At the top of what I like to call Ontario’s tail, you’ll find the adorable little town of Tobermory. This harbour village is located on the Bruce Peninsula, one of the most beautiful areas in Southern Ontario. A popular Ontario road trip destination for a summer escape, Tobermory has plenty of great adventures to enjoy. If you love the outdoors or are looking to see some of Ontario’s natural wonders, you have to check out these things to do in Tobermory.
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A Little Bit About Tobermory
Tobermory lies in the territory of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation who have inhabited the area for thousands of years, long before colonization. Ojibway and Odawa Peoples frequented this area until forcibly removed from the land in preparation of incoming European settlers.
In the mid-1800s, the area was surveyed to see if it would be fit for agricultural purposes. While the land was unsuitable for farming, plots of land were sold off anyway. This resulted in some families struggling greatly while others abandoned the land entirely. It wasn’t until 1881 when a sawmill was built that the economy started to gain a bit of traction, though this died off in just 20 years due to overharvesting of the forests surrounding Tobermory. As a result, settlers dispersed and the economy died off.
It wasn’t until almost a century later that Tobermory began to regain popularity as cottagers moved into the area. The population began to grow in the 1970s and now the town has become one of the most sought after tourism destinations in Southern Ontario.
Where is Tobermory? How Do I Get There?
You’ll find Tobermory at the northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula. There are two main ways to visit. The majority of visitors are coming from the south, meaning you’ll want to make your way to Highway 6 and head north. This is the main highway along the Bruce Peninsula and will take you straight to town.
If you’re coming from the north, you can take the Trans Canada Highway around Georgian Bay to Highway 400. From here, you’ll want to take Highway 26 which will take you across the South Georgian Bay area and meet up with Highway 6. Hang a right onto it and you’ll be in Tobermory 80 minutes later! The more popular route though is to take the ferry from Manitoulin Island via the Chi Cheemaun. This trip from South Baymouth to Tobermory takes approximately 2 hours. There are multiple departures daily depending on the time of year. Visit the Chi Cheemaun’s website for more details.
Best Things to Do in Tobermory
There are a number of reasons why you would want to visit Tobermory. From gorgeous turquoise waters to beautiful rock formations of the Niagara Escarpment to a dose of cottage country, here are just a few of the great activities to enjoy!
Visit Bruce Peninsula National Park
This is probably one of the biggest reasons why people head north to Tobermory. Located on the eastern side of the peninsula, Bruce Peninsula National Park was established in 1987 to protect a large part of the Great Lakes/St Lawrence Lowlands region. Encompassing 156 km², it was originally known as Cyprus Lake Provincial Park before becoming a National Park under the umbrella of Parks Canada.
Bruce Peninsula National Park features over 10 kilometres of hiking trails, front and backcountry camping as well as plenty of other outdoor activities such as wildlife watching, mountain climbing and more. In the summer months, enjoy the park from a different angle by either enjoying a dip in the water with a swim or bring along your canoe or kayak and paddle the crystal clear waters of Georgian Bay.
Experience the Infamous Tobermory Grotto
Okay, so this is the number one reason why folks travel to Bruce Peninsula National Park. The Grotto (often referred to as the ‘Tobermory Grotto’) is a unique rock formation that has created a cave along the shores of Georgian Bay. Thousands of years in the making, it’s an absolutely stunning natural wonder and it’s really not surprising why it’s one of the top things to see in Tobermory.
The hike to get to the Grotto isn’t overly hard, though many try to make their way down the steep cliffside in order to explore the cave. This is ill-advised for a number of reasons including a high risk of injury, the danger posed to first responders who would need to rescue you and the most recent issue, the lack of space for physical distancing. While it may be possible to access the cave if you’re skilled enough, Parks Canada has officially declared it closed for everyone’s safety. You can still enjoy the view from the top of the cliff close by!
RELATED: For full details on the hike to the Tobermory Grotto and what to expect when visiting, check out my guide to Bruce Peninsula National Park!
Hike the Bruce Trail
You may not know this but Ontario’s famous Bruce Trail actually ends in Tobermory! If you’re not familiar with the Bruce Trail, this 900+ km trail follows the Niagara Escarpment all the way down to Queenston by Niagara Falls. Hiking along it and the numerous side trails that branch off from the Bruce has become a favourite pass time for many. Don’t miss checking out the Southern Terminus Cairn on the eastern side of the harbour!
The Bruce Trail is actually Canada’s oldest marked footpath as it crosses through farmlands, provincial reserves and close to towns. While a number of sections along the trail are easy, the terrain can be quite intense in some areas. It’s always a good idea to go prepared and to let someone know where you are, especially if you’re never hiked the section before. For more tips on hiking the Bruce Trail, check out my guide which includes insider tips and tricks from my experiences along the trail!
