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Visiting Ontario Parks Responsibly: How to Enjoy and Protect Our Parks

Visiting Ontario’s Parks responsibly is easy. There’s a good chance that you’re already participating in several practices that are common sense, such as packing out what you pack in. It seems like a no-brainer to keep the most beautiful natural areas of our province clear of litter and waste.

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However, there are many more ways that we can be responsible visitors at our parks. If you’re hiking, camping, or engaging in outdoor activities at Ontario Parks, please make yourself familiar with these best practices. Beyond leaving no trace, you can even help our parks by participating in community science projects!

Ontario Parks

How to Visit Ontario’s Parks Responsibly

Ontario has over 330 provincial parks that cover 8% of Ontario’s land mass. Ontario Parks has a mission to provide sustainable ways for outdoor recreation while protecting Ontario’s ecosystems, biodiversity, and provincially significant habitats and wildlife.

Dragonfly at Ontario Parks

It’s really easy to be a responsible visitor of Ontario Parks. Before you venture out to the day use areas, trails, and campsites at the parks, be sure to review these simple things to keep in mind when you plan your visit.

Practice Leave No Trace Principles

Do you know the phrase, “leave no trace”? Simply put, it means to pack out what you bring into the park. Leave as little impact on the natural environment as possible.

Presqu'ile Provincial Park in fall

Leave No Trace is also an organization committed to sustaining healthy and vibrant natural lands for future generations to enjoy. There are seven principles of Leave No Trace:

  • Plan ahead and prepare
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  • Dispose of waste properly
  • Leave what you find
  • Minimize campfire impacts
  • Respect wildlife
  • Be considerate of other visitors

In 2020, Ontario Parks received a record breaking 11 million visits, so it’s more important than ever before to consider the above principles as to not negatively impact the natural environment.

Ontario Parks’ #ForTheLoveOfParks Campaign

Boardwalk Trails

Ontario Parks has launched their #ForTheLoveOfParks campaign, and their article is worth a read for anyone thinking about visiting Ontario’s parks. Before you visit any park, plan your trip ahead of time. Research the park and arrive prepared.

Paddling at Ontario Parks

You’ll enjoy your visit even more when you learn all about the facilities and activities ahead of time. It’s always a good idea to have a park map, too. I recommend taking a picture of the park map with your phone to always have a copy on hand. There’s usually one on display right when you enter the park.

Respect plays a big role within the #ForTheLoveOfParks project. When you visit the parks, you are merely a guest. Please leave as little impact as possible on these ecosystems. Plants and animals live there, and we need to respect them.

Rabbit at Ontario Parks
Wild Black Raspberry Flower

How do we respect these natural habitats? Staying on the designated trails is a great way to ensure that we don’t trample on anyone’s home. Don’t pick any plants or flowers. And please don’t feed the wildlife. The best way to view and experience wildlife is from afar. Admire animals and birds safely from a distance.

Please respect fellow visitors within the parks and hikers on the trails. Be kind to others. Have patience. Don’t blare music as you’re walking around (wear headphones if you like to listen to music) and don’t yell. Many people visit the parks as a peaceful escape from the city.

Visiting Ontario Parks: Do Not Litter

Litter and waste is one of the biggest challenges that Ontario Parks faces on a daily basis. In day use areas, on the trails, and within campsites, it’s important to not leave any litter behind. Dispose of all waste properly in designated trash bins. It’s even better if you can reduce the amount of waste that you create within the parks, and always pack out what you bring in.

According to this article about litter in the parks, some of the worst offenders include single use plastics, cigarette butts, and diapers. Cigarette butts are full of dangerous chemicals that can seep into the soil and can be ingested by animals. And please do not toss dirty diapers into the bushes! This is an extremely wasteful practice. It’s important to set a positive example for our children so they learn how to take care of the planet, too.

Be a Responsible Camper

Bonnechere Provincial Park

While many of us are seasoned campers, there are also many who are trying camping for the first time this year. There’s some basic camping etiquette that you should practice when you’re spending time in the forest.

Keep your campfire safely under control, and only use firewood that’s from the area you’re visiting. Don’t use firewood from the forest.

Campfire at Bonnechere Provincial Park

Store your food properly. Bring water from the water tap back to your campsite (don’t brush your teeth or wash your dishes at the tap itself). Safely dispose of your dirty dishwater at the sanitation station or pouring it down the vault toilets at outhouses. Comfort stations are not meant for dishwashing.

Comfort Stations at Bonnechere Provincial Park

And while we’re on the topic of comfort stations, only flush items that are flushable to avoid creating a plumbing disaster. Be courteous at the comfort stations. Help keep them clean for yourself and your fellow campers.

Ecological Projects at Ontario Parks

While Ontario Parks serves to manage the ecological integrity of the parks, there are also many educational opportunities at the parks. By increasing your knowledge of the park’s habitats, wildlife, and cultural heritage, you’ll gain a greater appreciation for what we need to protect.

Turtle at MacGregor Point Provincial Park

There are many scientific projects by park ecologists and staff members each year. For instance, the staff at both Rondeau Provincial Park and MacGregor Provincial Park have turtle nesting projects. When the turtles make their nests, the park staff places protective boxes over the nests to ensure that predators don’t disrupt the nests or eat the eggs.

South Beach at Rondeau PP

There are also many beach cleanup projects and maintenance projects that take place on a regular basis. A park naturalist at Rondeau Provincial Park informed me that beach cleanups occur three times a week. Staff members come across many items that are not only left behind by park visitors, but also things that wash up on shore from other places.

