The Muskoka area of Ontario, Canada is a rolling expanse of forest and lake, quietly beautiful. Highlights of the area include Georgian Bay with its rocky inlets and wood-lined shores. It was scenery like this - and further east, in the Algonquin - that inspired Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven painters. The view, as evening falls over the silver water, broken by the low outlines of islands (there are about 30,000 in the Bay) is hauntingly beautiful.
North to south:
- 1 Huntsville — the largest community in the district.
- 2 Township of Lake of Bays — a cluster of communities and cottages surrounding one of the region's larger lakes.
- 3 Muskoka Lakes - includes some of Muskoka's best-known lakes, including Lakes Joseph and Rosseau, and communities between both the main highways, such as Bala and Port Carling.
- 4 Bracebridge — a small town, with some spectacular falls.
- 5 Gravenhurst — the self-proclaimed "Gateway to Muskoka".
- 1 Georgian Bay Islands National Park — 63 islands in the world's largest freshwater archipelago, including the historic Beausoleil Island
- 2 Torrance Barrens Conservation Area — it's the first dark-sky preserve in Canada and known for its geological and environmental features
The District of Muskoka covers a large area, but has a permanent population of only about 60,000 people (2016), living mainly in small towns. In summer, the population swells by 100,000 as seasonal residents arrive from Ontario's cities, and tourists come from all over.
While Muskoka is physically similar throughout, experiences can vary depending on where you visit, as some are more laid back than others. Much of Muskoka, especially around Georgian Bay or any other body of water, is private property. Towns such as Honey Harbour are filled with fenced cottages whose residents may not be very welcoming. The many provincial parks in the area offer parking, facilities, access to the water and campgrounds.
If you are interested in boating, do not expect to find boat rentals by Muskoka's lakes. If you drive in through Barrie, it has several rental shops you can stop at before heading further north.
Largely the land of the Ojibwa First Nations (Indigenous) people, European inhabitants ignored it while settling what they thought were the more promising area south of the Severn River. The Ojibwa leader associated with the area was "Mesqua Ukie", for whom the land is believed named, as he was liked by the European Canadians. The tribe lived south of the region, near present-day Orillia. They used Muskoka as their hunting grounds.
Until the late 1760s, the European presence in the region was largely limited to seasonal fur trappers. Following the American War of Independence, the British North America government began exploring the region, hoping to develop a settled population and find travel lanes between Lake Ontario and Georgian Bay.
Canada and Muskoka experienced heavy immigration from Europe in the 19th century. Settlers from the United Kingdom, and to a lesser extent, Germany began to arrive. Logging licences were issued in 1866. The lumber industry expanded rapidly, denuding huge tracts of the area. Road and water transportation was developed and used later to facilitate town settlement. The Muskoka Colonization Road was begun in 1858 and reached Bracebridge in 1861.
In 1868, the era of widespread settlement began as settlers could receive free land if they agreed to clear the land, have at least 15 acres (6.1 ha) under cultivation, and build a 16x20 ft (30 m²) house. Consisting largely of a dense clay, the soil in the region turned out to be poorly suited to farming.
In a time when the railways had not yet arrived and road travel was notoriously unreliable and uncomfortable, the transportation king was the steamship. Once a land connection was made to the southern part of the lake in Gravenhurst, the logging companies could harvest trees along the entire lakefront with relative ease. Steamships gave them the way to ship the harvest back to the sawmills in Gravenhurst.
Shortly after the arrival of the steamships, the tourism industry began to flourish as agriculture never did. Tourist camps were followed by boarding houses and then hotels as visitors were drawn by the fishing and the natural environment.
The railway pushed north to support the industry, reaching Gravenhurst in 1875 and Bracebridge in 1885. The lumber industry spawned a number of ancillary developments, with settlements springing up to supply the workers. The railway also made the district easily accessible to the wealthy of Toronto, New York and Pittsburgh who came to the luxury hotels on the shores of Muskoka's lakes. Many were so entrances by the region's beauty that they built luxury houses in the area, beginning Muskoka's role as "cottage country".
You can reach Muskoka on a day trip from Toronto. Since it is such a large area, travel times can vary. From Toronto, most tend to take Highway 400 north, through Barrie, then have a choice of whether to continue on the 400 or change to Highway 11. The former generally takes you to western areas of Muskoka (i.e. Port Severn, Midland), while the latter takes you to the more well known cities of the area (i.e. Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, Huntsville).
Since there are so many lakes between the two highways and around them, there are hundreds of winding "cottage" roads taking a traveller to more specific areas and smaller towns, such as Bala and Rosseau. The main highways between the major two are highways 169, 118, and 69.
By car, or by boat. The intercity buses that travel to Huntsville, Bracebridge and Gravenhurst may make stops on request at smaller settlements along their routes.
