The Torrance Barrens Dark-Sky Preserve in Southern Ontario is one of my favorite places to visit and go camping in the region.
Sure, there are some beautiful parks like Bruce Peninsula National Park and Algonquin Provincial Park, but the Torrance Barrens are a lot more unique and fewer people even visit the area so you’re able to enjoy a much more personal and private experience.
Another reason why I like the Torrance Barrens is because the area has been designated as a dark sky preserve.
When you’re in an urban environment or even close to one it’s hard to see the stars very clearly because of all the light pollution and other atmospheric debris like smog, dust and everything else that cities create.
What’s a Dark Sky Preserve?
Dark sky preserves give people a chance to get a better look at the night sky and to see all of the stars, galaxies and other celestial features up above.
If you’re living somewhere like London, Toronto or New York City you’re only seeing a very small percentage of the total amount of night sky that you could be seeing somewhere that doesn’t have any light pollution.
A visit to the Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Preserve will give you the opportunity to:
- Catch glimpses of the Milky Way
- See constellations that you were never able to see before
- Possibly see the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis
- Have the best chance to enjoy shooting stars
- Admire the clusters of stars that you’re not likely to ever see in urban environments
- Watch the satellites and International Space Station pass by overhead in their orbit
There are a variety of different criteria that are involved in choosing a location that can in fact to be turned into a dark sky preserve.
It’s important that these locations be accessible by the public and are in areas where there isn’t too much, or any, light pollution that can hinder someone’s ability to see the sky and stars at night.
Three main features of a location that are considered include:
- How much control there is over local lighting (residential, commercial, industrial)
- Whether or not beneficial lighting practices can be followed during the night
- Whether or not the local population and communities are willing to participate in a low light lifestyle
Apart from these features the actual geographical position of the location also plays an important role in deciding if a site is a suitable or not.
There needs to be a good buffer zone where there are a lot of trees, bushes or other geographical features that help to add somewhat of a buffer between urban areas and lighting and suitable locations with a good view of the night sky.
The Torrance Barrens met many of these requirements and was found suitable to be turned into a dark sky preserve.
Not only is it worth it to visit to catch an amazing glimpse of the stars above but it’s also popular place to go with your telescope to see what you can pick up. Many local stargazing groups from all over central and southern Ontario visit the area frequently.
Another one of the main reasons why it’s such a good location for stargazing is that the rock below is made from a smooth granite.
This makes it suitable for standing on for extended periods of time and the rock is so sturdy that you’re able to set up a telescope or capture some great shots with long exposure photography without having to worry so much about vibrations.
Also, right near the main parking area there are plenty of access points for stargazing that offer incredible 360° panoramas of the unobstructed sky up above.
Torrance Barrens Crown Land: Hiking, Camping and Wildlife
Along with being able to see the night sky very clearly there is also some incredible hiking and wildlife spotting chances that you can take advantage of at Torrance Barrens as well.
The entire area is made from a combination of different sections of crown land. This is land that is owned by the federal government, and effectively the public, and is managed by the Ministry of Natural Resources.
Not only is access free but if you’re living in Ontario you can camp at the Torrance Barrens for up to three weeks at a time without having to pay any fees.
It wasn’t until 1997 that the area was turned into a conservation reserve.
This is because the local community and other passionate Canadians wanted the rugged and rocky natural area to be protected and preserved for years to come. Not only are the barrens a unique geological feature but there is also an abundance of wildlife and a range of different rare plants that deserve protection.
For hiking, there are a few different trails that you can access from the main parking lot right off of District Road 13, also known as Southwood Road.
From here you just need to park and follow the signs towards any trail that you’re interested in.
There are both educational and interpretive hikes that you can go on and they’re very well marked thanks to the Township of Muskoka Lakes Recreational Trails Committee.
Alternatively, since it is crown land, you could head off the trail and do your own exploring but I recommend against this.
During the winter this is a prime area for snowshoeing and there is a snowmobile trail that runs right through Torrance Barrens that you can hop on and then used to explore the surrounding conservation lands,
For camping, you definitely need a car to reach the Barrens, but once you get there it’s pretty much up to you when it comes to where you want to camp.
Depending on the time of the year that you visit you’ll be able to see other people camping and I recommend sticking as close to the road as possible just to avoid driving over any natural features or any sensitive plants.
The area is also suitable for RVs and trailers and again, I recommend sticking close to the road and not driving your larger vehicle deep into the forested area.
Today, the Torrance Barrens offers incredible opportunities for hiking, camping, wildlife spotting and stargazing and it’s one of the best natural areas to check out in all of Southern Ontario.
The Geology and Vegetation
The area that the Torrance Barrens is made up of covers more than 4700 acres of land.
The actual landscape, the wide expanses of rocks and low ridges made from Pre-Cambrian Shield was formed around 2.5 billion years ago.
It obviously looked a lot different then, but what you see today is what was left behind after glaciers covered and then receded over the area between 12,000 and 20,000 years ago.
For a while it was a lot more barren than what you can find now and today there’s plenty of trees, shrubs, bushes, moss and other low growth that’s taking over the exposed rock.
It’s happening because there is soil that’s left behind and gathering on some of the low slopes and depressions in the rock. Seeds find their way into the soil when it rains, from bird droppings, from other animals or by a variety of different methods and it doesn’t take long for something to start growing.
Carpeting the rocks is a medley of lichens and mosses and there are a range of different trees growing like white pine, white oak, red maple, white birch and even aspen.
In the larger depressions of the rocks are large puddles, small ponds, wetlands and even lakes.
These water areas are usually swampy marshes and aren’t very deep but there are a few deeper lakes in the area where you can find find some fish, beavers and other aquatic wildlife.
As for the land based wildlife there are deer, black bear, squirrels, snakes, lizards and chipmunks.
Keep an eye out, especially during the warmer seasons, and you’re bound to see something walking around through the wooded areas enjoying the natural, undisturbed beauty of the Torrance Barrens.
The Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Preserve is only a few hours away from Toronto and close to Orillia, Gravenhurst and Huntsville.
To get here you’ll want to take Highway 11 and get off on the Southwood Road exit. If you get off of Highway 11 it will take about 20 minutes of winding roads until you reach the main parking area.
From here you can park and explore or continue on and look for somewhere suitable to camp.
The closest town where you can get some supplies or something to eat is Gravenhurst and the actual town of Torrance is nearby as well, although not very well-equipped.
- Fill up your car, truck or RV before you head off the main road towards the Barrens
- Make an effort to be as clean as possible and even try to pick up any garbage that you see laying around
- Remain quiet at night and try to avoid using any lights or having a campfire
- Stick to the designated hiking trails and don’t drive too far off the road when you’re looking for somewhere to camp
- Bring something to eat and make sure that all of your batteries are fully charged
- Consider bringing some bear spray
- Don’t hesitate to contact MNR if you have any questions
- If you’re car camping consider bringing some camping chairs and a camping table for a better experience