My heart forever belongs to Sauble Beach. My childhood summers were spent there, and those memories warm my soul like a hot toddy. But once I turned 17, my eyes wandered south to Grand Bend where my friends and I made a very different suite of memories. All of them happened at Pinery Provincial Park.
Back in 2016, when the kids were still in single digits, I took them to Sauble to experience that piece of my childhood. Plenty had changed but enough remained familiar that I barfed stories the entire week. In 2023, now both teens, it was time to introduce them to The Pinery and different side to dear, ole dad.
Unlike with Sauble, I couldn’t tell you if anything had changed. Not in Grand Bend, not in the park. I couldn’t remember a single thing about these places other than I had been to them on several occasions and had a tonne of fun. Hmmm. I wonder why that is.
PINERY PROVINCIAL PARK LOCATION
Established in 1957, Pinery Provincial Park is located 9 km southwest of Grand Bend, Ontario, a popular beach town on the shores of Lake Huron towards its southern end. The park is sandwiched between the lake and highway 21, a prominent vehicular artery paralleling much of Huron’s eastern shoreline.
Grand Bend, in turn, is approximately one hour’s drive northwest from London, Ontario. It’s a similar length drive northeast from Sarnia, Ontario. From my childhood home, the drive was an hour and a half, give or take. It kind of depended on which family car I was using and how keen I was to get there.
From my current home, it would take 30 hours of driving with two border crossings. Hence the plane ride and our borrowing of camping gear to make this trip down memory lane happen.
PINERY PROVINCIAL PARK SETTING
Pinery Provincial Park is a roughly 10 km x 2.5 km rectangular (‘rectangulesque’ needs to be a word) stretch of beach fronted forest on Lake Huron. The park is bound to its north and south by cottages and summer homes, as is common along Ontario’s Great Lakes. To the east is farmland.
The park lies in an oak savanna which is a lightly forested grassland with oaks as the dominant tree species. In the 60s, red and white pines were planted all over the park which ensured its name but denigrated its native ecology.
As a result, the park’s campgrounds are sheltered from the sun but not densely so. Patches of shade reach every site at some point during the day. This is true of the entire park, save for the beaches and dunes which are free of trees. And with the deciduous trees shedding their leaves, shade disappears in swaths during shoulder and winter seasons.
A former channel of the Ausable River dissects the park lengthwise. Known as the Old Ausable Channel (OAC), it is primarily a wetland now, having been cut off from the river when two channels were excavated in Port Franks and Grand Bend (check out the satellite imagery … the “Grand Bend” in the original river path is quite dramatic).
The beaches are notable for their large dunes and resilient juniper.
PINERY PROVINCIAL PARK ENTRANCE
Pinery Provincial Park employs an odd multi-entrance system whereby there is a main park entrance servicing the entire park and then a second entrance at each of the three campgrounds. I suppose this alleviates congestion at the main entrance by differentiating campers from day users and keeping everything flowing.
All four entrances are similar in that they have a main office building and one or two small kiosks allowing two or three vehicles to be serviced at once. Exteriors of these structures differ but the experience is identical.
Staff were helpful and polite both coming and going. Again, being there midweek meant we weren’t competing with an influx of weekend warriors, so things likely gravitate towards insane on Friday evenings.
PINERY PROVINCIAL PARK LAYOUT
Park use is divided in halves, this time by width, with the north half dedicated to day use, group camping, and wilderness while the south half is exclusively campgrounds and amenities. There is a whole lot packed into Pinery Provincial Park and yet it honestly doesn’t feel congested, if that makes sense.
Oh, it gets busy. There’s no doubt about that. But the campgrounds manage to keep a spaciousness about them in what could easily be endless sardine can campsites. Parts of Riverside hint at such a nightmare.
With abundance and popularity comes complication and rules. Just trying to find out how many campsites exist at Pinery Provincial Park is rife with frustration. The Ontario Parks website doesn’t provide a tally and the Friends of the Pinery website states 1000 campsites. That’s an awfully round number but maybe it is precise, I have no way of telling short of counting myself and I don’t care nearly enough to do that.
