The Muskoka area is known for some of Ontario's most beautiful natural landscapes. Visitors come from all areas to immerse themselves in the wilds of cottage country as they enjoy great hiking trails, breathtaking nature and an abundance of wildlife. And while Muskoka is home to several unique provincial parks just waiting to be explored, areas such as the Torrance Barrens Dark-Sky Reserve also warrant a mention.
The Barrens is a very special place within the Muskoka community. On a clear night, it is like stepping into another world. With its picturesque views and rare wildlife sightings, it's no wonder the Ministry of Natural Resources has named it Canada's very first "Dark Sky Reserve." To preserve the area's nature, neighbouring towns have established by-laws to limit light pollution to preserve the pristine nighttime darkness for the future.
The main night sky viewing area is on a smooth granite area on Southwood Road. It is easily accessible to vehicles, making loading and unloading camera and telescope equipment much more manageable. This is where you want to be if you want to view the dark sky. For a fully 360-degree view, follow the signs along the main trail to the first ridge.
As beautiful as the night sky is, it is not the sole purpose of a visit. Animal enthusiasts will find the Barrens an excellent birding and wildlife photography spot. Visitors have reported spotting several unique and rare species in the 90+ species of birds and nearly 20 mammals in the Barrens. The numerous wetlands make it an ideal habitat for reptiles and amphibians, as hikers have encountered Leopard Frogs, Painted Turtles, and even a Massasauga Rattlesnake or two. In addition, keep your eyes peeled in the marshes for beavers and waterfowl. You'll also want to be mindful of Black Bears and Red Foxes at dawn and dusk.
If you're into hiking or mountain biking, the Torrance Barrens is a wild wonderland just waiting to be explored. There are two main loop trails, the Main Trail and the Pine Ridge Loop Trail. The Main Trail is 3 km long, and it circles the Highland Pond at a moderate incline, ending at a ridge offering a spectacular view. The Pine Ridge Loop Trail is 5 km long, climbing to a ridge overlooking the south shore of Pine Lake. These trails can be extended by adding the 6 km Barrens Extension to your hike. The extension circles an additional marsh and allows great opportunity for more wildlife viewing, like beavers. However, keep in mind that these trails traverse through a semi-wilderness, are often muddy, bug-infested, and can sometimes become flooded.
After an afternoon of hiking, you may want to relax for the night. Rest assured; overnight camping is permitted at The Barrens. There are six designated tent campsites. You'll need to buy firewood at the General Store because tree-cutting isn't allowed in the Barrens. Just remember to pack up your gear and remove all your garbage. That's not too much to ask for a front-row seat to one of the best night sky views.