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The Muskoka Lakes region is one of Ontario’s favorite waterfront retreats, with historic villages like Bala and Port Carling welcoming weekenders here for more than a century. North of sprawling Toronto, you’ll find clusters of 19th-century cabins, contemporary mansions, and celebrity-owned second homes dotting the shores of these 80 or so glacier-carved lakes. In fact, Torontonians colloquially refer to this chain of lakes as cottage country due to its popularity as a cool, peaceful getaway.
It’s popular partly because it makes for a convenient trip away from the city — and because you really do feel away from it all in this wild setting. Coming here is an annual tradition for many families and groups of friends, who spend time on the three big lakes of Muskoka, Rosseau, and Joseph, each ringed with forests, beaches, and parks. There’s plenty to do, on the water and off: boating, paddling, swimming, fishing, water skiing, hiking, golfing the numerous courses, or simply kicking it on one of the peaceful docks.
It’s less than a three-hour drive to Muskoka Lakes from Toronto and about 4.5 hours from Ottawa, Canada’s capital city. While the small Muskoka Airport (YQA) is technically the closest, it’s mostly used by private charters and air taxis, with limited commercial service. You’re more likely to fly into Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ), where you can rent a car for the journey to the lakes. Public transportation options are practically nonexistent in this sparsely populated corner of Ontario; you’ll need a car to get out and explore.
Summer is the peak season for splashing in the water, boating, or hitting one of the many trails. From June through August, expect warm weather and sunny days. Colors transform the foliage in fall, when it might be too cold to swim but is typically perfect for a hike through the changing forests. Off-season festivals such as the Bala Cranberry Festival in late fall and Port Carling Winterfest in February show off the region’s small-town character. While winter may be a relatively sleepy season here, it’s prime time for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling.
Outcroppings of granite, scattered forests, and wetlands define the distinct landscapes in Torrance Barrens, a conservation area popular with hikers and mountain bikers. But when the sun sets, that’s when the real show begins. In 1999, Torrance Barrens was named the nation’s first dark-sky preserve by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada; the lack of light pollution makes this an exceptional spot to gaze into the cosmos on a clear night, watching for shooting stars and pondering the big questions.
From a distance, this mural on the side of an old building on Port Carling’s main drag resembles the historical art visible in many small communities. In this case, the image depicts an early-20th-century scene of a steamship passing by the lakeside town. But as you get closer, you’ll notice the mural is actually a photo mosaic comprising more than 9,000 historical images, each telling one small part of the larger history of the region.
Follow this easy 1.8-mile (2.89-km) loop trail, which climbs a big rock formation, and at the top, you’ll be greeted with panoramic views of the lakes, forests, and wilderness for miles beyond. It’s an especially pleasant trek at sunset. Keep in mind the trail becomes quite slippery when it rains and inaccessible to most hikers when it snows.