Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park, one of the largest in Ontario, offers almost 400 square kilometers of wilderness and majestic beauty of Canadian Shield. Located in south-central Ontario, it is only 200 km away from Toronto, a perfect destination for a weekend canoe trip. In 2011, it became an operational park with over 100 backcountry campsites that can mainly be reached by a canoe (there is no car camping available in the park). Each site has a picnic table, a fire ring with a grate, and a privy toilet, a.k.a. thunder box.
Ontario Parks finally made online reservations available for most backcountry sites (except for Killarney and Algonquin). This certainly simplifies the reservation process. You can see all available sites on a map and book the ones you like. Just make sure you make a reservation before you head for Kawartha Highlands. There is no park office to get a camping permit but you will be able to print one from your Ontario Parks account. Once you arrive at the parking lot, you can get a car permit form from the Ontario Parks kiosk and you will need your reservation number to fill it out.
For our trip, we decided to use the Long Lake Access Point and reserved site 524 on Cox Lake. With only two quick portages, it was a pretty easy route. Since we had canoeing newbies with us, we wanted to make their initiation process a pleasant one.
We left Toronto around 9 a.m. on Saturday morning and arrived at Long Lake by noon. We rented canoes from Long Lake Lodge (pros: it’s right by the access point so you don’t need to transport your canoe anywhere; cons: pretty grumpy staff). With all the paperwork done, gear and kids squeezed into a canoe, our paddles touched water around 1:30. Our trip through Long and Loucks Lakes was uneventful, albeit a bit annoying with motorboats constantly whizzing by.
There is a stream connecting Loucks and Cox Lakes with portages at both ends. The portages are short (about 150 metres each) and easy, and the stream itself, blanketed in water lilies, is incredibly picturesque. It did get a bit too shallow in some places and there was a pretty big beaver damn, so we had to get out and drag the canoe over it.
By 6:30 we arrived at our campsite. There were four more campsites and three cabins scatted around Cox Lake. Our site was atop a rocky outcrop and offered a great view of the lake. There was a bit of a drop, though, with some rocks at the bottom, so not for small children or sleepwalkers. The put-in was pretty easy and doubled as a great place for swimming. The site itself was pretty big and could easily accommodate three tents. Our tent fit perfectly on a pad right by the lake so we had a bedroom with a view too. The only downside was a thunder box in plain view so you better make sure you are comfortable around your companions because they will become privy (pun intended) to all your bodily functions.
By the time we set up camp, cooked dinner, took a dip in the lake, did a bear hang, collected wood and made fire, it was already getting dark. That was when we got attacked by a hoard of hungry mosquitoes. But they were no match for us. Eventually they retreated and left us to enjoy the campfire and calls of the loon.
We spent the next day exploring the lake and making friends with local fauna: lots of water snakes and loons and we had multiple visits from a curious hummingbird attracted by the red and yellow of a Bulk Barn bag. We took multiple swims in the lake and cooked the most delicious baked potatoes, minestrone soup and lentil stew. We watched stars at night and listened to loons again.
On the third day, it was time to pack up and leave but not before my ten-year-old and I went for a paddle. As our canoe cut through the thick fog, it felt as if it was just me and him in the whole world. That was a great way to end our trip.