One of my favourite places to visit in Ontario, Canada, is Point Pelee National Park. No matter the season, there is always something interesting to explore. Whether you enjoy hiking, cycling, swimming, canoeing, birdwatching, camping, or just leisurely exploring nature, the park does not disappoint. If that is not enough, it is also the southern-most point in mainland Canada. That alone is reason for many to visit this wonderland. And, if you want to go further south in Canada, you have to take the ferry in Leamington to Point Pelee Island, about 14 km south of Leamington.
Point Pelee National Park was established in 1918 as the first Canadian National Park designated a conservation area. Located in Leamington, Ontario, the park is a peninsula of land, about 4.5 km wide at the northern base, which tapers off to a point into Lake Erie. The key attraction for most tourists is getting their picture taken at the point.
Getting to Point Pelee
Getting to Point Pelee National Park from Toronto is relatively easy. The 363 km drive takes about 3 hours 45 minutes. Take the 401 West till you pass Tilbury. At exit 56, take County Rd 42 and then follow County Rd 37 South. Turn west on County Rd 34 and south again on Essex 33 to Point Pelee Drive. Follow the road till you get to the park.
If you are coming from the Windsor / Detroit area, follow the 401 East to Hwy 77. Turn south on Hwy 77 and follow it to Leamington. Then take Essex Ed 33 to Point Pelee Drive and onto the park.
As with most national parks / historic sites, visitors must pay an entrance fee most days. From April to October, the cost of adult admission is $7.90. Youth (under 17) is always free. Seniors enjoy a slight discount. The fee for a family or group entering the park in a single vehicle is only $16.00. Well worth it if you have three or more family members and/or friends wanting to visit.
There are annual passes available, which is great for locals. If you plan to visit several national parks over the year, a Parks Canada Discovery Pass may well be worth the price.
Some days throughout the year, like Canada Day on July 1st, entrance to the park is free.
Getting Around The Park
Most people visiting the park for the first time want to get to the tip as quickly as possible and then explore further from there. The fastest way to do this is by car. A single road leads from the entrance to the Tip Exhibit Area. But, unfortunately, you cannot drive all this way during normal visitor hours. But you can drive to the park’s Visitor Centre and take a shuttle for the remaining 2 km to the Tip Exhibit Area. Then it’s another 1 km hike to the actual tip.
During the winter months, and sometimes during the summer after the shuttle stops running for the day, the park opens the road all the way to the Tip Exhibit Area allowing you to drive there yourself.
For the more adventuresome, both bike and hiking trails lead from the entrance to the point. It would be a long 8 km walk, but easily do-able by bike. The park would prefer you to leave your bike at the Tip Exhibit Area and walk the 1 km to the tip.
You will reach the first car park area, Park Orientation, shortly after entering the park itself. There are some billboards here explaining the key areas of the park. You can access the bike and hiking trail from here if you want to explore the park that way. Another short trail west takes you out to the beach.
If driving, keep an eye out for Sanctuary Pond Lookout. It is a small area on the left (east) side of the road. Some of the parks prettiest vistas are visible here. This Carolinian wetland is part of the migration corridor for birds crossing Lake Erie in the spring. Early in the morning, the sunrise is gorgeous.
Turtles like to hang out in the shallow water under the lookout.
The Marsh Boardwalk is a popular stopping area. It features multi-tiered lookout, equipped with telescopes. From the top of the lookout, you can gaze over most of the vast marsh. This oasis of tranquility and peace is a photographer’s dream. If you come early for sunrise, there’s an excellent chance you will be alone in this wonderland for an hour or so.
A boardwalk loops round the marsh and takes about 30–40 minutes to complete. During the walk you will be surrounded by an abundance of wildlife, lily pads, wavering cattails and various aquatic life. Slowly meander through the marsh and enjoy the chirping of red-winged blackbirds, yellow warblers and barn swallows as they dance among the cattails. Halfway around there is an elevated resting stop allowing you to look back over the marsh to the lookout. Benches are placed at various spots along the boardwalk itself if you get tired or just want to relax and take in the view. It’s a marvellous way to spend an afternoon.
You can rent a canoe or kayak at the cafe / gift shop next to the boardwalk if you want to explore the marsh a little further. Organized canoe tours of the marsh are scheduled throughout the day led by a seasoned, bilingual guide in a ten-person canoe.
Rental bikes are available at the boardwalk shop as well if you decide you want to explore the trails and park at a slightly slower pace.
DeLaurier Homestead & Trail
The DeLaurier Homestead is a two-storey, gabled structure of historical significance in the middle of the park. It is actually two attached log houses with a brick chimney at one end. Associated with the early development of the area in the mid–1850s by a small French-Canadian community. Built by Oliver DeLaurier, it is the oldest remaining structure from the area. Locals at the time often used the house for local parties and community dances. The structure represents the important developing farm export business of the time.
There are two other smaller farm buildings on the property, as well, that originate from the same period.
The loop trail at the DeLaurier Homestead is part gravel and part boardwalk and takes about 30 minutes to complete. About halfway along there is an elevated lookout allowing you see over the cattails lining the boardwalk. This is one of my favourite trails in the park.
Car access to the park ends at the Visitor Centre during summer, daylight hours. From there, you can either walk, cycle or take the shuttle to the point. The shuttle is wheelchair accessible and leaves the Visitor Centre about every 20 minutes. There is a designated shuttle car for leashed, well-mannered dogs.
