If you found this Grotto in Tobermory post because you’re planning a spontaneous trip next weekend to the Bruce Peninsula, you may need to pause your planning. Thanks to years of international attention and more Ontarians travelling in their own province during the past two summers, there’s not a lot of spontaneity allowed when it comes to The Grotto in Tobermory.
That said, if you’re really motivated and you’ve decided you’re going to Tobermory ASAP come hell or high water, there are ways to get to The Grotto if you haven’t already reserved your parking pass. In this post, I’ll share everything you need to know about finding the Tobermory Grotto and some of the other gems in the area — even if you didn’t give yourself the recommended three to six months’ worth of planning time.
Here’s what I’m going to cover in this Grotto in Tobermory post:
- Where is The Grotto in Tobermory?
- Booking Grotto parking
- Hiking in Tobermory & how to find the Bruce Peninsula Grotto
- What to bring to the Tobermory Grotto
- Where to swim at The Grotto in Tobermory
As Bruce County’s most popular attraction, The Grotto in Tobermory is worth the extra planning usually required to make your visit a success. But whether you’re late to the party or you’ve got six long months to get ready to visit this Bucket List destination, I’m determined to help get you there — because, boy, is it worth the effort.
Where is The Grotto in Tobermory?
The world-famous Tobermory Grotto is located on the northern edge of Bruce Peninsula National Park in Ontario, Canada. Facing the crystal-clear turquoise waters of Georgian Bay, between Loon and Horse Lakes, it’s essentially a limestone cave.
If you put “The Grotto” into your GPS or Google Maps, it’ll take you to the main parking lot, which I’ll get to in the next section. You need reservations for this, so if you don’t have those and you think you’re heading to The Grotto today, skip to the section after parking so you can park elsewhere and hike to the Grotto instead. It’s going to take considerably longer, but it’s probably doable — depending on how much time you’ve got.
So it’s summer break and you want to see The Grotto in Tobermory. Yeah — you and everyone else! Seriously, this is a busy, busy, busy spot and planning ahead of time is in your best interest if you can’t go in spring or fall when the crowds thin out and parking reservations are easier to get.
The main parking lot operates on six daily reservation schedules: 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., 12 to 4 p.m., 1 to 5 p.m., 4 to 8 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. You choose a block and get four hours to explore The Grotto and its surrounding attractions along the Bruce Trail. We booked about three months ahead of time for the last week in August and had almost every day of our four-day visit available in the reservations system; by the time we arrived to park, I asked the attendant if it was busy and he said “every day is busy — every day is completely booked.”
I’ve heard of people snagging a cancellation a month in advance during high season but you may still be SOL with even that much notice. If you want Grotto parking closest to the actual Grotto in July or August, plan ahead to avoid disappointment.
How to book the best Grotto parking:
Grotto parking is pretty inexpensive (see Parks Canada fees here) and booking online is the cheapest and most effective way to secure your spot:
- Unless you’re within easy driving distance of The Grotto, be sure you’ve already booked your accommodations in Tobermory so you know which dates you have to work with first.
- Visit the Parks Canada Grotto parking reservations page. Read everything. Carefully.
- Once you have your preferred date and time-block in mind, book your Grotto ticket online. (Changes to reservations are not permitted, so double-check everything.) On the left-hand side, select:
- The reservation type: Parking (Bruce Peninsula)
- Your arrival month and date
- The park: Bruce Peninsula
- Your party size — note that everyone must be in one vehicle; if you have 10 people between two vehicles, this is two separate Grotto parking reservations
- The parking lot: Grotto
- Vehicle type
- Your preferred time slot (look on the right-hand side of your screen for availability)
- NOW CLICK “RESERVE” and follow the prompts to review fine print and pay (I suggest using a sign-in partner)
- Print out a copy of your reservation, as Parks Canada seems to only want hard copies at the gate, and be sure you bring your ID with you to the Grotto parking lot on the day of your reservation.
Other Grotto parking options
Let’s say you don’t love the idea of having just four hours to explore The Grotto or perhaps you didn’t get the date or time slot you really wanted. All is not lost. When you’re in the reservations system, you may have noticed an option for parking at Half Way Log Dump.
Is it a really terrible name? Absolutely. But it is a good back-up Grotto parking option if Plan A doesn’t work out. During peak season, you’ll need to book Half Way Log Dump reservations in advance, too (using the same steps above, but using “Half Way Log Dump” in the parking lot drop-down menu; during shoulder season, it’s first come, first served.
