Hiking the Tobermory Grotto, Indian Head Cove & More: Your Guide to Bruce Peninsula National Park
The Bruce Peninsula – what was once a hidden gem has now become a hotspot for tourism in Ontario. Home to one of Canada’s beloved national parks, a trip to the peninsula is not complete without a visit to Bruce Peninsula National Park. You may know it because of the infamous ‘Tobermory Grotto’ which has attracted visitors from all over the world. But there’s more to Bruce Peninsula National Park than that! Don’t miss other beautiful spots like the lesser-known Indian Head Cove and more. This guide will help you plan your adventure to this incredible Ontario destination.
About Bruce Peninsula National Park
Located along the eastern shore of the Northern Bruce Peninsula just south of Tobermory, Bruce Peninsula National Park was established in 1987. What was once known as Cyprus Lake Provincial Park, Bruce Peninsula National Park protects a gorgeous stretch of the Niagara Escarpment’s shoreline.
The Niagara Escarpment is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, one of over 700 reserves across the globe that are established to preserve and sustain the balance between people and nature. You can learn more about this classification here. This ancient tree-lined limestone ridge extends across Southern Ontario and right through Bruce Peninsula National Park. These incredible rock formations combined with the Caribbean-like turquoise waters of Georgian Bay are what draw thousands of visitors each year.
Bruce Peninsula National Park is also important as it protects a number of wildlife species that are native to the area. One of which is the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake that is threatened due to habitat loss. There has been a steady decline in the population over the past 25 years. While it is Ontario’s only venomous snake, it is illegal to harm or injure an Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake if you come into contact with one, as with any wild animal in a Canadian national park. Bruce Peninsula National Park is also home to Canada’s southernmost population of black bears.
Things to Do in Bruce Peninsula National Park
As with all of Canada’s national parks, BPNP is a nature lover’s haven. With incredible views, beautiful hiking trails and more, it’s just one of the amazing natural destinations found in Ontario. However, This park has more to offer than people realize! Here’s a full list of the activities available at Bruce Peninsula National Park.
- Bird and Wildlife Watching
- Canoeing and Kayaking
- Camping & Roofed Accommodation
- Cross-Country Skiing
- Cycling and Mountain Biking
- Front-Country and Back-Country Camping
- Guided Tours (Based on Availability)
- Hiking with Interpretive Signage
- Rock Climbing
- Scuba Diving
To clarify, while activities such as cross-country skiing, cycling, fishing, motorboating and more are available in the park, you’ll need to have your own gear for this. Rentals are not available from the park.
Hike to The Tobermory Grotto
Now to my favourite thing to do in Bruce Peninsula National Park… go for a hike! There are eight trails scattered throughout the park, including Ontario’s longest trail – The Bruce Trail! While I haven’t enjoyed the entirety of this specific stretch through Bruce Peninsula National Park, I’ve enjoyed a small part of it while making my way to the park’s most famous spot – The Grotto. However, there are plenty of other great spots to enjoy along the way. Here’s my recommended route for hiking to the Tobermory Grotto AND enjoying the most of this area of the park.
You’ll find The Grotto parking at the end of Cyprus Lake Road, so you’re journey will start there. As I visited in December, I was treated to an empty parking lot! At the same time though, I was racing daylight – so let’s hop to it! Follow the Georgian Bay Trail westward to get started.
RELATED: Looking for tips about tackling hikes along with the Bruce Trail? I’ve got some advice that can help!
The start of the hike is easy as you’ll enjoy flat terrain with smooth gravel. Be sure to take a moment to enjoy the view from Cyprus Lake. It sure is a tranquil site on a moody December day!
Keep following the trail until you reach a fork where the Marr Lake Trail appears on the left. Taking this will lead you to the Bruce Trail as you reach Georgian Bay’s shoreline. You’ll also pass by Marr Lake on your right. The trail starts to get a little more difficult as you trek down the path. Although way before you see trail blazes, you’ll see the iconic bits of limestone the area is known for. This marks the aptly named Boulder Beach. Be careful and take your time when you reach this point as the terrain is very unstable and it’s easy to roll an ankle! Follow the blazes to the left and then you’ll see signs for Overhanging Point.
After enjoying the view, backtrack and follow the Bruce Trail along the shoreline. I always love exploring along the rocks because the patterns and colours are so interesting! You’ll come back to the Marr Lake Trail, but keep left along the shoreline. The trail will take you through areas of brush with an odd rock path towards the bay. Take in these views as you make your way towards one of the area’s most photographed locations… and your main destination.
