amped before we even hit the park, when we hit Lock 35 on the historic Rideau Waterway — called “The Narrows.” And it was narrow, with the water line nearly at street level. There were two boats coming through, so we got to watch this swing-style lock in action and then drive across as we continued on to Murphys Point.
Located on Big Rideau Lake, Murphys Point Provincial Park is a goldmine of activity — and not just because there’s an actual mine onsite!
If you want an easy to moderate 9ish-km hike that’ll take you alongside the lake, through forested areas, onwards to an old homestead and another lake and then over to the old mine trail, I suggest following in our footsteps:
- First, drive over to the the VERY clean and bright washroom facilities (called the “Comfort Station” on the park map), park on the side of the road with your blinkers on and have a good family restroom break before you set off for what will be a full day without another comfort station in sight
- Then, park beside the Registration Gatehouse for the day and set off on foot toward the Hogg Bay campground (there are signs almost immediately across from the Gatehouse)
- From here, head to campsite No. 45 to pick up the Loon Lake trail; follow this for a kilometre or so and keep your eyes open for the signage that’ll lead you to the Lally Homestead/Silver Queen Mine trails. You’ll be on the McParlan House trail for a bit while you connect between Look Lake and Lally Homestead; this is the longest stretch but it’s a fairly easy hike — just watch out for rocks and roots at your feet, which were hidden beneath several inches of fallen fall foliage the day we visited
- It’ll be very clear when you reach the Homestead since you’ll see the old barn as you come through the trail. Up near the ruins of the original family home, there’s a big historical board that tells the Lally family history. There are picnic tables in the ruins, and it was a great spot to eat lunch and soak in the surroundings. We imagined what part of the house we were sitting in and how many bedrooms there may have been for the Lally’s many children. There’s a short loop trail that starts between the barn structures, but before you do that, I recommend crossing the street behind the ruins to do the mine trail
- The Silver Queen Mine was an early 1900s mica mine (don’t worry, you’ll learn everything you didn’t know you wanted to know about mica thanks to educational stops along the trail!) and it’ll take you to the site of the original pit and a building that housed up to 20 labourers at a time. It’s a fascinating trail with so much to absorb — and there’s still little bits of mica everywhere, making the forest floor sparkle
Things to do near Murphys Point Provincial Park:
We discovered so many cool things to do in Perth that I mapped it out so you can create an easy-to-follow driving route:
- Get a selfie with The Mammoth Cheese — and read the hilarious story about how this 22,000-pound cheese container ended up in Canada
- Last Duel Park — although there’s nothing to see here (it’s really just a park), it’s an interesting story and if your kids are Hamilton fans, you can talk about Canada’s last duel within the context of Hamilton’s own duel with Burr; just around the corner is The Burying Grounds
- Visit cannons from the 1700s at the Courthouse
- Drive across the Swing Bridge
- Check out a really old and very cute fire hall
- See the Tay Rapids in Code Park — but they aren’t rapids at all, just some lovely water under an adorable bridge, flowing over rocks, feeding into a pretty pond where you may spot a turtle like we did
- See the commemorative statue of Ian Miller with Big Ben (which was neat for an equestrian nut like me)
- Across the street from the statue is Code’s Mill, which has been converted into a commercial area with shops and restaurants. It’s so pretty inside (don’t forget your mask!) and the chocolate shop — Perth Chocolate Works — is a must-visit. They even carry sugar-free chocolate! Pass on the coffee, though
Ontario Provincial Parks map location 3: Pinery Provincial Park
- Park website
- Park location: 9526 Lakeshore Road RR2, Grand Bend, ON, N0M 1T0 — just south of downtown Grand Bend
- Park/trail map: park overview map & cross-country trail map
- Is this park bike-friendly? YES, on the main roads and a dedicated 14km bike trail
Oh, Pinery — how you stole our hearts! We spent about six hours at this park and we did a fraction of it. It’s HUGE. And to see as much as possible in a single day, you’ll have to drive from point to point. We started with the Bittersweet Trail, an easy 1.5km trek that has a marsh-y lookout platform partway through. It’s pretty but not the clearest-cut trail so if you don’t like being close to poison ivy, this one may not be for you.
Like all of the trails, though, keep an eye out for Pinery’s remarkable biodiversity; there are more than 800 vascular plants and 300+ bird species that call this park home.
Park at the Visitor Centre and you’ll easily find the Cedar Trail, which is also wheelchair-friendly and offers a good wide trail for the most part, making physically distant passage with oncomers more comfortable. The only time it gets hairy is on the bridge-like structures, where it’s one-way traffic (and most, but not all, visitors are respectful of that, unfortunately, so have a mask handy if this will make you uncomfortable). There’s an 800-metre extension off of this trail that will bring you to a spectacular lookout point for Lake Huron.
Not far from the Visitor Centre, you’ll find the Canoe Rental building. Though rentals were closed due to COVID the day we visited, the ice cream shop was open! And it had lots of fun flavours, including unicorn poop. You can guess which daughter of mine tried that.
