Killarney Provincial Park: Bell Lake to David Lake Loop (3 days / 20 km)
The Bell – David Loop is a great weekend trip, and one of the most popular routes in Killarney. It enables you to enjoy the wilderness – without being too challenged. This loop gives you a relatively calm experience when canoeing and a good mix of easy to moderate portages with one longer/tougher, partially uphill portage from Balsam Lake to David Lake.
We took the trip at the end of September, which allowed for some awesome fall foliage while the weather was still very comfortable and the days of reasonable length.
Trip Completed: September 2020
Starting Point: Bell Lake Access Point
Ending Point: Bell Lake Access Point
Total Distance: 22 km including 4 portages (ranging in length from 30 m to 745 m)
Duration: 3 days / 2 nights
Difficulty: Beginner with some camping/canoe experience.
This route is located in the east corner of Killarney Provincial Park.
Traditional Territory: Killarney Provincial Park is located on the traditional territory of the Mississauga and Anishinabewaki (source).
Maps & Resources
Guidebook: Killarney and the French River, by Kevin Callan (Recommended if planning on taking multiple trips in the Killarney Area)
Map: Killarney Provincial Park: Backcountry Hiking and Canoe Route Map (Paper Map) and Killarney Provincial Park (Digital Map)
Campsite Reservation: You need to book your campsites on the Ontario Parks Reservation System. Starting 2022, you must book a specific campsite, not a campsite on a specific lake. You can see a list of campsites on the Ontario Parks website here.
Camping Permits: We picked ours up at the Main Office (George Lake) in Killarney Provincial Park, but were made aware that we could have picked up our camping permit at the Bell Lake Office.
Outfitters & Shuttles
For this trip we used Killarney Outfitters for our canoe rental. Included with the canoe rental were all the necessary items such as a safety kit, paddles, and life jackets that were correctly sized for us individually. Since we had our own camping equipment, we didn’t need to use their equipment rentals, but they do also rent and sell camping gear if required.
The only subtle drawback that we didn’t quite realize was that the Killarney Outfitters Store was about 10 minutes past the road we needed to turn onto to get to the Bell Access point, as we were coming from the GTA. Note: Killarney Kanoes is another outfitter in the park, and their office is right at Bell Lake.
It’s worth noting that the return for the canoe rentals was very efficient as Killarney Outfitters has a drop box at the Bell Lake access point where you can easily drop your rental equipment in when you complete your trip and lock your canoe to the stand. This saves you a trip to the store at the end of your trip. An efficient method and a much-appreciated time saver, when you already have a four hour drive home ahead of yourself.
Day 1: Bell Lake Access Point to Bell Lake (2 km)
After picking up our rental equipment from Killarney Outfitters, we arrived at our first put-in just before 3pm. We canoed the better portion of Bell Lake/Three Mile Lake as the waters weren’t difficult and we were keen to see what Killarney had to offer us.
Once we got to where we thought the final two campsites were located, we spent a decent portion of time trying to find them. Since we couldn’t quite determine exactly where they were, we decided it was best to head back to one of the open sites we had seen on the way in.
We settled on the first one we encountered that was open, Site 136 around 5:30pm.
Campsite: Site 136 on Bell Lake. The site was very comfortable, with two spots for tents, about 30 feet away from each other. We determined that the best campsite was likely 135, as it was located at a higher elevation which would enable a better view overlooking the lake, as well as the sunset as it was facing westward.
Editor’s Note: Killarney changed its campsite numbers this year. The numbers above reflect the NEW campsite numbers.
As the evening rolled on, an intriguing fog came over the water, allowing for a mysterious feel and an awesome experience. Our camera couldn’t capture the true perspective, but that can be said for just about any photo we took on the trip.
Day 2: Bell Lake to David Lake (13 km)
In the morning we departed after we finished our breakfast and cleaned up camp, which was sometime before 10 am. As we headed for Balsam Lake, we passed over the area we had been to the day before. When we noticed that the lake was a bit longer than we anticipated, we realized that the reason we had not seen the campsites the day before was that we hadn’t travelled far enough. A novice mistake, but a good lesson in that; read the map how it actually is and not how you think it is!
Note: It is worth mentioning that all the sites are marked (from what we saw) and very obvious. There is an orange tent sign on a tree (see photo below).
The end of Three Mile Lake had an awesome creek/swamp scenery. This led to our first portage: a short 30 m walkover on an old concrete tramway.
Canoeing through Balsam Lake was a very enjoyable experience, even though we passed a number of other canoeists. The glass-like lake caused perfect reflections of the fall foliage and was the culprit for a number of photo stops.
As we paddled on, we decided that a lunch stop at campsite 117 was the best move – our next step was the tough portage into David Lake.
Most of the sites along Balsam Lake seemed like they would be ideal for camping, although it was too hard to determine what would be the best without experiencing an actual overnight stay. Site 117 did offer a decent amount of room for tents and usable space to camp, but we personally didn’t prefer the sites on this island (117 and 118) as there wasn’t enough seclusion for our liking.
Portage from Balsam Lake to David Lake (665 m): Although not the longest, this was the most difficult portage. There was a significant incline for the first quarter and last quarter. There was firm ground although it was very uneven at times, with many stones and roots (especially during the inclines). After a few trips taken for our canoe and packs, it was nice to get back paddling to enjoy more scenery with a nice wind to cool us down.