You can also park at the Bruce Peninsula National Park and Fathom Five National Marine Park Visitor Centre (120 Chi sin tib dek Rd, Tobermory, ON N0H 2R0), pay for a day pass to the park here and hike to the Grotto with a few other nice stops along the way, like Dunks Bay and Little Cove.
Hiking in Tobermory & how to find The Grotto in Tobermory
Hiking to The Grotto in Tobermory along the Bruce Trail offers even novice hikers an opportunity to get a bit gritty. If you’ve planned well and scored a Grotto parking reservation in the main lot, your hike to The Grotto is a relatively short one — about 25 to 30 minutes using the fastest trail. But this isn’t the only way to find it, so I’ve included alternatives here, too:
From the main Grotto parking lot (P1)
This is the hardest-to-get parking because it gets you as close as possible to The Grotto and the hike is, overall, an easy one. You can do either the Horse Lake Trail or take the Georgian Bay Trail From P1 — with the Georgian Bay Trail being the shortest and most direct. For the first 20 minutes or so, the Georgian Bay Trail is a wide, hard-packed limestone path that’s easily navigable even for those with wheelchairs, wagons and strollers.
But don’t let this fool you.
Soon, you’ll come to a much more technical section of the Bruce Trail and anything on wheels isn’t going to pass through here nicely — if at all. It’s rocky, uneven and has some moderate slopes the rest of the way to The Grotto. Little ones and anyone with mobility concerns will find this last five to 10 minutes challenging, but it’ll feel like you’ve legitimately tackled what the Bruce Trail is all about, and you can say that you’ve hiked at least part of this 782-kilometre-long UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve — Canada’s oldest, longest footpath.
The first time you feast your eyes on that Caribbean-like water, you’ll be so glad you’ve finally made it to The Grotto. Except you haven’t. This is Indian Head Cove (more on this later)! The Grotto is actually a bit farther west and you still have a tough climb ahead of you for another five minutes or so. Keep heading west — up, over and through rocky ledges and boulders — and you’ll be rewarded with this:
From Half Way Log Dump
Once you’ve parked at Half Way Log Dump (gawwwwd, I hate typing that name), make your way north toward Georgian Bay Beach and head west on the Bruce Trail. It’s just a hair longer than 6km to The Grotto and should take less than an hour and a half if you’re moving at a good pace.
Please note that I have not personally done this hike — because, like I mentioned, we secured our Grotto parking reservation well in advance. Using anecdotal evidence from others as well as the information on All Trails, this part of the Bruce Trail is marked as difficult, so you need to be prepared for a tough hike through extremely rugged terrain.
If you’ve never hiked before or if you don’t have proper footwear, this may not be a great idea. Please be realistic about your abilities and how much daylight you have on your side. And be sure to tell someone where you’re hiking and what time you plan to be back since cellphone reception everywhere up here is notoriously spotty.
From the Visitor Centre parking lot
The same day-use fees that you’ll pay for the Grotto parking outlined above apply to the Bruce Peninsula National Park and Fathom Five National Marine Park Visitor Centre. Here, you’ll also get the added benefit of having Parks Canada staff on-hand for questions and guidance. And this is where the Bruce Trail officially begins — or ends, if you’re coming from Niagara.
This represents a much, much longer hike to The Grotto — though there are notable stops along the way like Little Dunks Bay Lookout, Dunks Bay Beach and Little Cove Beach — so set off early to ensure you have enough daylight to safely make it back to the Visitor Centre. The Bruce Trail at night will not be your friend.
Follow the marked trail and keep heading east. It’s about 3.5 hours one way from the Visitor Centre to The Grotto, so if you want to spend at least a couple of hours checking out the entire Grotto area, you’ll need a good nine hours. With a trek this long and difficult, be sure you tell someone where you plan to be at various intervals throughout the day — just in case.
From downtown Tobermory
While we were gawking at The Grotto, we saw a couple come through the trail in the direction of the Overhanging Point to the west. We asked them where they’d come from and they said downtown Tobermory! So if you’re feeling really adventurous and you’re determined to avoid paying for Grotto parking, you could conceivably walk from wherever you’re staying in Tobermory proper.
You’ll need to walk northeast on Head St until you reach the Bruce Peninsula National Park and Fathom Five National Marine Park Visitor Centre and you’ll still have to pay for a day pass for anyone 18+ to access the park and trail, but you won’t have to pay for parking. From here, follow the same directions noted above from the visitor parking lot.
What to bring to The Grotto in Tobermory
I can’t stress this enough: even for the shortest hike to The Grotto, you need to come prepared. There are no food kiosks or beverage stations open thanks to COVID, and water fountains were few and far between.
