Hidden Gems Along Ontario’s Bruce Trail

Beautiful lady slipper’s orchids
Beautiful lady slipper’s orchids

For Philip Gosling and the other founders of the Bruce Trail, the Bruce was code for wilderness. The near 800-kilometre-long footpath follows the Niagara Escarpment across Southern Ontario, connecting Niagara Falls to the Bruce Peninsula, which separates Lake Huron from Georgian Bay.

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Beautiful lady slipper’s orchids
Beautiful lady slipper’s orchids

Assigned to write an article about hidden gems in the southern Bruce Peninsula for the Bruce Trail magazine, I headed up to Wiarton for a near 70 kilometre, three-day hike. More importantly, I headed up to wilderness.

Hidden Gems on the Bruce Trail
Looking out at the Georgian Bay from the Bruce Trail

Day one exploring the Bruce Trail

As I left Wiarton, following the main Bruce Trail, water lapped at the Georgian Bay shoreline. In the cool morning air, I wasn’t tempted to go for a dip since, unlike Lake Huron, which is shallow and warm, Georgian Bay is crystal clear, deep and “fresh.”

My first gem was the spiral staircase. Its three tiers and 30 mesh steps challenged Frida my Mexican rescue hiking companion, but with a little coaxing we climbed up the Niagara Escarpment in this unique way.

Hidden Gems on the Bruce Trail
How would your dog do on a climb up the spiral staircase?

Next up was one of the season’s last yellow lady’s slipper orchids. I hoped to see a showy lady’s slipper as well, but if I didn’t, this gem was a worthy stand-in.

Look for beautiful lady’s slippers

The route I’d selected for each day followed the main Bruce Trail for about 10 kilometres and then looped back along a series of side trails. In this way, I’d return to my car each afternoon, see both the main and side trails, and only retrace my steps for about 25% of the trip.

Returning on a side trail (as depicted by the blue rather than the white trail markers), I came across this disappearing stream – another one of the gems along the Bruce Trail.

Hidden Gems on the Bruce Trail
The Disappearing Stream

Passing close to the village of Colpoy’s Bay, I detoured into a cemetery. Among the well-kept headstones, many of them very old, I found this one.

Vernon and his wife Illa, who died in 2012, listed the names of their nine children on the back of their headstone, which seemed a bit macabre to me.

Hidden Gems on the Bruce Trail
Headstone with the names of all nine children

On my return trip, I followed the Spirit Rock Side Trail. It passed by this ruin of the Corran, a once stately 17-room mansion built in the 1880s.

Hidden Gems on the Bruce Trail
The ruins of the Corran

Then I arrived at the site of The Legend of Spirit Rock, a tragic tale of what can befall a mixed marriage – in this case between members of two warring tribes.

Hidden Gems on the Bruce Trail
The Legend of Spirit Rock

At the day’s end, I drove to Colpoy’s Bay where a welcome hot bath and a delicious dinner awaited me at the Quayside Landing B&B.

Hidden Gems on the Bruce Trail
The Quayside Landing B&B

Day two exploring the Bruce Trail

Day two dawned bright and sunny. I drove to where I’d finished up the day before. Once there, I perused the Little Lending Library at the trailhead.

Hidden Gems on the Bruce Trail
The lending library

Views of Georgian Bay were the gems of the day. The water was so blue and the vegetation so lush that I looked for breaching whales and imagined I could hear parrots squawking rather than our native blue jays.

Hidden Gems on the Bruce Trail
The Georgian Bay

The sun penetrated the dense forests where the occasional white birch, black cherry and hophornbeam added texture to the dominant sugar maples.

Hidden Gems on the Bruce Trail
Beautiful hiking through the dense forest
Hidden Gems on the Bruce Trail

Back at the Quayside, my hosts Paul Thomas and Karin van der Heyden, joined me for dinner and I learned why I was being treated to the freshest, most lovely meals.

For about 20 years, the couple owned and operated a renowned, market-fresh restaurant in Owen Sound. Having given up the hectic restaurant pace, they were enjoying more leisure time in Colpoy’s Bay— if you can call caring for extensive gardens a leisure activity.

Hidden Gems on the Bruce Trail
Extensive container garden
Hidden Gems on the Bruce Trail

The third day looking for the Bruce Trail’s hidden gems

While the views on Day Three didn’t let up, I most looked forward to the Snake Boardwalk. At 900 metres, it’s the longest boardwalk on the entire Bruce Trail.

