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Road Trip Ontario: Embrace the outdoors with range of rustic to modern camping options

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Although the Labour Day long weekend marks the symbolic end to summer with students returning to school on Tuesday, campgrounds across the province are still open for visitors looking for a relaxing getaway.

“There seems to be really recent resurgence in camping and the outdoors for all ability levels,” Jeff Brown, a spokesperson for Ontario Parks, told Global News.

“We still have tons of people who want to sleep in a tent or park their RV, but there’s a growing segment of folks looking for a more comfortable nature experience.”

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Brown said Ontario Parks currently sees more than 10 million visitors a year to its 330 properties, but since 2014, there has been increased attendance at its campgrounds. But the demand for campsites isn’t just in the summer, as parks staff prepare for the next couple of months.

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“The fall in particular has been a growing time for camping for us in the past several years, and weekends are really, really popular,” Brown said, adding cooler temperatures, next to no bugs, and autumn foliage make the autumn desirable.

“A lot of the fall colours with the leaf changes drives that visitation.”

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Algonquin Park, located in Whitney, is the most sought-after fall camping destination, Ontario Parks said. To easily get a site, residents are encouraged to book on a weekday.

But campers don’t have to venture far out of the Greater Toronto Area to escape city life. Brown said Bronte Creek in Oakville offers a ravine with stunning autumn colour views, and Darlington in Bowmanville has a lengthy beach and trails for residents to walk along.

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Not all of the properties in the Ontario Parks system have camping amenities, though. Brown said parks like Mono Cliffs in Alliston have hiking trails with scenic vistas.

For those who haven’t camped before and may not know about living outdoors, Ontario Parks offers an overnight Learn to Camp program at six different parks in the province. Parks staff will provide all the equipment needed, and visitors just need to bring food, bedding and personal items.

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“[They will teach you how to] setting up your tent, to cooking on a camp stove, to lighting a camp fire, to what kind of things you do for fun in parks and everything in between,” Brown said.

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However, tent camping isn’t for everyone — and campgrounds are starting to adapt to that changing demand.

Brown said Ontario Parks is starting to build up its stock of roofed accommodations, noting there are close to 200 units. The most rustic of these types of units are yurts.

“The yurts are our most numerous option. They’re soft-sided structures so you still have that tent experience, but they’re heated, there’s electricity, there’s beds, a table and there’s a barbecue out front to cook on,” he said, adding visitors only need to bring bedding, food, food storage, cookware and dishes.

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One-room wood cabins have been added in the past couple of years, with 10 units recently installed at Silent Lake Provincial Park in Bancroft. Brown said the cabins sleep up to six people and are equipped with a queen bed, a bunk bed with a double bed on the bottom and a single on the top, a kitchenette, a fridge, a microwave, a fireplace, a dining room and a screened-in porch. Washrooms and showers are a short distance away and available to all campers.

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Full cottages are gradually being added to the Ontario Parks system as staff work to repurpose old buildings. Brown said a new multi-bedroom, full kitchen cottage was has been opened at Balsam Lake in Kirkfield.

Alexandra Anderson, executive director of the private campground association Camping In Ontario, said the “ready to camp” options are seeing the biggest period of growth recently.

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“It definitely caters to the people who a) don’t want to tent, or b) would like the tenting experience, but simply by the time they’ve got out of the City of Toronto, they just want to go and be done,” she said.

Anderson said private operators are providing unique options for people who want a more comfortable experience outdoors.

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For instance, Anderson said Bingemans in Kitchener offers converted shipping containers and log cabins.

In Renfrew, Elements luxury tented camp and nature spa embraces “glamping” — glamorous camping — and equips its tents with hotel-style finishes.

She also said Long Point Eco-Adventures in St. Williams, off Lake Erie, has wilderness suites and camping pods along with amenities like zip-lining.

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Meanwhile, Anderson echoed Brown and said private-sector operators are also seeing strong demand for fall camping, especially from Americans visiting the Niagara region and Quebec residents visiting places like Picton and Sauble Beach.

“Because of our changing weather patterns, we’re seeing more people booking later on in September,” she said.

“The older people are flocking to the vineyards. And some of the campgrounds also offer what we call a shoulder season rate, so they discount their rates a little bit in September and October so it’s more affordable.”

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For places like Algonquin Park, some private campgrounds are fully booked by Thanksgiving and into November.

Anderson said getting outdoors, especially in the autumn time, can be beneficial and encouraged residents to consider taking a day trip or having an overnight excursion.

“The mental health benefits of just going to a campground, conservation authority — it doesn’t matter where you are — you can’t put a price on that,” she said.