In Ontario, we have the shorelines of four of the five Great Lakes right in our home province. This gives us access to many amazing road trips around these wondrous bodies of water we share with the U.S. But did you know there’s one Great Lakes circle tour you can complete without ever leaving Ontario? Georgian Bay is not considered one of the Great Lakes on its own: technically, it’s part of Lake Huron. But Georgian Bay itself is nearly as large as Lake Ontario. And it’s possible to drive around it in one continuous loop by following the Georgian Bay Circle Tour.
This is an approachable road trip for the majority of Canadians, and you can complete it without a passport. You’ll travel on highways, country roads, and even a ferry, exploring the many hidden gems along the way.
2023 BMW M2
Our most recent visit to the Georgian Bay Circle Tour saw us drive to Sudbury in a 2023 BMW M2. This marks the start of the M2’s second generation, following on the new 2 Series that debuted last year.
We’re all slowly preparing ourselves to say farewell to performance cars powered exclusively by gas engines. If this is the petrol-only M2’s swan song, it’s a fitting send-off. The 453 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque from the 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged inline-six-cylinder engine offers a just-right amount of raucousness. And with its menacing grille—mercifully positioned horizontally—surrounded by the M2-exclusive Zandvoort Blue paint colour, it’s an attention-grabber.
It’s nearly impossible to believe this is likely the final appearance by BMW’s manual transmission before it becomes extinct. We’re nearing the end of an automotive epoch, so let’s enjoy it while it lasts.
Preparing for your Georgian Bay Circle Tour
Regardless of your starting point, you can take the Georgian Bay Circle Tour in one of two directions. If you go clockwise starting from the south, you’ll start by heading toward the Bruce Peninsula. You’ll take the ferry to Manitoulin Island, then loop back around through Sudbury and head south toward Toronto. This is the direction we’ve outlined below. If you decide to travel counter-clockwise, you’ll go through Sudbury first and then head west toward Manitoulin Island before returning south.
For many travellers, what determines the best direction is the ferry between Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula and South Baymouth on Manitoulin Island. We’ve provided some tips on how to plan your trip around this ferry’s availability below.
We recommend setting aside at least a week for this Georgian Bay Circle Tour road trip. This will allow plenty of time at key locations to make the most of the most scenic locations.
The Bruce Peninsula is a thin strip of land that separates the south end of Georgian Bay from Lake Huron. It also forms part of the Niagara Escarpment, a unique geological formation and UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.
Part of the phenomenon created by the Niagara Escarpment is seen in the differences between the Bruce Peninsula’s two coasts. On the west side, you’ll find the shallow, sandy beaches that are typical of the Lake Huron coast. On the east side are the rocky outcroppings and Caribbean-like blue waters that have made this part of Ontario famous.
Here, there are not one but two protected areas overseen by Parks Canada. Bruce Peninsula National Park is a conservation-oriented national park with traditional visitor amenities. The Bruce Trail, an 890-kilometre hiking trail that traces the Niagara Escarpment from Niagara Falls to the end of the Bruce Peninsula, runs through the park. This includes access to some of the park’s most prized destinations such as the Grotto and Halfway Log Dump. If you’re not camping in the park, you’ll need reservations for the park’s parking lots to access these locations. It’s important to plan ahead before your visit.
Fathom Five National Marine Park
The second is Fathom Five National Marine Park, which protects the waters and islands around the tip of the Bruce Peninsula. This includes the many shipwrecks in the area, including two that are easily accessible in Big Tub Harbour in the village of Tobermory. It also protects Flowerpot Island, which is an island with two sea stacks. These are fascinating rock formations created through uneven erosion. The best way to explore this park is by taking a cruise organized through a local operator. We recommend Bruce Anchor Cruises.
Both parks are administered from the visitor centre in the village of Tobermory. If you have kids along, head here to pick up Parks Canada Xplorers booklets for both parks. Once they complete the activities, they can return to the visitor centre to receive collectible medallions to take home. You’ll also want to take the short walk to the observation tower to take in the spectacular views.
There are numerous campgrounds in the area, both outside and within the parks. With plenty of planning, it’s even possible to camp on Flowerpot Island! If you prefer not to rough it, there are simple motel-style accommodations available in the village of Tobermory. The village is worth a visit on its own for its many unique artisan shops, restaurants, and local microbrewery.
MS Chi-Cheemaun ferry, the key to the Georgian Bay Circle Tour
The MS Chi-Cheemaun ferry connects passengers between the village of Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula and the village of South Baymouth on Manitoulin Island. It’s important to plan ahead for this part of your journey. A reservation must be made for all crossings on the MS Chi-Cheemaun at least four hours before the scheduled departure. At busy times such as summer weekends, it’s recommended to secure your place much further in advance.
It takes the MS Chi-Cheemaun approximately two hours to complete the crossing between Tobermory and South Baymouth. While you’re on board, you’ll find a cafeteria, washrooms, indoor and outdoor decks with seating, and a gift shop.
In addition to the two-hour crossing, you’ll need to check in at the dock at least one hour before your scheduled departure. With this information in hand, check the ferry schedule to ensure space is available on your desired travel dates and times. If there’s no availability, try mapping your trip in the opposite direction and checking for tickets on the revised crossing date. If so, you may benefit from planning your trip in the opposite direction.
On rare occasions, the MS Chi-Cheemaun’s crossings may be cancelled due to inclement weather or mechanical issues. It’s a good idea to have a back-up plan in case this occurs during your trip.
