It’s about as close to Lord of the Rings as you can get in Ontario.
Picture canoeing under crisp blue skies next to a 100 metre cliff as hawks circle above. As you pull closer to the massive rock face, you notice red markings that, as you get closer skill, reveal the art and imagery of a civilisation that lived in the region for thousands of years before Europeans set foot in North America.
Or imagine coming back to your spacious campsite after a day’s hiking gorgeous trails through woods and along lakes, only to be joined for dinner by a curious blue jay.
These are the sorts of adventures that await you in Ontario’s Bon Echo Provincial Park.
Bon Echo is an Ontario-operated park located in Eastern Ontario, about a two-hour drive from Ottawa or a three-hour drive from Toronto. It boasts more than 500 clean, spacious campsites that can accommodate the smallest tent or the biggest camper-trailer. Electricity is available at 130 of the sites, and there are easily-accessible comfort stations with washroom, showers and laundry facilities. There are also six yurts available for rent, if you want to try something different.
My family visited Bon Echo in August, but booked a spot a few months earlier to ensure there was a space available for us. If you are interested in booking, you can call the 1-888-ONT-PARK number or book online. Booking online also allows you to get a sneak peak of what your campsite will look like and plan accordingly.
We camp with a tent, and tend to bring a tarp and cords with us to make a shelter that covers the tent and provided picnic table, so we have a space to sit and eat in case it’s raining.
We also bring camp cooking gear, including a gas stove, a basin for doing dishes, our own dishes including pots and a portable cooler to store food in. You’ll want to buy your food outside of the park, but you can do that at Cloyne, which is a small town a ten-minute drive away.
There’s lots to see and do at Bon Echo, especially hiking and swimming. You can stretch your legs on one of the park’s many trails, which can take from less than an hour to up to seven hours. The various sites you will see include the bare rock of the Canadian shield, wetlands, hardwood forests and a beaver swamp. For sheer majesty, though, nothing can beat the views from hiking along the top of the Mazinaw Rock, the name given to the massive rock cliff that overlooks the upper and lower Mazinaw lakes. There are also lots of spots to swim, and by mid-summer the lakes are a great temperature for swimming. Be sure to mind the buoys, though, as they mark off the areas for swimming from the lanes used by boaters. Be extra careful if you’re there with kids – you don’t want them having a run-in with a boat propeller!
Another great activity to try is canoeing. If you don’t own your own, there are canoes and available for rent from the Bon Echo Outfitters, which are found in a little bay off of Lower Mazinaw Lake. There are life jackets, too, which come with the price of the canoe rental. If you haven’t tried canoeing before, don’t be intimidated! It’s a safe, stable, relaxing way to travel. My family had never been in a canoe together before we visited Bon Echo, and we managed not to capsize. Canoeing proved to be one of our kids’ favourite parts of the whole adventure.
Also, canoeing is really the only way to see the famous Bon Echo pictographs.
The Mazinaw Lakes (Mazinaw comes from the Algonquin word meaning “picture” or “writing”) feature the largest collection of rock art on the Southern Canadian shield, and is the only major site for pictographs in southern Ontario. there are more than 260 images painted, primarily with ochre, along the edge of the Mazinaw rock, which you can see as you canoe alongside it. These pictographs include depictions of animals, people, boats and abstract symbols. Woven through these images are stories and legends of the Ojibwe, an Algonquin-speaking people who originally lived in the region.
Many of these pictographs feature Nanabozho, a spirt and cultural hero who appears frequently in the traditional stories of the Ojibwe. Nanabozho was a trickster sent to earth by the Great Spirit, Gitche Manitou, to teach the Ojibwe people and to name all the plants and animals. He is often depicted as a rabbit. Can you see his image among the pictographs?
Like any camp-ground in Ontario, there can be cool days and evenings, so you want to come prepared with both light clothes, like t-shirts and shorts, but also some longer clothes. Layering is always a great way to prepare. This is mosquito country, too, so be sure to bring some bug spray.
Bon Echo is a great park to send a few days getting away from the city and getting in touch with nature. It has some amazing hiking trails, places to swim and canoe, and some of the most epic landscape to be found in Southern Ontario. If you’re looking for a fun, relaxing adventure for your friends or family, Bon Echo is definitely a place to check out.