Hunting for History: Take A Unique Drive in Ontario’s Cottage Country

Pandemic got you sticking closer to home this November? Looking to head out for some adventure in your own backyard? Consider a road trip scavenger hunt to discover amazing historic buildings and the fascinating tales they tell.

There’s no doubt that the great Canadian wilderness just north of Toronto is recognized for its stunning landscapes in all four seasons. But fact is, this part Ontario has some captivating stories to tell as well, and often buildings in our midst hold the secrets to our incredible past. Listed below are just a few neat spots you’ll come across out on the roads (click on each building’s title for a map and directions).

Before you go please NOTE: not everything is open after Thanksgiving, so your road trip success will perhaps be an epic selfie in front of an historic building, with bragging rights to say “been there, done that!” Check websites first to make your touring plans.

Bala’s Museum, Muskoka

Bala’s Museum pays homage to one of Canada’s most well-known authors; Lucy Maud Montgomery of Anne of Green Gables fame. In the summer of 1922, the author stayed for two weeks in what was then called the Roselawn Lodge at this location, and her sojourn inspired her novel The Blue Castle. Current owners Jack and Linda Hutton have lovingly restored the building, and created an extensive museum dedicated to the author. It’s open by appointment only, but you can purchase their merch online all year round.

While in Bala, head to the award-winning Muskoka Lakes Farm and Winery to sample amazing products made from cranberries and blue berries. Year-round outdoor activities await, as well as wine and cider tastings.

For more information on touring Muskoka Lakes and Bala, click here.

Bethune Memorial House National Historic Site Gravenhurst, Muskoka

Photo Credit: Muskoka Tourism 

Bethune House was the birthplace home to Dr. Norman Bethune, a Canadian medical pioneer (he created mobile blood transfusion services) and still, to this day, a revered Chinese cultural icon, thanks to his service in the Second Sino-Japanese war.  Visitors can explore the manicured grounds and experience the recreated First World War trench daily from 11am – 3pm. While the indoor exhibits are closed for the season, there are plaques and signs outside to peruse.

When in Gravenhurst, try the Heritage Walking Tour to explore incredible architecture throughout this historic town. Take a break at the Sawdust City Brewing Co. (named after the town’s logging past), and stop in at the Arts at the Albion, once a bustling settlers’ hotel, and now a thriving artisans’ collective. And no stop in Gravenhurst is complete without a visit to The Opera House, the stunning performance arts building (currently closed) that was erected in 1901.

For more information on touring Gravenhurst, click here.

Commanda General Store Museum

Photo Credit: Commanda General Store Museum

The General Store in the village of Commanda operated in the late 1800s to the early 1900s. Now the site of the Commanda Heritage Centre and Museum, the exterior of the building has been lovingly restored with period details and original trim and fixtures. While the museum closes after Labour Day Weekend, the eye-catching façade is irresistible for a social media photo op.

While in the area, stop for something to good to eat at Roxie’s Diner or Jake’s Place. And for more information on touring the Loring-Restoule region, click here.

Magnetawan Lions Park Dam and Locks 

Photo Credit: Municipality of Magnetawan

The history of the Village of Magnetawan is directly tied to the steamships and riverboats that once plied the northern waters. The Dam Trail takes visitors around the functional locks and dam to the Magnetawan Historical Museum, which features several outdoor displays, including a period log home and a historic steam engine. You can also view the reconstructed lighthouse that stands watch over the locks.

While in the village, head over to see the St. George Anglican Church, famously painted by Group of Seven artist A.J. Casson in his 1933 painting Anglican Church at Magnetawan.

Muskoka Discovery Centre

Photo Credit: Muskoka Steamships & Discovery Centre

The Muskoka Discovery Centre is located at the historic Muskoka Wharf in Gravenhurst. Explore this one-of-a-kind museum and discover the history of steamships, wooden boats, resort hotels, and the aboriginal and early settlers through interactive exhibits and hands on experiences. The Discovery Centre also has a KidZone with activities for the whole family to enjoy.

The Muskoka Wharf is situated on the shores of beautiful Lake Muskoka and makes an excellent scenic walk no matter the weather! And be sure to check out the historic steamships, the RMS Segwun and the Wenonah II, moored further down the wharf (always a great backdrop for a selfie).