Explore Fathom Five National Marine Park
Established the same year as Bruce Peninsula National Park, Fathom Five National Marine Park became the first National Marine Park in Canada. It is now one of two marine conservation areas in Ontario and one of just four in all of Canada!
RELATED: Interested in visiting some more national parks in Ontario? You’re in luck because there’s one not too far away! Check out my guide to Georgian Bay Islands National Park.
While the majority of the park encompasses the waters of Georgian Bay, a small section is located on shore. Head to the visitors centre which is currently shared with Bruce Peninsula National Park. Here you’ll find informational exhibits about the park, an accessible theatre, interpretive programs and three hiking trails. One of these trails connects directly to the town of Tobermory while the other two take you through the beautiful peninsula towards the Georgian Bay shoreline. Don’t forget to check out the lookout tower for an expansive view of the area! Of course, the main attraction in Fathom Five National Marine Park is a trip to Flowerpot Island.
SOMETHING TO NOTE: Due to restrictions, some of these amenities are closed for public safety. While washrooms are opened with advanced cleaning measures, the indoor attractions as well as the lookout tower are closed for the time being.
Visit Flowerpot Island
Head across the waters of Georgian Bay to Flowerpot Island, named after the iconic natural “flowerpot” rock pillars found on the island. Hit the trails which lead all the way around the island, taking you past caves and unique rock formations all the way to the Flowerpot Island Lighthouse. Pack some snacks, lots of water and enjoy some time exploring the island!
If you’re wondering how much time to spend exploring Flowerpot Island, that’s entirely up to you! In about 1.5-2 hours you’ll be able to see the flowerpots and the cave. If you want to make it out to the lighthouse, plan to spend approximately 3 hours. Though if you’ve made it all the way out there, why not spend a good chunk of your day and make sure to see it all! You’ll need at least 4 hours in order to do the loop trail in its entirety so pack a picnic, take your time and enjoy the beautiful sights you’ll find on Flowerpot Island.
As Flowerpot Island is a remote location, you’ll want to make sure you come prepared. There is no store, no restaurant, no running water, nada. You’ll find composting toilets at Beachy Cove, close to the main dock as well as at the historic lighthouse. Be sure to wear sturdy footwear like a solid pair of hiking shoes, carry sunscreen and bug spray, and bring a solid amount of water. If you don’t want to carry a bunch, pack a Lifestraw water bottle so you never have to worry about running out! Of course, don’t forget the snacks as a hangry hiker is an unhappy hiker.
IMPORTANT: As this is an island, garbage facilities are very scarce and while everyone should practice Leave No Trace, it is especially important to do so on Flowerpot Island. Be sure to take all garbage you bring to the island back with you to Tobermory to be disposed of properly.
Boat tours to the island will resume on July 1st for the 2021 season. As of right now, the cave staircase, lighthouse museum and trail are closed as physical distancing isn’t possible.
Camp Overnight on Flowerpot Island
Think a day of fun on Flowerpot Island isn’t enough? Well, you’re in luck – you can actually camp on Flowerpot Island overnight! If you’re looking to truly experiences this Ontario gem, the best way is by camping at one of the six sites on Beachy Cove. As I just mentioned though, it’s imperative to pack everything you’ll need (tent, sleeping gear, clothes, etc), including non-cook food or a propane camp stove for meals as no fires are permitted on Flowerpot Island.
Never tried backcountry camping before? This is a great spot to test the waters! While yes, you are “stranded” on an island away from town, that’s about the only difficult part. The trail is quite rugged but short so you don’t have to travel too far from the dock where you’re dropped off to your campsite. Plus there are no black bears on the island (unlike the Bruce Peninsula) and that’s a big perk in my books.
Stay Up Late For Some Serious Stargazing
While Tobermory isn’t an official dark sky preserve, it is certainly a dose of cottage country. With a smaller population comes less light pollution – meaning some amazing stargazing opportunities!
It might be hard to stay up late after a full day of adventuring in Tobermory, but you won’t want to miss these starry skies. Trust me when I say the sleep deprivation is worth it! This is especially the case if you decide to camp overnight on Flowerpot Island. While it’s much less common in the summer, there’s even the chance of spotting the aurora borealis if the solar storm is strong enough!
Go Scuba Diving to See Some Shipwrecks
Did you know that Tobermory is not only one of the top spots for scuba diving in Ontario but is the freshwater diving capital of the world? See this Ontario destination from a new angle with a scuba diving adventure. If you can brave the chilly waters, you’ll be treated to some fascinating views as there are over 20 historical shipwrecks in these waters!
