One of the best spots in Canada to view the stars above also offers great off-road opportunities.
In 1999, the Torrance Barrens Conservation Area in the Township of Muskoka Lakes was designated as Canada’s first dark-sky preserve. This unique park encompasses 4,700 hectares and is located about 30 minutes outside of Gravenhurst. Far from the nearest city, the preserve has virtually no light pollution, which creates amazing conditions for viewing the night sky and attracts professional and budding astronomers from near and far.
On the ground, the Torrance Barrens Dark-Sky Preserve showcases bare rock that was scoured of soil during the last ice age, along with low shrubs and short, stunted trees. The spot has much to offer during the daylight hours and, having heard that the area’s geography creates some very unique hiking and biking trails, I was keen to check it out with my mountain bike.
Upon my arrival to “The Barrens,” I discovered that even the parking area is perched upon bare rock. I removed my bike from the car, geared up and headed to the map located at the trailhead. The area has three trails for hiking and mountain biking. The main trail is 3 km in length and circles beautiful Highland Pond, offering endless scenic views and opportunities to see local wildlife. The Barrens Extension Trail adds an additional 6 km of riding and hiking, increasing both the distance and the challenge. When I visited the Barrens, the 5 km Pine Ridge Trail was closed for maintenance, but when it is open Pine Ridge offers some of the best bare rock riding in the Preserve.
Hopping on the saddle, I proceeded to follow the main trail. Within the first five minutes I encountered several sections that were too difficult to cycle and I was forced to walk. I was worried that the trail might not be bicycle friendly afterall, but my initial efforts were soon rewarded with literally kilometres of trails consisting of smooth rock riding interspersed with short sections of trail in between. The trail itself is marked with white blazes painted upon the bare rock and with rock cairns showing white painted lines on them. As such, I would highly advise cycling in the direction listed on the map (counter-clockwise around the pond,) because many of the trail markers would be difficult or impossible to see from the opposite direction.
The trails were unlike anything else I have ridden in the province. The exposed rock provided endless traction and allowed me to meander along and explore as I followed the trail. The entire reserve sits very low, so at times the rock and trails you are cycling are barely above the water level, occasionally providing a sense that you are almost riding on the water. The lack of height also ensures that you will have the opportunity to rip through some short, muddy sections.
The biggest challenge came not from the trail, but from staying upright while staring at the surrounding scenery. I watched a hawk circle effortlessly on currents of air, geese with their newborn goslings and even encountered a fox on the trail that was much too quick for me to capture with my camera.
I returned to the parking lot with a post-ride feeling of accomplishment. It hadn’t been a difficult ride, but it was definitely unique and worth the trip. I know that I will be returning soon with my boys, so they too can experience the beautiful views and one-of-a-kind landscape for themselves. And after a great day of riding, we’ll be back to look at the brilliant stars above too.
TO PLAN YOUR STAY NEAR THE TORRANCE BARRENS DARK SKY PRESERVE, CLICK HERE.
Writer: Bill Farnsworth
Bill Farnsworth is the Communications Coordinator for regional tourism promoter Explorers’ Edge. He is also an avid cyclist and a glutton for punishment.