Muskoka’s History Hot Spots
Ontario’s favourite vacation destination is also a wonderful place to learn about Canadian history.
Named after the Chippewa First Nations Chief Mesqua Ukee, settlement in the Muskoka region began in the late 1800s. Originally opened up for farming, the terrain proved too challenging for many, and logging became the dominant industry. Muskoka is now one of Canada’s most popular getaway destinations, with incredible hiking, world-class paddling, cycling and legendary on-the-dock lazing. But it is the region’s history – including the development of the 150-year-old resort industry – that gives this beautiful part of Ontario its distinct cultural flavour.
Muskoka’s rich history is storied and the monuments to its past are plentiful. There are many additional historical sights and attractions to see in these parts in addition to those listed on the itinerary below, including the Dyer Memorial in Huntsville (a breathtaking monument to Love), the Group of Seven artists’ influence, and Muskoka Heritage Place in Huntsville (which includes a living history Pioneer Village and train rides on The Portage Flyer).
Military history fans will want to visit the Little Norway Memorial at the Muskoka Airport as well, a tribute to Royal Norwegian Air Force pilots who trained here during WWII. (Gravenhurst was also the site of a WWII POW camp for German officers.)
Take Muskoka’s Magical Mystery Tour: Check out this suggested itinerary (with the stops connected on the map at the bottom of this page).
Day 1 – Gravenhurst (“A” to “B” on Map)
Just a two hour drive north of Toronto, Gravenhurst sits at the entry point to this iconic wilderness region. Enjoy a performance at the Gravenhurst Opera House, (opened in 1901) and peruse the eclectic wares of Arts at the Albion, Muskoka’s newest artist collective in a restored historic inn. No visit to Gravenhurst is complete without a trip aboard one of the beautiful Muskoka Steamships, including the RMS Segwun, which celebrated its 130th birthday in 2017.
You can also go to the Muskoka Discovery Centre to explore the “Wonders of the Watershed’ exhibit, and check out the Grace & Speed Boathouse, the largest in-water museum of antique and classic wood boats in North America.
(That’s a lot of history in just one town: be sure to stop at Sawdust City Brewing Co. for a cold one, named from Gravenhurt’s nick name during the booming logging days).
Day 2 – Bala and Port Carling (“B” to “C” & “D” on map)
Head north-west today along Highway 169 to the Bala Museum, a tribute to the days when famous Canadian author L. M. Montgomery (of Anne of Green Gables fame) came to stay and write in Muskoka. Next stop is Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh, a family-run farm that has been harvesting ruby red berries in the “Cranberry Capital of Ontario” since 1950. Enjoy the “From Bog to Bottle Tour & Tasting” at their award-winning winery, as well as their trails for hiking.
If you visit in the summer or early fall, be sure to take in a concert at The Kee to Bala, a historic dance and concert hall that has welcome sundry artists, from Duke Ellington to Snoop Dog.
Next head north-east along Highway 118 to Port Carling, the hub village for Lake Rosseau and Lake Muskoka. Tour the Muskoka Lakes Museum, take a cruise aboard the 1940s era Peerless II (which embarks from the town’s famous locks), and enjoy a break at one of the many restaurants in the place that was recently named one of the Best Lake Towns in North America.
Day 3 – Bracebridge and Lake of Bays (“D” to “E” and “F” on map)
Continue travelling along Highway 118 into Bracebridge, a charming town that was built around a stunning waterfall (which still provides hydro electric power). Explore the waterfall and surrounding trails (including a view of the Woodchester Villa octagonal house), walk up the main street to the Clock Tower Centre to encounter local artisans, and then stop for a bite at the historic Inn At The Falls (which by many accounts is definitely haunted…)
In the afternoon, make your way to Highway 117 east (just north of Bracebridge) via Baysville (with a stop at the eclectic retailers in the village) to the old Clayton property in Dorset, where you’ll find the Lake of Bays Museum and Navigation Society.
The property is the permanent docking facility for the SS Bigwin, a former ferry boat once used for vacationers travelling to the famous Bigwin Island Resort. Originally built in 1910 and lovingly, painstakingly restored for relaunch in 2012, the SS Bigwin’s famous passengers include Louis Armstrong, Winston Churchill, Greta Garbo and Clarke Gable.
Day 4 – Algonquin Park (“F” to “G” on Map)
Enjoy some very special time in Canada’s oldest provincial park – Algonquin (celebrating its 125th anniversary in 2018). Head first to the Visitor Information Centre, where you’ll discover the fascinating history of the park, and then to the Logging Museum a little further along from the west gate to learn more about the origins of this industry in Ontario’s cottage country.
Learn more also about the fascinating history of Canada’s Group of Seven artists and the special place held in their hearts for Algonquin Park by taking a self-guided mobile tour of the Group of Seven Outdoor Gallery in the area. (Just outside the park, Algonquin Outfitters at Oxtongue Lake can hook you up with paddling equipment for a paddle around the lake from their store dock.)
To plan your stay in the great Canadian wilderness north of Toronto and to tour Muskoka’s history hot spots, click here.
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