Say hello to The Grotto! Depending on when you visit, you may have a different experience. In the off-season, you have chilly temperatures but fewer people. In the summer months, you’ll have crowds but you’ll actually be able to climb down close to the water and go inside the cave. I didn’t dare venture it for fear of falling in the barely above freezing water and you shouldn’t either. That didn’t damper my experience though!
As beautiful as the Grotto is, the next stop was hands down my favourite. Continue about another 100m and you’ll come upon Indian Head Cove. The pristine beaches are seriously Caribbean-like coupled with the picturesque Georgian Bay waters. It’s a popular swimming spot, and I can definitely see why. While the water in Georgian Bay is quite cold, it’s refreshing on scorching hot summer days!
You can never get enough of the turquoise blue waters, but keep following the Bruce Trail when you’re reading to continue. About another 150m down the trail you’ll come to Halfway Rock Point and another fantastic lookout spot. Keep following the shoreline through fun little pathways until it begins to head slightly inwards. Here you’ll come upon a fork in the trail. Make a right for the Georgian Bay Trail, or keep left like we did to meet the Horse Lake Trail. A few more minutes with the shoreline and then you’ll be back into the forest!
The trail becomes easier as the terrain changes from hard rock to soft dirt and leaves. Follow the winding path through beautiful tall trees while listening for little critters as they scuttle up tree trunks and along the ground floor. You’ll cross the occasional wooden bridge as some areas can get mucky. Need to take a little break? Be sure to sit for a moment and enjoy the view of Horse Lake from one of the benches on the wooden deck. Continue through the trees for another 5 minutes and voila, you’ll be back at the parking lot!
While the loop took us about 4 hours to complete, it can be done a lot quicker as we stopped for plenty of photo ops. Just be sure to take your time on the rough terrain. Sprained ankles aren’t fun, especially when it’s over two kilometres back to the car!
INSIDER TIP: I highly suggest going the route I did as this way you build up to the beauty that is The Grotto and Indian Head Cove. Overhanging Point is gorgeous, but I think it’ll be a little lacklustre if you see it after the aforementioned highlights!
Ready to check out this loop yourself? This map of Bruce Peninsula National Park and the route I took along the trails should help keep you from getting lost!
Things to Know When Visiting Bruce Peninsula National Park
Depending on what season you visit, you’ll have a very different experience with Bruce Peninsula National Park. I, personally, have been three times now – once in March, once in July and once in December. I had a blast all three times though they were definitely different trips altogether!
First, even though they’re close in proximity, Fathom Five National Marine Park and Bruce Peninsula National Park are not the same. I made this mistake on my first ‘visit’ and ended up in Fathom Five. It’s also an incredible park that deserves a visit all on its own, but it’s not BPNP! I’m not the only visitor who has made this mistake as they both share the same visitors’ centre. However, you’ll have to go back south down the main Highway to get to BPNP.
When planning your visit, you should know that Bruce Peninsula National Park is VERY busy in the warmer months. While the park is open all year round, as soon as the May long weekend hits, people flock to the area. Tobermory is a hotspot for activity with a trip to BPNP included. It means plenty of people… and plenty of lines. Even though the free parks perk of Canada’s 150th birthday has passed, the masses have not dissipated.
As a result, there are now parking time slots which you must reserve in advance either online or by phone. This will entitle you to a 4-hour period where you are guaranteed parking at the Cyprus Lake parking lot. Reservations cost $11.70 per vehicle along with a reservation fee. These are only in effect in the summer from May 1st until the end of October. If you’re camping at Cyprus Lake, you don’t need to worry about making a reservation as parking is included with your reservation.
Looking for the famous flowerpots? You will NOT find these in Bruce Peninsula National Park. They are located along the outskirts of Flowerpot Island which is a part of the Fathom Five National Marine Park. In order to view them, take a sightseeing tour with one of the local companies in Tobermory. You can also book it so that you have time to explore Flowerpot Island itself and even get up close and personal with the flowerpots – depending on the water levels of course! This is honestly one of the top things to do in Tobermory and shouldn’t be missed when exploring the area.
Planning Your Trip to Bruce Peninsula National Park
Whether you’re coming for the Tobermory Grotto, to see Indian Head Cove or to explore Bruce Peninsula National Park in its entirety, there are plenty of ways to get here.
If you’re coming in from Toronto, it’s about a 4-hour drive from the heart of downtown to Cyprus Lake. While it is doable in a day, it’s definitely going to be a long one – making it a great option for a weekend getaway. If you don’t want to do the drive, Parkbus offers a day trip for ~$90 which includes entry along with a guided hike to The Grotto.
Coming from the north? Your best bet is to take the Chi-Cheemaun ferry from Manitoulin Island to Tobermory and drive from there. The ferry runs from the beginning of May until the middle of October. Departure times are posted on their website and the trip takes approximately 2 hours each way.
