Camping and winter may not go in the same sentence for most people. While Ontario may be covered in snow, a number of provincial parks are open not just for day use but overnight fun! Who wouldn’t love having one of the most popular provincial parks almost entirely to themselves? When I was invited to experience Killarney Provincial Park in January, I couldn’t say yes fast enough! Yes, you’ll have to brave some chilly temperatures but I promise it’s worth it. I’ve got all the details why Killarney winter camping is a snow-mazing good time!
About Killarney Provincial Park
The town of Killarney, just a short 12 minute drive away, was originally founded in 1820 as a fur trading post. Its location along the shores of Georgian Bay made it the perfect destination to establish a settlement. 144 years later, drive 10 kilometres east along Highway 637 and you’ll find Killarney Provincial Park.
You’ll be welcomed by 645 square kilometres of pristine Northern Ontario wilderness. Feast your eyes on the turquoise of Georgian Bay as it melds with pink granite, the iconic white quartzite ridges of the La Cloche Mountains and 50+ lakes nestled throughout hills of Jack Pine. It’s a no brainer why artists like the Group of Seven’s A.J. Casson, A.Y. Jackson and Franklin Carmichael flocked to the area to take in the natural beauty. Their passion for the land persuaded the Ontario government to create Killarney Provincial Park in 1964. With all of that incredible natural beauty, it’s no wonder Killarney’s hiking trails draw thousands of visitors every year!
Where is It & How Do I Get to Killarney?
Killarney Provincial Park is approximately 4 hours north of Toronto, just off the Trans-Canada Highway. You’ll head north along Highway 400 for about 3 hours (+300km) until the turn off at Highway 637. Then, hang a left and follow it west towards Georgian Bay for just under an hour (58km) to the George Lake Campground.
Here are some travel time estimations from various destinations to Killarney Provincial Park:
- Ottawa & Surrounding Area – 6 hours
- Niagara Falls & St Catharines – 5 hours
- Kitchener & Waterloo Region – 4.5 hours
- Sault Ste Marie & Surrounding Area – 4.5 hours
- Gravenhurst, Huntsville & the Muskoka Area – 3 hours
- Little Current & Manitoulin Island – 2.5-3 hours
- Sudbury – Just over 1 hour
It is important to give yourself extra travel time when the snow falls. You could get caught in some nasty weather or find out there’s an accident on your way which can slow you down. I highly recommend arriving during the daylight for your own safety. As Killarney is a dark sky preserve, it means visibility is low at night.
Killarney in the Winter Months
Killarney Provincial Park is just one of eight parks in Ontario that’s classified as a “wilderness park”. What does this mean exactly? These parks are meant to preserve the natural landscape as much as possible, meaning the majority of travel within it must be done by foot or canoe. Within the boundaries you’ll find solace in solitude while being surrounded by Mother Nature’s beauty. Additionally, Killarney became the first Ontario provincial park to become a dark sky preserve in February 2018!
While there are over 300 Ontario Parks across the province, Killarney is just one of 31 that are open for the winter season. Why visit Killarney in the winter? Keep reading to find out!
Winter Camping in Killarney Provincial Park
Killarney truly is a winter camper’s wonderland with a number of accommodation options available. I’ll tell you right off the bat – I’m not an experienced camper, let alone a winter camper. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve stayed in a tent and none of those have been in the winter. While tent camping is available at many of their front-country campsites, never fear if this isn’t your forte.
Yurt Camping in Killarney
At the George Lake Campground, you’ll find six yurts on the western side of the campground. They are available for use all year round and can sleep up to six people. Each one has electric heat so you’ll be nice and warm even on the coldest of nights! Inside the yurt, you’ll find two sets of bunk beds, dining table and a countertop with drawers. I stayed in Y1 or Yurt 1, which has been upgraded (along with Yurt 2) to a newer model which includes a skylight. There are plans to upgrade two more yurts by the summer season of 2020!
