Sleeping in a tent, sitting around a campfire, swimming, canoeing, hiking. All makings of the good old-fashioned camping vacations I enjoyed regularly as a child. But with three young kids and a canine in tow, the lure of being able to step into civilization when need arises was something I wanted to check out.
We decided to introduce our third generation of campers — six-month-old Jadzia, two-and a half-year-old William and nine-year-old Hunter — to two nights at a full-service KOA site, followed by four at the more traditional Algonquin Park a week later. Read on for how our experiences play out.
“Kamping” at KOA
We kick off our camping adventure during the rainiest summer on record. Luckily KOA Niagara offers the inclement weather advantage of an indoor pool and hot tub, so our gang easily fits in a daily float. Hunter also wants to play indoor arcade games. Hmmm…maybe not exactly what we envisioned, but it passes some time during the downpour. Sadly, the rain also forces the cancellation of the free outdoor movie.
But karaoke night carries on under a sheltered area and Hunter enjoys his first efforts at Michael Jackson and Miley Cyrus tunes. Mortie, our Jackapoo, doesn’t enjoy the teeter-totter and tunnels of the tiny K9 park, although William, his human twin, does. Only he’s not allowed playing on the dog toys. When the sun decides to shine we also rent a banana bike for Hunter, which turns the car-free lanes into touring fun.
The intimate size of the grounds makes walking to activities easy, of which there are plenty: tie-dying tee-shirts, pancake breakfasts, wagon rides and ice-cream socials, to name a few. During one of these wagon rides around the confine, we learn these types of activities, and the consistency of a KOA vacation year after year, what keeps one loyal camper returning. Two other women tell us they’ve been coming to this Niagara location since their four children were little — first in tents, then in trailers. This trip they upgraded to the comfort of cabins, while their adult children continue the tradition of staking out tents.
KOA has 17 sites in Ontario, all close to attractions such as Thousand Islands or Canada’s Wonderland. The Niagara location offers shuttles to The Falls, as well as free wifi access. Since check out time is 11:00 a.m., we use our own vehicles to head over, making Niagara Falls part of our KOA experience.
Expect to pay $78 for an electrical site for up to six people. koa.com
More KOA sites
Close to Storybook Gardens, the London Regional Children’s museum and Fanshawe Pioneer Village, the site has an indoor heated pool and whirlpool, mini golf, bike rental and giant chess/checkerboard.
Twenty minutes from Toronto pubic transit, this location is also close to a racetrack and features pet sitting and a solar heated pool.
Just 20 minutes from Canada’s Wonderland, this KOA offers discounted tickets to the theme park.
An hour west of Ottawa, here you can recharge after exploring Parliament Hill with swimming or volleyball on a sandy beach. Rent a paddleboat, canoe, kayak or play 28 holes of mini putt.
Within walking distance of 1000 Islands/Boldt Castle cruises, it offers a movie lounge, fitness centre, arcade, two heated pools, slide, family hot tub, splash pad and a 21-foot adult hot tub with a waterfall. (There are two more KOAs nearby in Kingston and Mallorytown)
The Algonquin Experience
With 7,630 square kilometres of forest lakes and rivers, along with moose, deer and bears, Algonquin Park makes camping more of a call to the wild. In fact, you can make it as pure a camping experience as your wish by choosing the more remote canoe and interior sites. We opt for a car-accessible campground along the Highway 60 corridor on Lake of Two Rivers. In total there are eight of these available (compare facilities at algonquinpark.on.ca/campcan/moreinfo/campgrd.html ). The large, treed sites are close to clean comfort stations (complete with hot showers and washers and dryers) and a store, but no playground.
It rains every day, several times a day, but still we stick to a pattern of activities — long hours lingering over pancakes in our dining tent and a hike in the mornings. The 1.3-kilometre loop trail around the outdoor logging museum provides a great toddler hike (Jadzia rides in the baby carrier), with interesting things to climb, such as the William M. tugboat. Then we lunch on canned goods and attempt to give the younger ones a nap. Impossible. So we head for the beach for swimming and damp sandcastle building. In the evening, we cook hotdogs and marshmallows over the fire, tell stories and sing: “Fires burning, draw nearer” and “It’s raining, it’s pouring.”
We rent a canoe but thunder and lightning delays our afternoon sail till the next morning when we’re rewarded with a smooth glass lake. Our photographers (we have two in our group) delight in the misty mornings and moose, bear (along the highway) and even insect sightings. “Quick get your macro lens, there’s a huge bug,” my daughter Jen calls to her husband. Surprisingly nothing bites, so we never need any insect repellant.
There’s a bike rental shop at the gate to the campground but we brought our own to enjoy a ride on Old Railway Bike Trail — 10 kilometres through meadows and forest which can also be used as a stroller/wheelchair accessible hike. In July and August, Algonquin offers daily interpretive programs, wolf howls, children’s crafts, etc., but distances are such that you need to hop into your car to participate and we never feel the urge and don’t want to schedule around the programs. While the Algonquin Visitor Centre makes an excellent rainy day adventure (exhibits, a book store, restaurant and panoramic view), don’t expect wifi availability.
Swimming and canoeing to the music of loons, and often raindrops, soothes our city souls, although Mortie experiences separation anxiety due to the no-dog beach — pulling up stakes and leaping from car windows to join us.
Expect to pay $40 for an electrical site, plus an $8 online reservation fee, for up to six people, three shelters and one dining structure and one car (you need to purchase permits for extra vehicles). ontarioparks.com
At the end of the two different camping experiences, us adults realize our camping roots trump — we prefer large forest sites and hiking and canoeing with horizons of lake and scenic vistas. However, the kids enjoy all the non-nature perks. We’ll just have to see who comes out on top when it comes time to book again next year…
Check out parkreports.com/report.php for beach closings, boil water advisories and fire bans before heading to any Ontario Parks campground. Buy firewood from the area you are staying in to avoid the spread of harmful insects.
There’s a panicked kind of packing that no amount of lists can solve, but be assured everything from marshmallow sticks and hotdogs to raingear and ice cream is available at the park store. Both KOA and Algonquin have them.
Rockpoint, Lake Erie
Highlights include a sand and pebble beach, where dogs can swim alongside their owners). Monarch butterflies flock here in September.
The Pinery, Lake Huron
Play on 10 kilometres of sandy beaches. Wildlife includes beaver, blue heron and turtles along the river, and deer everywhere.
Arrowhead, North of Huntsville
Enjoy biking and hiking through meadows and forests alongside waterfalls and beaver ponds. Little and Big East Rivers provides ideal swimming, canoeing and fishing.
Sandbanks, South of Belleville, Lake Ontario
This area is world renowned for its wide, clean, sandy beaches.
Charleston Provincial Park, Charleston Lake
North of Thousand Islands between Brockville and Gananoque, the bay provides quiet and picturesque lake swimming and canoeing as well as hiking and the site has a playground.