Travel

This Rugged, Surreal Coast Is Hiding Just Above The Canadian Border

Shipwrecks, spelunking, and rock spires await on this untamed peninsula.

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During my first trip to Canada’s Bruce Peninsula in 2003, I was too afraid to touch the water. My delightful gaggle-of-goons family members -- AKA “The Canadians” -- hail from the remote region of southern Ontario. In their Letterkenny accents, they immediately filled my childish brain with stories of sunken ships whose zombified crew still lurked in the underwater boiler rooms, waiting for an undertow to deliver them a feast of pre-teen boy. Oh, and there were rattlesnakes somewhere in there, too. 

More alarmingly, I’d later find out all this is somewhat true -- aside from the zombies.
 
See, “the Bruce” consists of “hard land and moody waters…,” according to William Sherwood Fox, author of The Bruce Beckons, a novel that documents the pearls and plights of life along the Georgian Bay. It’s a place with “adventure and murder and mayhem, about rattlesnakes (??!!!) and shipwrecks, about winds and fogs on the island seas, about brave parsons and the bad rascals.” 

This is land not to be fucked with. But it’s also a stunner so ripe for exploration that John frickin’ Muir lived nearby in the South Bruce.
 
And it’s hiding just over the border: Just a few hours’ drive from Toronto, five hours from Detroit, nine from Chicago, 12 from the East Coast and -- because why not at this point? -- 39 hours from Chula Vista, California, it’s an ideal place to spend a late summer soaking in the craggy, limestone coastline and exploring  centuries-old shipwrecks, hidden caves, ancient forests, and a few sailor-like pubs in the Bruce Peninsula.

The Bruce beckons. Here’s what it’s got to offer. 

MORE:  Meanwhile, Toronto’s making a play to become Canada’s most exciting city

Fathom Five National Marine Park
Fathom Five National Marine Park | Instants/E+/Getty

Immerse yourself above and below Fathom Five National Marine Park

Consisting of more than a dozen islands, ancient rock formations, cliff-edge forests, and some backcountry woods even Paul Bunyan would laud, the national marine park (Canada’s first) supplies a quintessential experience into all these lands. Head to Flowerpot Island (more on that later) and dipsy-doodle through the island’s trails, or explore the 420-million-year-old dolomite jutting through the frigid Huron waters as they antagonize every passing ship with a seemingly half-a-million-year-old middle finger. 

What the Hell does that ridiculous metaphor mean? It alludes to the real, real reason to visit this Canadian beaut: shipwrecks. Fathom Five protects twenty-some clearly visible 19th- and 20th-century shipwrecks that dot the peninsula’s rocky coastline, serving as a remembrance -- and reminder -- to all: “Sail lightly on these here waters, bud.”

Ship Wreck in Bruce Peninsula
Shipwreck in Bruce Peninsula | Steven Wang/500pxPlus/Getty

In October 1907, the double-decked passenger steamer City of Grand Rapids caught fire and sank on the outskirts of Little Tub Harbor. Roughly 100-feet away from the steamer is the remains of the Canadian schooner Sweepstakes, which had sunk a decade prior. The abundance of well-preserved shipwrecks, many of which lie just 10 to 15 feet below the crystal-clear surface, provide the perfect backdrop to scuba, kayak, snorkel, or even hop on a glass-bottom boat to explore the intimate confines of these wreckages.
 
Join a tour with the team Divers Den to enjoy additional highlights including the oh-so-formally-named Charles P. Minch and James C. King as well as the aptly named (for a shipwreck) W.L. Wetmore, with its hanging-knees, hook-scarf-joints, and 15-foot boiler rising up from its grave like a goddamn boat zombie.

MORE:  Over in Lake Michigan, hundreds of ships occupy Death’s Door

Albion Falls along Niagara Escarpment
Albion Falls along Niagara Escarpment in Ontario, Canada | Orchidpoet/E+/getty

Hike or bike the legendary Bruce Trail

Flaunting 1,000-year-old cedars, miles-upon-miles of limestone cliffs and pathways with overly kitschy names like “The Jones Bluff Loop,” “Jackson’s Cove,” and “Devil’s Monument,” the monumental pathway, part of the UNESCO-certified Niagara Escarpment, begins in Tobermory and extends all the way across the peninsula -- and Ontario, literally to Niagara Falls. Consider it something of a mini Canadian/Great Lakes version of the Pacific Crest Trail, though if you just want to take micro hikes and experience waterfalls and dense forests, don’t feel obligated to hike all 550 miles.

