Length of stay: 2 days
Visited: January 2021
MacGregor Point Provincial Park is located along the sandy shores of Lake Huron and is open year round. It offers a variety of activities depending on the season. In the winter the park is transformed into a winter wonderland and features cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, skating and snowmobiling. A section of the campground is even open and offers camping in 12 yurts and just under 100 electrical sites for visitors who wish to spend the night in the park.
We were among those visitors who planned to spend a night in the park. In the winter. We were a bit hesitant as we’ve never been winter camping before, except for that one time when we went camping in the Grand Canyon back in December 2015 during an (unexpected) snowstorm. We actually have a winter tent which we bought about six years ago for when we visited Iceland for three weeks. We figured we’d be okay and just pack a bunch of extra blankets, including a heated blanket and a very long extension cord. Worst care scenario we could just drive home in the middle of the night.
Day 1: It’s a Little Different Than Camping in the Summer
Ontario has been under a strict province-wide lockdown for the past few weeks. The government also recently announced a stay-at-home order, which requires people to only leave their homes for necessities. The rules of which were a bit confusing. Provincial parks remained open for day-use and winter camping. So we figured visiting MacGregor Point was still kind-of within the rules. Okay, it was more like a grey zone, but we figured it would be okay since it’s not as if we’d be interacting with anyone.
We arrived at the park just before 12:30p.m, checked in at the visitors centre to collect our permit, buy two bags of firewood and buy a park patch (we got to collect them all). We then drove to our site (#65), but it was still occupied, so we instead went to go for a hike.
MacGregor Point offers three snowshoe trails in the winter. While we packed our snowshoes, there unfortunately wasn’t much snow on the ground for us to use them. Regular hiking boots it is. We first hiked along the Lake Ridge Trail (4km, rated moderate). The trail is named after the shoreline ridge of glacial Lake Nipissing, which existed here some 5,500 years ago.
The trail loops through the forest, wetlands and abandoned fields and contains a number of storyboards that explain the history of the area, early settlement and fun facts about the forest. The trail is marked with a combination of light brown diamond shaped markers with someone who is snowshoeing and orange blazes on the trees.
As a result of the glacial effects of Lake Nipissing, former beach ridges, clay soils and the high water table made it challenging for people to settle in this area. As the glacier advanced across this area, it carried with it stones and pebbles in a mixture of clay and sand. These materials were laid down as till. Over time, the waves of Lake Nipissing washed away the smaller particles leaving behind a boulder pavement of various sized rocks resting on the remains of the till plan. Much of the path through the forest follows along this boulder pavement.
Early settlers had a hard time farming this area and only cleared enough land to feed their family and to pasture their sheep and oxen. As the farms were deserted, the fields were left to grow back in, which is why certain areas in the forest are not as mature as others. While all the buildings from early settlers have since been removed, there are other clues to the past like lilacs, apple trees and stone fence rows that remain as evidence that early settlers were here.
The path then winds through cedar lowlands. Back in the day, cedar logs were used to raise the road through the swampy area. Too bad they weren’t around now as much of the path was swampy.
The path then loops back to the parking lot. From here, we walked to the trailhead of Tower Trail (3.5km, rated easy) since this part of the road is closed during the winter. It’s a relatively short walk, maybe about 500m along the road. The trail weaves through the forest and around a wetland and features an observation tower, which provides a panoramic view of the area. There are storyboards along the trail which provide more information on the area and importance of the wetland environment.
The path first leads along a wooden boardwalk before branching off into two different directions to form a larger loop.
We turned left hoping we were still on the path. It was a bit hard to tell sometimes as this trail wasn’t marked like the previous one. But then we came across a storyboard, which was a good sign that we were still on the right path. This area of the forest is quite swampy and flooded more frequently so fewer plant species are able to survive. This made farming very challenging for the early settlers. Eventually homesteads here were all abandoned.
The path then branches off at a junction and leads to a Bird Blind, a shelter which is often used to observe wildlife, especially birds.
We turned around and walked back to the main path and continued our hike along the loop. From here the trail follows the shoreline of a wetland and leads to an observation tower and platform.
After we wrapped up our hike, we drove to our campsite to settle in for the evening. Despite the fact that it was winter, the campsites were surprisingly more secluded than expected. We set up our tent near the electrical outlet so we could plug our heated blanket in overnight. Setting up our sleeping area involved a few more steps compared to when we go summer camping. We put down yoga mats underneath our sleeping pads then piled a couple of blankets on overtop. Our sleeping bags went on next followed by a heated blanket to top if off.
We then got a fire going and heated up some soup for a late lunch. We took our camping chairs out and sat around the fire for a few hours. I’m so glad we opted for that second bag of firewood.
There are a few drawbacks to camping in the winter, including the cold (although we were quite lucky as it hovered around 0°C for the weekend) and that the sun sets so early. Even though we had a fire going, after a few hours our toes started to feel cold. We ended up retiring to our tent at 6:45p.m. We stayed up for a couple of hours and chatted, but went to bed much earlier than usual.
Day 2: Which way to the beach?
It lightly rained and snowed throughout the night. This was probably for the best as a group of people arrived at the campground later in the evening and were quite noisy. So the sound of the rain and snow on our tent helped drone out the noise. We woke up around 8a.m. It’s always tough getting out of a warm tent first thing in the morning. Especially since it was still snowing outside. We packed up our tent and then made breakfast, which we ate in the car.
On the drive out of the park we stopped to hike along the Huron Fringe Trail (1.2km, rated easy). The trailhead is located by the Visitor Centre. The path follows along a boardwalk around the forest and wetlands, leads down to the shores of Lake Huron, circles the Visitor Centre and loops back to the parking lot.
As with the other trails in the park, there are storyboards along the path that provide more information about the flora and fauna in the area. The path then leads down to the beach and connects with the Old Shore Road Trail, which follows along the shoreline of Lake Huron. The trail offers excellent views of the beach. We followed the boardwalk around the Visitor Centre and back to the parking lot.
And just when we were able to hop in the car, a fox passed by. What a great way to wrap up our trip to MacGregor Point.
While there are some obvious drawbacks to winter camping (like the cold), we managed to have great weather and stayed warm throughout the night. The heated blanket sure helped. I’m glad we tried this, even more so because the following week the government closed winter camping as part of its stay-at-home order.
My progress on the Ontario Parks Challenge can be found here