Killarney Provincial Park: Johnny Lake to George Lake (12 days / 94 km)
If you want to experience ALL that Killarney Provincial Park has to offer, this is the canoe route for you. Starting on Johnny Lake and ending on George Lake, this route makes a big counterclockwise loop of the park, passing through 19 lakes and 2 bays. Highlights include David Lake, where you can take a rest day to hike Silver Peak, and Nellie Lake, the clearest lake in the park.
I paddled this route as a canoe guide, leading six campers between the ages of 14 and 16. They didn’t have much canoeing experience, so we were definitely not a speedy group.
So although this trip took us 12 days to complete, I think it could easily be done in 9 days (7 paddling days + 2 rest days). We had some really short days at the beginning, and we always took two trips on portages, which slowed us down.
Trip Completed: July 2014
Editor’s Note: Usually I don’t include trip reports that are this old, but I think this is such an awesome route that I want others to consider it. I have a lot of notes on the actual route we took, but I don’t have thorough descriptions of all of the campsites – hopefully, you still find it helpful!
Starting Point: Johnny Lake
Ending Point: George Lake
Total Distance: 94 km
Duration: 12 days (including 2 rest days)
This route is located in Killarney Provincial Park, on the north shore of Georgian Bay. It begins in Johnny Lake, located in the southeast corner of the park, and ends at George Lake, located in the southwest corner. What I love about this route is that it circles almost the entirety of the 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: Specific campsites must be booked in advance with the Ontario Parks Reservation System. As there are limited sites and a lot of demand (especially on weekends), it’s recommended to book early. You can find the specific campsite numbers on this website.
Camping Permits: You need to pick up permits ahead of your trip. This can either be done at George Lake or Bell Lake, however, I’d recommend Bell Lake as it’s much closer to your put-in on Johnny Lake.
Outfitters & Shuttles
Outfitters: We rented canoes for this trip. I’ve used both Killarney Kanoes and Killarney Outfitters in the past, but for this trip specifically, we used Killarney Kanoes. Their office is at Bell Lake, which is very close to Johnny Lake, so you don’t need to make a detour to sign your waivers and pick up your permits.
(In contrast, Killarney Outfitters is closer to George Lake, which requires about 25 minutes of additional driving from Johnny Lake).
Shuttle: Since this trip starts and ends at different lakes, you’ll need to coordinate a shuttle. Either of the outfitters can assist with this.
Alternatively, you could add on an additional day and paddle from Killarney Lake to Johnny Lake via a series of short portages, making the route a loop.
Day 1: Put In to Johnny Lake (6 km)
We drove to Killarney Provincial Park from Muskoka, arriving in the mid-afternoon to overcast skies. We launched without any issues, except for the fact that I forgot to pick up our permits (oops).
We had a short paddle on north Johnny Lake.
Editor’s Note: Killarney changed its campsite numbers this year and we will have the updated numbers shortly!
Campsite: I don’t have great notes for the campsites during this part of the trip, though we camped at either campsite #63 or #64, as we wanted to get as far on the lake as possible for the first day.
Once we got to our campsite, I made a quick phone call to Killarney Kanoes to coordinate picking up the permits when we portaged past their office on Bell Lake.
Day 2: Johnny Lake to Three Mile Lake (7 km)
Since many of the participants in the group were new to canoe camping, we had a slow start to the day and a leisurely paddle to Three Mile Lake. The average canoe group could easily combine day 2 and day 3, for a total of 17 km.
Portage from Johnny Lake to Bell Lake: This was a wide and flat portage. Killarney Kanoes left our permits on a signpost along the trail, so we didn’t lose any time in correcting my mistake.
Once on Bell Lake, we paddled north to the opening to Three Mile Lake. There isn’t a portage separating the lakes. Three Mile Lake is more narrow than Bell Lake, so even with some wind, it was an easy paddle to the campsite.
Campsite: There are two sites on Three Mile Lake, and we stayed at Campsite #77.
Day 3: Three Mile Lake to David Lake (10 km)
From the campsite, it was a short paddle to the end of Three Mile Lake. There’s a short portage into Balsam Lake (40 m). Once on Balsam Lake, we paddled southwest. After passing Campsite #114, there is an option to go south (towards Little Bell Lake) or through a narrow, creaky section to the rest of Balsam Lake. We took the creek, which is supposed to be a good place for seeing deer, although we didn’t see any. Water levels were good throughout the creek.
After the creek section, we had a little more than a kilometre of paddling west to reach the portage. We passed by two campsites on an island, which I imagine would be nice to stay at – though I rarely hear of people actually camping on Balsam, as most opt to stay on David Lake instead.
