Bruce Peninsula lies between Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. It is the northernmost upper extension of the Niagara Escarpment which stretches 773 miles (1236 km) from Tobermory, at the northern tip of the peninsula, down to Queenston, near the Niagara Falls. Its limestone rock tells the story of the past 440 million years of geological transformation. The escarpment was originally covered by an ancient sea. When the sea retreated, some 250 million years ago, its coral reef remained, complete with fossilized sea creatures, which were transformed into limestone walls in the long period of erosion which followed. The escarpment was born when huge blocks of limestone broke off. The landscape was further altered approximately 2 million years ago when an enormous glacier bulldozed its way through the entire region.
In 1967, Bruce Trail, a hiking route covering virtually the entire distance of the escarpment, was officially opened. And in 1990 the United Nations designated the escarpment a “World Biosphere Reserve,” acknowledging its unique geological character and the habitat it provides to innumerable species of reptiles, amphibians, mammals and birds.
The Bruce Peninsula National Park and the Fathom Five National Park, both in the northern sector, are especially worth the effort. These sites can be approached by traveling north up Hwy 6. The side roads off the highway also offer breathtaking views, secluded campsites, challenging hikes, semi-resort bays, rugged forest, and scenic drives.
The best plan, if you want to see as much of the peninsula as possible, is to take one route up and the other down. And of the two the eastern route is more desirable given its proximity to the Bruce Trail and its jagged and secluded, coastline. After passing Wiarton get off Hwy 6 and take Routes 9 north and 18 east to Cape Croker. Spectacular views of rocky cliffs and the Georgian Bay can be seen along this itinerary. After five or ten minutes a dirt road (follow the signs) leads to Cape Croker Indian Reserve, an Ojibwa tract open to the public. Although dotted with the occasional farm house, the reserve, with its dense forestation, feels decidedly isolated. A private campsite in the area provides shelter, boating and fishing facilities. Returning to 9 (be alert, the signposting is poor), a short drive north brings one to Hope Bay. This little bay village, surrounded by imposing cliffs, offers one of the prettiest beaches in the area and, with its little rustic cottages and trailer park, does not have the feel of a commercialized resort town.
Close by, just north on Route 9, are Greig’s Caves. Follow the signs right to Rush Cove after which you will have to engage in a demanding 1/2-mile. The twelve limestone caves with their mysterious grottos and secret hollows have a primordial, eerie quality about them especially when taken in during off hours. Getting back on Route 9 heading north, the drive through Lion’s Head offers an excellent view of Isthmus Bay as well as a winding route through a heavily forested area which crosses a section of Bruce Trail. Lion’s Head is the most developed resort town on the peninsula. From here it’s a short drive to the Bruce Peninsula National Park. The park encompasses most of the top end of the peninsula and, just below that, a narrow section of the western shoreline south of Dorcas Bay. This fairly large tract of land includes such natural sights as limestone cliffs, clean fishing lakes, sandy beaches, mixed woodlands, and lush marshlands. Though the park is heavily visited there is plenty of room to roam in virtual isolation, always with the chance of encountering the extraordinary variety of wildlife – porcupines, lynx, wolves – which live in the area. If you come in Spring you may also spot one of the 40 species of colorful orchids that grow here. Bruce Trail runs through the park and provides some of the province’s best hiking. Cyprus Lake, west of Hwy 6, is probably the best place to head to for a combination of vigourous walk and spectacular view. Park at Head of Trails, the lot furthest in from the park entrance. From here take the Horse Lake Trail 1 km to the edge of the bluffs. Following the trail to the left, you will come across a singularly spectacular natural show, with unique rock formations, including overhanging ledges and beaches where boulders lie about like stranded whales. For another noteworthy hike, take the Dorcas Bay Rd. West (or left) off of Hwy 6 until you reach a sign pointing to Singing Sands Beach. Park as far north as possible and walk across a bridge spanning a little river. Now you are in the Dorcas Bay Nature Reserve. Take the left fork to an old dirt road that skirts the shoreline, with a magnificent view of the Lake Huron side of the peninsula. Be sure to bring good walking shoes or boots. Cyprus Lake is the center of activity in the park. It offers 242 campsites, each equipped with a fireplace and table. There is no electricity, but running water and toilets are available. Motor boats are prohibited on the Lake between June 15 and Sept. 15. The town of Tobermory sits at the northernmost tip of the peninsula on Hwy 6. Tourists invade this invigorating resort town in the summertime, but the crowds are worth braving for the Fathom Five National Marine Park. The park takes in the triangular area enclosing the 19 islands which lie north of Tobermory. In the past, this passageway provided an important route for transportation and trade. The waters proved treacherous, and many a passing ship met its doom on the peninsula’s sharp limestone ridges. Today the remains of at least 21 ships attract many to the park. Glass-bottomed boats provide a view of these wrecks, but the really adventurous soul will brave the cold water and strap on scuba and snorkeling gear and investigate the wrecks at close range. Underwater caves, strange rock formations, and marine life make these underwater excursions doubly enjoyable. Cruises around the islands are also available. Flowerpot Island – so named because of two enormous flowerpot-shaped limestone pillars – has walking trails to the flowerpots and to numerous caves. Tobermory can also be reached from Manitoulin Island by taking the ChiCheemaun Ferry (From early May to mid-October). Manitoulin is one of the great (relatively) undiscovered secrets of Ontario. It is the world’s largest freshwater island and offers some of the province’s most picturesque coastal villages. Fishing and boating are excellent here. The island can also be reached from highways in northern Ontario.