Your yurt has you covered shelter-wise, however you’ll still need to bring a few things with you. In order to fully enjoy your stay, I suggest packing the following:
- Bedding – The yurts only have the bare mattress so bring whatever you’d like to sleep with. You can bring bedsheets if you wish but I just used two sleeping bags and a blanket. I like to keep it simple when packing my camping accessories. Don’t forget a pack a pillow, too!
- Cookware – Cooking inside the yurt is forbidden. Outside you have a fire pit and a barbeque at your disposal for all your cooking needs.
- Dishes – It’s going to be hard to eat if you don’t have plates and utensils!
- Food – You won’t have to worry about the above if you have no grub to make!
- Entertainment – Once the sun goes down, chances are you’ll be hanging out in the yurt. I recommend bringing a book to read or some board games if you’re enjoying this adventure with friends!
If you have a furry family member, unfortunately they are not allowed within the yurt. As the temperatures can get quite cold (it was -21C with the windchill during my stay), I recommend leaving the pupper at home.
SOMETHING TO NOTE: I was a little surprised to find this but the yurts in Killarney don’t have a lock on the door. If you plan on bringing any valuables with you, I highly recommend locking them in your car before going out adventuring.
Renting a Cabin
If a yurt is a little too primitive still for your liking, one of Killarney’s cabins should do the trick! Inside you’ll find a queen bed and a double/single bunk bed. There’s also a kitchenette featuring a coffee maker, microwave, mini-fridge and kettle. If you’re a bit of an overpacker (don’t worry, I am too!), there is plenty of counter space and cupboards to store your goodies. A small wooden table seats four inside while a larger picnic table is located outside. Both cabins are heated by a propane fireplace to keep you nice and toasty while keeping the rustic vibe alive.
Similarly to the yurt, you’ll have to bring a few things with you. Bedding, cookware (pots and pans) and dishware are necessary for your stay. The cabins each have a barbeque outside just like the yurts do if you’d prefer to cook that way. Unlike the yurts however, you can cook inside your cabin without worry.
Things to Know About Winter Camping in Killarney
Other than occasionally dealing with some pretty frigid temperatures, winter camping is a breeze. However, there are a few things to know before you go booking your Killarney winter adventure.
- You Have to Sled In – During the winter months, only the main parking lot by the Park Store is plowed at the George Lake Campground. You’ll find sleds at the edge of the parking lot to pack your gear in so you can drag it to your campsite. Once you’re done, just return it where you found it!
- No Running Water – With the cold temperatures, all of the flush toilets and faucets have been turned off for the season. However, the bathroom attached to the Park Store is heated and has running water so you can fill water bottles at any time of the day.
- Outhouse Only – No water means the dreaded outhouse. Unfortunately they are a little bit of a walk (about 3-4 minutes from the yurts) so my suggestion is to make sure not to leave it to the last minute! Also, any time you pass the Park Store at the main entrance… just go.
- No Garbages Inside the Yurt – As Killarney is bear country in the warmer months, you won’t find a garbage can inside the yurt. I recommend bringing some bags to put your garbage in which you can take up to the Park Store bathrooms whenever you leave to toss it.
- Don’t Leave Open Food in Your Yurt – Even though the yurts are sealed, many animals have sensitive sniffers and food is just all too enticing. Leaving food in your yurt is at your own risk and you’re responsible for any damage animals may cause trying to get to it. I had a sealed cooler I kept my goodies in and had no problems.
- Be Aware of Check-In Time – As the Park Store has more limited hours in the winter months, check-in is 2:00-3:30pm instead of until 4:30pm. If you’re going to arrive after hours, be sure to let the lovely people of Killarney Provincial Park know and they’ll have everything waiting for you. Check-out is the usual at 11:00am.
I know a few of these might be a dealbreaker to some but I PROMISE it’s worth it! Despite having the coldest poops of my life, it was incredible to wake up surrounded completely by nature. Spending a few nights in a provincial park like Killarney can help adjust your sleep cycle as well, meaning you’ll not only return home well-rested but with a better sleep schedule. I definitely need to do this more often!