Cave At Bruce Peninsula Shoreline
Cave on Bruce Peninsula shoreline at Cypru | Claire Smith/500pxPlus/getty

Explore claustrophobic caves and bizarro shoreline spires

Those limestone bluffs have been pummeled by Lake Huron for eons, which means ample nooks and crannies.  The most popular cave along the rocky shores -- and probably the most popular spot on the peninsula -- is without a doubt The Grotto. A natural sea cave on Georgian Bay, this network and its turquoise waters lure hundreds of tourists during peak season: so many in fact it’s recommended you buy a parking pass well in advance. 

Those looking for some proper spelunking without the McDonald’s crowds can hit up Grieg’s Caves in Lion’s Head. The site’s 10 caves provide some peninsula peace, as the system brims with secret waterfalls, ancient fossils, dangling stalactites, and plenty of slipper rocks ready to shatter your tailbone, so gear up.

For some more surface-level surrealism, Flowerpot Island deserves a visit of its own. Technically part of Fathom Five Marine Park, the popular island is named for its two vase-like rock pillars on its eastern shore, and invites intrepid adventurers to uncover the caves, cliffs and forests that span the isle. The island itself is only accessible by boat, and there are campsites and hiking trails. Legend has it the two “flower pots” are the petrified remains of young Ottawa and Chippewa lovers. So, uh, try not to fall in love.

MORE:  Gaze upon even more of the most beautiful places in Canada

Bruce Peninsula Cave Point
Cave sitting on Bruce Peninsula waters | Claire Smith/500pxPlus/getty

Boulder up the bay, then sniff some orchids 

Although only permitted from Cave Point to Boulder Beach at the overtly scatological (not only in reference to name but also THE EXCITEMENT BOULDERER’S WILL EXCRETE HERE!) Halfway Log Dump, the rocks just off the Bruce Trail feature climbs for all skill levels. Experienced climbers looking for proper crags should head to Lion’s Head and its sensational 130-foot lakeside bluffs.
 
Or, if you’re not looking to exert so much energy, go flower hunting: The botanical bounty on the Bruce may consist of millennia-old cedars, rare ferns, and far-too-many carnivorous plants like butterworts and bladderworts (all the worst worts, really). But the peninsula’s stalwart plant is certainly the orchid. Home to more than 40 species of orchids, the most common sight is the yellow Lady Slipper, which seems to grow everywhere, while the beautiful pink Lady Slipper can be found in moist, acidic ground. The two most exotic orchids are the Dragon’s Mouth (best found between mid-June and mid-July) and Calypso; however, some of the orchids are so exceedingly rare they take up to 18 years to bloom.

Tobermory, Ontario
Boats anchored at Little Tub Harbour in Tobermory, Ontario | Instants/E+/getty

Amble through Tobermory

Once you’re ready to go inside, the cutesy harbor town at the northern tip of the peninsula, Tobermory, is seemingly straight out of a Gordon Lightfoot song. Camp, or rent a cottage near Big Tub or Little Tub harbor, or set up shop at an old timey inn. Regardless, your first stop in town should be at The Crowsnest, where sailor-like men at the bar will regale you with tales of gales over pints of Molson and pub-grub like huge burgers and the requisite fish * chips.  

Those looking for some of the new flavors in town can sample the craft brews at Tobermory Brewing Company, where you should absolutely order a Bruce Trail Blonde Ale. Otherwise, after spending your days outdoors, dawdle through the antique shops and vintage store, and snag yourself a classic Roots sweater for the chilly nights.

MOREFind even more of Ontario’s scenic wonders

Tom Burson is a writer who fondly remembers his adventures in Canada (except for the 5am hockey practices in Sarnia) and for this story would like to thank some of the Georgian Bay’s finest, including Suzie and Petey, a few teachers, the local astronomer, and that explosives nut from a certain Tobermory pub.