What I can tell you is this. There are 3 Group Areas with a total of 10 Group Sites between them. There are 9 large Day Use areas. Regular camping, of the thousand site kind, can be found in 3 campgrounds named Dunes, Burley, and Riverside. Two of those make sense geographically. What Burley is named after is beyond me.
Each campground is further subdivided into multiple areas; some numerical, others alphabetical. I hesitate to call them loops because although some are simple loops, many are not. Certain loops have special rules and privileges and campsites range in services and style. There are even two types of glamping available.
It’s quite a mess to weed through when booking, especially if you are unfamiliar with the place. Or, like me, you’ve long lost those precious brain cells storing this information.
Dammit, I ended up counting and the total I got was 1038 campsites.
Dunes Campground at Pinery Provincial Park is somewhat centrally located along the shoreline. It is divided into four areas, Dunes Area 1 through Dunes Area 4. Dunes Areas 1, 2, and 3 border the beach whereas Dunes 4 is wholly inland.
There are a total of 299 campsites in all of Dunes Campground organized as follows: Dunes Area 1 (116 campsites), Dunes Area 2 (35 campsites), Dunes Area 3 (96 campsites), and Dunes Area 4 (52 campsites). As best as I can tell, all the campsites in Dunes are back-in style (for tents or RVs).
On-site services vary by area as well, though none of the campsites have water. Dunes 1 is predominantly electrical with the remainder un-serviced. It’s about a 2/3rds to 1/3rd split respectively. Dunes 2 is all un-serviced, save for two electrical sites. Figure that one out. Dunes 3 is entirely un-serviced, and Dunes 4 is entirely electrical.
One special rule worth noting; Dunes 4 is designated as pet free.
Burley Campground at Pinery Provincial Park has a similar shoreline location but to the south of Dunes Campground. The two are twins in many ways and could easily be considered one long campground in my humble opinion. To differentiate itself, Burley employs an alphabetical naming system rather than numerical.
The loops in Burley Campground are less ambiguous than those in Dunes Campground and extend from the central road like leaves on a stem.
There are 21 total loops named A through U and they’re loosely grouped into four areas for mapping purposes on the Ontario Parks reservations website. The 274 campsites in Burley Campground are arranged as follows … I think … the map doesn’t actually tell you which loop belongs to which letter:
To make accuracy matters worse, those numbers come from my own counting using the reservation map. Campsites are numbered erratically. Loop A hosts campsites 900 – 910. Loop B picks up with 911 – 921. Then, for no apparent reason, Loop C starts at 935. That’s thirteen campsite numbers mysteriously missing.
Burley Campground consists entirely of un-serviced, back-in campsites. It’s also the furthest from the main entrance so possibly … don’t take this as gospel … a little less hectic than the other campgrounds.
One of the few things I do remember is that Riverside Campground at Pinery Provincial Park is the least appealing of the three. Also centrally located, but on the east side of the Old Ausable Channel, Riverside returns to a numerical area naming system.
There are 4 areas, Riverside Area 1 through Riverside Area 4. In total, there are 465 campsites, 8 Cabins, and 10 yurts. The campsites are arranged as follows: Riverside Area 1 (112 campsites), Riverside Area 2 (110 campsites), Riverside Area 3 (66 campsites), and Riverside Area 4 (177 campsites).
Again, there is a mishmash of site services in these areas, though none have water. Riverside Area 1 are 3 are all electrified. Riverside Area 2 is ½ and ½. And Riverside Area 4 is all electric with the exception of 12 sites.
Unlike its lakeside cousins, though, Riverside has a bounty of pull-through campsites. In fact, Riverside Area 1 is exclusively pull-throughs and Riverside 3 has a section with 7 extra-wide pull-throughs. Riverside Area 2 and 4 are all back-ins and while not as cookie cutter as Riverside Area 1, neither are they quite as organic as those in Dunes and Burley. If you’re camping with a larger RV, Riverside Campground is your likely destination.
Another special rule to identify. Riverside Area 3 is designated as a radio free zone. That’s certainly novel. And as I think back to my early days camping here with pals, surely appreciated by many as well.
