7 Must-Stay Campsites on the French River

Beauty abounds on the French, but these secret sites offer the best the area has to offer.

Many Canadians begin their whitewater career on the French River. This historic waterway is easily accessible, the rapids are relatively friendly and the campsites are absolutely stunning. It’s located just over three hours from downtown Toronto and you can have an incredible wilderness experience on the French with as little as two nights. The smoothly undulating landscapes created by the rocky Canadian Shield provide some of Ontario’s best camping opportunities.

The French River canoe trip takes between two and 10 days, depending how hard you want to push and how much of the river you want to paddle. While the river flows all the way from Lake Nipissing to Georgian Bay, a classic beginner trip goes from the Lodge at Pine Cove to the French River Supply Post and Marina at Highway 69.

This route can be completed in a couple days but is a more comfortable three- to five-day trip. You’ll definitely encounter some rapids on this section of river; knowing how to scout and paddle in whitewater, and more importantly knowing your limits, are essential here. If you don’t have those skills, you can either take a guided trip or carefully portage every set of rapids. The portages are short and relatively easy, so carrying around moving water is a reasonable option.

West of Highway 69, the French splits into the Western Channel, the Main Outlet, and the Eastern Outlet—and merges with the Pickerel River, allowing for a number of different loop options.

Whatever route you take, the French River is a guaranteed adventure. This is the river that Europeans followed to the fabled inland seas of the Great Lakes back in the 1600s. Today, you can follow the French River to some of the best campsites in the province.

Here are seven of our favourites; campsite numbers are provided from the Ontario Parks French River map.

Red canoes and camping gear on shore.
A site so lovely you won't want to leave. Photo: Colin Field

319

An island site located just downstream from the Dokis First Nation, campsite 319 is a great spot. There’s a shady slab of rock to pull in on, making it a killer place to spend the day. There are a few rocks in the area to jump off (don’t forget to scout the depth of the water) and watch the sunset and sunrise.

You’ll find lots of room for tents, a perfect rocky beach location for a campfire (forest fire hazard permitting) and overall it’s nice and secluded.

719

Located at the far end of Sand Bay, this campsite marks the junction of the French River and Georgian Bay. It’s a gorgeous place: look across the Bay to the Bustard Rocks and enjoy the view as the sun goes down. It’s relatively sheltered, but be aware that this is a different experience than the French River; when the wind picks up, waves and currents can get dangerous here.

Aerial shot of yellow canoes on a tree covered island.
Beauty abounds (and rebounds) on site 406. Photo: Colin Field

406

Located between the Blue Chute and Double Rapids (which is often too low to run) this island site was charred by the forest fire in 2018. Thankfully Mother Nature recovers quickly, so it’s a good spot to camp on again. The site is a bit uphill, but camping here is worth the climb. Along with a bunch of flat areas for tents, there’s a great perch from which to watch the sunset.

Depending on time of year and water levels, swimming the lower end of the Blue Chute can be a ton of fun, too. With significant rapids both upstream and downstream of this site, you’re unlikely to see power boats or cottagers, making it one of the remotest spots on the river in that regard.

710

This site is at the far end of the Dalles Rapids on river left. These rapids are easily run in low water, but may get technical in higher water. That said, the portage is pretty easy and if you’re camping here anyway, why not give them a really good scout, and maybe try them in an empty canoe? The site itself is a large rocky flat area, with plenty of forest to provide shelter should you need it.

People gathered around a campfire at dusk.
There's nothing like a campfire down by the water. Photo: Colin Field

411

This campsite is located on river right, just below the Big Parisian Rapids. It’s an absolute favourite. If you’re up for paddling the chute it’s relatively straightforward, but if you’re not sure, the portage is easy. The site is at the end of the portage, so you can run the rapids in empty canoes or play in the outwash. A large flat area will support about as many tents as you have with you.

There are spots to jump off the cliffs into the water, just be sure to scout the water for hazards before making the leap. Packing a pair of swim goggles to scout jumping rocks is a great idea. With a west facing aspect this campsite is the perfect place to watch a sunset from and catch a few fish. You’ll be tempted to stay for a few nights.

629

Some campsites deserve the classification of epic and this is one of them. Just downstream from where the Pickerel River merges with the French, this island campsite consists of a collection of flat slabs and exposed shores with massive twisted pines.

Campsite set up on rocky shore next to river.
Soak it all in. Photo: Colin Field

517

Although you may encounter some boat traffic and you can see a cottage from this campsite, it’s still a great one. Slightly elevated, there’s lots of flat area for tents and a couple of good rocks for jumping off. If you’re taking out at Highway 69, this is likely your last day on the river. Enjoy it.

Trip Planning Resources

Planning a trip on the French River can seem daunting. One amazing resource is the French River Provincial Park Visitor Centre. Located just off Highway 69 at the French River bridge, this beautiful facility sells maps and camping permits. Ontario Parks staff have a good grasp on what it’s like to travel the river. If you don’t want to stop at the Visitor Centre, you can also book permits online here.

Outfitters

A number of local outfitters can provide you with everything you need to get on the river. Hartley Bay Marina rents canoes and camping equipment. The French River Supply Post and Marina has a fleet of rental canoes and is a great place to shuttle from.

Guided Trips

A French River guided canoe trip is the perfect solution for those looking to leave the logistics to the pros. It’s also a great option if you’re not quite ready to tackle the French River’s whitewater and you’re looking for an expert to show you the way. Go guided and you won’t have to worry about tents, food, weather or wildlife; simply show up and listen to your guides.

There are a number of companies offering guided trips on the French River, including Black Feather, which offers multiple trips every summer including women’s-only trips, as well as an incredible family adventureMHO Adventures also offers a French River family trip.

Dates don’t work? Or are you looking for something special? Keep in mind that either of these tripping companies will also design custom guided French River canoe trips to meet your needs. Give them a call, explain what you want to do and they’ll be happy to create an itinerary that works for you.

Maps

Ontario Parks produces a waterproof French River map that’s tough to beat. You can buy it online or at the French River Provincial Park Visitor Centre. Places like the French River Trading Post, French River Supply Post and Marina, Hartley Bay Marina, Key Harbour Lodge and the Lodge at Pine Cove will likely have these maps too, but best to call first if you’re planning on grabbing one at any of these spots.

Paper maps may seem redundant in this digital age, but they’re still essential for navigation on the river: campsite numbers, locations, rapids and safety information aren’t available on Google Maps, and you won’t have cell service during your entire trip.

About Colin Field

Colin is an award-winning photographer and writer, specializing in outdoor travel and adventure. He is the editor-at-large with Mountain Life Magazine. He is based in Collingwood, Ontario. 

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