This is a complete guide to teach you how to make the most of summer in Muskoka, Canada’s cottage country capital.
The main three lakes now are Lake Muskoka, Lake Rosseau and Lake Joseph. The significant towns are Port Carling, Gravenhurst, Mactier, and Bala.
In Toronto, if you say you’re going “north” or “to Muskoka” everyone knows you mean the general region.
Muskoka is synonymous with cottaging. The area grows exponentially each summer with the arrival of tourists, summer cottagers from around the world, and seasonal workers. Everyone is looking to enjoy the fresh air, bask in the sunshine, and chill out by the lakes for a few months.
With lockdown still on in Toronto, I’m dying to be up north taking in the fresh smell of the pines as I read on the dock. Unfortunately, my incredible sister is building us a new cottage (check out her work at sophieclapperton.com) so I have to wait on that particular escape.
However, I can reminisce in this complete guide to Muskoka, Canada’s cottage country.
Getting to Muskoka
Directions will depend on the exact location you’re going to, as Ontario’s highways have to wind around the lakes in Muskoka. Many old 80km highways map the path for cottagers while others will take you through charming towns with wonderful bakeries.
The easiest way to get to the lake is to drive – especially since most people pack their vehicle with towels and pool toys until it’s fit to burst.
From Toronto, there are a few routes that will get you in the general vicinity. Highway 12 offers more rural views while the 400 North is slightly faster. Either way, the drive is beautiful. You can watch as the city fades away to old barns, fields of horses, and rugged Canadian shield (the intricate rock that covers most of Canada).
Part of Muskoka’s rural charm is the lack of coherent GPS routes. To use your GPS, map to large points of interest like marinas or restaurants. You’ll have to get specific directions to find individual cottages.
Some people take the buses from Toronto to Gravenhurst to get to Muskoka. It takes longer than driving as the coach bus has to make a few stops, but it’s a cheap alternative if you don’t have a car.
If you’re much fancier than I could ever hope to be and have your pilot’s license, you can fly into the Muskokas. There’s a small landing strip or invest in a seaplane and park it at your dock. It’s always a fun past time in the summer to watch the sea planes take off over your head as you float in the water.
Where to Stay
The best way to experience Muskoka is from a cottage – either your own, a friends, or a rental. Be sure to get one with waterfront access and a dock to get the true northern experience.
If you don’t own a cottage, rent one! There are always tons of places for rent each summer. Choose whether you want to rent for the whole summer (the pricier option) or for a few weeks. We’ve stayed at a number of rentals over the years (especially when my sister goes on a building spree and tears down our cottage again). They’ve let us experience new areas of the lakes and try out different styles of places.
The three main resorts in Muskoka are Rocky Crest, the Lake Joe Club, and the JW Marriott (previously Red Leaves). All three offer longterm summer rentals or shorter stays. If you stay at a resort, you’ll get access to additional benefits like closer restaurants, water sports, kids clubs, and sports equipment.
If you’re not staying at the resorts, you can still book to use their equipment and can visit any of their restaurants.
How to Make the Most of Summer in Muskoka
The Classic Ideal
Making the most of Muskoka is different for everyone. Some people prefer to shop, others to do all the water sports, and others to watch copious amounts of the Game Show Network (aka. me in my goth days).
The classic idea of Muskoka is to sit in a Muskoka chair (pictured above) drinking some form of alcohol while listening to the waves lap at the dock. Or tanning on the dock while music blasts from an iPod dock.
If you’re looking for more exercise, hop in the water and swim to your heart’s desire. Work your arms by canoeing, kayaking or paddle boarding. Find your nearest jumping rocks (every lake has them) and leap from up to 40ft into the water.
Or take it easy by fishing off the dock. Just be sure to catch and release!
For the Boaters
My favourite part of cottaging is boating. I love the speed of a jet skiing around the islands or the tranquility of motoring around in the boat while my dad and sister look at cottages.
If you’re more adventurous, try out some water sports. Tubing is a Muskokan right of passage. Once you master that, advance to water skiing, knee boarding, wake boarding or wake surfing (I’m sure that are even more I don’t know about).
Be sure to have a watcher – a legal requirement in Muskoka. That is a person aside from the driver who can watch the person doing the sports to interpret their signals and ensure they’re alright.
That’s my role in the family since I rarely if ever attempt anything behind the boat. It’s a pretty good gig since you get to ride around and not tumble off a tube at 30km.
For Those That Prefer Dry Feet
Outside of the water, hiking and biking are the most popular forms of exercise. There are tons of trails to entertain you for the summer. If you’re looking for something more intense, you can even drive to Algonquin Park (this may require staying overnight depending on your commitment).
Cyclists ride along the gravel edges of the highway, dodging joggers and dog walkers. It’s a fun time unless you’re like me and terrified of the big rigs that pass (My dad once told me you could get sucked under them. I’ve since learned that was a lie to make me cautious as a kid, but damn did it ever work).
Rainy Days in Muskoka
On rainy days, most people crack open the move cupboard (or Netflix if you’ve got wifi at your cottage) and settle in until it passes. Others choose to read or do their creative pursuits.