Manitoulin Island is a natural wonder. It’s the largest island in a lake you’ll find anywhere in the world. In fact, it’s so large that the island itself contains 100 lakes!
If you’re a fan of geological oddities, you can find several of them here. Lake Manitou is the world’s largest lake in an island in a lake. This is easy to see from the several resorts and small villages that dot its shores. You can also see the world’s largest island in a lake in an island in a lake. This one is a little trickier to spot. Head to Highway 551 a little west of Lake Manitou, on the shores of Lake Mindemoya. If you catch a glimpse of an island between the trees, you’ve found Treasure Island.
Some of the island’s most popular spots include the beautiful Bridal Veil Falls near Kagawong. Follow a short trail to see the falls up close, then head into town to visit Manitoulin Chocolate Works. The Cup and Saucer Trail is set on dramatic 70-metre cliffs, the Manitoulin Island portion of the Niagara Escarpment. It’s one of the most popular trails in Ontario for the spectacular views it offers. Keep an eye out for local products made with hawberry, a Manitoulin delicacy!
The eastern portion of Manitoulin Island is Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, an Anishinaabe First Nation. Its citizens invite visitors to experience their lands by staying at the Indigenous-owned Bayside Resort or joining a fishing tour with Wasse-Giizhik Tours.
Continue the Georgian Bay Circle Tour on to Sudbury
You’ll depart Manitoulin Island on Highway 6 through the village of Little Current. Once you’re back on the mainland, you’ll continue to the town of Espanola. Once you reach the Trans-Canada Highway and turn toward the east, within an hour you’ll reach the city of Sudbury.
Sudbury is the unofficial capital of Northern Ontario. It’s best known for its position as a hub for the mining industry. In fact, if it’s been some time since you last visited Sudbury, you might not recognize it. Decades ago, it was scarred by mining pollution: the rocks were blackened, and there were few trees. Since Sudbury’s regreening project began in 1978, more than 10 million trees have been planted.
Today, the landscape is rejuvenated, lush, and green, and there are plenty of parks and outdoor spaces. With more lakes than any other municipality in Canada, Sudbury is a great destination for active travellers.
Sudbury is also home to a vibrant food scene. Much of its influence come from the Italian community who immigrated to the area to work in the mines.
The city has long been a hub for family attractions. It’s home to Science North, the second-largest science centre in Canada. Kids and adults alike can learn more about mining by descending below ground at Dynamic Earth.
Indigenous-owned businesses are establishing roots in Greater Sudbury.
Georgian Bay’s eastern shore
The eastern shore of Georgian Bay is a haven of parks. As you follow the Trans-Canada Highway south of the city on Highway 69, you’ll pass seven operating Ontario Parks. Most of these are very close to the highway, including Grundy Lake Provincial Park, Sturgeon Bay Provincial Park, Killbear Provincial Park, Oastler Lake Provincial Park, and Six Mile Lake Provincial Park. Killarney Provincial Park is a little further, but its legendary landscapes and The Crack hiking trail make it very popular.
French River Provincial Park is one of Ontario’s premier paddling destinations. The visitor centre is just off the highway roughly an hour south of Sudbury. It serves as a hub for accessing the French River Gorge and an extensive network of protected islands and waterways. The award-winning museum in the visitor centre explains the area’s history and geographical importance. A snowmobile bridge a short walk from the visitor centre lets you take in views of the gorge from above.
Just outside the park, the French River Trading Post is an iconic stopover. It’s best known for its house-made fudge, and it’s also home to a restaurant and an extensive gift shop.
Parks Canada on eastern Georgian Bay
As you approach the south end of Georgian Bay, there are two more Parks Canada locations worthy of a visit. Both are accessible off Highway 400 just south of Six Mile Lake Provincial Park. To the east, you’ll find the Big Chute Marine Railway. This is part of the Trent-Severn Waterway National Historic Site, a 386-kilometre waterway network connecting Georgian Bay to Lake Ontario. Big Chute Marine Railway is the only marine railway of its kind in North America. The large cradles follow tracks to lift boats over land and transfer them between two bodies of water. It’s a mechanical portage of sorts, and it’s a wonderful place to check out while stopping for a picnic.
Georgian Bay Islands National Park
The other is Georgian Bay Islands National Park. At just 13.5 square kilometres, Georgian Bay Islands National Park is the smallest national park in the Parks Canada system. It protects 63 islands in Georgian Bay, including the entirety of Beausoleil Island.
Georgian Bay Islands National Park is accessible only by boat. Day-use visitors and those staying overnight in Parks Canada cabins or oTENTiks can access Beausoleil Island via the DayTripper. This boat is operated by Parks Canada and is available by reservation. Same-day service is not available, so it’s necessary to book this in advance. Overnight tent campers need to arrange their own transportation, usually with a private operator out of Honey Harbour.
This park participates in Parks Canada’s Xplorers program. By visiting and completing an activity booklet, your kids will receive another medal for their collection. The activities encourage you to explore the park’s hiking trails, learn about its Indigenous history, and explore its geological diversity. Georgian Bay Islands National Park is a beautiful and underappreciated park. It’s a fitting way to begin or complete a circle tour of Georgian Bay.
Our visits to sites along the Georgian Bay Circle Tour took place in August 2017 (full tour; read the original story at autoTRADER.ca), October 2022 (Bruce Peninsula; read the original story at Driving.ca), and June 2023 (Sudbury, as noted here).