Muskoka Heritage Place Huntsville, Muskoka

Photo Credit: Muskoka Heritage Place

The Museum at Muskoka Heritage Place is open Monday to Friday from 10am – 2pm. Using artifacts from its extensive collection, the museum takes visitors on a self-guided journey that traces the history of the region from First Nations peoples to early Huntsville settlers. There is also a scavenger hunt with five levels of difficulty. The museum is on one level and has accessible washrooms. (This winter too, watch for the lighted walk through the Pioneer Village on site – coming soon!)

For more information on touring Huntsville, click here.

Old Parry Sound Fire Hall, Parry Sound

Photo Credit: Parry Sound Bikes

The Old Parry Sound Fire Hall was built in 1893 and was used as the town’s fire station until 1985. With its iconic three-story hose tower, the fire hall was designated as a heritage building in 1982. It’s been upgraded and renovated, and is now the home of award-winning Parry Sound Bikes, which is open all year round (bike rental anyone?). Be sure to step inside to see the renovated interior – a labour of love by the owners.

While in Parry Sound head to the harbour and take a walk along the shores of Georgian Bay on the Rotary and Algonquin Regiment Waterfront Fitness Trail and the more challenging North Shore Rugged Hiking Trail. Or check out the historic train station, which is now home to the offices of world-class chamber music organization, the Festival of the Sound.

For more information on touring Parry Sound, click here.

South River Historic Train Station, Almaguin

Photo Credit: T Lee via Facebook

Once a significant station stop along the historic route connecting Toronto to North Bay, the station in was opened in 1884. The South River Historic Train Station is one of the few remaining examples of the first generation, original wooden stations built by the Northern and Pacific Junction Railway. Admire the original paint scheme and wood finishes of the structure, and then explore some of the great outdoor experiences in South River.

For a leisurely stroll, head to Tom Thomson Park. With unique gardens and natural features, the design and layout of the park were inspired by the work of famous Canadian painter Tom Thomson. For the more adventurous, the Forgotten Trails range from moderate to difficult hikes where you can explore scenic and historic routes with picturesque views. And to whet your (train) whistle, head to nearby Highlander Brewing Co.

West Parry Sound District Museum, Parry Sound

Photo Credit: Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve

Also known as the Museum on Tower Hill, the West Parry Sound District Museum is currently open by appointment only, seven days per week. On now, you can view the exhibit titled “Logging: A History”, which focuses on the logging era in these parts. The exhibition highlights the different lumber companies that operated in the region and explores the life of a lumberman.

Take your time and explore the Tower Hill Heritage Garden, which is beautiful in any season. Constructed in the 1920s by the Ontario Forestry Branch, the museum gardens are lovingly maintained under the watchful guidance of the Georgian Bay Master Gardeners, making it a lovely place to visit any time of the year.

Woodchester Villa, Bracebridge

Photo Credit: Town of Bracebridge

In 1882 Henry J. Bird and his family moved into his newly built, eight-sided home in the town of Bracebridge, overlooking the Muskoka River. Today the home, named Woodchester, sits on 10 acres of scenic property with views of the Bracebridge Falls and the town’s iconic silver bridge.

Explore the grounds and gardens for yourself and then continue your walk along the river for great vistas of downtown Bracebridge. Nearby you’ll also find the historic Inn at the Falls, which was originally built in 1876. And also downtown you’ll encounter the town’s historic Clock Tower, which still rings proudly to this day.

The Cabin at Basin Depot South Algonquin 

Photo Credit: Basin Depot Cabin Algonquin Park

Basin Depot Cabin is located on the east side of Algonquin Provincial Park, just above South Algonquin. Most agree that this is the longest-surviving cabin found in the park, which adds intrigue to it’s historical significance, considering Algonquin Park is Canada’s oldest provincial park. The area was once known to be a logging depot in the 1850s, and was also home to a logging camp in the 1950s. You can find this historical cabin at Algonquin Park Access Point #19.

This November, head out to discover the region’s built heritage, and enjoy a truly unique road trip. For more information on late fall drives in the region, click here.

Post a selfie of one of the above locations, be sure to tag us on Instagram, and we’ll give you a shout out! #explorersedge #historyhunting

TRAVEL SAFELY. Please respect all municipal, provincial and national travel advisories when booking a destination. Please also check with individual businesses prior to arrival to ensure safe protocols are in place.

Got more historic building suggestions for unique road tripping in this region? Email jack@explorersedge.ca to have them added.

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