(Originally published December, 2010)
Find a trail and get outside this winter
By Andrew Wagner-Chazalon
From spring to fall, the trails of Muskoka Lakes can be busy spots. The crowds vanish when winter arrives, but the trails remain where they always were. Just because the weather has cooled and there’s snow on the ground, doesn’t mean you have to stay inside.
An hour or an afternoon spent hiking, snowshoeing or skiing any of these trails can be a terrific way to get some much-needed winter exercise. Top it off with a drink or a meal at one of the many restaurants in the area, and you’ve got the makings of a perfect mini getaway. If you have a particular after-spot in mind, though, be sure to call ahead: many restaurants close their doors for all or part of the winter season, and most of the rest adjust their hours.
Hutton Valley Snowshoe Trail
Like many of the small hotels that once dotted the lakeshores, Hutton House is long gone. But its name is remembered in a tiny road near Port Carling, and in an even smaller snowshoe trail.
The Hutton Valley Snowshoe Trail is the brainchild of Stan Hunter, a boat-builder whose shop is located on Muskoka Road 118, right beside Hutton Road.
Hunter enjoys snowshoeing, and has created a trail through the bush across the road from his shop. A couple of years ago, he decided to open the 2.8-km trail to the public. At first there was a donation box at the trailhead, accepting funds on behalf of the Green Party, but Elections Canada said that wasn’t allowed. So now the trail is completely free.
Hunter says the trail offers several loops, and is best suited to snowshoeing. “You could ski it if you’re really good, but it’s a bit narrow for skiing,” he says.
The trail winds through some lovely boreal forest habitat, and offers great wildlife viewing. Deer are abundant, and rabbits and partridge are often seen in the valley. “It’s a good place to see snow fleas in the spring,” Hunter says.
Due to the terrain, this trail is best when there’s a good base of snow – late December to late March is typically the best time, according to Hunter.
Whatever time of year you visit, you’re almost guaranteed to have the place to yourself. “It’s pretty sparsely used,” says Hunter. “Maybe a few people a season. It’s really one of the undiscovered gems of Muskoka.”
Where: On Muskoka Road 118, 5 km east of Port Carling. Park at Stan Hunter Boatbuilder. Cross the road to the trail.
Suitable for: Snowshoeing.
Hardy Lake Provincial Park
Ten years ago, an inquiry about a provincial park on Lake Muskoka would have been met with blank stares. No longer. The little gem that is Hardy Lake has become much better known, and much more widely used.
That has brought some advantages, including a vastly improved network of trails that allows visitors to take an 8-km loop all the way around the lake as well as taking side routes to various parts of the park. The downside is that the park can be busy, particularly in the fall when the parking lot can be completely packed on a sunny weekend.
All of which makes Hardy Lake a delightful destination in winter. The park is open, and the parking lot is plowed all winter, so access is easy. But, like much of Muskoka, Hardy Lake in winter just isn’t as busy as Hardy Lake in summer.
The trails aren’t officially maintained in winter, so the state of the land will depend on the number of visitors who have preceded you. “There are a number of snowshoe routes, and a number of people who cross country ski there as well,” says Amy McLeish, recreational trails coordinator for the Township of Muskoka Lakes.
That means the skiing conditions can be rough – don’t expect to find groomed skate-ski trails, or classic trails with razor-sharp machine-set tracks.
On the other hand, Hardy Lake is a provincial park, which makes it one of the few pieces of public land where snowmobiles are banned.
Where: On Muskoka Road 169 between Torrance and Gravenhurst.
Suitable for: Snowshoeing and skiing.
Huckleberry Rock Lookout Trail
Few places change as dramatically in such a short distance as Huckleberry Rock, the rocky dome that is best known to drivers as the location of the massive rock cut between Bracebridge and Port Carling.
The trail starts out as a typical snowshoe route through the woods, beginning at the parking lot on the north end of Milford Bay. But partway up the rock, the trail changes. Suddenly you emerge from the woods onto a barren moonscape of undulating rock, with an elevated view over Lake Muskoka that is nothing less than breathtaking.
The effect is striking in summer; in winter it’s even more dramatic. Not only does the scenery change when you leave the woods, but so does the footing.
The elevated, rocky dome is frequently buffeted by wind, so it’s not unusual to find large patches with little or even no snow. With few trees, the rock enjoys sunshine all day – in mild spells that can generate enough heat to melt a fair bit of the snow, sending water trickling over the rocks. The water freezes at night, turning Huckleberry Rock into a network of ice slides that snowsuit-clad children absolutely love.
Snowshoes can be worn through the woods, but unless there’s been a recent, heavy snowfall, there’s a good chance you won’t need them on top of the rock.
You may not need them to get up to the rock, either. Snowmobilers sometimes use the trails, but traffic is light, creating an ideal situation for pedestrians: the machines pack down a trail, but there’s little likelihood of having to share it while walking or snowshoeing.
Where: Milford Bay Road, off Muskoka Road 118.
Suitable for: snowshoeing and walking.
The trails at Red Leaves
With 1,400 acres of land on the shore of Lake Rosseau, there’s plenty of territory to explore at this resort. And best of all, you don’t need to be a guest to take part.
The resort offers 10 km of snowshoeing trails and 15 km of groomed cross-country skiing trails, which are open to everyone. Difficulty levels are easy to moderate, with various loops available to suit those who wish to travel a shorter distance. A skate skiing trail was groomed last year to host the Ontario Winter Games, but as of press time it hadn’t been decided whether this year’s trails would include skating or just classic skiing.
Regardless of the travel method, the terrain is lovely, incorporating hardwood and coniferous woodlands, beaver ponds, rocky barrens and open meadows. But what really sets the trails at Red Leaves apart are the guided tours and other programs that operate year round.
Snowshoe treks with a naturalist offer a chance to explore the woods much more intensively, learning about the trees, birds, and the other wildlife that have developed creative ways to survive a northern winter.
“On our guided treks we go off the trails, which is lots of fun,” said Robin Tapley, senior naturalist at Nature Trails, which operates the program. “We go out and explore old beaver ponds, and look at the diversity that’s out there.”
And if daytime snowshoeing is too tame, why not take to the woods at night? Tapley’s team leads nighttime snowshoe hikes through the woods. “We have a big astronomy component to those hikes, using laser pens to look at the constellations,” said Tapley.
Different programs are scheduled daily, and custom packages are available as well.
Skis and snowshoes are available for rent – just visit the front desk at The Rosseau, the J.W. Marriott Resort, or see the Muskoka Sports and Recreation staff at the Wallace Marina. Trail maps can be picked up at the same spots.
Where: Juddhaven Road, near Minett
Cost: Free use of trails, varying fees for rentals and guided programs
Suitable for: snowshoeing and skiing
Facilities: A full range of food, accommodation, spa treatments and more are available at The Rosseau.