Riverside Campground is also the only one open year-round. So, if you’re into winter camping, and I can’t imagine why, then you’ve got a place waiting at The Pinery. I wouldn’t recommend swimming, though.
PINERY PROVINCIAL PARK CAMPSITES
The primary park road, which loops around the entire park, and passes through the centre of Burley and parts of Dunes, is paved. Everything else, nada. The loop roads within campgrounds are narrow, gravel, and ill-maintained in parts. Navigating large RVs through some of these campground loops will be difficult. And potholes are aplenty.
Campsites are, for the most part, dirt with a hint of former gravel glory admittedly on some. And I do mean dirt. Like hardpacked topsoil, for lack of a better term. It’s the forest floor stripped of any flora in many sites and that can make for an extremely messy experience. Especially, if it rains, which it did prior to and at the start of our two-night stay in mid-August.
The result is mud. Sticky, oozy mud which will get on everything. Water will pool in low spots, on sites, on roads, and when they start to slowly shrink, they leave behind mud hollows that hippos would lust over.
With the exception of the pull-throughs in Riverside Campground, campsites at Pinery Provincial Park are generally amorphous blobs. A well-defined driveway with a bulb of living space to one side is rare, though with over 1000 campsites some are bound to exist.
Your campsite, regardless of campground, will typically be surrounded by trees. Underbrush is also prevalent in areas offering some privacy, but overall proximity to neighbours will be the determining factor. Don’t expect to feel alone.
Depending on the size of that campsite, the central area will get sunlight at some point during the day, perhaps much of the day. And there is a broad range of campsite size. From tiny sites only suitable for tents, to palatial sites with room for multiple tents and/or trailers, there’s no two alike.
OUR CAMPSITE AT PINERY PROVINCIAL PARK
Even with 1038 campsites, booking one can be quite difficult in the heart of the summer camping season. We had planned to reserve a cabin or yurt, something we’ve never camped in before, but they were gone before we even had a shot at one.
Turning attention to campsites, when the booking window opened for the days we wanted, there were very few sites available of any kind. We eventually snagged one in Dunes Area 3 and felt rather blessed to have gotten one at all.
Our site was #214, one of the amorphous blobs in the interior of a loop on the east side of the main park road. It had plenty of room for the gigantic 12-person tent and 12’ x 12’ dinner canopy we’d borrowed from my sister. Overkill, surely, but when the rain started, we were happy for the shelter.
Had we brought our Geo Pro, it easily would have fit on the site, though our tow vehicle would have had to park beside the trailer somewhere. There was room for something larger, but it would have required an odd parking angle. With no services on site, that’s not a huge dealbreaker.
FIREPIT AND PICINIC TABLE
All campsites come with a firepit and picnic table. The firepit is a keyhole-shaped metal ring with a grill over a portion of the top. The grill can be flipped out of the way or left as is. It won’t ruin your campfire if just left in place.
These firepits have been in their locations for many years and it shows in the variability of their burial in the surrounding dirt. Some are half buried while others are discernably crooked.
Group Area sites have a larger, octagonal steel firepit that is surrounded by wooden, immovable benches. They sport a much larger grill with a solid metal surround. They’re unequivocally communal firepits.
Picnic tables are made of metal frames with wooden tops and seats. Ours, and I suspect most others, were well beyond their best before date. Paint is all but gone and there are generations of etchings, burns, and rot on them.
They are exceptionally long, though, so that’s nice. Very helpful when tent camping and need workspace and eating space all at the same time. And they’re movable, unlike, say, BC Parks’ mega-tables.
GROUP CAMPING AREAS
Group camping at Pinery Provincial Park is a mixed bag. There are three group areas with a total of ten group sites between them. They’re all located at the north half of the park in the interior of the primary loop road across from the nine day use areas.
I like that there are numerous group sites all segregated from the campgrounds. However, having 3 or 4 group sites together in each group area, well, I don’t like that so much.
I think of group camping as something to be done away from the masses, in part because groups tend to get louder than individual campers. I like some privacy when group camping so I can enjoy my entourage without annoying others. You can’t do that with additional group sites right beside you.