Portage from Balsam Lake to David Lake (620 m): This was our first real portage of the trip, and not exactly an easy one to get us started. As you can see from the contour on the topographic map, there’s a steep incline at the beginning, and a not-quite-as-steep decline at the end. The ground is level, but exposed roots and rocks mean you need to pay attention. With an inexperienced group, this portage took us a long time to complete.
But once we were on David Lake it was smooth sailing. David Lake has a ton of campsites, many of which are right after the portage into the lake, while others are close to where the Silver Peak trailhead is.
Campsite: I don’t remember exactly which campsite we stayed at, but I know that it was directly across from the trailhead to Silver Peak, which makes me think it was either #106 and #100. My notes say it was “a great site for a rest day” – which would mean it had at least three good tent spots and a nice fire pit.
Note: There is a shorter option to go directly from Johnny Lake to David Lake, rather than making the detour to Bell, Balsam and Three Mile Lake. If you want to check out the other lakes, I recommend starting at Bell Lake instead of Johnny Lake.
Day 4: Rest Day on David Lake + Silver Peak Hike
In the late morning, we loaded a backpack with water bottles, lunches and some cooking supplies. Then we paddled from our campsite to the trailhead for Silver Peak.
Hiking to Silver Peak: The hike up Silver Peak is not to be underestimated, but it is well worth the effort. From the trailhead, it is a 5 km hike to Silver Peak – with a total elevation gain of 450 m.
The trail is rugged, with some steep sections. There are also a lot of false peaks – you get to an opening, look out and are astounded with the view. “This must be the top!” – but it isn’t, you are only halfway there and even better views are to come.
Campsite: Same as the previous night.
Day 5: David Lake to Great Mountain Lake (5 km)
You know it’s going to be a tough day when you have more portaging distance than paddling distance. Since we started in the middle of David Lake, we had less than two kilometres of paddling to the portage.
Portage from David Lake to Great Mountain Lake (2,780 m): This portage still haunts me. The trail itself is actually quite decent: it’s very clear (so no bushwhacking) and it’s wide enough to accommodate a canoe (no having to manoeuvre around trees at sharp turns).
Despite this, my group (2 guides and 6 novice paddlers) had a terrible time completing this portage. We had to take 2.5 trips and overall it took us 6 hours to complete. More experienced canoeists won’t have this difficult of a time.
Great Mountain Lake has three campsites, and we stayed at campsite 155 – the one directly across from the portage. This is because, by the time we had finished the portage from hell, I was ready to call it a day.
Campsite: #155 was actually a really nice campsite. The tent spots were flat, with pine needles on soft soil – and there was plenty of space for three tents. Immediately after setting up camp, I took a little rest in the tent; the afternoon sun was beginning to fall, so I had some time before I’d need to make dinner.
When I could put it off no longer, we cooked a ton of Mac n Cheese over the nice fire pit. It was exactly what I and the group needed. We called it a day pretty early and I’m sure we all slept very deeply that night.
Day 6: Great Mountain Lake to Howry Lake (11 km)
Today felt like a breeze after the challenging previous day. We left the site in the late morning, and after a short paddle on Great Mountain Lake, arrived at our first portage.
Portage from Great Mountain Lake to Fish Lake (440 m): This was a straightforward portage overall. Some exposed roots and rocks, but nothing too challenging (for Killarney). Be mindful at the put-in – it’s incredibly muddy, and we had to walk on the roots of a dead tree to go from the water to the rocks.
My back was a bit sore from the previous day, but otherwise, the portage went smoothly. It’d become common for either me, my co-guide, or both of us, to carry two canoes and a barrel/pack on every portage. The added distance was starting to add up, and yesterday had not helped.
Fish Lake was long and narrow, and I was thankful for a break from portaging. Once you get to the far west end of the lake, there are two options for getting to Gem Lake:
The first option is to take a creek connecting Fish Lake to Gem Lake. This option has just one 120 m portage. The second option is to portage 280 m to an unnamed lake, then 100 m to Round Otter Lake, and finally paddle through North Howry Creek to Gem Lake.
The first option is objectively easier – few portages and shorter distances – but the water levels can be low on the creek connecting Fish Lake and Gem Lake, requiring some pushing and pulling of the canoe.
We opted for the first option and paddled through the creek. Water levels were enough to paddle, though we did encounter some beaver damns that required getting out of the boat and pulling the canoe over. The creek itself isn’t that narrow, but the place where you can actually canoe is – either side is covered in lily pads, tall grasses, mud and leafy-flowery plants. The 120 m portage was straightforward (albeit a bit muddy).
Gem Lake is quite a hidden gem – it’s a small lake with lots of lily pads and some exposed pink granite. Following Gem Lake, there was a quick 150 m portage into Howry Lake. The portage had a narrow put-in but was otherwise unremarkable. A little overgrown in parts.
