Great Lakes Waterfront Trail

As the summer of 2023 was drawing to a close, I started to look for a good weather window for a one week bicycle tour. For several months I’d been considering a ride from Sault Ste. Marie to Orillia following the Great Lakes Waterfront Trail. The route I was interested in follows the North Channel of Lake Huron over to Manitoulin Island. After riding across Manitoulin Island there is an almost two hour ferry ride from South Baymouth to Tobermory. From Tobermory the route heads south along the Bruce Penninsula, then east along the south shore of Georgian Bay. When I looked at the extended weather forecast for the first week of September just before Labour Day, I knew this was the time to do that ride.

The Great Lakes Waterfront Trail is a signed route that connects communities and First Nations along the Great Lakes in Ontario. The route is mainly paved with sections of chip seal roads, gravel roads, paved bike paths and gravel bike paths. Between Iron Bridge and Massey there are some sections of the route that take the rider on to the busy Highway 17. For those sections of the route there is a fairly wide paved shoulder to accommodate cyclists.

I have cycled the 230 km section of the route between Sault Ste. Marie and Massey many times and am quite familiar with riding conditions and accommodations options. I’ve ridden the route on a touring bike and a gravel bike. Based on my past experience, I decided to use my gravel bike for the 700 km ride to Orillia. I swapped out my 2.1 inch heavily treaded tires for smoother 47 mm WTB Biway tires. This would give me a faster rolling tire on paved sections and a comfortable ride on gravel sections. I also decided to take my tent and a minimal amount of camping equipment. I planned on taking 6 or 7 days for this trip, depending on the weather and expected to camp 3 nights and stay in hotels the other nights.

I left just after sunrise on September 3. I wanted to get an early start as we were in the middle of a heat wave and the forecasted high temperatures for the next several days was expected to exceed 30 degrees Celsius. The ride on day 1 was enjoyable. I rode at an easy pace and because it was a Sunday morning, there was very little traffic. For much of the day, I was riding on quiet country roads. In Blind River I stayed at the Lakeview Inn, a reasonably priced motel on Highway 17 with a grocery store, restaurants and fast food options nearby.

My plan for day 2 was to ride just over 80 km to Chutes Provincial Park, north of Massey. It was another day of mostly riding quiet country roads. I particularly enjoyed the gravel road section that followed the Spanish River towards Massey. I arrived in Massey before noon and stopped for lunch. The temperature was well above 30 C and the humidity made it feel much hotter. The thought of baking in my tent all night didn’t appeal to me so I decided that I would continue on for another 30 km to Espanola and get a hotel room with air conditioning. I must be getting softer in my old age. As I followed the Lee Valley Road from Massey to Espanola I was beginning to feel the effects of the heat and humidity and stopped several time to take sips of a sports drink to quench my thirst and replenish my electrolytes. I arrived in Espanola mid afternoon and checked in to the Pinewood Inn. The air conditioning felt great and it didn’t take long the recover from the heat.

I started day 3 in Espanola just before sunrise and covered close to 10 km before the sun made its first appearance, rising from behind a hill on Highway 6. The ride was enjoyable and again there was very little traffic early in the morning. Navigation was easy that day as all I had to do was to follow Highway 6 all the way to South Baymouth where I planned to catch the ferry. Highway 6 has a paved shoulder so I felt fairly comfortable riding that stretch of road. After cycling 48 km and crossing the bridge to Manitoulin Island, I stopped at the Tim Hortons in Little Current for a coffee break and a snack. Once I was feeling recharged, I continued on towards South Baymouth just over 70km down the road. The temperature rose well over 30 celsius and the road was much hillier than I had expected. Since it was after Labour Day, the tourist season was winding down a bit and there was little traffic to be concerned with. I arrived at the ferry dock in South Baymouth with lots of time to spare before the 3:30 ferry departure. After an almost two hour cruise on the MS Chi-Cheemaun ferry, I arrived in Tobermory and got a nice little room at the Blue Bay Motel.

I got on the road on day 4 just before 7 in the morning and followed Highway 6 for the first 23 km before heading east and following back roads as I proceeded south on the Bruce Peninsula. This was another day with temperatures in the 30 C range. The ride along the lake shore north of Lion’s Head was enjoyable. When I reached Lion’s Head after about 53 km of cycling I stopped at Rachel’s Cafe and Bakery for a second breakfast. The tv in the cafe was tuned to the FIBA basketball world cup and I was able to enjoy part of the Canada vs Slovenia game. Canada went on to win the game and secure a spot in the semi finals. At the 76 km mark I pulled off Bruce Rd 9 at the Bruce Peninsula Mountain Bike Adventure Park trailhead where I found a picnic table under a tree that provided some shade from the sun. After a short break I continued on to Wiarton and got a room at a hotel just east of town on Grey Rd 1. I arrived at the hotel just before the weather changed and brought on several heavy downpours. This brought a close to my days of riding during the heat wave. The next several days would be cooler and wetter.

I started day 5 just before 7 am again and followed Grey Rd 1 along the shoreline until I reached Owen Sound after 49 km. I was able to ride along a bike path most of the way through town which was nice since it started to rain as I entered Own Sound. I took a short break under a picnic shelter at a city park when I needed a break from a heavy downpour. It was cooler and windier for the rest of the day as I proceeded on to Meaford. West of Meaford there was a short 6 km section of the ride that brought me on to the busy Highway 26. I turned on to the much quieter Sideroad 22 when I had enough of the traffic. After 97 km of riding that day, I arrived in Meaford.

Days 6 was a 102 km ride from Meaford to Midland following the southern shoreline of Georgian Bay. It was a much cooler day of riding with intermittent showers occurring throughout the day. The ride from Meaford to Collingwood followed the Georgian Trail. The Georgian Trail is a 34 km multi use path, once a rail line, that connects Meaford, Thornbury and Collingwood. Most of the trail is on firm, crushed gravel with paved sections in Collingwood. After passing through Collingwood, the route mostly followed narrow, paved roads lined with cottages and summer homes. I expected to see more activity around the popular Wasaga Beach area but as it was cool, showery and windy and after Labour Day, the beaches were empty and there was barely any traffic. I arrived in Midland in the early afternoon and grabbed a room at the Quality Inn near Highway 12.

The 7th an final day of my trip was a short ride of about 60 km from Midland to Orillia. The riding was on fairly flat multi use paths including the Midland Rotary Waterfront Trail, Tay Shore Trail, Uhthoff Trail and the Orillia Millennium Trail. Half of the riding was on paved paths with the exception of close to 30 km of the Uhthoff Trail which was mainly a crushed limestone surface. Because it was a sunny Saturday morning, I encountered a fair number of morning walkers and cyclists near the small communities that I passed through. I arrived at my final destination in Orillia just in time for lunch.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed this tour and will no doubt repeat all or some of it during the summer of 2024. There was a good mix of riding surfaces from paved roads to gravel roads to bicycle paths. The landscape was varied and spectacular. After 10 years of going on bicycle tours in other locations I finally realized that some of the best touring in near my own backyard.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about following the route again from Sault Ste. Marie to Wiarton and then connecting with the BT 700 bikepacking route. The BT 700 is a 798 km loop in southwestern Ontario. Much of that route follows unpaved surfaces so I’d probably switch to a different set of tires and make a few minor equipment changes. I guess I have all winter to think about that.