Hidden Gems on the Bruce Trail
An extensive boardwallk

It would take me through the middle of an extensive wetland on land owned by the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation. Named for its serpentine path rather than the presence of an inordinate number of snakes (remember the Bruce Peninsula is home to Massassauga rattlesnakes), the Snake Boardwalk was yet another gem.

And the Snake Boardwalk didn’t let me down. In addition to a beaver that popped up onto the boardwalk practically under my surprised dog’s nose, I came across these foot-tall magnificent showy lady’s slipper orchids. Mission accomplished.

Hidden Gems on the Bruce Trail
Beautiful lady slipper’s orchids

I topped off the day on the return trip on a side trail that took me through a series of meadows and past a pond in the McIver wetlands. While my treat was seeing three noisy juvenile sandhill cranes, the Bruce Trail’s treasure was the museum-quality piece of coral they recently found nearby. It is a remnant from the sea that flooded this land some 450 million years ago.

Hidden Gems on the Bruce Trail

Distance covered

I stopped in at the Quayside Landing B&B on my way home where I picked up an enormous bag of fresh greens and bid my hosts a final farewell.

In all, I hiked about 70 kilometres over the three days, covering 34.3 kilometres of the main Bruce Trail, about 20 kilometres on a total of 10 side trails and the balance retracing my route on the main trail.

I saw the beginning of the wilderness that drew the Bruce Trail’s founders and have an even greater desire to get deeper into Ontario’s nature – which won’t be difficult since the trail’s northern terminus in Tobermory is another 130.1 kilometres of gems away.

For more information about hiking the Bruce Trail, visit their website. You’ll need maps 35 and 36 from their excellent trail guide.

Click on the photo if you wish to bookmark to your Pinterest board.

Hidden gems along Ontario's Bruce Trail

  1. Another amazing hike to check out just down the road into Lion’s Head, are Greig’s caves. These caves are privately owned and are jaw-dropping. They are sea caves. It costs about $12 to hike the trail. These caves were the site of the filming of Quest for Fire. They are astonishing. They are not part of the Bruce Trail but well worth going to if you decide to do the hike in Colpoy’s. Bruce Eco tours offers an amazing interpretive hike and some deeper spelunking with head lamps for about $40. That includes the entrance fee. The money goes towards maintaining sections of the Bruce peninsula. They do not have A conservation authority so tours through this company provide funds to maintain the peninsula.

  2. This is a lovely post, that said, Bruce Trail Conservancy (BTC) rules strictly forbid dogs off leash. The author is either ignorant of this or doesn’t care. Either way, it coloured my enjoyment of her writing. There are two very important reasons for the No Dogs Off-leash rules:
    1) The BTC is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and its unique flora and fauna are easily destroyed by dogs (and people) wondering off the path. Never leave the footpath – to do so dishonours the work of the BTC stewards and diminishes the natural beauty of the area along the path. Bicycles are also strictly forbidden for the same reasons – never take your bike along the trail, unless it is a section of the trail shared by pre-established bike paths, such as may be found in some provincial parks and conservation areas.
    2) More than half the trail’s length goes through private property. You wouldn’t want a strange dog running loose on your property – especially if it is part of a world biosphere reserve – and neither do the property owners along the BTC footpath. Many of the arrangements between property owners and the BTC are handshake deals which are at risk of being revoked if owners tire of having stranger’s dogs running loose. Whenever a deal is revoked, hikers are stuck walking on roadways which is already the case along many sections of the Trail.
    For the sake of all, please don’t have your dog off-leash on the BTC footpath.

      1. Many belated thanks Leigh. I didn’t hear from the author. If she read my comment, I hope she has since reconsidered having her dog off-leash on the BT. There are increasingly fewer property owners willing to share their sections of the Optimal Route as a result of blithely inconsiderate behaviours such as having dogs off-leash. Some dog owners protest that their dogs are well-trained and harmless; whether the dogs are well-trained or not is beside the point. I’m a dog owner myself so I kind of understand such thinking – but please, not on the Bruce Trail!

  3. I’ve completed every square inch of the Bruce Trail – thank you for sharing. My favourite is the hike and camp loop at Lion’s Head.

  4. Only section of the Bruce I have hiked was in the Bruce Peninsula. Nice to know about these other places along the trail. The picture of Georgian Bay is amazing!

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