Georgian Bay is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. The southeastern part of the bay is home to Georgian Bay Islands National Park, where sugar maple forests of the St. Lawrence Lowlands meet the exposed granite of the Canadian Shield. Feel the transition beneath your feet as you move from soft soil woodland to hard rock shield. Look up and find windswept pines and colourful sunsets. This is a truly magical place, and its location just 2 hours north of Toronto makes it the perfect weekend getaway from the city.
In this post I’ll explain everything you need to know to experience Georgian Bay Islands National Park for yourself. Growing up, I spent 12 summers as a camper and eventually counsellor at one of two camps located in the park, so I’d consider myself a bit of an expert on things to do and see in the park.
About Georgian Bay Islands National Park
While Georgian Bay itself is large, covering 15,000 square kilometers, this national park covers only a small portion of it. Georgian Bay Islands National Park protects 63 islands in the southeastern corner of Georgian Bay. The largest island and primary destination for visitors is Beausoleil Island (Beausoleil means “beautiful sun” in French, and if you spend any time on the island you’ll understand why). The area also has a deep roots – there’s traces of human activity on the island as far back as 5,500 years.
How To Get There
To visit Georgian Bay Islands National Park, you’ll need to make your way to Honey Harbour Boat Club Marina, located 140 km north of Toronto. Then, you’ll need to catch a boat to Beausoleil Island. There are a few options for getting there.
Getting to Honey Harbour Boat Club Marina
Self Drive: Set your GPS to Honey Harbour Boat Club Marina. Honey Harbour is a two hour drive from Toronto (allow 2.5 hours if coming from downtown, and 3 hours if driving Friday and Sunday afternoons). You go straight up the 400 highway and exit at Port Severn. At the boat club, you’ll need to purchase a parking pass.
Parkbus: Parkbus offers transportation to the park for day trips in the summer. They do pick-ups in downtown and north Toronto and bring you all the way to the park – that’s right, this option provides transportation to Honey Harbour AND a boat ride to Beausoleil Island. If you’re going to Georgian Bay Islands National Park for a day trip, I recommend this service.
Getting to Beausoleil Island
If you are taking the Parkbus, you don’t need to organize boat transportation to the island. Otherwise, you will need to arrange a boat to take you from the marina to the island. Here are your options:
DayTripper: Parks Canada has the DayTripper shuttle, which provides transportation for visitors making a single day trip or staying overnight in either a cabin or oTENTik. The DayTripper is not available for visitors camping in tents.
Water Taxi: You can also arrange a water taxi to take you to the island from Honey Harbour. You can find contact information on the Parks Canada website.
For the DayTripper, Water Taxi and Parkbus, it is imperative that you register ahead of time.
Where to Stay at Georgian Bay Islands National Park
If you’re interested in staying overnight (which I would recommend because the sunrises and sunsets are unbelievable) you have a few options.
There are eight campgrounds on the island for, as Parks Canada likes to call it, “Primitive Camping”. I’ve included a quick overview of each campground below. All of the campsites are accessible by water taxi and are connected by a series of trails. Use the map below to plan where you want to be dropped off and what campsites you want to use.
Campsites on the south side of the island:
- Beausoleil Point: This campsite is right at the southern tip of the island. Beausoleil Point is nice because you have a great 360 degree view of the bay. The water is shallow and sandy and fun to play games in on a sunny afternoon.
- Tonch South/North/East: Tonches, as the collective campsite are referred to, are on the east side of the island and not too far from the visitors center. The area is forested woodland and not that different from campsites in other Ontario parks.
- Cedar Springs & Thumb: These two campsites are the closest to the visitor center and where the DayTripper drops off visitors, so these areas tend to be busier. However, if you want to do some fat-biking on the island, you’re nearby the trails and rental facilities.
- Sandpiper: I haven’t stayed at this campsite myself.
Campsites on the north side of the island:
- Honeymoon: This campsite is furthest north on the island. It features great views of Georgian Bay and quick access to some of my favourite hikes. However, you’re most likely to see boaters here. Nonetheless, if I was choosing a campsite for myself, it’s most likely Honeymoon.