The group camping areas at The Pinery are also for tenting only. Not surprising considering they’re tucked into the forest with nothing more than a parking lot, a communal firepit surrounded by benches, a small bathroom with cleaning station, and a water source. Tents get set up willy nilly on the ground with no specified sites. There isn’t a single place to set up an RV in there.
CABINS AND YURTS AT PINERY PROVINCIAL PARK
If you prefer your weekends accommodations a little more sturdy, Pinery Provincial Park does offer a selection of glamping options by way of yurts and cabins. All are located in a central loop of Riverside Area 1 amongst the electric pull-through campsites.
By my count using the reservation website, there are 8 cabins and 10 yurts. This differs from the most recent satellite image of the park and differs again with the official Ontario Parks website. I’m going to assume the actual booking site is most current since that’s where the money is paid.
I was unable to enter cabins or yurts as they were either in use or locked up with curtains drawn. Both employ a similar setup, and I suspect a couple of the original yurt sites have since been converted into cabin sites, hence the numbers discrepancy.
Both reside on what were once campsites and look very much like campsites still. They have accessible ramps up to decks outside their respective entrances. A picnic table and BBQ resides on the deck and firepit can be found in the gravel living space around the structures. There is room for parking on each site.
Like their campsite siblings, the yurt and cabin sites are well-treed with ample shade. The campground amenities, like potable water and bathroom facilities are nearby.
Cabins are a bit fancier than the yurts. While both have electricity, only the cabins come with small appliances including microwave, mini-fridge, and a propane/electrical fireplace for warmth. For both, you will need to bring your own bedding, pots, dishes, and cutlery.
Smoking and pets are not allowed in any cabin or yurt, save for one. Yurt 480C allows dogs. I guess nobody goes glamping with their cat or goldfish.
COMFORT STATIONS (I.E. WASHROOMS)
Here’s a good example of how fuzzy my memory is of those glorious long weekends at The Pinery long ago. I don’t know if they had flush toilets back then. In fairness, I may not have even used a bathroom back in those days, preferring instead to, shall we say, replenish nature. But seriously, I can’t recall what facilities were available.
Thankfully, in 2023, there are numerous comfort stations and bathrooms all over the park with fully flushable toilets, not to mention showers, cleaning stations, and laundering facilities. No need to wander into the bushes this time around.
The comfort stations are the bigger option with all the aforementioned services. There are fewer of these with roughly one per area in the various campgrounds but sometimes more. Dunes Campground, for example, has one in each of Areas 2, 3, and 4 whereas Areas 1 has two. The one nearest our site was at the end of the loop road which was convenient without being too close.
Most of these comfort stations appear to be newer constructs, though there is at least one older version still standing in Burley. The age of this older version also suggests that there were, indeed, flush toilets here back in the late 80s.
These large, brick buildings have a womens side and a mens side, with five individual unisex shower stalls at their fronts (one of which is accessible). There is parking out front as well if you don’t wish to walk from and to your campsite. Oh, and a post mounted ashtray which is a hell of a throwback.
Inside you’ll find stainless steel sinks with mirrors and hand dryers, a urinal, and a few toilets (including one accessible stall). The washrooms were clean, but when it rains there’s just inevitably going to be mud and such on the floors.
SMALLER BATHROOMS WITH CLEANING STATIONS
In addition to the large comfort stations, each campground has a selection of smaller bathrooms. Built of the same brick material, these smaller units have two unisex stalls on the side and a stainless-steel cleaning station at the front.
Some online maps indicate that these are vault toilets, but that seems to be outdated information as the ones I visited had flush toilets inside.
The situation at the various beach locations within Pinery Provincial Park varies between flush and non-flush toilets. Burley Beach, for example, has what appears to be a fully modern bathroom that looks every bit like the campground comfort stations. I assumed it would have flush toilets inside so never bothered to look.
Then, I saw a smaller but equally new bathroom at Dunes Beach and it had a vault or compost type toilet in it. There was a sink present, but the toilet was an unfamiliar design that definitely was not the typical flush toilet.
