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Barrie-Penetanguishine-Orillia Mini-tour Report (170km, Ontario, Canada)

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Barrie-Penetanguishine-Orillia Mini-tour Report (170km, Ontario, Canada)

Old 07-01-13, 09:00 PM
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Barrie-Penetanguishine-Orillia Mini-tour Report (170km, Ontario, Canada)

My girlfriend and I did a weekend trip on the North Simcoe / Trans-Canada / Midland Rotary / Tay Shore / Uhthoff / Oro-Medonte Trails (way simpler than it sounds).

In case someone else is interested in the trip, I thought I'd share it here. (click below for Google Map)



Keen to make the most of this weekend, we drove up the night before, so as to get an early start Saturday (and we wanted an excuse to camp in our van). Late in the evening we found the rail path, then explored looking for somewhere we could get away with car-camping. The best option seemed to be the huge gravel parking lot of the local Guides hockey / soccer / baseball park on Sunnidale between Pinegrove and Grenfel Rds. It had tons of space, so we hid our van in the back corner next to the woods and had a good (mosquito-free) night's sleep!



Early next morning, we rode off to find the rail-trail in the daylight, and were a bit surprised to find that it was just coarse gravel dumped over the train tracks. Our Pino tandem has wide tires and front shocks, but isn't exactly an off-road monster. After a few hundred meters we tried switching to the snowmobile path running parallel to the tracks.

A kilometer in we were wondering if I'd made a huge mistake planning this trip. Water pools in the trail were getting more frequent and I had to ride on the track embankment, inches from a 3' drop into mud.

Finally, just before the Pinegrove Rd. Crossing, the trail crossed some regional border and transformed into a reasonable crushed-stone path. I'm guessing it had something to do with the town of Essa not being willing to pay up for trail maintenance. This administrative fragmentation of the trail would become a theme of the trip.

A better starting point would be Pinegrove Rd., or if you need a place to park your car, maybe at one of the 3 parking spots at the George Johnson Rd. access point.

The first 30km were quiet and felt more remote than they really were. We snuck up on deer crossing the trail, a turkey vulture chewing on something in the woods, and many smaller critters. The trail ran right through farmers' fields, with crops on either side. Gorgeous.

Approaching Elmvale at Flos Road 7, the second sign of trail fragmentation blocked our path – some farmer had bought out the rail right-of-way and blocked the trail. Didn't look the corn was growing that well on the gravel rail-bed, but oh well. We detoured down to Highway 27 to have a nice visit to Elmvale. Found a bakery and had a late 2nd breakfast with some tasty apple strudel.



Getting out of Elmvale on the trail was even more difficult and started our typical routine of me getting us totally lost in towns. The rail right-of-way had been sold off for a U-store-it (location is crucial dontcha know!), and snooping around for the trail turned up nothing but closed gates, some of which seemed only to be opened in snowmobile season. So another few km of riding on Highway 27 and we finally picked up the trail again where it runs through the town of Saurin.



The trail operator was now Tiny Township, who surprisingly allowed ATVs on the trails. This led to the trail surface being chewed up and soft, which made riding the 500+lb tandem a lot of work. Without warning, stable patches of trail would start to 'scrub' sideways, and the bike would swerve and dig in. Linda kindly tolerated me dumping us into the dirt once.



On the plus side, the trilliums were gorgeous, and we surprised an osprey and a pileated woodpecker! Lunchtime happened 47km in at Balm Beach Rd. on a little picnic table (pro tip: don't heat baked beans in the can on a camping stove without watching it like a hawk). I was getting a bit worried about time and distance – our legs were tired and we both needed a nap, and it was only 1pm!



Thankfully, our ride got a whole lot easier as the slope started to go downhill to Georgian Bay, the trail surface improved (no ATVs in Penetanguishine's jurisdiction), and the East turn brought a tailwind. The trail into Penetanguishine was a freshly-paved rollercoaster, with the rail bridges replaced with shorter bridges joined by short steep drops / climbs. Good fun if you're the Captain!

Penetanguishine was lovely, and had a little trail network of its own. Continuing the tradition, I got us totally lost, following one of the Penetanguishine trails halfway across town. Some friendly locals got us turned around and on the right track back to Murray Rd. and a steep, gravelly trail down to Midland Harbor. Apparently it was part of an old military marching path. Road bikes would have trouble with this section, but the Pino did fine (with a few seconds of white-knuckling).



The next trail section run by the Midland and Waubaushene areas was impeccable. A real pleasure to ride, especially with a 30km/h tailwind coming off the lake. By this point, my knees were getting a little sore, as were Linda's. I guess starting the year with a 90km fully loaded ride might be a bit of a bad idea? We passed the old wooden fort at the Sainte-Marie tourist attraction, but didn't stop (one of my few regrets from the trip).



Pulling into into Matchedash Campground was a relief. Steve, the owner, kindly set us up with our pick of tent spots and a bag of ice for my rapidly-swelling knees. Wine and chocolate plus a lovely view complete with herons, ducks, and sunset were some consolation, and we got to bed early.