Wondering if you need to be a certified PADI open water diver in order to go scuba diving in Tobermory? While you need to be in order to dive the shipwrecks, the local dive shop in town, Divers Den, does introductory dives so you can get a feel for the sport. They’ll have everything you need so you can just show up with your bathing suit and a towel. If you’re interested in getting your certification, you can do so with them!
Take a Cruise on a Glass Bottom Boat
If you want to see some of the shipwrecks but don’t want to tempt the frigid waters of Georgian Bay, then this is one of the Tobermory attractions you don’t want to miss! From the Tobermory Harbour, you can take a glass bottom boat tour where you’ll learn about some of the area’s history while enjoying a unique view of the waters below.
There are two companies to choose from in Tobermory. The first is Bruce Anchor Cruises which costs between $38-$44 per adult for one of their round-trip tours. They feature four different boats, though only two have glass bottoms so be sure to inquire when booking. The other is Blue Heron Cruises which costs between $46-$60 per adult. Their entire fleet features glass bottoms though you’ll want to keep your fingers crossed for their newest vessel as it offers the best views!
One of the perks of enjoying a Tobermory cruise is that you can pair it with a visit to Flowerpot Island for a full afternoon (or day!) of fun. This is easily one of the most popular things to do in the area.
Go For a Paddle
If you’d like to explore the waters near Tobermory but want to stay warm and (mostly) dry, get out for a paddle. There are a number of spots to get on the water both along the Lake Huron shoreline as well as a number of inland lakes. Cyprus Lake and Cameron Lake are joined by a straight, making this a great destination for a kayak or canoe trip along the Bruce Peninsula. Islands such as Cove Island and Russel Island also have a number of inlets and bays. These two spots are becoming more and more popular for those looking to paddle in Tobermory.
If you don’t have your own kayak, you can rent one from either Big Tub Harbour Resort or Tobermory Cruise Line. The latter also has stand-up paddleboards available for rent as well.
Remember – these are the Great Lakes! You need to be aware of the quickly changing moods of these waters and how strong their currents can be. Be aware of the weather and be sure to do your research to make sure you don’t get in over your head. If you’re unsure of where you should paddle, either talk to one of the local rental shops or reach out to the folks at Parks Canada to get more information.
Eat Some Fish and Chips
I don’t know about you, but I crave fish and chips whenever I’m near a beautiful body of water. Luckily there are a few places you can enjoy some in town!
Shipwreck Lee’s is my go-to spot as I just love the laid back atmosphere and kitschy decor. While they have a restaurant located close to the ferry terminal, I personally enjoy their smaller satellite restaurant right on Bay Street in the heart of town. Their fish and chips are crispy, flavourful and reasonably priced (in the $10-$15 mark). They offer a gluten-free option and even have all-you-can-eat fish and chips, something I’ve never seen anywhere else!
If Shipwreck Lee’s is full, there are a few other places in Tobermory where you can get your fish and chips fix. There’s the Crowsnest Pub right beside the harbour and the Fish & Chip Place, of course, on the eastern side. If you don’t mind ditching the chips, fish tacos are always a tasty option that you can get at the Tacomory Food Truck and Coconut Joe’s.
Do a Little Shopping
While chances are you’re in Tobermory to explore the outdoors, you never know when a trinket just might catch your eye. There are a number of adorable stores in town to take a peek at!
If you’re a bit of a book nerd, you’ll want to pop by the Reader’s Haven Book Store. They carry a wide range of both non-fiction and fiction books, though I recommend taking a peek at their special section highlighting local and Canadian authors. You’ll also find Bruce Trail merchandise here including guide books, hats, calendars and more.
You can’t miss their signs as you’re driving up Highway 6 so why not pay The Sweet Shop a visit. Satisfy your sweet tooth with some of their tasty treats. While they have a variety of fudge and chocolates made on-site, chances are you’ll see folks lined up to grab a scoop of ice cream. I mean, it just goes hand in hand with a beautiful summer day!
If you’re looking for truly unique and thoughtful gifts, I recommend the Mariner Chart Shop. While they carry some of your typical touristy Tobermory garb, they have some pretty cool items from local artisans. Spend some time perusing their store and you might be surprised at what you find!
Grab a Flight at the Tobermory Brewing Company
Yes, that’s right – Tobermory has its own brewery! While you can get some of their brews at the LCBO, there’s nothing better than getting it on draft from the source. The TBC team brews in the traditional European style of small batches with no additives or preservatives. Be sure to keep an eye on their rotating selection of seasonal brews!
