I have been wanting to visit Bon Echo Provincial Park in Eastern Ontario for a long time. Not only does this park have an interesting history, but its 100-metre-high rock is so impressive that it is dubbed the “Gibraltar of Canada”. I had heard a lot about it, and I couldn’t wait to finally see it in person.
My partner and I finally spent a weekend camping at the park in our newly converted camping van. And even though my expectations were high, I was not disappointed!
I took advantage of this weekend trip at the park to try to explore as much as possible its hiking trails.
A bit of history
Bon Echo Provincial Park is one of the largest provincial parks in Eastern Ontario. It is best known for its famous massive rock overlooking Mazinaw Lake. This 100-metre-high rock has apparently impressed for centuries: First Nations have painted more than 260 pictographs on its rocky face. It is believed to be one of the largest known collections of Indigenous pictographs in Ontario.
During the 20th century, activist Flora MacDonald Denison, also impressed by the beauty of the place, bought the Bon Echo Inn on the shores of the lake and transformed it into a residence for artists. The place has hosted poets, writers, and painters (including members of the famous Group of Seven).
Denison was also a great admirer of the American poet Walt Whitman. Although Whitman never visited the place, Denison had an excerpt from one of his poems carved into the cliff. One hundred years later, time has done its work and Whitman’s words are barely visible on the cliff, but they are still there.
Denison’s son turned the site over to the provincial government in the 1950s, and Bon Echo Provincial Park was established.
Interestingly, the place owes its name to the acoustic properties of the rocky cliff, which would allow sounds to bounce over the surface of Mazinaw Lake, thus creating a bon écho (“good echo” in French).
Bon Echo Provincial Park offers numerous campgrounds, three beaches, kayak and canoe rentals, as well as several hiking trails, of which here is an overview.
High Pines Trail
1.7-kilometre loop. This short trail is the first one I started on, very early in the morning. It goes through different types of forest habitat, on rocky ridges of the Canadian Shield and through some wetlands.
The forest was very quiet when I hiked the trail. Halfway on the loop, you can catch glimpse of Mazinaw Lake and its cliff between the trees. Although short, the trail provides a good exercise as there are some steep and rocky sections.
Cliff Top Trail
1.5-kilometre trail, return. This trail is undoubtedly the most popular in the park, even if it is the most difficult to access. It allows you to climb to the top of the famous rock. But to get there, you have to paddle to the small wharf, located on the other side of the lake.
It was not a problem for me because I love kayaking! I rented a kayak and after paddling a bit on Mazinaw Lake, I docked at the small wharf (where there were already many kayaks and canoes) and started my climb towards the top of the cliff.
This short trail offers three lookouts with views on the lake and the forest of Bon Echo Provincial Park. It also allows you to see the rock barrens of Mazinaw rock up close. As the layer of soil is very thin, the vegetation there is fragile and protected.
It’s a short trail, but you have to be prepared to climb some steep stairs (I passed several hikers who had to stop a few times during the climb to catch their breath).
Bon Echo Creek Trail
1-kilometre trail, return. I must admit here that I am not 100% sure that what we followed was the trail, or a road of the park. But as the name suggests, this trail follows Bon Echo Creek, up to Lower Mazinaw Lake. This sector was particularly pretty with the fall colours that are beginning to appear.
The Shield Trail
4.8-kilometre loop. I think this trail was my favourite in the park. The Shield Trail is located in the western sector of the park, across Highway 41. It showcases the rocky terrain of the southern Canadian Shield.
The trail follows an old road and then it passes through different forest habitats. It follows the shore of pretty Bon Echo Lake (which can be seen here and there between the trees), then it passes very close to some beaver ponds. I liked its rocky terrain which offers an interesting physical challenge (without being too difficult) and its pretty views of the ponds.
This area of the park was particularly affected by a big wind storm earlier this year. I was shocked by the number of broken and uprooted trees that can still be found along the trail. Proof that nature can be both beautiful and destructive.
Off Leash Trail
One of the things I really liked about the park is that there is a short trail where dogs are allowed to be off leash. There is even a very small beach along that trail. At 11 years old, my old dog doesn’t run as much as she used to, but she really enjoyed the swim.
The other trails
There is another trail, the Abes and Essens Lake Trail, made up of three interconnected loops. This trail is the longest in the park and offers a few spots for backcountry camping. But just like the Shield Trail, this trail was particularly impacted by the wind storm last May. The trail was still closed up when we visited the park. One more reason for me to come back one day!