The bathrooms on the beach in the day use areas are likely of similar variability. Again, I didn’t take the time to investigate every bathroom in the park. There are plenty, which is great, and most appear to be flush. If you have a surplus of bad luck, though, you may find one of the few non-flush options that remain.
The large bathrooms are also appointed with coin-op laundry rooms at their rears. Whether they all have this amenity is unknown to me. I suspect it to be true, but I didn’t visit each and every one to confirm one way or the other. I do know more than one has it so there is a strong likelihood that laundry facilities will be near your campsite.
Pricing at the Dunes option I was able to get pictures from is $4 each, for the washer and the dryer. There were two of each in a small, rectangular room with a long, stainless steel worktable on each side of the room. With Ontario’s notorious humidity and the muddy campsites, access to laundering is surely welcome for campers staying longer than just a weekend.
For a park with three campgrounds comprised of a whopping 1038 campsites, the dump station situation at Pinery Provincial Park is damn near laughable. There are two, yes two, single lane dump stations for the entire park.
One is located on a 90-degree bend in the main loop road where turns from skirting southeast of Riverside Campground and heads northwest into the heart of The Pinery. The other is hidden away on a short side road into the children’s program area approximately 500 m from the main entrance.
Both have long, sweeping gravel roads that provide space for multiple RVs to line up, though the one by Riverside Campground comically has more space after the dump outlet than before it. But with only a single outlet accessible from one direction, I can’t imagine how both dump stations are not gong shows on Sundays (or holiday Mondays).
With no water on any campsite at Pinery Provincial Park, you’ll have to go exploring to quench your thirst or boil your pasta. Luckily, the park has made your prey plentiful and relatively easy to find. Just look for the blue post stuck in the ground.
Each Campground has multiple taps throughout. They’re either solitary installations or next to the bathrooms. In some cases, you’re most likely to find them along main arteries into campgrounds. In others, they’ll even be found within the loops.
The dump stations also offer drinking water for your RV. I’m inclined to think it still might be easiest to bring it from home, all things considered.
There is fresh water in the group areas as well.
Down on the southeast portion of the main park loop road, right near the one dump station, is the firewood sales station. It’s a standalone operation found at the end of a short access road and parking lot.
The fence-enclosed yard houses a small payment shed where you pay for your firewood bundle. Ice is also sold here if you don’t want to make a second stop at the store.
My pictures aren’t the best. I did buy firewood but didn’t have my camera with me at the time. When I did make my way back for some snapshots, I couldn’t get access to the yard.
You can buy chunks of wood in a bundle or kindling in a smaller bundle. Prices aren’t egregious, but if you’re having a lot of fires it’ll add up. Thankfully, hardwoods dominate Ontario firewood, so our bundle of wood lasted longer than we’re used to out west where conifer and popular dominate.
DAY USE AREAS AT PINERY PROVINCIAL PARK
There are 9 nearly identical day use areas along the beach in the north end of the park. The primary road is one way in this half of the park, so you’ll approach the day use areas from the north heading south. The day use areas are numbered numerically with Areas 1 and 2 being dog friendly (the remainder are not).
Each is comprised of a large, gravel parking lot off the road with an entrance and exit. A small toilet with cleaning station, garbage bin, and water tap is located typically where the boardwalk or trail to the beach begins. Once through the trees and over the dunes, you’ll descend to the sandy beach much like you would in Dunes or Burley campgrounds.
In the bit of woodlands between the parking lots and the primary road, you’ll find some picnic spots stashed in small bare spots. The ones we saw were barely spacious enough to hold the picnic tables within them. Not overly appealing in my opinion.
Additional picnic spots of this nature can be found along the primary road on the east side of the loop. They’re beside the road in a clearing, sometimes with views of the OAC. Not terrible spots, but the proximity to the main road would frustrate me on busy days. I’d prefer it if they were further inland from traffic.
THE BEACHES OF PINERY PROVINCIAL PARK
Make no mistake, the reason you or anyone is camping at Pinery Provincial Park is to enjoy the beach. The beach and bounding dunes are the one thing I confidently remember from former visits despite the serious brain cell damage occurring at the time.
