The McCrae Lake Conservation Reserve is a 2,039 hectare managed area of crown land located in the Muskoka District of Ontario, Canada. It’s a very popular semi-wilderness area that is used for a variety of outdoor recreational activities, including hiking, camping, canoeing, fishing, hunting, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, cross country skiing and photography. There are several kilometres of maintained trails for each activity, and the relatively open terrain offers countless opportunities for off-trail exploration. Extending from McDonald Lake in the east, adjacent to Highway 400, to Georgian Bay on the west and the Gibson River to the north, canoeing opportunities are endless. McCrae Lake is completely contained within the Reserve.
McCrae Lake is located approximately 2 hours from downtown Toronto and about 45 minutes north of Barrie.
The Reserve is located 19 kms north of Port Severn, Ontario. Parking is located off the Highway 400 southbound ramp, at the Georgian Bay Road/Crooked Bay Road exit.
Canoeing and Kayaking
My first trip to McCrae Lake Conservation Reserve was with the high school Outdoors Club in the mid 1980s when I was fourteen. We stayed at a campsite located at the far south-east end of McCrae Lake for three days, and I was hooked on the area. The following year, three friends and I set out on our first multi-day canoe trip through the reserve. We loaded two canoes in the back of my Dad’s Chevy Suburban, along with our ridiculous amount of gear, and he dropped us off at Six Mile Lake Provincial Park, picking us back up seven days later. We travelled up through Gibson Lake, down the Gibson River and the Musquash River to Georgian Bay and back up through McCrae Lake and McDonald River to Six Mile Lake.
For four fifteen year olds, it was an epic trip and a real learning experience. We foolishly thought that we could supplement every meal with fresh fish caught along the way. We didn’t know at the time that acid rain had decimated aquatic life in much of the system, and we had a hard time catching enough to eat. By the end of the week, we were subsisting on merganser duck eggs, snapping turtle meat, freshwater mussels and panfish.
Flash forward to 2015. After a thirty-year absence, my wife and I returned to McCrae Lake Conservation Reserve in January 2015 to snowshoe. McCrae is very busy on weekends, but we have the luxury of working from home and scheduling our day trips to busy areas for weekdays when crowds are reduced. On this day, we didn’t see anyone else, and vowed to return again in February, which we did (see below – Snowshoeing and Hiking McCrae Lake).
In September, we returned to canoe and kayak the length of McCrae Lake to the outflow to Georgian Bay, an area we know well from our years of boating on the big bay. It was a perfect sunny late summer weekday, and again we had the lake to ourselves.
In November, craving one last day on the water and wanting to take advantage of the unseasonably warm weather, D and I went back to McDonald Lake for the day, this time in my old canvas and wood canoe. We had a perfect day, paddling and exploring every inch of shoreline and enjoying a campfire lunch of stew, wine, cheese and baguette – again without interruption.
Snowshoeing and Hiking McCrae Lake Conservation Reserve
The McCrae Lake Conservation Reserve is located in the lee of Georgian Bay where the landscape is comprised of thin soiled, rolling bedrock with knolls of white oak, red oak and white pine trees. As such, the forest is short and open, not densely forested like areas found further inland. This open landscape is ideal for hiking and snowshoeing off-trail, although there are good multi-purpose trails as well.
There is a well marked hiking trail that starts from the southwest side of the parking area, goes around the south end of McCrae Lake and crosses the waterfall between McCrae Lake and Georgian Bay at the Crows Cliffs. Reports vary on the length and time required to do this hike, but this past fall I hiked to the waterfall in about two hours. It looks to be about 6 to 7 kilometres one way, and there is a loop option that splits off about two kilometres from the parking lot. Along the trail, there are several spots to stop for a break at the water’s edge – either McCrae Lake, Stuart Lake, Georgian Bay or one of the beaver ponds.
The Five Winds Backcountry Ski Club maintains approximately 125 km of trails on scenic Crown land and Mohawk Territory in the Gibson River area between Georgian Bay and Gravenhurst, Ontario. These trails can be difficult to follow in some areas where they cross bedrock substrate, but they’re well worth seeking out. If you hike or snowshoe here during the winter, respect the trail by not walking in the main tracks if possible. Post-holing with boots or snowshoes creates a rough cross-country ski trail.
The snowmobile trail, (Trunk Trail), operated by the Baxter Snowriders Corporation, a member of the Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs (OFSC), crosses the McDonald River and heads north to Bala and is linked to the Federation’s thousands of maintained trails located throughout Ontario. This trail, where it crosses crown land, is suitable for hiking in the warmer months. In the winter when the trail is open to snowmobilers, it’s important to give them the right of way. Refer to the OFSC website for questions regarding legal use of the trails during all seasons.
If you visit McCrae Lake in the winter, be aware that the McDonald River cuts down the centre of McDonald Lake, flowing over the falls below the snowmobile trail bridge and out into McCrae Lake. Due to the strong current, this channel rarely freezes, and if it does, is not safe to cross. Be aware of ice conditions at all times, or keep off.
Resources – McCrae Lake Conservation Reserve
MNR Statement of Conservation Interest – well worth the read for rules, regulations and purpose of the reserve. Includes a map.
Barrie Canoe and Kayak Club – Members of the Barrie Canoe and Kayak Club have been visiting The McCrae Lake Conservation Reserve since 1977 and it’s become an annual tradition. Also a tradition, the club assists the Friends of McCrae Lake to clean and maintain campsites and trails, at least bi-annually. Clean-up days are usually in May and September.
Ontario Hunting Regulations Summary– Be aware that hunting is allowed during open seasons in the Reserve. For your safety, hunter orange is appropriate attire, at least during deer season the first two weeks of November.
Ontario Fishing Regulations Summary Zone 15 – Fishing in the McCrae Lake Conservation Reserve is subject to fishing regulations for Zone 15. If you fish Georgian Bay, be aware that it is governed by separate regulations for Zone 14.