5 Parks in 5 Days

The Thrifty Momma takes her family on a brisk RV tour, camping at some of Ontario's most beautiful provincial parks

Wouldn’t it be a refreshing change of pace to rent a motorhome and drive through Ontario? For years my husband and I have talked about taking off in an RV for an entire summer. Somehow those conversations always stopped with the Oh Buts: “Oh but this year Ainsley is at camp most of August,” or “Oh but this summer Payton has a job.”

So when the opportunity came up to visit five of Ontario’s Provincial Parks in an RV to celebrate the start of fall, we were all in. No excuses. Nothing was going to prevent that from happening. 

When I first told my kids, they were ecstatic and they began counting the days until we left. Because they are both teenagers, I felt it was a great opportunity and a good age to get the most out of the experience.

Picking up our home-for-the-next-week at Motor Home Travel Canada

On a Friday morning in September, we hopped in our van and drove to Motor Home Travel Canada Inc. in Bolton to pick up a specially wrapped Ontario Parks RV. After a thorough lesson on how to operate the RV, we settled into our home away from home and started our journey to Northern Ontario.

Grundy Lake Provincial Park

Taking in the scene at Gurd Lake in Grundy Lake Provincial Park

First stop, Grundy Lake Provincial Park. It was dark and windy by the time we tucked into our campsite for the night. In fact, the winds were too strong for a campfire, so we dug out flashlights and took a walk instead. The first thing we noticed was how dark the skies are in Ontario’s northern provincial parks, and how bright the stars and the moon are by contrast. You won’t find that in the city. We’d see more of those bruised blue-black skies at Killarney for their Dark Sky party, but there at Grundy, long past sunset on a Friday night, we glimpsed a silver-white moon and its reflection in the ripples on the lake. That image chased everything else from our thoughts and brought sleep quickly.

The moon peeking through the clouds that first night felt like a good omen

On our first full morning as RV campers, we woke up, grabbed yogurt and cereal for breakfast and walked down to Gurd Lake to explore. Grundy Lake Provincial Park has seven lakes, stunning Georgian Bay granite rock outcrops, and numerous hiking trails for all levels of explorers. Across the lake, we had a view of Picnic Island and all throughout the park birch trees, poplars, maples, and pines.

Picnic Island in the morning mist photo courtesy of Lori L

That day we tackled the Swan Lake Trail in the Swan Lake Nature Reserve, a 1.5-km trail that takes maybe 90 minutes to complete. Swan Lake Trail starts with a small boardwalk over wetlands, and if you climb the rocky surfaces following the trail’s path, you’re rewarded with views for days of trees, bog and marsh, and rocky hills. Several young families were starting this trail as we were finishing up our hike.

French River Provincial Park

Day two found us in the historic French River Provincial Park ,where my kids learned how instrumental the area was as a trade route for the fur trade and the Hudson’s Bay Company. French River Visitor Centre houses a museum and numerous displays about wildlife in the area, as well as some unique artisan handicrafts and jewelry.

Interior of the French River Visitor Centre courtesy of Archilovers

The French River once carried canoes and traders of the Huron Nation, and it opened North America up to French explorers. The closer you get to French River, the more signs you find written in French, which meant both of my kids had to pause and take turns reading both English and French out loud. We explored the area for a short time because we were expected in Killarney overnight for their Dark Sky Party, and we didn’t want to miss a minute of it.

Finding our way around the French River Provincial Park campground

Back to the RV, where I must say the accommodations were more than comfortable and the setup itself pretty sweet, with indoor washroom and shower, a water tank, kitchenette and sleeping space for four to five easily. The bunky up top was my one girl’s favourite hideaway. Honestly, who knew recreational vehicles were so posh? The one side bumped out about 4 to 5 feet at the touch of a button, giving us more living space each night. Eventually, we figured out all the switches, the tricks to manipulate it when parking, and even how to run the generator when the electricity was out at our first camp due to weather. In fact, it was pretty easy to adjust to the experience.

Settling into the RV lifestyle

A few other things we learned. Until we did this trip, I had no idea that Ontario’s 340 provincial parks began with Algonquin Provincial Park 125 years ago, and that they currently are all classified in different ways according to a level of protection and features. For instance, French River Provincial Park is a waterway class provincial park, and the river itself was designated a Canadian Heritage River in 1986. Other Ontario Provincial Parks are natural environment class like Grundy Lake, wilderness class, cultural heritage class, and nature reserve class. 

