Toronto – Tobermory – Fathom Five National Marine Park – Bruce Peninsula National

Toronto - Tobermory - Fathom Five National Marine Park - Bruce Peninsula National
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We started our excursion taking Hwy 400, then Hwy 89 West to Hwy 10 North. The picturesque pastoral landscapes of rural Ontario were passing by pleasing our eyes at an 80km/hour speed. Close to Owen Sound we merged on Hwy 6 that became our only road for a long while.

After 2.5 hours driving we wanted to stand up, stretch our legs and arms, and drink some coffee, so we took a brief break at Wiarton – a beautiful small town that is the gateway to all natural wonders of the Bruce Peninsula. 40 minutes later, we arrived to our destination point – Tobermory, we decided to stay at a charmingly located, clean, comfortable, and very reasonably priced Bruce Anchor Motel.

Visitor Centre in Tobermory

In Tobermory we decided to start from the Visitor Centre and found out that it is one of the busiest on Bruce Peninsula, being a gateway to thousands of visitors from throughout the world. In 2006, it opened its doors to serve Fathom Five National Marine Park and the Bruce Peninsula National Park. Designed by Andrew Frontini, the $7.82 million centre, approached by a boardwalk, features an information centre; reception area; exhibit hall with everything from a full-size lighthouse, flowerpot and cliff to black bear, rattlesnake and shipwreck exhibits; the high-definition theatre, for a virtual adventure to the best spots in the park; and a gift shop.

A 20m tower with 112 stairs was built for bird’s-eye panoramic views of the Bruce and Georgian Bay. The centre was designed with environmental sustainability in mind, receiving $224,000 from the Federal House in Order initiative for implementation of innovative greenhouse gas reduction technology.

The Centre is operated by the Tobermory & District Chamber of Commerce. You can get comprehensive information on activities in the area, hiking, diving, how to go to Flowerpot Island, Bruce Peninsula National Park, travel on the Chi Cheemaun ferry and much more. You can register to dive in Fathom Five or to camp on Flowerpot Island and buy admission tickets there. There are a lot of different pamphlets and booklets for visitors. Anything and everything that is related to the Bruce Peninsula is handled to visitors through this location.

In summer time (June 14 – September 6) the Centre opens daily from 8:00am to 8:00pm and until 9:00pm on Friday. We were very impressed with the courtesy and hospitality of the staff.

From the Visitor Centre you can take the following trails:

Bruce Trail to Little Dunks Bay Lookout

  • This short section of the Bruce Trail meanders through lush cedar forest, along mossy covered ridges, and reaches a viewing platform that overlooks Little Dunks Bay, a secluded and scenic cove of Georgian Bay.
  • Length: 0.8km (one way)
  • Hiking Time: 10-15 minutes (one way)
  • Difficulty: Easy.
  • Trail Surface: Flat and hard packed. Wheelchair accessible

Bruce Trail Burnt Point Loop

  • Hike this new loop side trail, accessed from the Bruce Trail, just before the Little Dunks Bay Lookout.
  • Length: 4.8km (round-trip from Visitor Centre)
  • Hiking Time: 1.5 – 2 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Trail Surface: Rough, rocky sections. Sturdy footwear recommended

Bruce Trail South

  • Hike the Bruce Trail, Canada’s most famous footpath, south from the Visitor Centre. For information, visit the Bruce Trail Association website.
  • Length: variable distance
  • Hiking Time: variable
  • Difficulty: moderate to very difficult
  • Trail Surface: variable

Visitor Centre to Tobermory Harbour

  • The Bruce Trail connects the Visitor Centre to the harbour in downtown Tobermory
  • Length: 0.25km (one way)
  • Hiking Time: 5 – 8 minutes (one way)
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Trail Surface: Flat, hard-packed stone and paved sidewalk. Wheelchair accessible

Fathom Five National Marine Park

We left our car at the motel (by the way, there is “all day free parking” at the community centre and also at the municipal lot on Legion Street), walked down the Little Tub Harbour docks to the Blue Heron Cruises. That company delivers tours to the Fathom Five National Marine Park and has different types of vessels including Canada’s largest glass bottom boat of 24m that can carry 125 passengers. We took the Blue Heron V (it also has a glass bottom and can accommodate up to 96 people) to Flowerpot Island. You can visit in advance and check the season schedule by clicking on the date you are interested to view a list of cruises available that day and also to enquire about the rates and routes.

Fresh breeze, bright sunshine, crystal clear blue water and a spirit of adventure accompanied us throughout our new experience.

Fathom Five became Canada’s first National Marine Park in 1987. 112km2 of park’s area contains 22 islands where rare ferns and orchids can be found, as well as some of the oldest forests in eastern Canada. There are 22 historic shipwrecks rests on the bottom of the Georgian Bay, being the silent witnesses of heavy shipping traffic of another time and making the park a world-renowned scuba-diving and snorkeling site. Every year approximately 4000 divers visit Fathom Five to see an exciting underwater world. But all visitors wishing to dive within its boundaries must register at the Visitor Centre in Tobermory.

The Fathom Five name is taken from The Tempest, a play written by Shakespeare.

“Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! Now I hear them – Ding-dong, bell”

In Act I, Scene II of The Tempest, the “airy Spirit” Ariel is ordered by Prospero to lead the shipwrecked Ferdinand to him. The song gives one the true melancholy of the sailor, taken by the sea, and a sense of wonder about death. But peace is there. Peace forever. No reason to grieve.