Tips for Visting The Tobermory Grotto & BPNP
Bruce Peninsula National Park is truly a destination for all seasons, along with all of Canada’s national parks. If you’re planning to visit a number of them, it might be worth purchasing a Parks Canada pass as it pays for itself after approximately 7 visits.
If you can’t manage to get a reservation, you can always test your luck by getting up early and heading down Emmet Lake Road. Here you’ll be able to park at Halfway Log Dump. If you’re still determined to visit the Grotto, it is possible but you’ve got a long hike ahead of you at 6 kilometres each way. I thought about doing this previously, but instead got distracted by the pristine Georgian Bay waters and went for a dip to cool off.
Since the majority of the trails are on the eastern side of the Bruce Peninsula, what many don’t realize is that there’s a small part of Bruce Peninsula National Park on the western side. Singing Sands is just off of Dorcas Bay Road, located 100 metres north of Cyprus Lake Road. While heading north on Highway 6, turn left onto Dorcas Bay Road and Singing Sands will be on your right side in less than two kilometres. This part of the park offers a beautiful sandy beach that’s perfect not just for soaking up the summer sun, but for enjoying some brilliant sunsets over Lake Huron!
SOMETHING TO NOTE: Singing Sands is unmanned and therefore there are no lifeguards present. While the beach is shallow, the Great Lakes can change on a dime so enjoy this area at your own risk.
As this is a national park, there are no restaurants or places to get food. Be sure to pack something to eat and drink if you plan on staying all day. That way you’ll stay fuelled for your adventure. Plus there are plenty of amazing picnic spots in the park!
My biggest piece of advice? Visit Bruce Peninsula National Park in the off-season. While it is beautiful to visit in the summer, this park really is best enjoyed without the hordes of people you’ll encounter in the warmer months. Plus in the off-season, you won’t have to contend with the reservation system which runs from May to October, meaning you’ll have more time in the park. If you’ve visited in the summer, plan a return trip for the fall, spring or even winter. Honestly, my favourite time to visit is in the winter and I think you can see why with the incredible photos throughout this post!
RELATED: If you’re planning to hike in the winter months, make sure you’re prepared with the proper winter hiking gear. If it’s your first time winter hiking, check out these beginner tips so you can make the most of your adventure.
Frequently Asked Questions About BPNP
Are you ready to experience the park for yourself? Glad to hear it! Here are some of the more common questions folks have in regards to planning your trip to Bruce Peninsula National Park.
Where is the Bruce Peninsula?
The Bruce Peninsula is the landmass sandwiched between Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. It’s the little peak you’ll see on what I refer to as the tail of Ontario. The Bruce Peninsula starts just north of Owen Sound and encompasses the entire stretch of land from here to Sauble Beach, all the way up to Tobermory. A part of Bruce County, it is divided into the North Bruce Peninsula and South Bruce Peninsula. The latter encompasses Wiarton, Hepworth and the townships of Albemarle and Amabel which include towns such as Colpoys Bay, Red Bay and more while the former includes everything located on the peninsula.
How far is the Bruce Peninsula from Toronto?
The Bruce Peninsula is approximately 210 kilometres driving distance from Toronto. From downtown Toronto to Bruce Peninsula National Park’s Cyprus Lake Campground, the distance is 290 kilometres and will take you approximately four hours of travel time, traffic dependent.
Where should I stay when visiting the Bruce Peninsula?
If you’re looking to take full advantage of your time in the park, you’ll want to camp at the Cyprus Lake Campground overnight. However, this isn’t your only option! There are plenty of great hotels in Tobermory as well as Airbnbs in the area. You will need to plan in advance (especially during the summer) as they tend to book up fast! Your other option is to stay further south in towns like Lion’s Head or Wiarton and drive up instead. This will probably also save you a few bucks as their accommodation is typically more affordable!
Are there bears in Bruce Peninsula National Park?
As I mentioned earlier in this post, the Bruce Peninsula is home to the southernmost population of black bears so yes, there are bears in Bruce Peninsula National Park! Be bear aware and make sure to lock up any food, drink or products that could be enticing to bears when camping and picnicking in the park.
Can you swim in Bruce Peninsula National Park? Can you swim in the Grotto?
You sure can but be warned – the water is cold! Georgian Bay’s waters are frigid which is fantastic for a hot summer day, but chances are you won’t be in them for long. Just because they look Caribbean, doesn’t mean they are! The waters at Singing Sands will be much warmer though the water is shallower. Also, be aware that these are still the Great Lakes. There are undertows and strong currents that can suddenly change without warning. If you are not a strong swimmer, I don’t recommend going too far into the water. Better to be safe than sorry!