The beach runs the entire length of the park, and on to Grand Bend for that matter. It’s not Wasaga Beach or Sauble Beach in grandeur, but it’s a nice beach nonetheless and you’ll have plenty of fun on hot summer days playing in the sand and frolicking in the waves.
You can sunbathe anywhere along this strip of Pinery beach if you’re willing to walk, but there are a handful of “official” entry points in the park. Burley and Dunes each have a “Beach” to themselves which can be accessed by vehicle from the main loop road. They have large parking lots and bathroom facilities plus a few boardwalks down the dunes to the beach.
These aren’t the only beach access points, though, as you will find several other pedestrian entrances along the main road through Dunes and Burley campgrounds. And, of course, the campground loops on the beach side of the road have footworn paths to the water from campsites themselves.
The beach is mostly sand, though there are accumulations of stones in spots where the waves pile them up. The odd chunk of driftwood can also be found.
Water temperature varies by day. Lake Huron never gets bathtub warm. This is Canada, after all, and old man Superior is feeding Huron from the north. When storms roll through, they kick up cooler water from the depths which can change temperatures from one day to the next. It’s still better than anything in Alberta. So much better.
And even if you just hate swimming, you’ll still want to make your way to the lake in the evening to catch one of those spectacular Lake Huron sunsets.
OLD AUSABLE CHANNEL IN PINERY PROVINCIAL PARK
The Old Ausable Channel (OAC) was the first glaring evidence that my memories of Pinery Provincial Park were unreliable. I had no idea it was a thing, at all. I don’t recall seeing it, crossing it, paddling on it, nothing. And yet it obviously wasn’t dug in the years since I last camped at The Pinery. It’s a natural feature as old as the park itself.
As its name suggests, it’s a former path of the Ausable River which currently empties into Lake Huron at Port Franks immediately south of the park. The OAC dissects the Pinery lengthwise and extends all the way to Grand Bend.
The start of this leg of the old river is how Grand Bend got its name, in fact. There used to be a dramatic, nearly 180-degree bend in the Ausable River before channels were excavated to the lake, thus isolating the OAC.
Now primarily a wetland with no regular flow along its course, the OAC is an evolving habitat for several endangered species and a lovely paddling route for park users.
STORE AND RESTAURANT
Once you’ve entered The Pinery and swung south towards the campgrounds, you’ll encounter the central hub area. Here you’ll find a store, restaurant, rentals, and a little further up the road, the visitor centre.
First up is the store and restaurant, a t-shaped building surrounded on two sides by large, paved parking lots. The other two sides of the structure are bound by grass areas with picnic shelters in one and store infrastructure in the other.
The store offers foodstuffs, camping gear, and souvenirs. It’s a happy mix of the three though not a full-fledged retail outlet for any. Any emergency needs can easily be accommodated here (we needed matches) but you’ll be better served going to town if you require multi-day grocery shopping, for example.
The restaurant is a modest affair serving typical beach grub like burgers, fries, and sandwiches along with basic beverages. It has an indoor seating area with tall glass windows plus the outdoor picnic shelters.
I have no comment on food quality. We didn’t buy anything here since we had brought our own food for preparation. It’s hard to make truly terrible burgers but I wouldn’t expect anything exceptional either. I’m kind of surprised this isn’t closer to the Day Use Areas, as this seems an amenity more likely to be used there than by campers.
BOAT AND BIKE RENTAL
Something I was delighted to see was the extensive rentals at Pinery Provincial Park. Next to the store/restaurant area, backing onto the OAC, is the bicycle and canoe rental building. Fantastic idea having both bikes and watercraft available.
Bicycles look to be comfortable, upright riding bikes. Nothing too fancy or hardcore here. There’s no need for mountain bikes with suspension when the only real option for cycling is a relatively flat trail around the park loop. Still, great to have.
Watercraft are for use in the OAC, not the lake itself. You won’t find motorized craft of any sort in the park (go to Grand Bend for that). Options extend beyond canoes and include kayaks (single and double), paddle boards, and corcls (Google it … I had to).
With the park being open in winter, you can also rent cross-country skis and snowshoes.
