Fall… such a beautiful season!
A time to see nature’s glory in its vivid colours, a time to decorate your porch with pumpkins and everything orange, a time to do ‘fall’ crafts with your little ones, a time to breathe in the crisp air feel its cool touch on one’s face, a time to celebrate Thanksgiving with gratitude for the many blessings in one’s life and a time to treat neighbourhood kids at Haloween.
For us, every year, fall has also been a time to take our traditional fall drive and spend a day appreciating the vibrant colours this season has to offer.
Unlike the calendar, which has a fixed date for the beginning of fall, leaves in every place turn colours on different dates every year. The peak time to catch the best fall colours near Toronto can vary depending on the place and the weather. Fortunately, there are sites online that provide constant updates regarding the extent of colour change and leaf fall to help people decide when is the best time to go for that drive.
If you are planning to camp or hike at one of Onatrio’s many beautiful parks, https://www.ontarioparks.com/fallcolour is the most helpful website. They list updates on the dominant colour, colour change percentage, leaf fall and a list of best viewing places for each of Ontario’s parks.
Personally, our favourite place to check out fall colours in Muskoka. https://www.discovermuskoka.ca/ontario-fall-colour-report/ features Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, Huntsville, Lake of Bays, Muskoka Lakes and Georgian Bay with details on how much colour change has taken place and best places to view fall colours for each location.
If you are planning your drive further east, in the Haliburton Highlands, https://myhaliburtonhighlands.com/ is a good site to get fall colour updates.
Overall, look for at least 60-80% colour change, with less than 20% leaf fall. Roughly speaking, one can see early fall colours between September 24 and 30, peak viewing time is between 1 and 12 October, and peak golden encore colours can be seen between 13 and 21 Oct.
A little too early and you may not see the most vibrant colours, a little too late and you may see a lot of bare branches, so keep checking the reports and try to time your trip with the peak colour change period.
Here is a collection of fall drive routes near Toronto, that we have personally driven on and experienced.
Depending on which part of Toronto you are coming from, you may take about 2 hours to reach Gravenhurst. This can be your first stop. As you drive to Gravenhurst, you may or may not see many fall colours on the route, depending on the time of the year and the specific route you are coming from.
But keep heart- your colourful adventure definitely begins at Gravenhurst. Make a quick stop at the city to relieve yourself and get a snack. Our favourite place to take a break is the McDonald’s on Bethune Drive at Gravenhurst. There is a park in that plaza, where our son loves stretching his legs after the two-hour long drive till here. I also stock up on snacks from the Giant Tiger store in the same complex.
Head over to Muskoka Beach Road (Hwy 17) and drive slowly towards Bracebridge (be sure not to take the Hwy 11 to Bracebridge). A quick stop at Muskoka Beach Park allows you a view of Muskoka Lake. There are also picnic tables here, if you prefer carrying a picnic basket from home.
As you drive down Muskoka Beach Road, you can easily miss a tiny road turning on the left, called Stagecoach road. This is a beautiful detour with lovely trees meeting over the top, making for a perfect drive route. We also got off and trekked into The Great Trail, which had many exits on to this road.
Stagecoach road meets into Stephens Bay Road, which ends in Beaumont Drive. Turn right and drive along this beautiful road towards Bracebridge. From here, you can make a stop at Santa’s Village if you have kids (this theme park is closed in 2020 due to COVID) or you can take the Hwy 118-west to Port Carling. Stop at this picturesque town for a walk around their characteristic downtown and a cup of coffee.
Now, taking Hwy 25, 24 and 141, make your way to Rosseau, another half hour north. We loved driving around the winding hilly roads of Rosseau. The Rosseau falls are not much to speak of, but a stop at the Rosseau lake will take your breath away. The fall colours here are bright red and orange and look perfectly glorious on a sunny day. Depending on how much time you have, you can explore the Muskoka woods nearby, before heading back home.
Of course, if you decided to stay the night at Muskoka, good for you! You have the next day to drive around and continue your exploration.
Once again, plan your first stop at Gravenhurst where you can grab a bite and stretch your legs. From here, proceed to Hwy 17, Muskoka Beach Road. This road deserves to be driven along slowly, so take your time viewing the colourful trees that make this a spectacular road to drive on.
Depending on how adventurous you are feeling, take the Stagecoach road detour to Bracebridge (details above). At Bracebridge, you can park at one of the free downtown public parking spots and then walk to the Bracebridge falls. This unique mix of dam and natural falls can be enjoyed from many viewing points. On a sunny day, the water sparkles while the rich fall colours surrounding the waterfall glisten.
After a cup of coffee and a slice of cake at one of Bracebridge’s cute cafes, continue onward to Dorset. Hwy 117 and then Hwy 35 take you to the Dorset Lookout Tower (closed in 2020 on account of COVID). You can park in the lot outside and then walk up to the tower or you could drive straight to the tower if they have space in the parking lot inside.
The Dorset Lookout Tower is really tall with winding stairs going up and up. I paused midway with my son because the open tower was making me dizzy, but my husband went all the way up. No matter how high you decide to climb the tower, you will see incredible views of the Lake of Bays and the surrounding fall colours spread out below you, as far as your eyes can see. This is one of the best places in Muskoka to see the miracle that nature brings about in the fall season.
Now that you have worked up an appetite, stop by at Pizza on Earth, a family-owned and run wood-fired pizzeria that offers excellent home-made pizzas. Don’t believe me? Check out their fantastic Google reviews!
This route is further east as compared to the previous two, so perhaps more suited to those living east of Toronto. You can plan your first stop at Minden, depending on how far you are coming from.
Just outside of Minden, is the Panorama Park (take the South Lake Road from Hwy 35 and then the Panorama Park Road), a great lookout point from where you can see miles around.
Getting back to Hwy 35, drive north up Hwy 21 towards Haliburton. If you are open to a small detour, take a right on Caribou Rd and then Maple Rd to arrive at Kashagawigamog Lake. As you drive along the lake, you will come to a public access point. We loved sitting by this lake and drinking in the beautiful fall views. It drew my breath away.
After your little detour, return to Hwy 21 and journey onward to Haliburton. Downtown Haliburton offers lunch options, followed by a stroll along the pretty Head Lake. Our son enjoyed playing at the park by this lake. A short drive outside of Haliburton is the Skyline Park. A visit to this lookout point is completely worth your time if you want to watch the entire Haliburton Highlands spread out under your feet.
After Haliburton, you could either turn towards Bracebridge and Gravenhurst to cover some of the sights mentioned above in this post, or you could carry onward north to Algonquin Park. If you decide to go ahead to Algonquin, plan a night’s stay. You can camp within the park to truly enjoy the fall colours, or opt for one of the inns around the park.
Keep in mind that as north as Algonquin is, the leaves turn colour early in the season and shed by the time Gravenhurst and Bracebridge start seeing their peak colours. So, to catch Algonquin in all its glory, you would want to go fairly early in the season.
I hope this blog gives you a few ideas to plan your fall drive. You may follow one of my recommended routes or come up with your own unique plan. It doesn’t matter! As long as you drive north and explore, you will discover the brilliant colours Canada’s fall season has to offer.
PIyushi Dhir is the author of the romantic novels, 'In Search of Love' (2014), 'I'm Yours, The Next Time' (2015) and 'Enmeshed Evermore' (2015). A voracious reader, a keen traveler and an ardent dog-lover, Piyushi currently resides in Ivory Coast, Africa. A nomad at heart, she loves to discover new places and capture the hues of life with her pen.