Growing up, camping was as much a part of my summer experiences as riding my banana seat bike and eating all the chocolate Popsicle our local corner store had in stock. My family had an old canvas tent, the kind with absolutely no ventilation or instructions for putting it up. We pitched it in our backyard for sleep outs or packed up our station wagon and drove until we found a campground. I have so many beautiful memories, most pop up as a sensory reminder of those long hot days, the smell of bug spray, campfires and pine trees. I camped with Girl Guides, with Outward Bound, with church camps and more. My husband has similar memories and experiences, as do many of our friends. Camping is as Canadian to me as Hudson Bay stripe home decor and maple syrup. Now as a mother I find myself questioning how and when to start the activities with my own family. That meant so much to me as a kid. The work and effort seem enormous but isn’t everything with kids? I now appreciate so much more the effort my parents put into these trips. I also recognize that in today’s world we put pressure on ourselves to do these things “right’ more so then they did, or so it seems from the outside looking in. Do I think my parents cared about the toxins in bug spray? Worried about buying nitrate free hot dogs? What about cell reception for emergencies? Mm, nope! I think they packed up what they needed for the weekend, locked the front door and drove away.
So in the spirit of that same attitude, my husband and I decided to just go for it. We booked a site for 3 days at Bruce Peninsula National Park in Tobermory, Ontario. We packed what we needed (with a few luxuries because I was 8 months pregnant!) and headed north!
We weren’t ready to portage just yet, did I mention I was pregnant! So car camping it was! Car camping literally means you drive into the site set up your stuff and voila a temporary home is born! Packing for camping is intended to be streamlined and necessary, I mean we both used to forage for food on canoe trips and bring what we could carry, but with kids, that wasn’t going to work. So we kept it pure other than a deluxe air bed to make things more comfortable for me at night. The kids brought a bag of outdoor activities, and while they seemed skeptical about sleeping and eating outside, they quickly adapted and enjoyed adventuring off to explore the wooded areas around our site. The amenities at Bruce Peninsula National Park are well maintained and plentiful, so despite it being the busy season, we did not have to line up for water or the washroom. It’s also a curfew park, so it was quiet for sleeping.
Tobermory is at the tip of the Bruce Peninsula on Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. It is like being transported to the Maritimes. Jewel-toned homes, 19th-century lighthouse, fishing vessels, and the kindest people. It boasts two national parks and some of the most breathtaking vistas (thanks to the Niagara escarpment) that you will find in Ontario. From our home, it was a 4-hour drive, but of course, we can’t resist small Ontario towns, so we stopped a couple of times to explore. Our province has so much charm and history, so road trips are more than just getting from point A to point B for us.
Bruce Peninsula National Park is a very well maintained park. The sites are big and full with tree canopies to help keep it feeling cooler during hot summer days. Because it was late July, we had gorgeous weather and very few bugs at night (mosquitos are a given in Canadian summers, but they were not bad). A tip for camping with kids is to find a site that is close proximity (but not right beside) the swimming area and the water/washroom facilities. It makes cooking meals and cleaning up, and you can enjoy your downtime without lugging your gear through the woods to the beach/lakefront. Our first sunset and swim did not disappoint.
When you google “top things to do in Tobermory” (as any “type A” Mom will do) one of the suggestions is to see The Grotto located inside the national park. It’s a couple of kilometers hike from the main parking lot and the Cypress Lake camp area that we stayed in. The hike itself is lovely. Full open paths with natural bridges and resting spots. The kids (4 and 2.5) were able to walk it on their own, and I managed to waddle it in flip-flops. When we reached the trails head the panoramic view was stunning, and the climb down into the limestone cave area was reasonably comfortable. The limestone rock formations are indeed something to see. The water crashes into the limestone creating these relaxing and fresh tidal pools that you can sit in or play in the waves. My youngest, not being very big, opted to climb on the rock formations exploring the various caves and crevices while the oldest child and Daddy played in the water.
We returned hot and sweaty from the hike and instantly hopped into Cypress Lake. It was a rock and sand beach with a lovely breeze and gorgeous mid-afternoon sun. The sandbars meant the kids could play and swim safely in shallow water while we relaxed and enjoyed the fruits of our labor having prepared in advance a picnic lunch and a cold beer for the husband. Top the day off with a campfire, songs, smores and two adorable kids who woke up in the tent snuggling. What more could my Canadian heart want?
Our second day we enjoyed yet another gorgeous beach day and some hiking before exploring the town of Tobermory. Of course, the kids were in desperate need of ice cream! We walked the town, explored some of the small shops, the boys examined every boat in them, and of course, we found the lighthouse. We wanted to take the glass bottom boat out to Flowerpot Island and to the shipwreck areas, but we had run out of time, and it’s advised that you buy advanced tickets for these activities because in the summer it is quite busy.
Camping in a new town or city with exciting things to see and explore expands the sense of adventure. Taking a break from your campsite gives kids a reprieve and rejuvenates their interest in camp life when you return. Camping took my kids out of their comfort zone, exposed them to new things, and best of all they asked when we would go again!
As the sun set on the last night of our first camping trip, we realized that having to make open fire meals, boil water, keep the site clean to avoid critters, sleeping on the ground and convincing kids to pee in the woods in the middle of the night was all completely and utterly worth it. Every hot, sticky, bug spray, sunscreen, sand and sap moment of it!
Take the risk, do the work and get outside and explore! You will never regret it.