When is the best time to visit Bruce Peninsula National Park?
Personally, I believe the best time to visit is from November and April. While you won’t be able to swim in the waters of Georgian Bay because it’ll be too cold, it will allow you to enjoy this beautiful park without crowds – or a time limit.
Bruce Peninsula National Park is just one of the many incredible year-round road trip destination in Ontario. Enjoy the brilliant views of Georgian Bay as you hit the trails and enjoy everything the park has to offer. Since you’re up there, take some time to experience Tobermory and a few of the other communities along the Bruce Peninsula. While Tobermory is popular for a reason, there are plenty of other underrated gems to be explored!
For More Fun Near the Bruce Peninsula…
Don’t Miss Wiarton, the Perfectly Peaceful Getaway Along the Bruce
If You Love Chasing Views, Don’t Miss These Lookouts in South Georgian Bay
Planning a Trip to Tobermory? Here’s Everything You Need to Know
Who wouldn’t want to go after reading this. It was on our “bucket list” last year, but time sort of ran out. We did do a loop around Lions Head (sort down the road a bit) last June. It was the views certainly that impressed me, but the Caribbean blue colour of the water stood out the most. We’ll likely hit Bruce Peninsula NP in June or earlier before the crowds descend.
Thanks for sharing
I hiked a portion of the Bruce Trail years ago, but it was just forest and mud slides- think I may have been in the wrong place, lol, because your hike in the Bruce Peninsula looks much more lovely! (Map is handy too!) Great post! Thanks for sharing this!
Haha well there’s so much to the Bruce Trail that it’s hard to say, but I know some areas do get a bit muddy. Around Georgian Bay and the Bruce Peninsula though there’s a lot of bedrock and limestone so it makes for drier conditions! I hope you get to enjoy another hike soon 😊
I’m a HUGE National Park geek and hadn’t ever thought of visiting here. I love the photos and tips you gave. It’s very helpful for planning a trip. I also love off-season traveling it’s honestly the way to go. Thanks for the inspiration for another National Park.
Aww you’re so welcome!! Off-season travel is so underrated. I’m so glad I’ve inspired you! Brings a smile to my face 😸
This looks like an awesome hike! I love getting somewhere and being the only car there, that’s the best! I’ll definitely put this on my Canada list
It sure is! I loved every minute of it – I hope you’re able to make it to Canada soon! 😸
I love this! I’ve hiked in Alberta but you’ve given me a reason to go back to Canada. Thanks for the beautiful pictures!
Aww that makes me so happy to hear! We have plenty of amazing hiking trails here in Ontario. I hope you’re able to visit again soon! 😸
My parents live in Toronto so I’m a bit embarrassed to say I’ve never been here before. I really need to do a better job of exploring the rest of Ontario outside of Toronto. I’ve heard great things about Bruce Peninsula, and the hike you did looks like a fun and chill hike. I’ll have to add it to my list of things to do this summer. 🙂
Haha don’t worry! I lived in Toronto & I’m from St Catharines – only started visiting the area 3-4 years ago despite my mom being from Owen Sound! Better late than never right? 😊 I hope you get to enjoy it soon!!
I hate that I moved from Toronto last year after so many years and I never visited Bruce Peninsula. It’s so beautiful and I love your advice on visiting in the off-season and having the grotto to myself. I’m not a huge swimmer anyways, so this would be perfect. I have to get out there one day!
That just sounds like a great reason to return, Natasha! I hope you’re able to make it back soon so you can see the beauty of the Bruce Peninsula! 🙂
I am under the impression that every inch of Canada is beautiful
Haha Kay, I think I have to agree with you! Every part of Canada is beautiful in its own way 🙂
Oooh Lindz the view down to the grotto looks amaaazing! I mean, I can see why it’d be scary, but what an epic steep drop! You find the best hikes!!
D’aww shucks! Thanks, gal! I think you need to visit me out here so we can tackle of few of these hikes together!
When I first saw the photo of the water, I wouldn’t have guessed that you were in Ontario when you took it… That water is so blue! Seems like the perfect spot to escape the city for the weekend… Hope you get to return again soon!
Right?! The water is SO clear. There are very few places where you’ll find the water this colour in Ontario which makes it extra special. I hope to make it back again soon, too! 🙂
The photos are amazing! and the description is perfect!
There is soo much to see around Bruce…
Quick qs. The Grotto parking is for 4 hours (planning to reserve it). But I wish to do one of the hikes as well (not on the same day as Grotto). Where do I park in that case? coz im sure it will take more than 4 hours just because of the scenery.. 4 hours isnt sufficient for Grotto as well as hike. Please correct me if im wrong.