Our Blue Heron V passed by some interesting sights: the dock for the car ferry Chi-Cheemaun; Big Tub Lighthouse, built in 1885; and two nineteenth century shipwrecks at the head of Big Tub Harbour – the schooner Sweepstakes (1885) and the steamer City of Grand Rapids (1907), both are shallow enough to be visible from the sides of the boat as well as through the glass bottom without having to get wet.

No doubts, Flowerpot Island is among Canada’s most recognized and most popular natural attractions. Its unique geological features, showing flowerpot-shaped rock pillars that gave the island its name, pull tourists from around the world as a magnet. The Island is about 1.6km wide and covers 200ha, with well marked hiking trails covering most of the Island.

A half-day was enough for us to explore the famous sights. When we were buying our tickets we arranged times of returning with the same vessel, so we kept an eye on our watch not to miss it. We carried some cash because there was a day use fee collected upon arrival at the island. We didn’t forget to bring drinking water and wear sturdy running shoes.

Flowerpot Island has something different for everyone to offer, from the very young to the elderly; whether you visit the museum in the Lightkeeper’s home, hike the trails, explore the cave, climb to the observation deck, have a picnic, and swim in the cool, clear waters of Georgian Bay. There are no words to describe our feelings. It was mighty, emotional, impressive and most unusual. Although, one thing will remain with us for our lifetime: sweet memories!

Bruce Peninsula National Park

Having an area of 156km2, Bruce Peninsula National Park is one of the largest protected areas in southern Ontario (and still growing), forming the core of UNESCO Niagara Escarpment World Biosphere Reserve.

Scientists say that the dolomite limestone rock of the escarpment is very old: approximately 400 million years of age. On that unimaginable time long gone, this area was covered by a shallow tropical sea looking much like the present-day Great Barrier Reef of Australia.

The park is famous for its orchids: 34 of Bruce Peninsula’s 44 orchid species are found in the park. More than 850 different kinds of plants grow there. Ontario’s oldest trees are the small gnarled cedars that cling to the cliff face. Some have reached ages greater than 1,000 years.

The largest mammal in the park is the Black Bear. Common wildlife includes porcupine, chipmunk, red squirrel, raccoon, white-tailed deer, snowshoe hare, and frogs. Fox, fisher, martin and the rattlesnake (the only venomous snake in Ontario) are also present in fewer numbers.

We took just one kilometer path from the day-parking area to the magnificent shoreline cliffs. The trail passed wetland and forest on the eastern side of Horse Lake. Actually, it is the easiest and quickest way to the shore. The stunning picture of Georgian Bay appeared, all of a sudden, we were facing the Natural Arch and Indian Head Cove. We can assure that nobody is prepared for such a great discovery, impressed and overwhelmed are words that came to our minds to describe that feeling forcing us to remain silent for a while.

The shoreline faces north, and from Indian Head Cove you can look out across Georgian Bay, the first part of the Great lakes seen by Europeans. In 1615 Samuel de Champlain arrived at the mouth of the French River; about 80km across the Bay from Indian Head Cove. Astounded that such a big body of azure water was not salty, he named it La Mer Douce: The Sweetwater Sea. It was given its present name in 1822 to honour King George IV. The Bay is approximately 241km x 80km; almost as large as Lake Ontario.

Another “wow!” we whispered when we saw the Grotto, a huge cave formation with a deep pool of Georgian Bay water as its floor. To our surprise, there were a few people swimming in the Grotto but we didn’t know how they could manage to get down there. Suddenly a female voice said “Finally” just beneath our feet, which made us almost jump aside, while a woman’s head popped up from the hole in the rock. There was the way to the bottom! Monkey see monkey do, we followed the example. The path was narrow and dark… By the way, SCUBA divers can enter the Grotto from Georgian Bay by an underwater passage.

Over 30,000 people trek out to the Grotto each year.

Bruce Peninsula National Park was established in 1987 by the federal and provincial governments and back then was not greeted with open arms by some of the residents in the Northern Bruce Peninsula. But the attitude has changed nowadays: both local population and visitors have increasingly embraced the park. Meanwhile, it is estimated that close to 10 million people now live within a four-hour drive of the park.

The park offers opportunities for hiking, camping, bird watching and many other outdoor activities. There are many trails ranging in difficulty from easy to expert, some of them are:

  • Bruce Trail: 782km, difficulty varies
  • Georgian Bay – Marr Lake Trail: 3km, 2.5 hours, difficulty varies
  • Horse Lake Trail: 1.2km, 0.5 hours, difficulty varies
  • Cyprus Lake Trail: 5.2km, 2.5 hours, low difficulty

There is a year-round camping at Cyprus Lake, but in summer it is wise to make reservations far in advance. Permits are available for High Dump and Storm Haven. There is good fishing for bass, perch and yellow pickerel in Cyprus Lake. On the Lake Huron shore, the park encompasses Singing Sands Beach, a nice place for swimming.

Wind, water and time formed the sculptured bluffs, cliffs, and caves and created the most beautiful scenery of Bruce Peninsula’s National Park. There are breath-taking views from Overhanging Point, Halfway Rock Point, Cave Point and Halfway Log Dump.

Have a good weekend trip!

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