Road Trip Ontario: Gravenhurst, the ‘Gateway to the Muskokas’

This sign will greet you as you exit Highway 11 and enter Gravenhurst, the gateway to the Muskokas. Hannah Jackson / Global News

Every weekend in the summer, thousands of cottage owners, tourists and visitors head north to Ontario’s cottage country, seeking some rest and relaxation.

Many choose to stop along the way in the scenic town of Gravenhurst, known as the Gateway to the Muskokas, to stretch their legs, or grab a bite to eat.

And they stop in Gravenhurst for good reason. The beautiful town is bordered by both Lake Muskoka, the largest lake in the region, and Gull Lake, a smaller lake dominated mostly by cottagers.

With a deep history rooted in shipbuilding, there is an abundance of charming local eateries and shops in Gravenhurst’s historic downtown, making it the perfect stop for visitors in cottage country.

The town is home to 13,000 full-time residents, who are joined by another 14,000 people who live and cottage in Gravenhurst during the summer months.

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READ MORE: Road trip Ontario: Exploring the Kingston region, a slice of history between cities

According to Gravenhurst’s deputy mayor, Jeff Watson, the many festivals held over the course of the summer help to draw in waves of tourists.

“It’s probably the weekend events are what we are really known for,” he said.

Nearly every weekend over the summer, Gravenhurst acts as host to several different festivals and events, including the Veridian Festival of the Arts, the Celebrate Gravenhurst Street Festival and the upcoming Craft Beer Festival.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “There’s always something going on.”

Wonderful water

According to Watson, another big draw is the water.

“We are really proud of our beaches,” he said. “They have long, wide, sandy shores.”

Two of the most popular beaches in the area are Gull Lake Rotary Park and Muskoka Beach.

“Every Sunday night in the Gull Lake Rotary Park, we have music on the barge which is a 7:30 concert for nine weeks, and during that time we bring in different bands for people to enjoy.”

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According to Watson, it’s not unusual for crowds of up to 1,500 people to gather to enjoy the music.

Getting there

Gravenhurst is located at the southern edge of the Muskokas in Ontario’s cottage country. The charming town is approximately 20 minutes south of Bracebridge.

From Barrie, Gravenhurst is about a 50 minute drive. The journey is pretty straightforward. Head north on Highway 400 until the Highway 11 split, and then follow Highway 11 north until you hit the quaint town.

The drive from Barrie will take you through Shanty Bay, Oro-Medonte, Orillia, and Severn Township.

If you’re heading to Gravenhurst from Toronto, the drive is just as easy — straight up Highway 400 until you hit Highway 11. The drive from Toronto, however, will take you around 90 minutes.

READ MORE: Road trip Ontario: Summer crowds flock to Grand Bend’s beaches, gardens and sunsets

Where to stop along the way

If you’re heading to Gravenhurst from the Toronto area, the ideal place to stop would be Washago Centennial Park. The 21-acre park is located in the Township of Severn, on the shores of Lake Couchiching. The park offers a peaceful place to picnic, a quiet reprieve from cottage country traffic.

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For those feeling hungry along the way, a famous burger restaurant, Webers, has a stop along the northbound Highway 11 in Orillia, that is accessible from both sides by a footbridge. The famous restaurant has been serving customers on their way to cottage country since 1963 and has become a traditional rest stop for many families.

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Where to visit

Here is a list of notable things to do and see while you are in Gravenhurst.

Muskoka Steamships and Discovery Centre: A celebration of Gravenhurst’s boat building heritage, the Muskoka Steamship and Discovery Centre is a must-see for anyone visiting the town. Visitors to the Discovery Centre can learn all about the deep history of boat building through hands-on activities and can hop on a cruise on North America’s oldest fully operational steamship, the RMS Seguin.

The RMS Segwun is North America’s oldest operational steamship. Hannah Jackson / Global News

Gull Lake Rotary Park: One of two popular beach areas in Gravenhurst, Gull Lake Rotary Park offers it all. With a jungle gym, baseball diamond, volleyball net, sand beach, public dock, and picnic tables, Gull Lake Rotary Park is a perfect spot to stop with the family. The park is also host to several events throughout the year, including the antique and classic car show, music on the barge, the Severn River rowing club regatta and the TORC boat races.

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Gull Lake Rotary Park in Gravenhurst. Hannah Jackson / Global News

Gravenhurst Opera House: Situated in downtown Gravenhurst, the 117-year-old building hosts arts and cultural programming all year round. The building has survived the great depression, two world wars and over the years has housed a wide variety of events from art exhibits, criminal court proceedings, war rallies and, of course, live theater and music.

The Gravenhurst Opera House first opened in March of 1901. Hannah Jackson / Global News

Gravenhurst Farmer’s Market: If you happen to find yourself in Gravenhurst on a Wednesday, you can check out the award winning farmer’s market. One of the town’s largest tourist attractions, the market runs every Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., at the Muskoka Wharf Special Events field.

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Selfies and social posts — great spots to snap a picture

Muskoka Wharf: Located on the southern edge of Muskoka Bay on Lake Muskoka, the wharf covers more than 89 acres and has a boardwalk stretching more than 2,000 feet. With the beautiful bay as your backdrop, various spots along the wharf are picture-perfect.

There are countless places on Muskoka Wharf to take photos with the water as your backdrop. Hannah Jackson / Global News

Lookout Park: This park overlooks the beautiful water and Muskoka Wharf. Framed between mature trees, the famous steamships can be seen arriving and departing on their daily tours. Lookout Park is tucked at the end of Winewood Avenue, and according to Watson, is where locals gather to watch fireworks on holidays. The park, he says, is one of the best hidden gems in Gravenhurst.

Located at the end of Winewood Drive, Lookout Park offers the ultimate photo opportunity. Hannah Jackson / Global News

Spots to eat and drink

Here are the top five user-ranked Gravenhurst restaurants on the Trip Advisor Canada website:

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Grillicious Gourmet Food Truck

Blue Willow Tea Shop

The Creative Plate Eatery

Dock of the Bay

The Oar

Make a night of it

With dozens of lake houses and cottages for rent in town, there is no shortage of accommodations in Gravenhurst.

Similarly, for those looking for hotel accommodations, the top ranked motels in town according to Trip Advisor are:

Residence Inn by Mariott Gravenhurst Muskoka Wharf

Oakwood Motel

Taboo Muskoka Resort

Howard Johnson by Wyndham Gravenhurst

According to Trip Advisor, there are also several bed and breakfast options:

The Muskoka Rose Guest House and Retreat

The Inn on Bay

Four Ninety Bed and Breakfast 

Robbin’s Tuktawayin Bed & Breakfast

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The final pitch: Why you should visit Gravenhurst

Watson says ultimately, it’s the endless recreational possibilities that make Gravenhurst an ideal road trip stop.

“What makes us unique and a place worth visiting is our culture, and within our culture we have a number of different avenues that people can visit, and see and touch, and play and recreate and have a wonderful day or come for a week and spend their time,” he said.

And while Gravenhurst tends to be busiest in the hotter months, Watson says the town is no longer just a summer destination.

“We are starting to really become a four-season destination, and things are really moving in a positive direction,” he said.

Located at the southern most edge of the Muskokas, less than two hours from Toronto, Gravenhurst is an accessible road trip for those looking to trade the hustle and bustle of city life for a day or two of cottage-country relaxation.

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