Discover Torrance Barrens | Muskoka, Ontario

Astronomy buffs are challenged to find an area where the sky is reliably dark enough for really good stargazing.  However, there are several light preserves in Ontario’s Cottage Country that are far enough from city lights for spectacular viewing!  One of the best is Torrance Barrens Conservation Area and Dark Sky Reserve in Muskoka, Ontario, near Gravenhurst. Book your Ontario cottage rental today, and start planning your trip there!

Northern Lights at Torrance Barrens Conservation Area and Dark Sky Reserve, Muskoka, Ontario
Northern Lights viewed from Torrance Barrens – Source:  Ontario Travellers

The skies are so clear at Torrance Barrens that you can enjoy the nighttime view even with the naked eye. Of course, if you have access to them, we recommend bringing along binoculars or a telescope when you visit!  You can easily unload gear at the main observation area and the open landscapes provides unobstructed viewing opportunities.

While the stargazing opportunities are a great reason to visit this park, there are many more!  Read on to discover why you should visit this beautiful conservation area while staying at your Muskoka cottage rental nearby.

How to Get to Torrance Barrens

The Torrance Barrens Conservation Area and Dark Sky Reserve is about 2 ½ hours (180 km) north of Toronto.  Head straight up Highway 400, and then keep to Highway 11 just past Barrie.  Shortly after you reach Severn Bridge, exit on 13 – Southwood Road, which will take you right to the reserve.

History of the Torrance Barrens Conservation Area and Dark Sky Reserve

For many years Torrance Barrens had been known and appreciated for its natural features, and was used for a variety of outdoor recreation purposes such as snowmobiling, stargazing, wildlife viewing, and blueberry picking when in season. 

Local Muskoka resident, Mike Silver noticed the rapid growth of Muskoka and Gravenhurst, and became convinced that it needed to be formally recognized and preserved, in order to protect the area from development.  In 1997, a group of conservationists, led by Mike Silver, Peter Goering and Charles Sauriol (who was responsible for the creation of Hardy Lake Provincial Park) gathered. The group was able to convince the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) to perform an assessment of Torrance Barrens to determine whether it possessed environmental value. The MNR’s assessment concluded that it did possess unique biophysical features, including remnants of ancient, Atlantic coast flora, in addition to rare wildlife such as the Massasauga Rattlesnake and Southern Bog Lemming. 

On June 6, 1998, Torrance Barrens was officially named as a “Conservation Reserve”, and in 1999, became the world’s first permanent Dark Sky Park.

Torrance Barrens Activities | Hiking and Mountain Biking | Night Sky Viewing | Snowmobiling | Camping | Wildlife Viewing and Photography

Hiking and Mountain Biking

Torrance Barrens has two main loop trails, the 3 km Main Trail and the 5 km Pine Ridge Loop Trail. Both have access to the 6 km Barrens Extension, which takes you around an additional marsh, where beavers are often spotted.  Please note that the hiking trails are considered ‘semi-wilderness’, and not groomed regularly.  You’ll find they may be flooded on occasion, particularly in the spring.

Torrance Barrens Conservation Area and Dark Sky Reserve, Muskoka, Ontario
Source: Muskoka Tourism

The hiking trails all begin from the main parking lot area. The first trail from the parking lot brings you to the dark sky viewing area. If you’re going for a hike rather than setting up for dark sky viewing, keep to the right.  There you’ll find the hiking trails near the shore of the marsh.

Mountain biking is also permitted on these trails, in spring, summer, and fall.  Please note that hikers must be given the right of way on the trails.  Here’s a link to a printable Torrance Barrens trail map, to help you plan your trip.

Night Sky Viewing at The Torrance Barrens

Night sky at Torrance Barrens Conservation Area and Dark Sky Reserve, Muskoka, Ontario
Source:  Torrance Barrens – Beautiful night sky viewing!

Torrance Barrens is one of the few places in the world where you can have an opportunity to view the Milky Way clearly.  The main dark sky viewing area is on the smooth granite outcrop immediately behind the Ministry sign on Southwood Road. It is accessible by vehicle, which helps with transport of telescopes and other gear. For unsurpassed binocular viewing with a fully unobstructed 360-degree panorama, walk along the main trail (follow signs), across the boardwalk and up the first ridge.

Snowmobiling Through Torrance Barrens

Snowmobiling at Torrance Barrens Conservation Area and Dark Sky Reserve, Muskoka, Ontario

A number of snowmobile trails pass through Torrance Barrens. Here’s our guide to snowmobiling in Ontario while on your cottage country vacation

Camping at Torrance Barrens​

Newly designated in May 2023, there are now six backcountry tent campsites in Torrance Barrens, all accessible on a first come, first serve basis.  Each site is permitted to have a campfire when local fire safety conditions allow.  For now, these campsites are free, but Ontario Parks has future plans to implement a permit system for the sites. Visitors must carry in all supplies and carry out all garbage.  ​Camping and campfires are not permitted anywhere else at Torrance Barrens.

​Wildlife Viewing and Photography

Although not officially a wildlife reserve, Torrance Barrens is an excellent spot for wildlife and bird viewing and photography. Several unique and nationally rare species such as the Massasauga rattlesnake and Sandhill crane can be found in the reserve.  We recommend hiking quietly at dawn or dusk, particularly in the spring. See if you can spot beavers and waterfowl in the marshes, and check out the boardwalks for basking reptiles and amphibians. Deer and bears are often spotted along the side of the Southwood road. 

Bears at Torrance Barrens Conservation Area and Dark Sky Reserve, Muskoka, Ontario
Source: The Torrance Barrens Conservation Area and Dark Sky Reserve

​Torrance Barrens is great for nature photography as well!  Brilliantly coloured fall foliage, misty wetland landscapes, rare species, and much more draws many nature photographers to the park.  Of course, the night sky is a great attraction on clear nights to photograph too. Blueberry picking has been a historical pursuit during July and August, and you’ll find lots of blueberries along the exposed bedrock.

The Torrance Barrens Conservation Area and Dark Sky Reserve is an ecological delight, whether you enjoy hiking, mountain biking, blueberry picking, or just relaxing and taking in the peace and quiet of nature.  It’s especially important as a destination for night sky viewing, and an astronomer’s dream destination, especially on clear nights.  Here are the best provincial and national parks to visit in Muskoka to consider visiting while you’re in the area. Book your Gravenhurst cottage rental today and start planning your trip!  

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