Muskoka’s Best Kept Secrets

By Charlie Vanderpol

Many people come to Muskoka simply to relax by the lake, shop and stroll in town, and enjoy the laid-back lifestyle that comes from being in one of the most beautiful regions on the planet. But there’s so much more to this area than that.

From my experience, what makes this place so special goes deeper than the usual recreational activities many cottagers love to do when they’re here – wake surfing, restaurants, tubing, SeaDooing, and the lake – though don’t get me wrong, I love doing those things too!

Dorset Lookout Tower

Muskoka In The Summertime

Here are just a few of the reasons I love Muskoka in the summertime: 

  • Cruising up the lakes on a hot summer day and stopping to float in the middle of the lake – enjoying a picnic on the water, throwing out a fishing line, or just lying back and “bathing” in the peaceful sounds and sights of nature.
  • Dropping anchor in the middle of Lake Joseph, and spending the whole day swimming in crystal-clear water. At another spot on the lake, there are rock cliffs you can jump off and land with an exhilarating splash!
  • Simply cruising the winding back roads for miles, whether we’re going somewhere or not. After all, Muskoka’s as famous for its rolling farmlands as it is for its lakes. 
Lake Rosseau Ice Caves

Muskoka In The Wintertime

Cottagers and year-rounders alike are well acquainted with the joys of summer in Muskoka. But the pleasures of Muskoka winters are much less celebrated – which is a shame, because in some ways, the area is even more beautiful then. Bundled up cozily in the crisp, clean air, you feel as if the whole world has stopped. Those familiar woods, roads and lakes take on a completely different feeling under a blanket of pure white snow. 

Here’s what I love about winter:

  • Walking down the lakes instead of boating, feeling as if you have the world all to yourself. Without summer’s boat traffic, open restaurants and cottages full of people, it’s the most relaxing/stress-free feeling there is.
  • There’s a rock cliff at Lake Rosseau that few people really notice in summer. But in the winter the sun hits it just so, and melts the snow to create an exquisite ice cave/frozen waterfall. Unless you can snowmobile or walk across the ice, you’ll never see it. But we make a point of visiting it every winter.
  • Winter is the time of year all the little restaurants away from the water, often overshadowed in summer by the waterside bistros, get all the action. Bass Lake Road House, just outside of Port Carling, is one such place: in winter, it attracts hundreds of snowmobilers, who stop in after a day exploring the extensive groomed trails through the region.

Try These Other Attractions

Looking for something else to do while you’re up here, or when guests are visiting for the weekend? There are all the usual fun touristy things, such as buying a ticket on the Segwun steamship at Gravenhurst or the Tom Thomson at Port Carling and touring the lakes in style. But there are lots of other, perhaps lesser-known, attractions that are just as great for getting a different perspective on the region. 

Here’s just a small sampling of my favourite places to enjoy a fine Muskoka afternoon – any time of year.

Cranberry Marsh: Just outside of Bala, off Medora Road, on Cranberry Road

There are only a few fruits that are truly native to Canada, and cranberries are one of them. The Muskoka town of Bala is the unofficial Cranberry Capital of Canada. Cranberries are usually harvested from two weeks before Thanksgiving through to the end of October, and throughout the fall, the town invites you to join in to celebrate this luscious, tart-sweet little gem. 

Unfortunately, the 2020 Bala Cranberry Festival is cancelled due to COVID, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still get your cranberry hit this year. Instead, visit Muskoka Lakes Winery, which along with wine tours and tastings, is the starting point for 10 km of year-round hiking trails. There’s also lots of special events during harvest time, including the Cranberry Plunge, where you can don some rubber overalls and jump into a cranberry-filled bog!

The marsh and trails stay open all winter, when the marsh freezes solid. Lace up your ice skates and enjoy a groomed 1.2 km ice-skating loop; on Saturday nights, there’s night skating, lit by some 400 tiki torches all along the trail. There’s even a bog hockey rink!

Fresh picks from Johnson’s Cranberry Marsh

Huckleberry Rock Lookout Trail: Milford Bay Road

The highlight of the Huckleberry Rock hiking trail, near Milford Bay, is the view from Huckleberry Rock itself, overlooking Lake Muskoka. The western-facing vista through the trees from this high lookout is particularly stunning as the sun sets over the lake, dotted with islands in the distance. Look for the sign along Milford Bay Road marking the entrance to the trail; white ribbons in trees and white paint on rocks will help you navigate up to the lookout.

If you drive along Hwy. 118 between Port Carling and Bracebridge, you’ll also pass through Huckleberry Rock – literally, as its lower section forms one of the major rockcuts on the road. The beautiful pink granite is an exposed part of the ancient Canadian Shield, some of the oldest rock on earth at well over a billion years. 

The lookout is beautiful at any time of year, but I personally love adventuring up there in winter, when the lake is frozen and utterly peaceful.

Dorset Lookout Tower

Dorset Lookout Tower: Off Hwy. 35, outside Dorset

The Dorset Lookout Tower isn’t for the faint of heart or those afraid of heights  – the tower is some 465 feet above Lake of Bays, and offers a breathtaking, 360-degree view of the landscape. Originally built as a fire lookout tower in 1922, the tower at that time was considerably less lofty, at just 82 feet. In 1967, an observation tower was added and the tower was raised to its present height.

There are two ways to get to the tower: park at the bottom and enjoy a short but challenging hike up the hillside, or simply park at the tower parking lot and climb the rest of the way.

There are so many ways to enjoy Muskoka. For me, what makes this place truly special is when I put aside the motorized toys for a little while, turn off the engine, and just listen. Winter or summer, there’s no place I’d rather be.