David Lake is quite a large lake with a lot of campsites. We took the shortest route to the campsite closest to the Silver Peak Trail (via the portage route into Boundary Lake) in order to hike it the following day.
While passing one open campsite on the way, we both agreed that the site that would likely be the best was site 106. Disappointedly yet expected, it was taken. With a steep incline to get to it, we assumed it would have an awesome overlooking view of that portion of the lake, as well as the foliage that was backgrounded by the La Cloche Mountains.
As the wind picked up quite a bit in the open section of the lake, we paddled to a few taken campsites until we finally arrived at Site 192 around 4pm.
Campsite: We decided to stay at Site 192 which would allow us to have a more relaxed setup time. The site had room for two tents a few feet apart and offered a good amount of space around the fire as well. A nice bonus was the large area of rock that led to the water where you could overlook the lake. After enjoying a quick, cold swim while the sun was still shining on parts of the water, we set up camp and made dinner, enjoying a nice-sized fire when dusk started to settle in.
Day 3: David Lake to Bell Lake (7 km)
We started the day just before sunrise and, although we are experienced campers, it took us just under two hours to make breakfast, pack up camp and get ready for our mission of the day: the Silver Peak Trail. While realizing the goal was ambitious, we definitely wanted to give it a try considering the awesome reports we had read.
Hiking the Silver Peak Trail: We accessed the trail via the portage route into Balsam Lake. We were well prepared with our day packs, although we did forget our first aid kit. Thankfully we did not need it, but just a reminder to make sure you check your checklist before venturing off!
As we hiked the trail and got to the first summit, there were breathtaking views over Boundary Lake of the wilderness and the La Cloche Mountains. We continued on and followed the blue markers that were reasonably marked throughout the trail. It wasn’t until a half hour or so until we realized we must have missed a marker as it seemed we had gone too far and couldn’t find another marker to follow. Seeing as we had no real room for error in our day plans, when we finally got back to where we had made the wrong turn, it was already almost 11:30 and we had lost about an hour and a half. We decided that this was sufficient enough of a view, as to complete the trail would likely entail another 4 hours, a bit too much for our day.
We tried to cook lunch as planned, at the top of the mountain with our Jetboil stove, but with the heavy wind, we opted for a quick snack before we headed back down. Once we got to the bottom, we chose to check out the view into Boundary Lake since it was just a quick hike through the portage.
Finally, we hiked back to our canoe, paddled to our campsite to pick up our packs, and were on our way to Bell Lake.
Portage from David Lake to Creek (200 m): Canoeing the rest of David Lake was enjoyable. Towards the end, there was an unnamed creek to paddle. There was a short 200 m portage to the creek, which was flat and mostly even.
The creek seemed to be a bit more still, with a more secluded feeling than the larger David Lake. It was especially pleasant; even when a nice float plane flying over us reminded us we were still close to civilization, it was cool to see the habits of a more northern experience.
At the end of the creek, there was an awesome beaver dam and bright colours in the trees and bush, cementing our perspective that this route into David Lake was definitely our preferred choice if we had to pick between the two we had done.
Portage from David Lake to Bell Lake (745 m): The final portage just like the one prior (from David Lake to the creek), was not too challenging. The ground was firm and mostly flat, though it was the end of the season.
The final stretch of paddling on Bell Lake was likely the slowest of the trip due to our fatigue. However, there was an awesome perspective, as the path ahead was like a winding road of water through the trees.
Finally, we arrived where we had started. We took another short swim to cool off, then drove home. Oh wait, don’t forget the epic log road drive out, with loads of different shades of orange foliage everywhere, vibrantly displayed from every angle! Surreal is the only way to explain a fall trip to Killarney.
What started as a plan to get into the backcountry for one night and two full days, led to a full weekend trip, leaving Friday morning. It worked out very well giving us the extra day. In fact, I wouldn’t suggest doing this route for anything less than two nights as it will likely lead to rushing through it while not optimizing the true experience!
With the time of year being a factor and the days being shorter than that of the summer, there’s some subtle things that should be accounted for. Having a campsite on Bell Lake for the first night worked well, but I would recommend getting on the water slightly earlier on the first day so that you can have your stay on Balsam Lake, or one of the further sites into Bell Lake. This would allow for more adventure the next day.
Our goal of doing the Silver Peak Trail on Sunday in the morning/afternoon before we departed for home was definitely a bit aggressive in hindsight. The portion of the trail that we did, leading to the top of the first mountain is recommended if you have a short timeframe. It would take less than a couple hours to go up and down, and provides an incredible view of the wilderness overlooking Boundary Lake on one side and David Lake on the other. I would recommend leaving the Silver Peak Trail as a full day activity when staying on David Lake or Bell Lake, especially given the time of year and the shorter days that accompany it.
Although the creek leading into Bell Lake was something we enjoyed a lot, I would still take the route (as was recommended in our research) that we chose. This is simply because it gives you a much greater experience of this area of the park, while also having some significant views such as the glass lake reflections.
Matt Coates has been frontcountry camping since he was a kid. He’s gone to loads of different Provincial Parks but had never been into the backcountry until this trip. Matt enjoys playing all sports and loves being outside or in the wilderness.