Honestly, Howry Lake itself was pretty unremarkable too. Nice lake, but in comparison to the others, we’d see on this trip, nothing too special.
Campsite: Howry Lake has two campsites, though I don’t remember which one we stayed at.
Day 7: Howry Lake to Nellie Lake (11 km)
Our goal today was to make it to Nellie Lake, the clearest lake in the park and easily one of the most beautiful. It’s also the hardest lake to access because there are three portages into the lake, each of which is 1.4 km or longer.
We started the day paddling on Howry Lake, towards Howry Creek.
Paddling from Howry Lake to Murray Lake: There is a narrow creek connecting the two lakes, with a 450 m portage in the middle. The creek was super shallow in parts, and we ended up getting out of our boats and dragging them in sections. Apparently, the water levels in the creek fluctuate with how dry / wet the season has been.
If walking your boats, beware – there are leeches in the creek! A few of us found leeches on our ankles after walking the boats.
Portage from Murray Lake to Carmichael Lake (1,420 m): This portage has some really steep sections, especially at the beginning. Depending on the direction you’re going, it’s either a continuous downhill or uphill climb. Coming from Murray Lake, which is at a slightly lower elevation than Carmichael Lake, we were walking uphill the entire portage (which is more tiring, but easier on the knees).
Carmichael Lake is a small lake attached to Nellie Lake, so thankfully there are no more portages. From the portage, the first campsite is just a few hundred meters away. Meanwhile, the third and final campsite (the one we chose) is around 1.5 km away.
Campsite: We stayed at campsite #144, a lovely site located on a small peninsula extending into Nellie. There is a ton of exposed rock that is great for swimming, and the site has plenty of room for tents.
Day 8: Rest Day on Nellie Lake
Nellie Lake is the clearest lake in the park. When you paddle over it, you can see at least 20 m of visibility – it looks like the bottom of the lake is so close you could touch it!
Day 9: Nellie Lake to East Channel (11 km)
We were up early and ready to see a different part of Killarney. This day and the one following would take us away from the small lakes connected by portages, and bring us to wide channels and big bays. We began the day by paddling the short distance from our campsite to the first portage.
Portage from Nellie Lake to Helen Lake (2,420 m): Despite being longer, I found this portage easier than the 1.4 km portage into Nellie Lake. It didn’t have the same kind of difficult elevation gain or exposed roots to contend with. That said, the end of the portage (as you approach Helen Lake) gets a little rough. In addition, the portage has some super pretty views.
Helen Lake was a short paddle, and then there’s a super short 50 m carryover into Low Lake.
The paddle between Low Lake and North Channel passes through a narrow channel, and there were two additional carryovers (30 m and 60 m, respectively).
Once on the North Channel, you’re straddling the perimeter of the provincial park. McGregor Island, to the south, is not part of the park. We paddled to the east side of the island, to the East Channel and started seeing more cottages and boaters.
Campsite: We stayed at campsite #136, which is situated in the provincial park, but has a view facing away from the park. This means we had quite a few boaters come by, so if you’re keen on privacy this may not be the site for you. It had a large area of exposed granite rock, which was really nice for chilling and playing cards at the end of the day.
Day 10: East Channel to Baie Fin (11 km)
I found this to be the most challenging day of paddling we had. We paddled south, away from the East Channel, until we reached McGregor Bay.
This is a large bay, with a lot of little islands, so it would be super easy to get lost here and paddle in the wrong direction. Thankfully, this route just required us to go straight south so it wasn’t too hard to navigate (though we still found ourselves checking the map regularly).
We paddled south, to the large outcrop of land that separates McGregor Bay from Baie Fin. Technically you could paddle to the end of the outcrop and get to Baie Fin, but that would add at least 15 km of paddling. Instead, we took the portage (and you should too).
Portage from McGregor Bay to Baie Fin (890 m): This portage felt somewhat grown over, with high grass on either side of the trail (I don’t think it’s maintained much since it’s outside of the park). However, it was fairly wide and had level footing, save for a somewhat steep beginning and end. The portage trail goes along a stream, and the terrain is steep on the other side.
After the portage, we turned left and paddled east toward the park. Although only ~5 km, it was a slog in a headwind. I was relieved when we got back to the park boundary and the entrance to small, windless lakes.
What made this day challenging was the wind on the bays. The wind wasn’t even that much, but the waves were still enough to keep us on our toes and the slight headwind on Baie Fin made me super tired.
Campsite: There are two campsites at the end of Baie Fine, as you enter the provincial park again. We were pretty tired after a tough paddle on the bays, so I was glad we could take the first available campsite (either #37 or #38).
