Sometimes the best travel plan is someone else’s plan.

It was looking grim for an outdoors getaway this summer. Our gang was supposed to go hiking and swimming in Bruce Peninsula National Park – staying in a yurt we’d woken up very early back in January and used on-line reservation mojo to acquire. But when Parks Canada laid out its plans for reopening, yurts were a no-go and our booking was cancelled. And by that point, getting a campsite at a national or provincial park or a private cabin rental on a weekend within a day’s drive of Toronto was like scoring Radiohead concert tickets. I didn’t have the energy for the fight, and resigned myself to the city.

I didn’t know all the things to do in the Bruce Peninsula, just that it was perfect for nature lovers and hikers.

And then…at the last minute my friends found one motel with availability near Bruce Peninsula National Park, one of the most beautiful and popular regions for outdoor enthusiasts in Ontario. Did I want to join in a three-day trip to the famed Grotto swim hole and Bruce hiking trails? They had everything already worked out. Maps. Menu. As Billie Eilish would say… “Duh.”

This is how I found myself on a proper Ontario road trip. When I jumped in the backseat of the car, I really didn’t know very much about all the things to do in the Bruce Peninsula. Along the way, here’s what I learned.

A butter tart on an Ontario road trip

A road trip is as much about the pitstops as the drive. Ideally, this pit stop includes buying fresh corn from a farmer on the side of the road. When it’s not quite corn season, this pit stop should definitely involve Ontario butter tarts. Feel free to argue about whether these should contain raisins or not. (I’m team raisin.)

You don’t need to go to Tobermory or the Grotto. Yes, those are two of the most popular tourist spots in all of Ontario. But there are equally wondrous and more secluded places on the Bruce Peninsula. With a little planning, you can get all the beauty and none of the crowds. OK, a little bit of crowds.

A sign welcomes visitors to Sauble Beach, Ontario.

Sauble Beach looks like a movie set of a beach town. They have tacky gift shops, fast food, jet ski rentals, and a long stretch of sandy beach. All these things are extremely popular. We arrived at noon on a Thursday and it was already challenging to stay distanced from other groups. I can’t even imagine visiting on a weekend. On the plus side, this crowded beach is a lot more diverse than I remember anywhere in this region when I was growing up on Georgian Bay — I saw a super fit Muslim mom in full coverage burkini next to a gang of fat goths hiding out under oversized umbrellas; our group chatted with a Syrian-Ukranian dad and Black kids practising handstands. As it should be.

The early bird gets the parking spot. Beaches/trailheads have a limited number of parking spots, then they turn folks away. So there’s a certain amount of social distancing built in.

Water levels have risen everywhere. The beaches and docks you may have visited in the past may no longer exist, or be in the same shape.

Sunset over Oliphant Beach, Bruce Peninsula.

Sunset at Oliphant is a stunner. This is listed as a beach but we didn’t swim, as what’s left of its shoreline is very reedy. Instead we walked to the pier where local teens fish for perch and watched the sun go down as the very, very warm water lapped at our feet.

Hours may vary. Seriously, don’t expect anything to be open just because it should be. These are Pandemic Times.

Trailhead sign for the Half Log Dump to Storm Haven hike.

If the map describes a hike as “very difficult” it might be very difficult. Real talk: I was not prepared for the short but demanding 2.7km from Halfway Log Dump to Storm Haven (the half-way point to the Grotto). I haven’t hiked as much in the last five years since I got more into cycling. But I’ve hiked up mountains before, and taken full-day walks through Ontario parks with serious ascents fairly recently. I even bought new hiking shoes for this occasion. And hey, it’s less than 3km.

Along the way, I saw plenty of folks of all ages enjoying this trail. But I struggled. The route is 90% rocks and stumps, and not flat. I realized this was more technical hiking, and that’s exhausting for me. I like to lose myself in the trees, get into a groove, but I found I could not when having to look down at each step. In the end, I didn’t hurt any body parts, just my ego. (Having pals who don’t make you feel bad about being half as fast, and offer to carry your backpack on the way back? Priceless.)

Lookout views on the Bruce Pensinsula.

Lookout! No really, it’s all about the lookouts. That very difficult hike offered some spectacular cliffside views you’d be hard pressed to believe are in Ontario.

Highway motels are the way to go for accommodation during COVID-19. These modest inns with the retro signs offer very little contact with anyone besides the staff person who hands you a key. We stayed at the Peninsula Motel outside Wiarton and it had everything we needed, including a BBQ and a bonfire pit in the back. (Appreciated even if we stayed in at night and binged episodes of Indian Matchmaker instead of burning things.)

The rocky beach at Storm Haven, Bruce Peninsula.
Storm Haven beach photo by Kirk Johnson

There’s blue, then there’s Storm Haven blue. This may be the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen in Canada. It’s hike-in access only, fronting a backcountry campground. But few folks seem to notice it on their way to the Grotto, and we had the place almost all to ourselves. Is it freezing cold? Yes. It the “beach” actually just rocks? Also yes. But this ruggedness makes it perfect for a lazy afternoon of communing with nature. It made the hike completely worthwhile. Please do not tell your friends about this spot.

Sandy Beach is classic Ontario park life. Officially part of Black Creek Provincial Park, this is a simple spot with no amenities, just a couple of portable potties. Forest views. Wind and waves. Bring a magazine. Zone out.

How to spell “peninsula.” Just in time for leaving. It will coming in handy for next year’s visit though. This was a fantastic Ontario getaway, so I know my first time won’t be my last.