The impressionist paintings of Canada’s Group of Seven artists may be familiar to many of us in Canada (and many more of us now, thanks to actor Steve Martin’s high-profile interest in Lawren Harris.) But it’s only when you see the landscapes that inspired those evocative paintings that you can truly appreciate how these artists were able to capture the unique beauty found in certain places in Canada. One of those places is Killarney Provincial Park, in northeastern Ontario, and after doing 3 Killarney hikes with truly inspiring views, Henk and I were even more impressed with this Park’s beauty.
Killarney Provincial Park: Hike in the Footsteps of the Group of Seven
When Henk and I headed to Killarney Provincial Park, we didn’t set out to find the locations that inspired some of the Group of Seven’s iconic paintings – we were heading to the Park to experience its Dark Sky Preserve and explore the heavens. But we took advantage of our visit to do 3 Killarney hikes where we found ourselves discovering landscapes that might as well have been painted by A.Y. Jackson or Franklin Carmichael, both of whom spent time here painting. Colourful rocks, windswept trees and pristine lakes were everywhere we looked and we didn’t have to hike far to find them.
George Lake Sets the Scene with Mirrored Waters and Painted Rocks
Henk and I were ‘glamping’ in one of Killarney’s yurts (more on that later) close to George Lake, a favourite spot for swimming and canoeing because of the its sandy beach and tranquil waters. So after getting set up at our site, we headed out to see the lake before it got dark.
We discovered what so many others had discovered before us – the beauty of a northern Ontario lake, something that Franklin Carmichael captured in one of his own paintings as well.
Beyond the beauty of the lake with its mirrored reflections of the opposite shore, what stood out to Henk and I were the rocks extending into the water at either end of the small bay: they looked like they had been sculpted by an artist, and in fact they had been.
Millennia ago, Mother Nature herself had ground down the granite of the Pre-Cambrian shield here with her glaciers, creating these smooth rock formations that we saw around the edges of the lake. For anyone who has visited Northern Ontario, these smoothed rocks are one of the region’s most distinguishing features.
All that ‘polishing’ by the glaciers revealed a palette of pinks and greys broken up with with veins of sparkling white quartz. My first impression of one huge rock at the edge of the lake was that it almost looked like a paint-by-number kit from the 1960s, (remember those?). So I nicknamed it ‘Painted Rock’ and watched as the sun hit it at dusk and the colours became even more vibrant.
If this was our introduction to Killarney and the landscapes near Georgian Bay, it was easy to see how artists would be inspired here. Take Lawren Harris, for example…
Killarney Hike #1: Granite Ridge Trail and the La Cloche Mountains
Speaking of white quartz, Killarney Provincial Park is known for its proximity to the La Cloche Mountains, an ancient range of mountains that is comprised primarily of bright white quartzite. Even from a distance, the tops of the La Cloche range appear white, almost as if they were covered in snow year-round.
Henk and I wanted to get a good view of the La Cloche range, so the next morning we decided to hike the Granite Ridge Trail directly opposite the main entrance to Killarney Provincial Park.
This easy-to-moderate trail took us past an old logging road with an abandoned car (Packard, perhaps?) and up to a ridge where we had views out to Georgian Bay towards the west, and a great view of the La Cloche mountains to the north.
Once believed to be higher than the Rocky Mountains of today, the La Cloche range may be old and literally worn down by time, but they are still some of the highest elevations in Ontario, and their white caps make them uniquely beautiful. (Perhaps like the rest of us who have a little grey on top, they possess the wisdom that comes with age!)
TIP: Another of Killarney’s well known day hikes is known as the ‘The Crack’ which has a steep climb over rocky terrain near the top but gives you a view from the top of the La Cloche range. But this 7km hike is not for the faint of heart or weak of knee.
Killarney Hike #2: Cranberry Bog Trail to Beautiful AY Jackson Lake
Any lake that is named after a Group of Seven artist had better live up to its promise, and A.Y. Jackson Lake certainly does. The lake is tiny and tucked in behind and above George Lake, but you can reach it easily from the west end of the Cranberry Bog Trail loop. A short, steep section leads you up and over to the shore where you’ll find a gorgeous little lake surrounded by the white-topped La Cloche mountains peeking behind the trees in the distance.