How to Book Your Winter Camping Accommodation
Booking your spot in Killarney is an absolute breeze! You can either call Ontario Parks to reserve your site from 7am-9pm Eastern Time (except Christmas and New Years) or book online at any time throughout the year. Reservations are accepted up to 5 months in advance of your planned arrival date. Reservations are subject to a fee of $13 over the phone and you’ll save $2 by booking online with the fee being $11.
If you need to change your reservation for any reason, this must be done within 4 months of the arrival date and can be subject to a fee. For full rules and regulations, please visit the Ontario Parks website. This is the case for every provincial park which has overnight accommodation, including roofed and tent camping. As of 2021, it costs $99 per night to stay in a yurt and $130 to stay in a cabin at Killarney Provincial Park. Click here for a full list of pricing at Ontario Parks.
Things To Do in Killarney in the Winter
While camping is fun, it isn’t the only thing this park has to offer! Check out these great things to do in Killarney Provincial Park during the winter season.
Tackle The Crack, Killarney’s Famous Hiking Trail
If you haven’t heard of Killarney Provincial Park before, chances are you’ve heard of “The Crack”. This famous trail offers incredible views of the La Cloche Mountains – but you’ll be working for it! While the first half of the trail is easy, it give you a false sense of security. Once you pass through Kidney Lake, you’ll see what I mean as you’re greeted by huge boulders and hills of the Canadian Shield.
It’s a tough trek to the top but the views from the top of Killarney Ridge are 100% worth it! In the summer this 6km trail will take you approximately 4 hours, however the winter conditions will slow you down. Be sure to a lot approximately 5 hours to ensure you have enough time to complete the trail before nightfall. Strap on your best boots and get ready for gorgeous landscapes that are a treat for the senses.
INSIDER TIP: If you’re tackling this in the winter like I did, you’ll need to be prepared. Chances are you’ll be the only one on the trail so it’s important to let someone know where you are in case your trek goes sideways. Check out my full guide to hiking The Crack in the winter and you’ll be ready for this epic adventure!
Snowshoe Along Killarney’s Other Trails
There are a number of trails in Killarney, most of which are best enjoyed via snowshoes. One of most accessible is the Granite Ridge Trail right across the road from the Park Store. Even though it is just 2km long, it has a great range of landscapes for you to discover. First, you’ll pass through an early settler’s farm to then find yourself surrounded by a beautiful, lush forest. Climb uphill and you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of Georgian Bay to the south and the La Cloche Mountain Range in the north. It may be a shorter trail but it’s no cakewalk. Be sure to allow approximately 1.5 hours to complete it!
Another trail which starts from the northeastern edge of the campground is the Cranberry Bog Trail. At 4km in length, this trail shows you the importance of water to Killarney’s ecosystems. You’ll pass by Proulx Marsh, A.Y. Jackson Lake and its namesake, Cranberry Bog. It’s recommended to allow approximately 2.5 hours to complete the trail. Lastly, if you’re really feeling adventurous you can tackle part of the La Cloche Silhouette Trail and take it from the George Lake Campground to The Crack. This will add an extra 7km onto the already gruelling 6km trail so make sure you’ve got all the gear (and eats) you need!
Don’t have a pair of snowshoes? No problem! You can rent them at the Park Store from the Friends of Killarney for $10 a day or $25 for an entire weekend (Friday-Sunday). Though if you’re a fan of snowshoeing, I highly recommend purchasing your own pair!
Admire the Wildlife
There is no shortage of adorable critters in Killarney! While you don’t have to worry about the bear factor from the end of November until the beginning of March, there are still a number of animals to keep an eye out for. I saw a number of beautiful birds as well as some red squirrels during my time in the park. It’s no guarantee but if you’re quiet and calm, you just might get lucky!