The next morning I hobbled around, had a quick shower, and we were off bright and early. Thanks to the local trail association (which Steve helps to run), the rail trail has recently been upgraded and was in excellent condition through Coldwater. Unfortunately our pictures start to get scarce here as our knees continued to hurt and we wondered if we could (or should) ride all the way back to Barrie!

With a few stops for rest (and wading in an ice-cold stream), the shady railpath led us 30km down to Orillia, where the signage shifted to show its 1980s origins. As per tradition I got us lost again, leading us almost across Lake Simcoe before realizing that the sun was on the wrong side of the trail. Connecting to the south-bound rail line out of Orillia takes a bit of side-street navigation.

Signage and navigation was frustrating throughout this whole trip. The piecemeal management of the trail meant distances were marked only within-sections (except for the Snowmobile Association distance markers), and trailside maps only showed whichever local trail you happened to be on. This meant that the Oro-Medonte trail out of Orillia wasn't shown on the Orillia Waterfront Trail maps! When planning the trip, the trail seemed so continuous I figured that connections would be obvious. Wrong. There's no signage, and without help making the trail connections, I got us consistently lost in every town and probably added at least 5km to our trip. One funny side effect of so many small trail management committees is that each had a totally different gate design. Some used the old post-and-zigzag, others were bent-tube powder-coated cadillacs. All were hard to navigate with our wide tandem bike. I liked Waubaushene's “Two Cement Blocks” gates the best – keep it simple, and below waist-height.



Once on the Oro-Medonte trail south out of Orillia, our pace settled down to a dull ache. The scenery for the next 35km was fairly plain, with the highlight riding through the overgrown site of what looked like an old Provincial boarding school. Well-marked crossing markers counted down the distance to the end of the trail, as we tried to judge if our legs would carry us that far. Thanks to a rest stop near Shanty Bay and a water bottle refill courtesy of some nice neighbours, we started to feel like we would make it.

Then, just before Barrie, the trail evaporated. Some bureaucrat sold off the railpath right-of-way and subdivided lakeview lots through it. Path users are shunted onto a busy no-shoulder road. We rode on the sidewalk, as we were not making very good speed. I was discouraged at this point, whining about my knees and the state of the public realm in Canada.

Crossing the town boundary into Barrie, the trail reappeared, and it was happy days again. Happy days continued at a local pub, until we had to decide whether to take a taxi back to the van, or ride the final 12km. With a gas-station-bought icepack leaking on my knee, and a lot of cursing, we rode it. Definitely the most grueling leg of the trip. But, in the end, we made it! 170km and two very sore riders.

The aftermath had us hobbling around the city for a few days. Thankfully the physio found that my knee pain was from IT-band inflammation, which is good in that it hurts so bad that you can't really keep exercising long enough to do any permanent damage. Now we both have new stretching routines to do.

So the verdict: Lovely route, highly recommended. Bring a fat-tired bike for the rough patches, a map for the city connections, and maybe split it into 3 days if you are causal riders like us. The Perkinsfield-Coldwater part of the ride is the most scenic, the Coldwater-Orilla the most shady and farm-like while the Orillia-Barrie section is the best constructed but a little sun-exposed. Definitely ride it clockwise unless you like headwinds.

If Ontario is going to re-vamp its Provincial bike strategy, this trail loop could provide a good test-case. All it needs to become a fantastic Toronto tourist destination is a bit of money to patch in the sections where the right-of-way has been sold, signage to help tie in the loose ends, GO train bike transport, and marketing to help mooks like us find it.

**Update below!**

Last edited by antonyfhilliard; 09-23-13 at 12:48 PM.
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Old 07-02-13, 07:17 AM
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Interesting story and great pictures. Really like the bike - it's kind of neat. Al
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Old 09-23-13, 12:46 PM
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Just got an update from a project manager at Simcoe Trails, answering some of my questions and clarifiying a few misunderstandings. Thanks! For anyone who read my post above:
  • The town of Essa wasn't involved in any way in the un-upgraded rail bed, and are blameless.
  • The best Barrie access right now is from "Fort Willow", on Grenfel Rd. just north of Seadon. This connects to Barrie by the (somewhat fragmented) Nine Mile Portage Heritage Trail.
  • Apparently if you hunt in the back of Heritage Park in Elmvale, you can find the rail trail again.
  • The lovely descent into Penetanguishene is actually still part of Tiny Township! They deserve some credit for that part. Simcoe Trails recommends dismounting your bike at the steep / potentially slippery part. That's between them and their lawyers.
  • Apparently "Trans Canada Trail" signs will navigate you through Penetanguishine.
  • Their website ( https://simcoetrails.ca/maps/ ) has some more maps of the area
And most importantly, they're working to improve the trail network in the area. Glad to hear it! Hopefully the Provincial Cycling Strategy turns into actual transportation ministry dollars for improving infrastructure like this.

Last edited by antonyfhilliard; 09-24-13 at 09:06 AM.
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Old 09-23-13, 12:54 PM
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a few years ago, were you riding near Sandbanks Provincial Park on this bike? (with panniers etc) I recall riding along and seeing a couple on one of these but didnt stop to talk. They arent that common so wondered if it was you.
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Old 09-23-13, 02:32 PM
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Nah, was probably another couple from the Barrie area. They rode all the way to Nova Scotia!

Sandbanks is on our "to do" list.
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