The Lady Muskoka Steamship offers 2-3 hour cruises on the lakes, lunch cruises, dinner cruises from Bracebridge in the summer. Muskoka Steamships in Gravenhurst offers boat cruises lasting from an hour to a full day on 3 connecting lakes. Vessels include the coal-fired steamship RMS Segwun built in 1887.
Bracebridge Falls in downtown Bracebridge.
The Group of Seven Outdoor Gallery is an outdoor trail in downtown Huntsville that features over 80 mural replicas showcasing the works of the Group of Seven painters who were importantly 20th-century Canadian artists.
Renting a cottage is really the thing to do, although it won't be cheap. Swimming, canoeing, relaxing at the lakeside, cocktails in the late afternoon, a barbecue, marvelling at the constellations in the night sky, hearing the loon call across the lake... these are classic Canadian wilderness experiences best enjoyed in a rugged landscape like Muskoka.
Several large parks provide access to the rugged landscape and lakes to daytrippers or landlocked cottagers. Six Mile Lake Provincial Park provides car camping and canoeing in Muskoka Lakes, along the Highway 400 corridor. Most of the lake's shoreline is private property, but the park is still ideal for a day trip into Muskoka. Arrowhead Provincial Park is open year-round for camping, hiking, biking, crosscountry skiing, and skating near Huntsville. It's connected to Algonquin Park by Big East River, a waterway park ideal for canoeing or kayaking. Other parks do not provide camping or any visitor services, such as Bigwind Lake near Bracebridge, which is open for day-use activities including mountain biking, canoeing, fishing and snowshoeing.
Well-known chains and fast-food options are easy to find along the highway for a quick rest-stop, but you'll also find a wide range of local restaurants, from family-style eateries and pubs serving comfort food, to steakhouses and elegant resort restaurants.
Of course, backyard barbecuing and dining on your own cottage patio (or campsite picnic table) is a staple of a cottage getaway. In addition to Ontario's typical grocery store chains, you'll also find smaller gourmet grocers and general stores with some uniquely local (or at least locally branded) products to try at home. Independent butchers and bakeries provide a supply of fresh meats and breads to make sure that cottage BBQs aren't limited to basic hamburgers.
Several bakeries also specialize in their own butter tart recipe - a popular pastry invented in Central Ontario. The recipes tends to vary, as each baker stakes claim to a secret variation in crust or filling that makes that makes their own tart the "best in town". Anyone with a sweet tooth won't regret a detour to do their own taste test, and grabbing a box on the way up to a cottage or on the way home can be a delicious way to win friends.
A good place to party in the summer months, when it is much busier. There are places to drink around the towns, ranging from small places to fairly large establishments. The Kee to Bala is a large, popular venue with concerts throughout the summer, located in Bala (Muskoka Lakes)
Several breweries throughout the region include taprooms or brewpubs, and also sell freshly brewed beer directly to cottagers by the can or, for larger gatherings, by the keg (with advance reservation). Lake of Bays Brewing Co. has its brewery in Baysville (Lake of Bays), and has brewpubs in Bracebridge and Huntsville. Muskoka Brewery operates a taproom and brewery near Bracebridge. Sawdust City Brewing Co. is in Gravenhurst, with a retail store, brewpub and taproom.
There are cottages for rent throughout Muskoka, but they won't be cheap as Muskoka cottages are highly prized among Toronto's wealthier denizens. There is also a range of golf resorts, hotels, inns, B&Bs and campgrounds at wide range of prices and quality.
May, early spring for the areas, is peak time for blackfly and mosquitoes.
- Algonquin Provincial Park - east of Huntsville on Highway 60. Offers spectacular hiking, canoeing and camping in a vast and beautiful provincial park. Visitors can often see moose along Highway 60. The interior of the park can only be visited by canoe or foot as part of a backcountry camping trip, but there are also self-guided trails and eight car campgrounds for the less adventuresome.
- Barrie - in Simcoe County, on Lake Simcoe to the south of Muskoka. The city is a hub for watersports and boating. It's at the crossroads of Highways 400, 11, and 26, giving road-trippers a few routes to choose from.
- Haliburton Highlands - a large rural area to the east. The landscape will look familiar coming from Muskoka, but further from the major highways and towns, Haliburton's lakes, forests, and cottages can feel a bit quieter.
- Parry Sound - in Ontario's Near North, toward the northern end of Highway 400. The town accommodates cottagers heading further north, or toward the shores of Georgian Bay.
- Toronto - Canada's largest city, about 170 km (110 mi) from Gravenhurst at the south end of Muskoka, to downtown. In addition to the busy shopping streets, markets, museums, galleries, and skyscrapers, Toronto is at the centre of the Greater Toronto Area, with restaurants representing cuisines from around the world, and recreation that takes advantage of the Niagara Escarpment and Lake Ontario shore.