The Nature Nook Gift Shop in the Visitor Centre sells the usual gift items, snacks and souvenirs. Bike rentals are available at $10 /hr or $20 for 4 hours.
There is a free, small display area highlighting the history and wildlife of the park. It takes about 5 - 10 minutes to go through. And for kids of every age, a “hands-on” Discovery Room is full of engaging activities.
Check out the large map of the park on the wall depicting various wildlife observed in the park over the previous few days. It typically lists sightings of rare birds in the spring and butterflies in fall. Occasionally, sightings of deer, turkeys or snakes make the list. I have seen small deer a few times. Wild turkeys will venture close to the road in early morning to search for food.
If you have any questions about the park, the parks visitor expert at the help desk in the centre is very knowledgeable.
Decent washrooms and water fountains are available at the visitor centre as well.
The park’s principal attraction is the ever-changing tip at the southern-most point of mainland Canada. From the Visitor’s Centre, hike, bike or take the shuttle. It will take about 20 minutes to hike to the tip. If you’re tired coming back, just jump on the shuttle.
At the tip, watch the powerful waves crash against the shore along the west side of the point while the east side is relatively still.
During the summer months, the point can get a bit crowded and you may have to wait your turn to get a selfie on the spot. There is no organized line. It’s more of a casual lineup. This area of the park is less crowded early in the morning or in the evening after the shuttle stops running.
For photographers, the path from the Tip Exhibit Area to the tip itself is best for sunset photos. I suggest making the hike to the tip an hour before sunset and pick the best spot to stop on the way back to take the shot.
A word of caution to visitors. Do NOT try to swim in the water at the point. Heavy under-currents could drag you away. Actually, it is illegal to even enter the water past the posted red warning signs located at the tip. Keep safe and only enter the water at the designated beaches further north of the tip.
There are three principal beach areas in the park, though, in reality, both the west and east sides of the park are beaches. The east side beach is more remote and difficult to get to, or back from, anywhere north of Shuster Trail. It is best to stick to the beaches along the west shoreline.
The Northwest Beach has been extensively renovated in recent years. The park built a new pavilion featuring a sheltered dining area for up to 100 people, which can be rented by the day for parties, gatherings and other events. The pavilion features retractable walls for inclement weather, a prep kitchen with a fridge and freezer, a large, propane barbecue and an outdoor fire pit with benches. There’s also a children’s play area, washrooms and outdoor showers available. The Marsh Boardwalk and store are just across the road.
Black Willow Beach is located across the road from the DeLaurier Homestead. This is a lovely, long and mostly deserted beach. Great for quiet strolling along the coast while listening to the waves lap against the endless shore.
A little further south, across from the Visitor Centre, you will find West Beach. Because of its proximity to the Visitor Centre, West Beach gets a little more foot traffic than the other beaches. The beach may get a little busier around sunset in the summer months and during birding season in the spring.
There are no lifeguards at any of the beaches, so be careful and watch your children.
The trails are very popular at Point Pelee National Park. You can bike, or hike if you’re up to it, from the park’s entrance to the tip. Note that some trails are only open during summer.
The DeLaurier Homestead Trail is a 1.2 km loop primarily used from March through October. the trail is comprised of both dirt paths and unrailed boardwalk. Popular with birders and dog walkers. The walk takes about 20–30 minutes. There’s an observation tower about halfway around. The trail leads the hiker through open fields, a cedar savanna and a swamp forest.
A little further south of Delaurier Homestead is the Chinquapin Oak Trail. This longer loop trail is about 4 km and may take up to 2 hours to complete. The mail feature is the Chinquapin Oak, which is a southern species that can be found as far south as the forests of Mexico.
From the Visitor’s Centre, Shuster Trail will take you directly to East Barrier Beach. It’s a short, 15-minute walk. At dusk, you can often spot bald eagles circling the water’s edge for food.
My favourite trail in the park is the Woodland Nature Trail. It begins behind the Visitor Centre and takes you through the oldest forest habitat in Point Pelee National Park. This 2.75 km trail leads you through a wonderful Carolinian forest and protected swamp. There is a lot to see. Pick up the 50-page guide at the Visitor Centre before you begin. This trail does not disappoint.
Point Pelee National Park is one of the premier birdwatching locations in North America. Over 370 species of birds have been spotted in the park. Spring is the most popular time for birdwatching during the annual northward migration over Lake Erie. At peak times, usually the first three weeks of May, birders often spot 75 to 150 species in just one day.
Fall months also draw many birders as it is the best time to spot the migrations of hawks and raptors.
You can learn more about when and where to spot various species at the Visitor Centre. You can also sign up for some special events like a nighttime owl or bat search.
Where To Stay
Turn your day-trip into an overnight, glamping adventure and stay right in the park at the new “oTENTik” campground. These accommodations are a cross between a cabin and a tent. The cabins have wooden floors and canvas roofs and feature beds to accommodate up to 6 people. Nightly rental is $120.00 CDN.
If you’re looking for a little more traditional accommodations, check out the Best Western Hotel. It is only a short distance from the park and right on Point Pelee Drive. There is a marina and a playground nearby where you can sit on the rocks at the edge of Lake Erie and watch the sun go down in the evening. Afterwards, dine on some of the best perch in the area at Freddy’s Restaurant, or try the fabulous food at Birdie’s Perch, a double-decker bus featuring some gourmet fixings.
During peak season, you can rent many of the private cabins along Point Pelee drive. You have to book early in the season as these locations go fast.