Let’s get this straight. 100% of the time, I choose warm weather vacations because…warm weather. But staying healthy and active means finding ways to get exercise even when the conditions aren’t ideal. I’m so glad that we explored Ontario in the winter. Bruce Peninsula Provincial Park proved to be one of the best winter hikes in Ontario!
Combine the beauty of the coast with the magic of a winter wonderland and you’ve got an excellent backdrop for a workout that doesn’t feel like working out.
Planning the Hike
Bring cash to pay the admission and parking fees. The fees change, so be sure to check the website for the latest pricing.
We visited in mid-March. Our route would take us through Horse Lake Trail and connect to Bruce Trail to pass by Indian Head Cove, the Grotto, and Boulder Beach. We would end by taking Marr Lake Trail.
We parked in Parking Lot 1, which is closest to the desired trailheads. Lot 2 was also open for those who want to extend the length of the hike and include views of Cyprus Lake.
Just a heads up that the washrooms at the visitors’ center were closed during our mid-March visit. Parking Lot 1 has port-o-potties and there are open washrooms available along Horse Lake Trail though the map doesn’t show them! Maybe they’re new? There are also washrooms near Indian Head Cove which are marked on the map. We didn’t check to see if they were open. To be safe, don’t plan for any restrooms to be open in the dead of winter.
Horse Lake Trail
Winter was plagued with multiple thaws, freezes, rain, and more freezes. Some areas of Horse Lake Trail offered firm, packed snow and others were plush with deep now. Such conditions made snowshoes an essential item. Horse Lake Trail is only 1.5 miles but it will feel a lot longer without the right gear.
This was my first time snowshoeing and I am absolutely in love! Snowshoes are quite light on the feet and they make walking in snow sooooo much easier. I also like that they instantly make winter hiking and warm weather hiking feel different. We never get enough snow for snowshoeing back home. So while we hike often, snowshoeing feels like a special experience.
Anyway, Horse Lake Trail is rated easy and I certainly agree, especially with snowshoes. It is a scenic, level walk through the park with clearly paved blazes.
Here’s a quick snippet from the hike. My husband and I send videos back to our daughter, hence the dialogue, haha.
The tree canopy along the trail created a natural barrier between us and the elements. A bit of sleet made it through the canopy, but we were spared from the harsher winds and freezing rain that we saw out on the lakes.
Horse Lake features a flowing stream and footbridge. As the snow melts, the stream gets bigger and more impressive.. It’s a picturesque little spot, foretelling more beauty to come.
Once you pass the footbridge at Horse Lake, you will encounter a rock structure on your right. This was a lovely little nook! The snow covered surfaces and crevices add beautiful depth to pictures. (On a warmer day, I could’ve taken much better shots. But every time that I took my hand out of my glove, I thought a digit might freeze off. We kept the photos to a minimum.)
Indian Head Cove
A bit farther and you’ll find Indian Head Cove and the first breathtaking views of Georgian Bay. The bay is a branch off of Lake Huron, the second largest lake in North America. It is so large I could hardly believe it was just a lake from the plane. The largest lake that I had seen to date was Lake Nicaragua, which is 5,068 square miles (8,157 square km) compared to Lake Huron’s 37,027 square miles (59,590 square kilometers). It’s flippin’ huge. And gorgeous.
In winter, large blocks of ice gently floated near the coast. What was once a rugged coastline battered by waves became a fortress of ice sculptures and bitter winds. Goggles are highly recommended here if there is any chance of precipitation. Strong winds make sleet feel like tiny torpedoes against your eyelids.
Aside from the wind bellowing against the cliffs, it was silent.
What could’ve made Indian Head Cove and our first view of the Georgian Bay any better? A warm beverage and time to sit and observe. It’s truly beautiful.
The Grotto and Boulder Beach
Tracing the trail along the cliffs, we approached The Grotto. The Grotto is one of the region’s favorite swimming holes. Winter transforms it into a forbidding winter wonderland.
Cave after cave of blue ice formations and massive icicles seized my imagination. I wished I was more familiar with the terrain so that I could safely explore. There were footprints down to the frozen water but we didn’t risk it. The prints disappeared in some areas, covered by fresh snow and newly frozen sea foam. I didn’t have the skills, knowledge, or equipment to safely descend. God, I wish I had!
We battled the wind onward up the shore. The snow depth here is less predictable, making this portion of Bruce Trail and moderate hike in winter. Hard packed snow along the center of the path quickly gave way to deep, loose snow just a few inches away. There were areas that seemed at least 3 feet deep, much deeper than along Horse Lake Trail. With that said, if you manage to stay on the packed snow, it removes any joint-twisting obstacles along the trail floor.
Our snowshoes were lifesavers! We didn’t have to worry about sinking into the snow or exerting unnecessary effort to pull ourselves out. We were able to take in all the beauty around us and hike with confidence. With the right gear, the Bruce Trail may feel like an easier hike in winter than in Spring.
We finally arrived to Boulder Beach. The beach merged seamlessly with the ocean, one massive sheet of ice. The trail is hardest to find at Boulder Beach because of the broad expanse. Thankfully, there was a massive sign near the stream that easily caught our attention. The stream weaved its way through the field of snow, heading towards Lake Marr.
Lake Marr and Marr Lake Trail
Ice covered Lake Marr. It appeared to be a plain of gusting wind and snow. There were two sets of footprints that veered in towards the lake. I suppose the owners of the prints didn’t know it was a lake and thought they were taking a shortcut back to Parking Lot 1. The prints stopped short of gray ice, a clear indicator that water is just under the surface. Let that be a reminder to you to stay on the trail, especially if it’s your first time in the park.
Marr Lake Trail in winter is quite easy. We did the western portion of it, about 1.5 miles. The snow here was deep but mostly level.
It total, we hiked about 4 miles. It wasn’t a fitness hike since we stopped a lot to take pictures and enjoy a landscape that I’d never experiences before. (Snow covered beach?! What?!) With that said, I burned about 400 calories. Not a second of it felt like work!
Aside from burning calories and toning muscles, time in nature is good for mental health. This wasn’t the most challenging hike that I’ve done by any means. But it’s unique beauty helped me to shrug off old worries and be fully present in a place of peace and happiness. That’s priceless!
Looking for restaurants near Bruce Peninsula Provincial Park after 5pm? DON’T go to Tobermory. Though it is very close by and Google will tempt you with delicious-sounding restaurants, it’s a waste of time. The entire town of Tobermory closes in winter and early spring. We didn’t find a single open restaurant, bar, or pharmacy in town. The businesses don’t update their Google listings so they will show as open, though they aren’t.
Instead, your best bet for dinner is Owen Sound, southbound towards Collingwood and Toronto. It’s a small town but there are at least a few restaurants that are open late. We stopped at Shorty’s, which was open until 10pm. It offered decent food and great service so it was worth the drive!