If you like long walks along the beach, even in cooler weather, park at Lot 1 for Dog Beach and walk the length of it, taking in the gorgeous shoreline. We visited on one of the last warm days of summer and spent hours playing here. This would also be an incredible place to watch Lake Huron’s famous sunset, though we actually drove to Bayfield to end our day.
Things to do near Pinery Provincial Park:
- The Bayfield Brewing Company & Public House had fantastic food, plus Bayfield was MUCH less busy than trying to find a restaurant in Grand Bend
- Pioneer Park for the sunset win! Just…wowee-wow-wow
- The Grand Bend map I created for my road trips from Toronto post has lots of other ideas
Ontario Provincial Parks map location 4: Balsam Lake Provincial Park
- Park website
- Park location: 2238 County Road 48, Kirkfield, ON, K0M 2B0 — northeast of Kirkfield
- Park/trail map
- Is this park bike-friendly? YES — on campground roads and another 10km of local cottage roads nearby
After visiting so many Provincial Parks, you might think they’d all start to fuse in the ole memory bank. But they each have their own little hallmarks that make them stand out and create unique reasons to visit. Balsam Lake Provincial Park is no different, and I think other than its easy, kid-friendly hiking trails and beautiful loon calls in the backdrop, the main draw of this park for us was the Lookout Trail with a dozen interpretive stops along the way.
Part of this trail takes you through eskers and kames that were formed more than 10,000 years ago by the Wisconsin Glacier as well as a creepy-cool Cedar Grove. Balsam Lake Provincial Park is also an “ecotone,” meaning it’s where two different ecosystems overlap — so you could see flying squirrels or moose here, which are generally not found in this part of Ontario. The Pileated Woodpecker lives here and at one of the interpretive stops, you can see the GINORMOUS holes it’s capable of creating. And then, of course, what’s a Lookout Trail without…a lookout!? The fall colours were still out in full force just a couple of weeks ago when we visited and, as usual, nature didn’t disappoint.
Of course, in the summer months, the lovely beach here would be a huge draw, but we visited in toques and fleece — not exactly beach weather.
There were some great picnic tables by the lake if you park near the boat launch (and, bonus: some clean washrooms, too), which was perfect for our picnic lunch. We’ll definitely be back to hike the Plantation Trail!
Things to do near Balsam Lake Provincial Park:
- Lock 36 on the Trent-Severn Waterway is very close to the park and the second-highest hydraulic lift lock in the world (the highest one is in Peterborough); if you’re lucky enough to have boats passing through, make sure you see the lock in action from both sides! But beware — the steps up to the higher side of the waterway are steep and dizzying
- Birders from all over the world visit Carden Plain, which is mostly a wide-open greenspace (apparently alive with wildflowers during spring and summer, home to an enormous variety of birds). We used the Cameron Ranch Walking Trail (there’s a free parking lot), and it was pretty desolate on the autumn day we checked it out, but it was totally worth it for the cows. A large herd grazes here and I’ve since learned that the area is often referred to as “Ontario’s Serengeti” — which in hindsight is a very good moniker. The cows were nowhere near the fence line as we walked (and walked) the trail’s long boardwalk, but on our return, there were dozens of them within feet of us and they were as curious about us as we were of them. My kids absolutely loved being this close to cows and calves and sharing this moment with no one else in sight
- If heading home takes you southeast of Kirkfield, The Little Pie Shop in Fenelon Falls is calling. Oh, boy — does it have some goodies!
Ontario Provincial Parks map location 5: Earl Rowe Provincial Park
- Park website
- Park location: 4998 Concession #7, Tosorontio Township, ON, L9R 1W1 — north of Caledon
- Park/trail map
- Is this park bike-friendly? YES! Lots of bike-friendly pathways throughout the park
I wish we’d brought our bikes to this park, and we will next time. There are loads of paved trails around the park so you don’t even need to stay on the main roads.
We were hoping to see the salmon swimming upstream at Earl Rowe Provincial Park’s official fish ladder, but it seemed we were too early in the season and mid- to late-October is better timing. But we parked in the lot near the fish ladder to embark on the Fletcher’s Pond Trail. That is, after we watched a jaw-dropping number of Canadian Geese in the water. In all my life, I’ve never seen so many of them!
This trail took us around East Beach and across Earl Rowe Lake where we hopped on to the connecting to the western portion of the Rainbow Run Trail, which bends around the biggest public swimming pool I think I’ve seen anywhere (created because apparently visitors haven’t been able to swim in the lake here for years due to high bacteria levels). Then we hiked our way to Little Trail and looped back to the fish ladder. There were more than enough picnic tables for a lunch or snack break all along this route.
Instead of hiking the northern portion of the Rainbow Run Trail from the fish ladder area to get to the Lookout Trail, the nice woman at the entrance gate let us know that we could drive up to the Trillium Woods campground area and park there instead since that campground was closed. We parked and easily found the west side of the Rainbow Run Trail; the Lookout Trail picked up not long after (there’s excellent signage everywhere, by the way) and you’re gonna earn your views! The hike up is a steadily steep for quite a stretch, but not so steep that you’ll find yourself slipping. And you’ll be rewarded with views for days once you reach the top.