If you’re travelling with someone who isn’t a fan of craft beer, they also offer an extensive wine list as well as some local spirits. Pop by for a pint or enjoy a snack along with it as their charcuterie boards are amazing. Everything on their menu is made fresh in-house each day and is locally sourced as much as possible. Grab a seat on their patio and enjoy some stellar views with your beer!
While many local spots tend to close during the off-season, Tobermory Brewing Company is typically open year-round. However with everything going on right now, it’s best to check out their website or Facebook page to see what their current operating hours are.
Check Out the Big Tub Lighthouse
No trip to Tobermory is complete without saying hello to Big Tub! There is no shortage of lighthouses along the Bruce Peninsula though Big Tub is probably the most iconic lighthouse along it.
Originally constructed in 1885, Big Tub has guided ships into the harbour for over 130 years and counting. The waters of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay can sometimes be dicey so there have been plenty of ship captains thankful for Big Tub’s guiding light! While there have been six official lighthouse keepers, Big Tub’s light has been automated since 1952. Though the lighthouse you see is actually the second lighthouse to be here as the original structure was replaced by the six-sided wooden version you see today!
Catch a Sunset
As you can imagine, the picturesque area makes the sunsets of Tobermory that much more amazing. While the sunsets from the harbour are pretty spectacular, there’s a lesser-known spot I’d recommend. Head south along Highway 6 to Dorcas Bay Road where you’ll find Singing Sands. A quieter part of Bruce Peninsula National Park, its beach along the shores of Lake Huron is a perfect destination to enjoy the golden hour!
Honestly though, there is no shortage of great spots to catch the sunset along the Bruce Peninsula. As you’re exploring the western side, just keep an eye out for spots that you may want to return to for those cotton candy skies!
Where to Stay in Tobermory
Despite visiting Tobermory a number of times, I have actually never stayed in town! I normally do it as a day trip by finding a hotel close by and driving in. That being said, these would be my choices if I were to stay at one of the Tobermory hotels.
Grandview Hotel (~$135/night) – This would be my top choice of hotel when staying in Tobermory. The Grandview Hotel is family-run and the rooms, while simple, are adorable. You won’t be surprised to see lots of blues along with nautical decor which I love. There is a restaurant on-site as well as a gorgeous patio overlooking Georgian Bay. See what previous guests have to say or click here to check for availability.
Bruce Anchor Motel & Cottages (~$117/night) – Located within walking distance of the Chi Cheemaun, the Bruce Anchor Motel is a no-frills spot to stay in Tobermory. Their deck overlooks Georgian Bay and offers some beautiful sunset views. They also have seven cottages available, many of which are three bedrooms and easily sleep four people. I’ve also heard they offer a discount on their cruises if you stay with them overnight. Take a look at some reviews of the hotel or click here to check for availability.
Big Tub Harbour Hotel (~$135/night) – If you’re looking to stay in Tobermory but also avoid some of the crowds, Big Tub is a great option. It’s located on the northern side of Big Tub Harbour, just down from the lighthouse. The rooms are simple, yet elegant with some offering waterfront views of Georgian Bay. See what other folks have said about their experience or click here to check for availability.
However, Tobermory can get a little crazy in the summer months. It’s a very popular spot and often you need to book a hotel way in advance to find somewhere to stay in town. If you’d rather ditch the crowds and enjoy a quiet getaway, I highly recommend staying somewhere in either Lion’s Head or Wiarton. Take a look at the map below for ideas of places to stay in Tobermory.
Things to Know When Visiting Tobermory
As I mentioned earlier in this post, Tobermory is a popular destination – especially in the summer months. Tobermory is arguably one of the hardest hit spots in Ontario for overtourism. From the Victoria Day weekend until Labour Day, the population of Tobermory swells with visitors as many seek the beautiful waters of Georgian Bay. Cottages and camping are booked well in advance and if you’re looking to stay overnight, you’ll need to plan ahead. This is particularly the case for any long weekends within that time frame.
While visiting mid-week during the summer can help, you’ll still need to be prepared for crowds. There is the option of staying in smaller areas close by such as Wiarton or Lion’s Head and then driving in, but be warned that you will then face a parking issue. Parking space is very limited in Tobermory so you’ll need to either arrive very early or plan to walk.
Overall, it’s best if you can push your visit towards the shoulder seasons. While many of the amenities can still be closed in early spring depending on the weather, late September to early October is the perfect time to visit Tobermory. The majority of the restaurants and attractions will be open and the weather is often still fantastic, albeit a little cool at night. It will also make your trip more affordable as you won’t be paying peak season costs. Combine all this with fewer crowds and you have the recipe for a fantastic visit to Tobermory. Plus you’ll be doing your part to combat overtourism!