What makes the rental shop even better, though, is the ice cream dispensary attached to it. On one hand, I find it funny that the ice cream shop is with the rentals rather than the store or restaurant. On the other hand, I’m very happy it exists at all.
Ontario summers need ice cream! Well, all summers do, but especially humid ones by lakes. They probably need beer too, but definitely ice cream. Hard, cold, delicious ice cream.
Once you turn towards the water at the store, you’ll soon encounter the Visitor Centre. It’s nice to see a large park (by campsite numbers) with a functioning, modern Visitor Centre. Too many of these have been shuttered or never built.
This one has a huge, long paved parking lot just off the primary loop road. A fancy boardwalk takes you from the parking lot to the Visitor Centre up a slight grade in the savannah.
Inside there are park personnel available to answer questions regarding the park’s wildlife and habitat. Several displays including live and stuffed animals and critters are all over the spacious building. It has a theatre for showing nature themed films and a gift shop that supports The Friends of Pinery Park.
When we were visiting, a couple of tents were set up at the edge of the parking lot with interactive educational displays about plants and animals in the park.
The Friends’ website indicates that this Visitor Centre even stays open on weekends over the winter and daily during Christmas. All great in a country that too often shuts down everything park-like once the snow comes.
In the centre of the park, the main ring road turns towards the lake and approaches Dunes Campground. But before getting there, as it passes the Visitor Centre, the road does a wild dipsy doodle to the north and back again. If the road continued straight onwards instead, it would run into The Pinery’s amphitheatre.
Instead of taking your car to the show, you arrive by the Savannah Trail which connects to the Visitor Centre and Store/Restaurant/Riverside Campground in one direction and to Dunes Campground in the other direction with the amphitheatre marking the halfway point.
This is an impressive amphitheatre, perhaps the largest we’ve yet seen in any provincial or national park. Set in the grass on the right side of the trail, it has ample seating on thick, wooden benches. They’re a bit on the sunbleached side, but still sturdy. The benches slope down towards a large concrete stage with a brick enclosure behind it. In the centre appears to be a projection surface on which films can be watched.
We were at the park midweek and didn’t see any shows nor did we make an effort to see if any were even scheduled. Nothing about the amphitheatre suggests that it’s unused, so I suspect there is awesome programming during the summer months. If a park with 1038 campsites can’t support live programming, we’re really doing something wrong.
Around the greenspace encompassing the amphitheatre are several bat houses. Some of these aren’t your average bat houses, either. One is especially huge, capable of housing 3000 Little Brown Myotis bats! That is both cool and a tad unnerving.
TRAILS AT PINERY PROVINCIAL PARK
Another glaring omission in my memories of Pinery Provincial Park is the presence of hiking trails. I obviously wasn’t looking for such activities back then, but even before our arrival these 35 years later, I didn’t expect them to exist. Where could there possibly be room?
Well, it just goes to show you how obtuse I can be. The Pinery is not Algonquin, but it still manages to offer 10 hiking trails plus a cycling trail. Not bad.
None of these trails are going to test your fitness all that much. There are limits to what can be built in a park of this size. But with a range in length from 1.0 km to 3.0 km, there is ample opportunity to stretch your legs and see some beautiful, natural environment in an otherwise highly developed Southern Ontario.
The 10 hiking trails are located along the primary park road and typically have a lasso shape. Most point outwards from the road but a couple do aim into the interior.
Each has a small trailhead with a parking lot and signage. A bicycle rack and boot cleaning station are also common since the trails are meant for walking and they try to limit infestation by invasive plant species. The trails are a combination of gravel/dirt with boardwalks and stairs where necessary.
Views vary from overlooking the dunes to solely within the forest to the riverside of the OAC. There is some elevation change which doesn’t intuitively seem possible but does exist and allows for a handful of genuine lookout points.
The cycling trail (Savannah Trail) is easily the longest trail in the park. It’s wider than the hiking trails and more or less parallels the north half of the perimeter road. This provides a wonderful 14.5 km for biking and takes you to the main attractions of the park.
We, sadly, were pressed for time during our short stay and therefore didn’t do any hiking. The rain on the day of our arrival didn’t help either. Something to look forward to on future visits.