And, of course, what goes up must come down. So, the downhill passage is a breeze! Continue in the direction from which you arrived and take the full Lookout Trail loop to get a different route back to your starting place; just watch for signs so you can hop back onto the Rainbow Run Trail.
Things to do near Earl Rowe Provincial Park:
- The big, uphill Lookout Trail hike meant we immediately looked for a well-deserved treat once we exited the park, and we found Frozen Bites in nearby Alliston. This is Thai rolled ice cream and it’s a feast for the eyes watching it get made and then a feast for the palate with its textured creaminess
- Just a few minutes east of the ice cream shop, you’ll find Sir Edward Banting’s Homestead. We ate our ice cream in the car while telling the kids about Banting — co-discoverer of insulin and Canada’s first Nobel Laureate — and his importance not only to Canadian history but world history, too. We learned as much about his life and other accomplishments as the kids! While we didn’t go inside to tour his home, there’s a lot to see on the grounds alone, like a really neat eight-sided “Drive Shed” built in 1918 by Thompson Banting — one of the last of its kind in Canada. There’s also what, at first glance, appears to be a playground but is actually outdoor exercise equipment that you can play (and exercise) on. Not far away there are some outdoor musical instruments, too. These made for a great way to burn off the ice cream’s sugar rush! There seems to be a walking trail as well, though we didn’t look for it considering we had our fill of walking earlier in the day at Earl Rowe Provincial Park
Ontario Provincial Parks map location 6: Darlington Provincial Park
- Park website
- Park location: 1600 Darlington Park Rd., Bowmanville, ON, L1C 3K3 — east of Oshawa
- Park/trail map
- Is this park bike-friendly? YES, if you stick to the main roads and campground areas
I spent many a high-school summer camping with friends at Darlington, but this was the first time I’d been back since I started adulting. Turns out there are actual trails and things to see beyond one’s own campsite. Who knew?!
Darlington Provincial Park is small enough that you can park at the lot beside the Park Office and easily spend a few hours hiking all of the trails without it feeling too taxing — even for the littlest legs. The Burk Trail will take you down to the beach, which is long and so pretty to walk, even if you’re not there to beach it up. Along this trail, you’ll come across a Pioneer Cemetery that tells the story of the area’s first residents who were persuaded to leave New York State in the late 1700s for a life in what would later become Ontario. (I don’t know about you, but I love reading about generations past who walked before us.) There’s also a park with fun equipment, lots of picnic tables and an old log cabin (the Darlington Pioneer Home), which used to be the park’s Info Centre but has been boarded up for some time.
From the southern-most part of the Burk Trail, you can take the Campground Trail east — though all it really does is take you through the various campsites — or head west and merge with the McLaughlin Bay Trail that leads you to distinct fishing nodes and a stunning view of McLaughlin Bay.
On the day we visited, there were hundreds of Monarchs and dragonflies and we were even treated to a close encounter with a hummingbird who was too busy in the goldenrod and other remaining flora to notice us gawking at her.
Darlington is perfect for those looking for easy trails with some interesting sites along the way. This is a great way to introduce hiking to your little ones and almost guarantee a positive experience! If you’re after a more challenging, technical set of trails, you’ll probably find these too light for your liking, though, so keep that in mind.
Things to do near Darlington Provincial Park:
This park is five minutes from my house, so I’ll spare you the enormous list of area recommendations I have here as a longtime local resident, and instead direct you to the Clarington map and detailed day-trip outline I created for my road trips from Toronto post.
Ontario Parks Pass
So now you’ve got a starter Ontario Provincial Parks map to find all these hidden gems and you’re ready to explore. Did you know Ontario Parks offers an annual Ontario Parks Pass?
If you’re just going to visit a few Provincial Parks each year, paying the day-use fees (which is a flat-rate, per-vehicle permit price) is the way to go. At time of writing, the regular day-use cost is $12.25 including tax.
But let’s say you’re gonna become a regular, exploring several different Ontario Parks or frequenting a couple of your favourites over and over. In this case, it may make more financial sense to go with an Ontario Parks Pass. At $175 per vehicle, you’d need to make a minimum of 15 park visits for this investment to work in your favour.
Pro Tip: Keep in mind that a lot of these parks have dedicated X-country trails that are maintained all winter, so think about the kind of money you normally spend on winter sports in relation to this winter and how much extra time you think you’ll spend here in Ontario.
Now here’s another consideration: if you’re so NOT a winter person, there’s also a Summer Vehicle Permit option for an Ontario Parks Pass. It’s valid from April 1 through November 30 and costs $125 for the season. Then you’ll see your return-on-investment after 11 park visits.
In any case, a $12.25 entry fee for a full day of fun and time in nature is a bargoon any way you slice it.
DISCLAIMER: Ontario Parks compensated me for this post, but my family enjoyed and paid for admission to many of these and other provincial parks long before this post started to take shape. All opinions and suggestions are my own.