Strap on Some Skis
Sorry adrenaline junkies, you won’t find hills and lifts here. However if you’re a Nordic skier, you’ll want to bring your gear! Killarney Provincial Park offers 33km across three cross-country skiing trails. The first is the Chikanishing Trail which is 7km long and begins at the Park Store. This beginner-level trail follows Chikanishing Creek along campground roads and the access road. Next is the Freeland Trail at 11.5km long which also begins at the Park Store but goes east instead of southwest. This trail is mainly flat but does have some rolling hills. Both the Chikanishing and Freeland Trails are out-and-back trails. Lastly is the Collins Inlet Trail at 14km long and begins from the Granite Ridge Trail parking lot. Collins Inlet is meant for more skilled skiers as the track isn’t always set and involves some steeper hills. The trail starts and finishes in the same spot however it does offer a large loop.
If you’d like to rent some, it’s advised to call the Friends of Killarney ahead of time as there is a very limited amount of them. They can be reached at 705-287-2800.
Enjoy the Stars & Try Your Hand at Night Photography
As Killarney is just one of two provincial parks that are dark sky preserves (the other being my beloved Lake Superior Provincial Park), it would be a sin to not get out and enjoy the stars! Grab your tripod and see what you can capture of our beautiful night sky.
If you’d rather just enjoy the view, I recommend sneaking a peek at the Killarney Observatory. Two years ago it was upgraded to feature a research-grade 16″ telescope along with a 5″ refractor for stellar astrophotography. You’ll be blown away by how much you’ll be able to see. And if you’re lucky, you just might catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis if the solar storm is powerful enough!
SOMETHING TO NOTE: In the winter months, much of the equipment from the Killarney Observatory is sent out for repairs. If you have your heart set on utilizing it, I recommend calling in advance to avoid disappointment!
Visit During Killarney’s Winter Weekend
Every Family Day weekend in February, the Friends of Killarney and Killarney Provincial Park host a weekend of special programming. With presentations at the mountain lodge, guided hikes and more, the goal is to get visitors out to appreciate everything the park has to offer in the winter. Bundle up and get your layers on as this event is fun for the whole family! Visit the Friends of Killarney site for full details.
Head into Town
If you’re missing civilization (or don’t feel like cooking), the town of Killarney is just down the road. Inside this tiny town of 500, you’ll find a few restaurants, general store and the beauty of Georgian Bay. Many of the restaurants have shortened hours of operation so be aware of this when planning your adventures. Take a little wander throughout the town and don’t miss the Killarney East Lighthouse! It’s a gorgeous spot to catch the sunset after a busy day of exploring.
Things to Know When Visiting Killarney PP
As this is a protected area, there are a few rules you should know when visiting Killarney Provincial Park. Adhering to these guidelines will ensure a fantastic visit for you and for generations to come!
- Cans and glass bottles are NOT permitted anywhere in the backcountry, including all lakes and trails
- It is illegal to destroy or deface any archaeological, historic or natural features
- Damaging or removing live growth is strictly prohibited within the park
- Pets are allowed within the park, however they must be kept on a leash at all times
- You can fish in Killarney but only in certain areas as many of the park’s lakes are designated fish sanctuaries
- Bicycles can only be used on George Lake Campground roads, Chikanishing Road and the Trout Creek Bike trail but are not allowed in the backcountry (including all hiking trails within the park)
- As a general rule, mechanical vehicles such as snowmobiles, ATVs and motorboats are prohibited in Killarney Provincial Park
Ready to Experience Winter in Killarney?
144 years after the fur trading post, Killarney Provincial Park now sees over 150,000 visitors every year. People flock to the pristine wilderness and it’ll leave you coming back for more! This is definitely a park to be enjoyed in every season and if you’ve never visited in winter – you gotta change that.
Do you have any questions about winter camping in Killarney? Are you thinking of planning a winter adventure here? Let me know in a comment below!
Looking for More Winter Fun? Here’s Some Inspiration!
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Thank you to Ontario Parks for hosting me during my first visit to Killarney. I had an amazing time exploring the natural beauty this park has to offer! While my entire stay was complimentary, all the opinions you read here are always true and honest.