Killarney Provincial Park

Time stands still in Killarney Provincial Park

Killarney is a wilderness class park, which as I learned when we checked in to our site there, means it is kept as close to its natural state as possible. None of the sites have electricity—which, strangely for this city girl, I had no issue with and sort of enjoyed.  

When we arrived at Killarney it was the evening of their Stars Over Killarney event, to celebrate being awarded official status as a dark sky preserve by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, making Killarney the first of Ontario’s Parks to achieve this honour. We joined the party at dusk and it was packed with every last site booked, a popular destination made even more exciting that evening.

The Sudbury Astronomy Club helped us get a peek at the universe

My youngest daughter loved this park most of all, and it was the setting for a night we will never forget. There was a great presentation on light pollution and ways we can all do better to nurture dark skies and observe stars and constellations. After the presentation, a short hike in the dark past some model planets led a huge group of about 200 campers and astronomers to the observation field with two research grade telescopes installed. With a deposit and a lesson on how to use these, anyone staying at Killarney Provincial Park can sign them out for a few hours at night.

We each took turns seeing the surface of the moon—how incredible to be able to see every visible crater, as if the moon itself had been harnessed and brought down to us. The Sudbury Astronomy Club was on site to answer questions and help point out constellations. Without their input, I never would have been able to determine which glimmering shape in the sky was Mars and which was Saturn. 

Dark skies and many stars—photo courtesy of Killarney Provincial Park

Hiking the Crack at Killarney

Killarney is full of challenging hiking trails with names like The Crack trail, and a landscape known globally for its white quartz and granite hills. This is the area that inspired many Group of Seven artists. You almost have to pinch yourself standing there looking out over the landscape on several of the trails and lookouts. My oldest daughter is an artist, and captured many photos on her camera to refer to later for sketches and inspirational paintings.

Although it provides quite a view we do not recommend leaping from the Killarney Crack 

Chutes Provincial Park

Next, we were on to Chutes Provincial Park, on the Aux Sables River, which was a knockout. It was on this second last stop I started to realize each of Ontario’s Provincial Parks has its own character entirely. The temperature that night dropped to single digits and we were eager to settle in and start a campfire. But the friendly park warden told us the salmon had been seen spawning earlier that day near the Chutes Falls, so we bundled up and went exploring instead.

Our first glimpse of the chutes

A short walk unveiled a roaring waterfall and a stream where salmon were swimming, but we didn’t see any jumping that afternoon. Chutes Provincial Park is a quiet charmer, and I think I feel hardest for this spot with its towering pines surrounding clean, large campsites. It just felt like home immediately.

Sauble Falls Provincial Park

Our final destination was Sauble Falls Provincial Park, but first, we had to take the ferry from Manitoulin Island to Tobermory. The ferry ride was fun, and the RV was a hit with many people asking us about it and wondering how they could rent one. Two hours later, landing in the beautiful town of Tobermory, we drove off the ferry and headed to Sauble Falls Provincial Park where the weather had warmed up a bit. Our time there was spent hiking, canoeing, and fishing too.

Canoeing the calm waters at Sauble Falls Provincial Park

I have been to Sauble Beach and the falls several times, but had never seen inside Sauble Falls Provincial Park. The hike through the Sauble Trails mixed hardwood forest was a surprise to me, and we enjoyed the trail information and history at each stop along the trail. When we finished, my youngest, Ainsley, who had not yet had a chance to fish, found a dock and sat there for a bit. My older girl grabbed a sketchbook and charcoal pencils and sat on a dock sketching.

We met some incredibly friendly campers throughout the RV trip, but the people at Sauble Falls were something else entirely. Our canoes were ready to go with lifejackets delivered to the campsite, and several campers, and of course the park warden, stopped by to say hello. It was here that my youngest met a dog named Mike and his owner, a retired fisherman from Hamilton, who taught her how to cast. 

The route for our five-day tour

At the start of our Ontario Parks journey, we thought we’d take a trip together up north and see if we would enjoy the RV lifestyle for five days. As it turned out, we loved it, and Ontario Parks wove a spell that brought us closer together. Each one of the parks we visited charmed us and left us wanting more. The park staff and RV owners couldn’t have been sweeter or more helpful. Happy anniversary Ontario Parks! You are everything that is beautiful about this province.

About Thrifty Mommas Tips

Paula Schuck is a travel and lifestyle writer from London, Ontario who is often found skiing or zip lining with her active family.

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