I should also point out that there are several short trails, boardwalks, really, through the dunes to the beaches. These are found all along the shoreline in both the campgrounds and the day use areas. Not exactly hiking trails, but still pretty in their own, solely functional, way.
Pinery Provincial Park has a lot to offer visitors and campers alike. One thing it doesn’t have, however, is a playground. Not a single one anywhere in the entire park. A beloved destination for Ontario families, but no playground. I think that’s odd.
This is something I harp on a lot in my reviews. I’ve badgered Alberta Parks and BC Parks for the same lack of playground structures. It’s shockingly endemic to provincial parks in this country.
Maybe I’m the oddball with this. I just think back to my childhood camping days, and even at places with incredible beaches, playing at the playground was a huge part of the experience. No clue why we are collectively preventing today’s kids from creating those same memories.
WILDLIFE AND PESTS
Our stay was short, two nights during the week. We didn’t see any wildlife during that time (seagulls at the beach notwithstanding), though we admittedly did not explore any of the trails. I would have expected to see some birds or chipmunks scavenging around our campsite in hopes of finding some dropped food, but nope. The only evidence of animal life at our site was the persistent whir of tree frogs.
There must be wildlife in the park based on the bat boxes by the amphitheatre, the turtle nest boxes by the OAC, and the signs warning drivers about turtles and snakes on the roads. With time, I’m sure you’ll eventually catch a glimpse of something.
Meanwhile, you’ll certainly be aware of Nature’s presence thanks to the mosquitoes. Thankfully by mid-August peak season for these dastardly buggers had passed. We still needed some bug spray, but we weren’t chased into our tents. Earlier in the summer, they’re surely worse. The muggy, forested surroundings are prime breeding grounds for bugs, especially near the OAC which is now a wetland rather than a river.
There will also be a variety of flies, wasps, and other flying critters during different periods of the camping season. We’re doing our best to eradicate life on this planet, but the most annoying of lifeforms are damn resilient.
IS PINERY PROVINCIAL PARK NOISY
If there was one thing consuming my thoughts as I booked our stay at Pinery Provincial Park, it was noise. I need only to look in the mirror to be reminded of the menace partiers can be in a campground. Would I return to The Pinery only to find clones of me and my friends camping next to us and keeping me up all night?
Thankfully, it wasn’t so bad during our stay. Granted, it was a Tuesday through Thursday, so not representative of the long weekends when young me wreaked the most havoc. Still, it’s summer vacation time so absolute peace and quiet was a pipe dream.
There is always at least one family with loud kids and oblivious parents. And during our second night, a nearby campsite was enjoying their campfire with enthusiasm past the posted quiet time but eventually calmed down. Noticeable, but nothing that ruined our sleep by any means.
Generators can also be a concern, especially in areas without electricity. Our campsite was in one such area, but we didn’t hear any disruptive generator noise which was a pleasant surprise. Your mileage will vary significantly with this, I’m sure.
We left having never experienced anything close to the hell I and my compatriots foisted upon strangers back in the day. Those times we weren’t quickly kicked out, of course. I’m as grateful for this as I am regretful of my past.
MY RATING OF PINERY PROVINCIAL PARK
I was so excited about my return to Pinery Provincial Park, but I ended up leaving a tad befuddled. I just couldn’t comprehend how little I remembered of the place. Those few long weekends we spent here were truly some of the very best times of my life but good lord those memories are faint. I guess I just wasn’t focused on the campground/park back then.
Returning now, with a different perspective, I still found The Pinery to be a wonderful place. It’s a great park with excellent campgrounds and facilities. I would absolutely camp here with my family if we lived closer. It’s a great spot by any standard, and one of the best in southwestern Ontario.
I will therefore bestow upon Pinery Provincial Park 4.44 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. I’m hedging my rating a bit under the assumption that our midweek stay does not fully equate to a weekend stay. I’m guessing crowds and noise levels are elevated based on … cough … previous experience. And the muddy campsites after a rain suck. Would gravel be that unwelcome?
Otherwise, The Pinery came as advertised. Faded memories or not, go make some new ones at a great park. It’s what summer in Ontario is all about.