Stop by the Visitor Centre and Learn From Park Naturalists

Visitor Centre at Rondeau Provincial Park

Always plan to stop by the parks’ visitor centres when you visit. They have so much valuable information and resources that unlock all sorts of interesting details about the park. For instance, the visitor centre at Rondeau Provincial Park showcases park features, exhibits about the history of flora and fauna at the park, and even some live, rescued animals like turtles and snakes.

Book the Naturalist at Ontario Parks
Black oak leaf from the Dunes ecosystem at Rondeau

Park naturalists are always on hand to answer any questions that you might have. At Rondeau Provincial Park, they offer “Book the Naturalist” programs. You can take guided hikes to discover insects, birds, and so much more. I spent the day with a naturalist at Rondeau Provincial Park and learned so much about the flora and fauna of the park.

Turkey vultures
Turkey vultures
Button Bush
Button Bush

We spotted many species of birds, butterflies, dragonflies, flowers, plants, and snakes. Park naturalists are so knowledgeable and they have so much valuable information to share with visitors to the park. Ask them any questions that you might have and definitely take a guided hike if you can.

How to Participate in Community Science Projects

Bird at Presqu'ile Provincial Park

It’s easy to participate in citizen science projects while you’re out and about at the parks in Ontario. You can share your sightings through the Ontario Parks iNaturalist project. Anyone can participate and every observation counts. It’s also well worth joining the Rare Species of Ontario project where you can help count species at risk in the province.

Eastern Hognose Snake at Rondeau Provincial Park
Eastern Hognose Snake at Rondeau Provincial Park

Many parks also host annual wildlife monitoring events. For example, MacGregor Point Provincial Park hosts their annual Huron Fringe Birding Festival (with Friends of MacGregor Park), the annual butterfly count (through the North American Butterfly Association), and the annual Damselfly/Dragonfly count (the first one happened just this year!).

Butterflies at Ontario Parks

Some parks ask that you submit wildlife sightings directly to the park. The Friends of Rondeau are looking for any wildlife sightings, especially the Eastern Foxsnake or any species at risk.

Ontario Parks is supported by 27 Friends of Ontario Parks organizations. These are non-profit charitable organizations that supplement and enhance the educational and research aspects surrounding the parks. Be sure to see if your favourite park has a Friends organization as they’ll often list special events and citizen science projects.

Removing Invasive Species

Invasive species at Ontario Parks

Ontario Parks have massive resource management projects to combat invasive species. The Emerald Ash Borer has spread throughout the province, which has devastated a great amount of ash trees. Park staff replace the ash trees that have been lost and make efforts to ensure that native plants thrive.

Removing invasive species is another huge undertaking. Park workers remove invasive species like Garlic Mustard, Phragmites, European Buckthorn and Autumn Olive. At MacGregor Point Provincial Park, they remove all invasive species by hand (pulling, cutting, and bagging). Spraying herbicides is out of the question as this would damage the fragile wetland ecosystems at the park.

Consider Going to Less Visited Parks

Rondeau Provincial Park

Ontario’s provincial parks continue to grow in popularity. This can mean overcrowding and can even cause a negative impact on the natural environment. There are only a limited amount of campsites at each park. Plus, you’ll need to reserve a day pass ahead of time for some of the most popular parks through the Ontario Parks website.

What are the busiest parks in Ontario?

Hiking trail marker

Many parks in Ontario are busy because they’re close to major cities. Others are popular because they’re really well known or have a particular natural feature that makes it unique. Some of the busiest provincial parks in Ontario include:

  • Algonquin Provincial Park
  • Killbear Provincial Park
  • Forks of the Credit Provincial Park
  • Mono Cliffs Provincial Park
  • Sandbanks Provincial Park
  • Pinery Provincial Park
  • Bon Echo Provincial Park

Of course, these natural spaces are popular for good reason. They’re wonderful to visit. If you are interested in traveling to these parks, you could always try visiting on a weekday or during the shoulder seasons or off season instead (ie. not July and August).

Which Ontario Parks are less busy?

MacGregor Point Provincial Park

Some of my favorite lesser visited parks include Rondeau Provincial Park, MacGregor Point Provincial Park, and Bonnechere Provincial Park. Some of the non-operating parks come to mind for a day hike, like Hockley Valley and Boyne Valley Provincial Park.

Even though these parks are less busy, that doesn’t make them any less wonderful to visit. For instance, MacGregor Point Provincial Park is located on the shores of Lake Huron, much like one of the busiest parks, Pinery Provincial Park. MacGregor Point Provincial Park has incredible biodiversity with hundreds of species of migrating birds and numerous provincially significant wetlands.

MacGregor Point Provincial Park

Mono Cliffs Provincial Park is a park that became overwhelmed with visitors this spring. Why not go to nearby Boyne Valley Provincial Park or Hockley Valley Provincial Nature Reserve for the trails instead? They’re within a short distance of Mono Cliffs, and there have equally beautiful trails with far fewer people.

For a totally unique experience, you can try visiting Ontario Parks at night for some dark sky viewing opportunities. Many Ontario Parks are among the best dark sky preserves in the province.

Visiting Pinery Provincial Park in the winter
Visiting Pinery Provincial Park in the winter

I also recommend going to Ontario Parks in the winter for an entirely new experience. I visited some of the most popular and well known parks in the winter, Pinery Provincial Park and Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. In the winter, you’ll have them pretty much all to yourself.

I hope this guide has helped you plan your upcoming trips to our beautiful parks. Visiting Ontario Parks responsibly is an important topic, and I feel as though we can all keep learning how to become better park stewards. I’d love to hear any tips you might have, too! Feel free to write them in the comments below.

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