Here again, smooth pink granite rocks seem to be diving right into the clear water, with trees clinging to precarious footholds in the cracks of the rock. Which looked strikingly familiar to a Tom Thomson painting…
For a half hour or so, Henk and I sat on a sunny rock admiring the view, the entire lake to ourselves with nothing but a pair of great blue herons who were fishing in the shallows to keep us company. When we decided it was time to leave, so did the herons, who took to the air right over our heads, flying into the sun and out over the trees.
If this kind of landscape doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know what would….oh, wait, there’s the Chikanishing Trail!
Killarney Hike #3: the Chikanishing Trail (our Favourite)
When I think of the most recognizable Group of Seven paintings and especially those of Tom Thomson (even thought he wasn’t technically a member of the Seven), one image always comes to mind: windswept pine trees on the shores of a lake. And it’s exactly that image that awaits you on the Chikanishing Trail.
To be fair, the whole Chikanishing Trail is beautiful and takes you through forests smelling of pine needles and over more of those smooth pink rocks covered with colourful lichen. But it’s when the trail approaches the edge of Georgian Bay that it becomes truly spectacular.
The day Henk and I did the hike, we emerged to find a Georgian Bay that was uncharacteristically calm, almost glassy in some of the smaller coves. But the tortured shapes of the pine trees growing along the shore were proof that this lake has a violent side, too, and it’s those windy days that the Group of Seven captured so dramatically in their paintings.
We continued exploring the shore, following smooth rocks that led us right to the water’s edge, too, and admiring the islands that seemed to be everywhere, some bald and without anything green on them, some completely covered in trees.
Once again, inspiration for the Group of Seven is everywhere.
We discovered other things, too, reminders of the nearby La Cloche range, like a random quartzite boulder, and a vein of white quartzite that seemed to lead us like a path into the water.
Pretty inspirational scenery, I would say, judging by the number of photos Henk and I took.
Painted Skies That Inspire, Too
It can’t be a coincidence that on both nights that Henk and I spent in Killarney, we were rewarded with beautiful sunsets. But whether it was a fluke or the norm in Killarney, we were treated to two amazing sunsets over George Lake. Night one showed us a yellow horizon with a range of purples and pinks in the sunset afterglow on the clouds.
But nature really outdid herself the following night when she brought out all her brushes with vibrant oranges to add to the blues and purples reflected in the lake’s calm waters.
Inspiration for the Nation
It’s easy to understand why many Group of Seven artists were so captivated by Killarney and northeastern Ontario: nature serves up such a variety of colour and rugged beauty here that it’s impossible not to find something that speaks to your soul. But it takes more than just putting onto canvas what is right in front of you to create a work of art that inspires as well.
Lucky for us, Canadian artists like Jackson, Carmichael, Harris and Thomson did exactly that. And created works of art that continue to inspire the whole country.
KILLARNEY – Where to Stay
Stay in a Yurt at George Lake Campground
Henk and I are more ‘glampers’ than campers, so if you want to stay right in Killarney Provincial Park, we would absolutely recommend staying in one of Killarney’s yurts (Yurt number 1 if you can get it, as it is closest to the toilet, the parking lot and also has a water tap nearby).
The yurts offer you the best of both worlds with actual beds, electricity, a heater, a propane barbecue outside for cooking and a great deck.
You get a fire pit, too, that you can gather ’round with your morning coffee or evening s’mores, and the sites themselves are very private compared to some of the other campsites where you can see neighbours a few meters away.
You’ll still need to bring your own linens, cookware and food, but this is camping made easy. Even the neighbours dropped by to say hello!
Stay at Killarney Mountain Lodge
If you really loathe the idea of camping, a few kilometres down the road from the Provincial Park is the Killarney Mountain Lodge, a luxury wilderness resort that offers you all the grownup amenities you could want.
The Lodge has undergone a multi-million dollar renovation in recent years, adding more rooms and updating the dining room, pool and grounds, and of course the iconic circular lounge. Henk and I have enjoyed it all personally and can definitely recommend it.
There’s also a gorgeous brand-new conference centre, Canada House, that is the largest log built structure of its kind and boasts an upscale steakhouse, the Ranch House, offering some of the best views of Georgian Bay in the area.
Special thanks to Ontario Parks who hosted our 2-night stay at Killarney Provincial Park.