Ride Report: Simcoe Loop Trail
I learned about the Simcoe Loop trail from an ad in my Facebook feed, which might make this the first time Facebook advertising has worked on me. For the past few weeks I have been doing research for some extended bike tours I want to do, and now all of the targeted ads I see are from regional tourism boards promoting how great their areas are for cycling. I have to say, it’s a more pleasant experience than seeing ads for tummy teas or botched celebrity plastic surgeries.
The Simcoe Loop Trail is a 160 km trail that takes you around Lake Simcoe, then up to the Georgian Bay on Lake Huron and back to Barrie. Almost all of the route is an off-road trail of various conditions, ranging from fully paved cycleways to rough crushed gravel. There were also a few kilometers of double track fire roads, but nothing my Surly Long Haul Trucker with 44mm tires couldn’t handle. I diverged from the “official” trail a bit to add on an extra day and rode over to Craigleith Provincial Park to camp for the second night of my trip.
Day 1 – Barrie GO Station to Midland (58.7mi / 94.5km)
Getting to Barrie
To get from Toronto to Barrie, I thought it would be pretty simple to hop on the GO train at Union Station and catch a smooth ride up to the start of the tour. I have taken the GO train precisely one time before this, so it wasn’t too surprising when I misread the schedule and missed that the train doesn’t run directly to Barrie. Instead, I had to transfer to a bus about halfway in Aurora for the rest of the trip. This was annoying since I had to remove my panniers, put my bike on the front of the bus, and then store my gear luggage area beneath the cabin. The bus also made a lot of stops, but I eventually got there.
One thing I learned about riding the GO train this trip is that not every train door is the same. On train cars that allow bikes, there are two types of doors. The first set has a vertical bar going down the middle of the doorway, which creates an opening a few inches narrower than my wide Velo Orange Crazy Bars. The last time I tried to take a GO train, this created a mortifying moment where an elderly lady had to help me navigate the entrance by pulling my bike onto the train around the divider. This time I discovered that the train cars seem to have this barrier on only one set of doors – the other entry is completely unobstructed, which makes it a breeze to load your bike onto the car.
Finally riding at 2:00pm
The trip got off to a late start because I had to wait for someone to come fix our water heater before leaving, then I missed the hourly train to Barrie by 1 minute. But after a two and a half hour train/bus ride (note: it only takes about an hour to drive that distance) I was finally off and riding.
Originally I planned to ride to Awenda Provincial Park, which would have put my mileage for the day at about 75 miles. But since I didn’t actually start pedaling until the mid-afternoon that seemed a little ambitious. I set my new target for Bayfort Camp, a private campground just before Midland. This was a smart move since it let me enjoy the day’s ride instead of racing to get to the campsite before dark.
Nearly the entire day, I had the trail to myself, except for a spot about halfway to Orillia where I accidentally rode into the middle of an Ontario Provincial Police training exercise. About 30 officers were racing along the trail, and when I rode through without realizing what was going on, they pulled over to let me pass with each of us repeatedly shouting “Sorry!” to each other in the most Canadian experience I’ve had so far. When I got to the next road intersection, police had the entire road blocked off and there were people there with stopwatches, clipboards and cameras, so I can only assume it was more than a routine physical training run.
Once I rode through Orillia, the trail turned west away from the lake and the second half of the day’s ride passed mostly through farmland. The route started becoming a lot more varied in terms of trail conditions during this stretch. Sometimes it was wide rail-trail style fine gravel, sometimes it was rough gravel that challenged my 44mm tires, and occasionally it was just a dirt jeep trail. Overall it was still pretty enjoyable though and not hilly at all, with lots of shade and refreshing lake views once I got to the Georgian Bay.
I stopped to pick up some provisions in Victoria Harbour, where the trail conveniently runs right past a Foodland and LCBO. From there it was only about 6 miles (10km) to the campground, although it did include the biggest climb of the day, a half mile, 7% grade ascent to get from the trail to the campground. That wouldn’t be bad at all except it was the very end of the day, so I was sweaty when I rolled into the camp.
The Bayfort Camp campground was nothing special. Most of the camp is full of retired seasonal occupants who park their RV for the entire summer. They had a smaller tent campground, and I was the only person there so basically had a huge campsite all to myself. It felt a little pricy at $35 for the night but in line with what you’ll pay anywhere else around the area. And the owners were kind enough to lend me a bottle of insect repellant when I realized I had forgotten mine. Fun fact that I read in a book so it must be true: Canada has a higher density of mosquitos and black flys than anywhere in the world.
Day 2 – Midland to Craigleith Provincial Park (55.9mi / 90km)
After packing up camp in the morning, I rode back over the hill from last night and headed into Midland for a surprisingly good coffee at Grounded Coffee. I still need to perfect my camping coffee routine. In the past I’ve brought an Aeropress and beans (good but takes up a bit of space) and I’ve tried bringing homemade cold brew concentrate (too heavy to haul around all trip). This trip had small towns at frequent enough intervals that I didn’t worry too much about it.