If you wanted to push further, you could camp on Muriel Lake or OSA lake instead – however, don’t underestimate the time it’ll take to paddle on the bays – especially if you end up with a headwind.
Day 11: Baie Fin to OSA Lake (10 km)
This was a pretty chill day of paddling and portaging – which worked out excellently because we reached the campsite (my favourite of the trip) early. With a cloudless day, we had plenty of time to enjoy our last full day in the park.
We paddled down a long, narrow section to The Pool, where the water opens up into a small lake. We paddled south and then east, going through a narrow section before arriving at the first portage, an easy 420 m portage into Artist Lake.
Note: Instead of turning right at the end of Baie Fine (and going to The Pool for the 420 m portage), you could stay straight and take the 230 m + 650 m portages into Artist Lake. Although the portaging distance is longer, there is a short detour to Topaz Lake (along the La Cloche hiking trail) and it’s apparently one of the most beautiful lakes in the park. Excellent for a lunch break!
Two portages from Artist Lake to Muriel Lake (140 and 170 m): There are two short portages to reach Muriel Lake. The first is around the small Artist Creek Falls and the second how you reach Muriel Lake.
Portage from Muriel Lake to OSA Lake (590 m): I have this portage marked as “deceivingly difficult” which I think refers to the fact that it has some sections with tough footing. The portage is quite pretty, especially the first glimpse of OSA Lake.
We had calm waters on OSA Lake, though the lake is large enough that I’ve heard it can get quite wavy if the wind is high. We leisurely paddled past campsite 31 and 32, our sights set on campsite 29.
Campsite: Campsite 29 is located on a stunning island site in the middle of the lake. It gets windy, which is good for keeping mosquito levels under control in July. There is a good swim spot, and there is plenty of room for tents.
Day 12: OSA Lake to George Lake (12 km)
Our last day of paddling was coincidentally our furthest. We crossed OSA Lake and made our way to the first portage of the day – a quick 130 m portage into Killarney Lake.
Once on Killarney Lake, we paddled east and then south, hugging the shoreline along the way. Killarney Lake is actually very large, and I’ve only ever paddled the short section in between these two portages – in a future trip, I’d love to check out the northeastern arm of the lake.
Portage from Killarney Lake to Freeland Lake (430 m): This is an easy portage, but it can get very busy, especially on weekends. Even on a Friday around noon, there was a traffic jam at the start of the trail. The end of the portage isn’t much better, because it’s quite muddy and there are limited places to put in / take out a canoe.
If you can do so without causing chaos on the portage, make a detour to the falls adjacent to the trail. It’s quite pretty!
Freeland Lake is a short, marshy lake. It’s quite pretty though, with lily pads and tall grasses. We saw either a heron or a crane (some kind of tall bird) in the grass as we paddled by. After Freeland Lake, there is a very short 50 m carry over onto George Lake.
Don’t underestimate how long it takes to paddle George Lake. We had a moderate level of wind and it took a long time. I imagine that in higher headwinds, even intermediate paddlers would struggle.
After what felt like ages (I was also really hungry at this point) we saw the sandy beaches of George Lake Access Point. We pulled our canoes onto the sand and portaged the canoes to the outfitter’s canoe rack. We had a little time before our shuttle arrived, so we ate on the beach until we saw our van come down the road.
This was a canoe trip that I guided for six campers between the ages of 14 and 16. None of them had a lot of paddling experience, so we were slower than the average canoe group. Therefore, I think this route could be done much, much faster – perhaps in as little as 7 days.
If you can, try to do portages on a single trip. There were three long portages (>1 km) on our route and lots of portages between 400 m and 1 km. When you have to make two trips on every portage, the additional distance adds up.
This route can definitely be done in fewer days. If I was doing it again I’d probably start at Bell Lake and paddle to David Lake on the first day. I really liked Great Mountain Lake over Fish and Howry Lakes, so I’d probably keep the David-Great Mountain day the same, even though it was only five kilometres. If you’re a good paddler, you could combine days 6 and 7 to camp at Nellie Lake directly after Great Mountain Lake. Similarly, you could probably combine days 10 and 11 (though be mindful that the wind on the bays can affect your paddling speed significantly).
The busiest sections were between Bell and David lakes, and OSA and George Lake. Between day 4 and day 11 we didn’t see another group (with the exception of fishing boats on the bays outside the park). Killarney gets a bad reputation for being overcrowded, but if you go further into the park, this isn’t the case.
Overall, I loved this route and experiencing so much of the park. If you can swing a trip of this length I highly recommend it!
Mikaela is the voice behind Voyageur Tripper, an outdoor adventure blog that enables people to improve their skills in the backcountry. She previously worked as a wilderness guide, leading trips in Ontario, Quebec and Nunavut. Mikaela is also the founder and operator of Trip Reports.
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