Families tend to play board games or do puzzles. As potentially the most competitive person in my family, I’d recommend keeping the boardgames civil and tossing Life as far as possible.
We prefer to play cards – our way of avoiding some of my competitive nature since I’m genuinely terrible at all card games. My dad is a treasure trove of old games since he grew up with a family cottage without a TV. If you can, get yourself someone who knows card games. If not, maybe find an online guide before you go up.
What to Do After Dark
At night, break open the bag of marshmallows and roast them over a campfire. It’s a requirement to have s’mores rations at the ready in Muskoka – they even sell kits in the grocery store. If you’re not into sweets, roast some hot dogs (or veggie dogs!) and have a second dinner.
Canada conveniently shoved all of its holidays into the summer, so there’s no shortage of long weekends. That means one thing in Muskoka: fireworks.
If you’re like my dog, that’s bad news for you.
But for the rest of us it means awesome light-shows all the time. Head down to the dock (but don’t forget the bug spray!) to enjoy the shows put on by your neighbours.
What to Do in Muskoka
While there’s plenty to do at your cottage, there’s also lots to do elsewhere in Muskoka.
If you don’t have a boat of your own, look into renting one from your local marina.
Want to learn some water sports or improve your skills? Call up Muskoka Wake to be picked up from your dock. They even have a water-powered jet pack you can schedule! Or go to Bush’s Watersports Park where you can use their boats or wakeboard off a zip line. They even have jumps for the more daring among us.
If you’re more content to watch other people do the jumps, head to Gravenhurst for the ski show put on multiple times each summer. The dates and times change, so ask around for the details when you visit. You can sit on the dock or head to a restaurant patio to enjoy professionals doing amazing stunts in the harbour.
Once a summer, the annual rib fest comes to Gravenhurst. It’s usually in the last week of July and features amazing barbecue. We’ve gone every year – even, to my chagrin, the few that I was a vegetarian. Line ups are long, but that’s part of the event. You get an assortment of ribs, pulled pork, chicken, corn, and corn bread from different vendors to compare their styles.
My favourite thing to do in Muskoka is to go to the movies. No, not the theatre (although there is one). I prefer the drive in. Every year I demand a trip down to the drive in, where we buy buckets of extremely cheap popcorn and settle in for a double feature. They play movies that have just come out of the theatres, with a child friendly one first and a PG-13+ movie after. They change movies pretty often so there’s always a reason to visit again.
If your need for speed isn’t contained to the water, try out ATVs or quad bikes. Muskoka is full of trails that can take you all the way down to Huntsville (it’s a long way, I promise). Strap on a helmet and prepare to get muddy as you roar through the forests.
Golfers can make use of one of the many clubs in Muskoka. Book a tee time at a course like Lake Joe and enjoy a day hitting balls in the sun.
The Bala Key is famous in Muskoka as the place to go out. If you’re looking to dance, drink, or go to a concert, then this is the place for you. They host themed staff nights once a week with dress up rules and old music that are really fun. It’s mostly for people under 30, but that occasionally changes when an older musician is booked.
Where to Eat in Muskoka
Barbecues and homemade dinners may be the image of Muskoka, but there are a lot of amazing places to dine out.
If you’re looking for amazing cookies, head to Abbeys Bakehouse. For every other baked good, check out Dons Bakery. It’s a classic that fills up really quickly, so go early!
Turtle Jacks and Bass Lake Roadhouse offer a variety of pub food items. Tullos is Muskoka’s resident Mexican joint with some seriously amazing tacos. If you’re looking for pizza, check out Knead or Pie.
For a nicer meal, go to Crossroads. It’s the best food in the Muskokas, although you may need a reservation. I swear they put crack in their Caesar salad dressing because I could drink the stuff!
While Webers isn’t technically in Muskoka, it’s a staple of any Muskokan summer. On your drive up Highway 12, pull off to visit this old school burger joint. They have a sparse menu (with veggie options) that draws line ups down the highway. It’s the best veggie burger I’ve ever eaten and the seasoning on the fries is to die for. You can dine on picnic benches or inside a converted steam train that now serves as their seating area.
There are a thousand other little places to stop in and eat at. Most are amazing, even if they look like holes in the wall.
Muskoka: The Best Place to Spend Summers
My summers have been defined by cottage country for nearly a decade now.
People who aren’t from Canada might not understand the allure of it, or even how we use the word. It’s basically our version of a lake house or a villa elsewhere in the world.
Most of us use it as an escape from the bustle of city life, especially if you live or work in Toronto. Others retired their suits and ties for swim trunks and afternoon beers on the dock. Kids look forward to spending their summers “up north” where they can play in the water and nearly die tubing. Travellers visit to see a different side of Canada, where the stories of wild moose and bears roaming are a reality.
Muskoka is often what I think of when I try to imagine home. Not in the sense that I want to live there, but in the feel of it. The brightness of the sun, the ability to jump in the water or run into the forest both equally available, and the peace from the rush of the city.
If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend spending a summer in Muskoka. Not only do you now know how to make the most of summer in Muskoka, but it’ll teach you what summer should always be.
How did you spend summers growing up?