Here’s what we wore and brought to The Grotto in Tobermory:
- ID, health and benefits cards
- Mobile phones in waterproof cases
- Dry bag sling or backpack (so you can pop wallets, phones and any other valuables into it and wear it while swimming)
- Bathing suits under quick-dry shorts with rash guards for Miss Q and me and the boys wore their swim trunks and rash guards
- Good hiking boots; if you’re only braving the Georgian Bay Trail from P1, you could get away with running shoes provided they have really good tread but I strongly suggest the added ankle support of hiking boots for everyone in your party
- Merino wool padded hiking socks
- Sun hats with wide brims and neck coverage, if possible
- Hydration packs full of cold water for every single person (depending on how much you bring, you may need backpacks that have a built-in hydration bladder instead)
- Fox 40 whistle
- Snacks, snacks and more snacks (heck, bring along a compact picnic lunch if you have a larger backpack and plan to do one of the longer hikes in and out of The Grotto)
- Compact microfibre towels
- Water shoes
- Goggles (so you can see all of the incredible “underwater cliffs” and some of the wee little fishies once you jump into Georgian Bay)
- Optional: Underwear, dry shirts
- Nice to have: an Apple Watch that can go into the water with you, keep track of time and provide a compass in a pinch
Here’s what I wish we’d brought to The Grotto in Tobermory and will definitely pack next time:
- A wetsuit for Miss Q, who has hardly any fat on her body to keep her warm — she was so, so cold in that frigid Georgian Bay water, even on a 35-degree day. It may look like the Caribbean, but make no mistake…it is definitely not like the ocean!
- Our full-face snorkels
- Fins for the kids
Where to swim at The Grotto in Tobermory
Before you throw on your swimsuits and gear up for a few hours of swimming in some of Canada’s clearest waters, you need to know that there are no lifeguards in Bruce Peninsula National Park and you’re swimming at your own risk. The water is cold — very, very cold — and that can tire some people out faster than swimming in warmer water.
The waves are also strong and non-stop, constantly crashing into the edge of this part of the Niagara Escarpment and staying afloat in them takes some effort. Our kids, at 10 and 13, are strong swimmers, but they were challenged by the conditions and needed frequent breaks. Always, always stay within arm’s reach of even your bigger kids here. If they’d had fins, I think it would have been a huge help.
If you or your kids aren’t confident swimmers, bring life jackets. This is not the place to overestimate your skills.
Pre-COVID, you could climb down the face of the ridge and swim into The Grotto’s cave; and while we did see people doing this during our stay this summer, it’s still technically supposed to be off-limits because there’s simply no way to properly remain physically distant here.
I did climb down part of the way to see how challenging it would be once you’re allowed to go right down into The Grotto, and it’s certainly not easy. But kids 8+ would be able to manage it with help from a parent or much older sibling.
But, don’t worry! There are still other fantastic places to swim near The Grotto after you enjoy your view from the top of the ridge.
Indian Head Cove
This is where we spent 80 per cent of our time after checking out The Grotto in Tobermory. It’s a big, wide cove with a cave — with something akin to a cenote in it — to explore on the west side and an underwater rock wall drop-off on the east side.
The waves can be so strong here that you could be sitting on the edge of a big rock jutting out into Georgian Bay one second, and the next be pushed back and flooded in two feet of water. It’s no joke and Miss Q, at just 72 pounds, found this scary at times. I personally loved it, but I’m an adrenaline junkie.
There were a lot — I mean a lot — of people crowding many areas of the “shore” here, but it was pretty easy to maintain your distance once you’re in the water. Some of the rocks get quite slimy, so we were glad to have water shoes with a good rubber tread while swimming here.
The Overhanging Point
If you’re looking for a similar swimming experience as Indian Head Cove but without all of the people during the summer peak, continue walking west on the Bruce Trail after you reach The Grotto and another 10 to 15 minutes or so will bring you to the Overhanging Point.
There is a great lookout point here, even if you don’t plan to head down to the water and swim, and there were only about 10 per cent of the number of people swimming on the day we visited. On the flip side, if you find yourself in trouble in the water here, there are far fewer people around to help, so keep that in mind.
All said and done, we spent three hours of our four-hour time slot at The Grotto in Tobermory. If Miss Q hadn’t been so cold her lips turned blue, we could have easily stayed another hour to keep swimming. It’s a beautiful hike with magazine-worthy views that’ll take your breath away — unless, of course, the bitterly cold temperatures of Georgian Bay don’t do that first.
DISCLAIMER: there isn’t one. We planned and paid for our Tobermory trip like good ole regular folk.