Exploring Georgian Bay has to be one of the most quintessential activities of a legit Grey County local. Its crystal clear depths, cliffs, beaches, expansive shorelines, and storied history make it one of the most tantalizing, iconic bodies of water in Ontario - if not Canada.
Before we get into this one, I’d like to acknowledge the Traditional Territory of the Anishinabek Nation: The People of the Three Fires known as Ojibway, Odawa, and Pottawatomie Nations. And further give thanks to the Chippewas of Saugeen, and the Chippewas of Nawash, now known as the Saugeen Ojibway Nation, as the traditional keepers of this land.
During the last two years of University I lived in Guelph in a house full of friends and family - we enjoyed the typical things a house packed with students would enjoy: parties, concerts, BBQs, hikes, hockey games, you name it, Guelph had it. So you’d think after experiencing that kind of companionship and enjoyment in the community, maybe we’d stick around after school and keep that vibe going. But no; we high-tailed it out of there the second we could.
Why? It’s real simple. Guelph has no water. It’s got Guelph Lake, the Speed and Grand rivers, sure - but it sure as heck isn’t on Georgian Bay. With that one simple fact in mind, we loaded up and headed north.
Exploring Georgian Bay has to be one of the most quintessential activities of a legit Grey County local. Its gigantic size has it called the 6th Great Lake and our geographic location at the southern end of ‘Sweetwater Sea’ means we get to enjoy some of the Bay’s warmer waters and calmer moods. Its crystal clear depths, cliffs, beaches, expansive shorelines, and storied history make it one of the most tantalizing, iconic bodies of water in Ontario - if not Canada.
Where should you begin exploring GBay? There’s no right answer to that question - just start where you have the easiest access. For simplicity’s sake, here are a few spots I think should make the list of any budding explorers or summertime wanderers who find themselves eager for a dip or a view:
Summer just isn’t complete without jumping off the Big Bay pier. Located at the northern terminus of the Township of Georgian Bluffs, Big Bay is cold, deep, uber blue, and home of the Stone Skipping Capital of Canada.
From the beach, you can gaze upon three of southern Georgian Bay’s biggest islands: Hay, White Cloud, and Griffith. You can also see the escarpment bluffs of South Bruce Peninsula and Neyaashiinigmiing plunging into the deep to the north. Don’t leave without having an ice cream cone from the Big Bay General Store. Insider tip, keep heading along Grey Road 1 to Cedar Hill Park, an incredible, seldom visited park on Colpoys Bay a stone's throw from Wiarton. Take lunch, have a swim, and enjoy the view.
Hibou / Leith Beach / Ainslie Woods
You can find one of the prettiest, most underappreciated shorelines in the region by heading east out of Owen Sound. Hibou Conservation Area is a local gem that boasts a spectacular sand beach, multiple picnic areas, clear water, a brand new park for the kiddos, and a killer view of Kemble Mountain across Owen Sound Bay. As an OS local, this is my happy spot.
Down the road, Leith Beach is another local hotspot perfect for a roadside stop, a lunch date, or a swim in GBay. Located at the mouth of Tefler Creek where the old Leith Pier used to be, its sandy, low-key beach energy is a great spot to fish for Steelhead and view the region’s shoreline neighbourhood fireworks on any long weekend.
Ainslie Woods is another stone’s throw up the road. It’s a little wilder, a little less populated, and drop dead gorgeous. It’s also the perfect jumpoff point to take your SUP or kayak and explore the rest of the shoreline north to Balaclava and back for an extended day trip along the Meaford Bluff.
Insider tip: purchase a Grey Sauble Conservation Area seasonal parking pass (a cheap and easy $40 for locals and $75 for non-residents) that grants you parking dibs at all open GSCA properties, including Hibou and Ainslie Woods (and Christie Beach in Meaford). We’ve purchased one for the last few years and it pays for itself by early June.
Another unsung hero of Georgian Bay beauty is the Town of Meaford. A growing surfer’s haven thanks to its NNE facing shore, Meaford’s waterfront is smack dab in the centre of the county, making it a great spot to begin your adventures. Book yourself an afternoon aboard Tom Thwaits’ Big Canoe Project, get an oar in your hand, and head east to view the Meaford claybanks for a special view of a unique landscape not replicated anywhere else in the region.
If you’re looking to take advantage of the Ontario government's Staycation Tax Credit, Meaford is also your spot; consider camping at Memorial Park, a 468-metre long shoreline campground with epic views and a great beach right outside of the RV door, or Back Forty Glamping, a gorgeous brand new luxury camping locale outside of Meaford featuring Instagram-worthy Yurt retreats on a 25-acre property. *Please note that all overnight accommodations, including campsites need to be reserved well in advance.
There are innumerable ways to expose yourself to the culture and beauty of Georgian Bay - in all of its grandeur - that have to be experienced firsthand!
The Owen Sound Salmon Spectacular Fishing Derby hosted by the Sydenham Sportsmen’s Association is one such event. A world-class fishing tournament celebrating the massive Chinook Salmon and Rainbow and Lake Trout of the Great Lakes that draws anglers from all over North America, it’s home to entertainment, family fun, and makes for a great excuse to spend some time on the water. If catching the big one is your thing but the tournament lifestyle isn’t for you - U Catch’em Charters can help you wet a line or two.
For the seafarer population reading this, a weekend day excursion to the wreck of the Mary Ward in South Georgian Bay provides a great reason to load up on sunscreen, grab the snorkel gear, and explore some accessible wreckage about 2km off the shore of Craigleith that places GBay’s nautical history front row centre.
Georgian Bay is the feather in the cap of Grey County; a wonderful, bewitchingly beautiful body of water that’s full of personality and character - so much so, it’s often referred to as a person itself. Its moods, playfulness, and energy have captivated visitors and locals for centuries, no doubt; GBay gives life on these shores such spark, it’s a pleasure to call it home. When traveling and visiting here, always be respectful of this special place: pack out your trash, leave it cleaner than you left it, and take with you only memories. That respect will inspire the spirit of the Bay to invite us back again and again.
Guest Writer: Nelson Phillips
Nelson Philips is a Grey County-based writer, creative director, photographer, and publisher. He's one half of local culture company and magazine, Rrampt. You can find him exploring backroads with his family, swimming in Georgian Bay in the offseason, and drinking too many coffees at Highfive Cowork & Social in the Owen Sound River District.