- Chimney, Godettes & Oaks Les Chenes: The DayTripper and Water Taxi make drop-offs at Chimney, so this is another convenient campground to choose. Godettes is a little further east or Chimney, and Oakes is a little southwest of Chimney. All three campgrounds are close to many of the great hikes the north side of the island has to offer.
Do you need to reserve campsites?
Only campsites at Honeymoon and Tonch North need to be reserved ahead of time. The rest of first-come first-serve campsites.
Do you need to pay for a permit?
Yes, you need to pay for a permit at all campsites. When you arrive at your campsite, there will be a lockbox with a form to fill out and an envelope to enclose your camping fees. Camping fees vary based on number of people and number of nights. I recommend having a variety of bills with you.
Glamping at Georgian Bay Islands
The alternative to “Primitive Camping” is glamping in one of the parks o-TENT-iks or in a cabin. This option is pricey; o-TENT-iks are $140 per night and cabins are between $110 and $150 per night. In both cases, you must reserve for a minimum of two nights. I’ve never stayed in one myself, but I’m sure they’re wonderful if you have the means to rent them.
What to Do in Georgian Bay Islands National Park
The big draw to Beausoleil Island is the hiking. Canoeing and kayaking are also great activities, however visitors need to bring their own boats to the island as there isn’t a service to rent boats on the island. There’s also bike rentals available on the south side of the island.
Hike the many trails of Beausoleil Island
There are 12 hiking trails on the island and you can read more about them on the Parks Canada website. The trails are divided into Northern and Southern hiking trails because of how different the terrains are. Northern hikes are on the Canadian Shield (think exposed granite and spiny wine pine trees) while southern hikes are in the woodlands of the St. Lawrence Lowlands (forest all around and flat woodland ground).
Fairy Lake: I’m doing a special call out to Fairy Lake as this is my favourite trail and the one I most recommend if you have a limited amount of time in the park. Situated on the northern part of the island, Fairy Lake is a lake on an island on a bay. There’s absolutely no boating or swimming allowed so it’s considered an “untouched” lake. On this hike you’ll also reach the highest point on the island and be greeted with wonderful views of Georgian Bay.
Go swimming at Honeymoon or Beausoleil Point
Realistically, you can go swimming anywhere (except Fairy Lake!) but these two spots are my favourites. And you don’t need to be staying on the campsites to enjoy the area. Pack a backpack hike from the top of the island to Beausoleil Point (~8 km each way), stopping for lunch and a swim in the beachy water. Alternatively, head to Honeymoon or Frying Pan Bay from some swimming on the north side of the island.
Bike on the trails of the south island
You can rent trails bikes from the Cedar Springs Visitor Centre. Three trails are open for biking: Huron, Christine and Georgian. The first two are smooth, easy trails while the latter is on a rockier trail and more challenging. You can also combine the trails for biking-hiking adventure.
Watch the sunset
The sunset at Georgian Bay Islands National Park are unbelievable. The sky explodes with colour – blues, pinks, yellows, reds and purples all on a single night. Contrast that with the intricate lines of the windswept pines and its a photographers dream destination. I recommend watching the sunset from the northern part of the island, near Honeymoon campsites.
Special considerations for Georgian Bay Islands
Bring your own water purification. That can either be Aqua-tabs or a water pump. There isn’t fresh water available in the park, so make sure you bring something to purify the water from the bay.
Bring a cooking stove. Fires are only permitted in designated fire pits. If it’s a dry summer, there might even be a fire ban in place. Alternatively, if it’s been really wet, it may be hard to find dry wood. Bring a cooking stove with you.
Facilities on the island. At Cedar Springs campground, there are flush toilets and hot showers. Everywhere else only has composting washrooms or outhouses. (Bring toilet paper – sometimes the composting washrooms or outhouses are out).
Beware the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake. The island has two types of snake: the eastern massasgauga rattlesnake and the eastern fox snake. The rattlesnake is smaller and makes a rattle if you’ve come too close to it. If you encounter one, just back away. They aren’t particularly dangerous, and they are definitely more scare of you than you are of it. But there is a $150,000 fine and up to six months jail time for harming one of these rattlesnakes (they are protected under the National Parks Act), so leave them be.
Enjoy your time at Georgian Bay Islands National Park
You should have everything you need to enjoy a magical experience at the national park. If you have any unanswered questions, please check out the Parks Canada website or leave a comment below.