While I was in Midland, I tried to find some city landmarks or signage I could get a selfie with for my grandmother. When she was a child, she drove from Cleveland with her family up to Midland every summer for vacation on the bay. This remains her strongest tie to Canada, so whenever I visit her, I always hear stories about Midland. Since I was here, I figured I should find something to send her, but there wasn’t any picturesque signage along the route. Maybe next time.
Leaving Midland you head out on a beautiful paved forest trail, but there were a couple of 15% grade climbs that I was not prepared for at all. This was the moment my front derailleur decided only to let me use the middle and big chainrings, completely ignoring my pleas to drop down to the smallest ring. I ended up having to walk the bike up two short stretches, but otherwise the trail from Midland to Penetanguishene was one of the more scenic parts of the tour.
After riding through Penetanguishene, I hopped on the Tiny Trail, where the trail crosses Copeland Creek 10 times in the first mile with a series of fun, fast rollers between them. Just when I started wondering how long this could continue, I found out.
A bridge up ahead had washed out, and the trail was closed. I had to go back a mile then take an unscenic detour to rejoin the trail further south. At least I got to do the rollers again on my way back out to the road.
Shortly before hitting the Elmville city limits I left the Tiny Trail and the Simcoe Loop to head west towards Nottawasaga Bay and Craigleith Provincial Park. This took me through Wasaga Beach, which I had been told was “the Florida coast of Ontario,” although I’m still not quite sure what that means. There was a beach and a lot of beach houses though.
I took the rail trail into Collingwood, where I picked up some food for dinner. After that, it was a quick jaunt on the Georgian Trail to camp. The Georgian Trail was the dustiest trail of the trip. Luckily the main attraction of Craigleith Provincial Park is that the campsites are right on Lake Huron, and within a few minutes of rolling into the park I was swimming and washing off two days worth of gravel dust. It was a great way to end the day.
Day 3 – Craigleith Provincial Park to Barrie GO Station (41.3mi / 66.5km)
Today’s itinerary was set by the GO train’s bike policies. GO and Union Station in Toronto don’t allow bikes during the afternoon rush hour, which starts at 3:30pm. That meant that I needed to be on the 11:50am bus in Barrie to get back to Toronto before 9pm, so I picked a route back to Barrie that was fast but not necessarily fun.
After taking the Georgian Trail back to Collingwood and some of the same rail trail I took the day before, I spent the rest of the morning on county roads, some of which were under construction and none of which were very inspiring. I took the default route generated by Komoot and Google Maps, which took me a little south of Barrie.
In retrospect, I should have tried to make my way back to the Simcoe Loop Trail north of Barrie, even though that would have been a little longer. I ended up at the Barrie GO station 50 minutes before I needed to, so I spent the time wiping trail dust off my bike and bags, and then going to find a butter tart while I waited for the bus.
Post ride thoughts
Overall the Simcoe Loop was an enjoyable ride. I think in the future I’d either try to do the whole loop in a day or do part of it on a longer tour. This was the first time I rode in this area and was really surprised by how much cycling infrastructure was nearby. It’s definitely an area I’m looking forward to exploring more.
Things that went well
- This was the first time I used Komoot for route planning and navigation. It worked better than most other apps I’ve tried so far. I used the iOS app to navigate on this tour, although since I’ve been back I’ve added the Komoot Garmin app to my Garmin Edge 520, so I’ll have to try that out.
- I didn’t overdo my daily mileage. In fact, at the end of each day I felt like I could easily do another 20 miles, which is a good sign for future trips.
- For some of the less exciting parts of my ride, I listened to an audiobook with one AirPod. I listened to Hondo by Louis L’Amour – I don’t ever read Westerns, but it was pretty enjoyable in this context.
- I’m getting better at packing lighter. My bike camping kit is feeling close to achieving the right balance of utility, weight and volume. I have a new quilt on order to replace my bulky sleeping bag that is rated to about 20 degrees lower than I’ll ever experience on a bike tour, so that should lose some weight and save a lot of space.
- I used a new tent for this trip, the REI Quarter Dome 2 SL. It replaced an older Quarter Dome that lasted well over a decade before the waterproof sealing delaminated from the rest of the tent. This version is updated in several small ways and is at least a pound lighter than my old one.
Things I could improve
- Too much time was spent on the GO train. It’s worked well for me when I went shorter distances (like to Hamilton), but the bus transfer really added extra time and hassle. Ignoring the environmental impact, it would have been much easier to just drive up to Barrie and leave my car somewhere for a few days.
- I was looking forward to hitting up some of the spots on this map of the best butter tarts in Ontario, but I ended up riding right past everything! It would be nice if I could add points of interest to a Komoot route since it’s hard in the momemt to remember to check and see if there’s anything I need to check out while I’m riding.
- Before this trip I raised my seat height a little. This was good for my knees, but now I’m putting too much pressure on the Ulnar nerve in my hands. I’m going to try adjusting the angle my handlebar is at to see if that helps before trying a higher reach stem. Bike fit is so fickle.
My next multi-day bike tour will be Toronto to Montreal in late-September. 🚴
Written by Mark Allen, who lives in Toronto and is currently open to a new product management role in Toronto or with a distributed team. Say hello on Twitter.