Lastly, Tobermory is located at the end of Highway 6 before it continues across Georgian Bay to Manitoulin Island and as such, this is the only way in or out by car. It is a fairly straight stretch of road and though the speed limit is 80 km per hour, the number of drivers caught speeding increases every year. Just last year, over 100 stunt driving charges were laid from May to June 2020 alone. Not only is this dangerous for you but for other folks on the road as well as locals and wildlife. Do your part, be a responsible visitor and slow down.
Tobermory: The Lowdown
Ready to experience some of these activities to do in Tobermory for yourself? I bet you are! Here are some frequently asked questions about Tobermory and some things to know that you might find helpful when planning your trip.
What is Tobermory famous for?
This adorable harbour village has become popular thanks to the beauty of Bruce Peninsula National Park and the infamous Tobermory Grotto. However, that’s not all there is to see and do in the area as this guide illustrates!
How do I pronounce Tobermory?
Great question! The proper way to pronounce it is toe-burr-more-ee.
When is the best time to visit Tobermory?
That all depends on you. If you want to swim in the crystal clear waters then you’ll be contending with the crowds in the summer. Personally, I think the best time to visit Tobermory is in late September, early October when the crowds have dispersed but the weather is still nice enough for some outdoor adventures.
How many days should I stay in Tobermory?
While you can experience Tobermory as a day trip, it’s best to spend at least 2-3 days in Tobermory to get a full taste of all it has to offer. Click here to see what accommodation options are available!
Why is the water in Tobermory so cold?
The water in Tobermory is so cold because of Georgian Bay’s thermocline, a sort of invisible wall where the temperature changes dramatically. Below this thermocline, the water remains cold and while it starts at just 3-5 metres below the surface in the spring, it does drop to 25 metres or lower in the summer. While this is quite deep, it makes it more difficult for the water above it to warm up therefore the temperatures around Georgian Bay tend to be cooler than other areas of the Great Lakes.
Why is the water in Tobermory so clear?
The water in Tobermory is so clear thanks to the water filtering through the limestone bedrock found in the area. It can be a little cloudy after a big storm as this does kick up sediment from the lakebed, it doesn’t take long for it to dissipate.
Are there any free things to do in Tobermory?
Yes, there are some free things to do in Tobermory! Exploring the town itself can be done for free, along with hiking the trails in Tobermory. It also doesn’t cost anything to visit Big Tub Lighthouse.
What are some things to do on the way to Tobermory?
That’s a fantastic question as there’s plenty to see and do on the way to Tobermory! As many folks come from the big city, here are some of my recommendations on where to stop when driving from Toronto to Tobermory.
- Cheltenham Badlands – You do not want to miss this unique Mars-like landscape!
- Orangeville – If you need to get gas, this is a great spot to stop as I’ve found that it’s typically a little bit cheaper than other areas close by.
- Eugenia and Flesherton – Neighbouring towns that feature some of the amazing waterfalls you’ll find in Grey County.
- Owen Sound – You have officially reached the start of the Bruce Peninsula! Home to a few more waterfalls and some great restaurants, it’s a great spot to enjoy a night or two if you’d like to see more of the South Georgian Bay area.
- Wiarton – Pop by and say hello to Wiarton Willie! Though be warned, he often sleeps during the day and might not be as friendly as you’d like.
- Lion’s Head – Stop in and see the lighthouse or check out Lions Head Provincial Park for an epic hike along the Bruce Trail.
If you plan to stop at all of these places, you’ll need at least a couple of days as there are just so many spots to explore from Toronto to Tobermory! If you plan to do this route over a few days, click through the links above as they’ll have some helpful ideas of things to do, where to eat and more.
What should I do if it’s too busy in Tobermory?
As I mentioned before, summer is peak season in Tobermory so the best way to avoid crowds is to plan an early spring or fall visit to Tobermory. If you have your heart set on a visit in June, July or August, there are a number of other great spots along the Bruce Peninsula for an adventure. I highly recommend visiting Wiarton as it’s one of the most underrated gems along Highway 6 as my guide will show you. There are shipwrecks here you can snorkel, some great restaurants, beaches and more. Lion’s Head is also a great destination, though it has grown in popularity over the years as more folks discover how amazing the hiking trails are.
Is Tobermory worth visiting?
I think this guide answers that question! Tobermory is definitely worth visiting, it just might take a little bit of forethought and planning. That being said, you should definitely plan a visit and check out all these amazing things to do in Tobermory Ontario.