Chasing Waterfalls - Breathtaking scenes abound as waterways run their course
Article by Matt Driscoll/Photography by Andy Zeltkalns
From the raging torrent of Bracebridge Falls in the springtime to the diminutive trailside streams trickling their way towards Muskoka’s countless lakes and rivers, waterfalls have long captivated guests to the region and nature lovers alike.
With an estimated 1,600 different lakes, two major watersheds and numerous subwatersheds, Muskoka is home to dozens of waterfalls of all sizes and descriptions. The waterfalls of the region are unlike any others in the province as the waterways in Muskoka traverse the southern tip of the Canadian Shield.
The rugged rock formations of the region have been carved by the lakes and rivers of retreating glaciers in prehistoric times. The sheer granite rock faces of the area present a breathtaking backdrop for its many waterfalls.
In this article, we look at a cross-section of waterfalls from around the region, including well-known local attractions and lesser-known hidden gems.
Although the waterfalls in Muskoka range widely in terms of size, drop and water volume, it is important to remember that bigger does not always mean better. Some of the smallest falls in the area are also some of the most enchanting.
Waterfalls are often a favourite subject for nature photographers and many of the waterfalls in the region are located near public lands or parks making them easily accessible to everyone. However, it is also important to note that one must exercise caution in their vicinity, as water conditions at the falls can be dangerous, specifically during the spring months, and conditions can change quickly.
If Muskoka is known as one of the waterfall capitals of Ontario, then the town of Bracebridge is the cornerstone. Bracebridge has many beautiful smaller waterfalls that can be found tracing alongside hiking paths and country roads but the largest and best known in the municipality are Wilson’s Falls, High Falls and Bracebridge Falls.
Located in the heart of the downtown, Bracebridge Falls is the town’s most prominent natural landmark and has been since the town was established.
Aside from its natural beauty, Bracebridge Falls has also been a vital component of the area’s industry and economy for more than a century.
In 1894, the Bracebridge Village Council purchased a waterpower generating plant at the falls to supply electricity to the community. The decision marked the town as a pioneer in the creation and supply of hydroelectricity, as Bracebridge became the first municipality in Canada to own and operate its own water-powered electrical generating station.
The 84 kilowatts of electricity produced at the plant provided for the early needs of Bracebridge’s residents. The value of the installation was apparent and a second turbine was installed to pump water up the main street of town.
A new turbine and generator were added at the falls in 1905, and a significant upgrade was completed in 2012 which expanded the facility’s capacity to 2.6 MW. Upgrades to the facility involved modifications to the existing powerhouse, turbine and generator replacement, installation of a new penstock, electrical system upgrades and deepening of both the intake and tailrace channels. The latest upgrades were also followed in 2017 by the addition of a colourful permanent light display for both the power plant and the falls.
Public trails circle Bracebridge Bay where the falls are located and trail goers can even traverse a walkway over the top of the falls. The hydro plant provides a viewing platform to look at it over the falls, while the Bracebridge Bay parkette on the north side of the bay and Kelvin Grove Park on the south provide a different look at the falls as they carry the Muskoka River west to Lake Muskoka.
Thousands of spectators typically pack Bracebridge Bay on Canada Day for the annual fireworks and laser light show.
Further east along the Muskoka River, Wilson’s Falls also boasts a power plant of its own and a network of scenic trails nearby.
The power plant at Wilson’s Falls is slightly newer than the plant at Bracebridge Falls, having become fully operational in 1910 with a 600-kilowatt capacity. The build came after the plant further downriver at Bracebridge Falls proved extremely successful. Along with the existing plants, the new plant at Wilson’s Falls provided enough capacity to see the region through both the first and second world wars. In 2010, the plant, penstock and intake were demolished and a new 2.9 megawatt double regulated Kaplan turbine was installed at a cost of $9 million.
Wilson’s Falls is a series of waterfalls that span a longer stretch of the river than Bracebridge Falls but are composed of a more gradual vertical drop.
The falls and accompanying trails are accessible to the public via a parking lot on River Road, or several trail heads in the residential neighbourhoods in north Bracebridge. The 3.6 km Wilson’s Falls trail system is a local favourite, winding down a hilly upper section towards the falls and along the banks of the Muskoka River.
Further north, up the river and just off Highway 11, High Falls Park and the accompanying trail system offer the chance to stop for a picnic and watch the Muskoka River cascade some 16 metres over the rugged Canadian Shield.
High Falls is the third major waterfall in Bracebridge and also boasts a hydroelectric plant operated by Bracebridge Generation. As the demand for electricity increased dramatically following the Second World War, the local hydro providers decided to harness the waterpower of one of the region’s largest waterfalls. The total cost to construct the High Falls plant was $233,000 which at the time created a surplus of about 750 H.P. (560 kilowatts) of capacity. In 2005, Unit 2 was installed at a cost of $4.5 million.
High Falls is easily accessible to the public and intrepid explorers can find five separate waterfalls located at the High Falls site. Those falls include Pott’s Falls, Muskoka Canyon Falls, Little High Falls, Big High Falls and a fifth man-made falls.
To the east of the town of Bracebridge, although still technically located within the municipality, the quaint village of Vankoughnet also plays host to its own unique waterfall.
Vankoughnet lies along the banks of the Black River, which tumbles over several falls near the village. Although some smaller sections of the falls are visible from the road, the larger ones are bordered by private property and can only be seen from a canoe or a kayak. The same holds true for several other waterfalls along the Black River.
By contrast, Rosseau Falls are much more easily accessible, with a parking lot located just off Highway 141, roughly 7 km south-east of the village of Rosseau.
Rosseau Falls consists of the upper and lower Rosseau Falls, which together serve to empty the Rosseau River into Lake Rosseau. In the spring, a torrent drops more than 30 metres. As water volume decreases later in the year, the exposed granite presents an entirely different vista.
Situated just a few kilometers to the east along Highway 141 lies Skeleton Lake Falls, which is sometimes known as Hatchery Falls.
This waterfall system can be accessed by parking at the now closed Skeleton Lake Fish Hatchery on Fish Hatchery Road, and then by following a 15 to 20 minute trail through open fields and woods. The trail includes interpretive signs which educate guests on the surrounding flora, fauna and geography.
The falls themselves consist of water cascading over a roughly 8 metre drop, which carries the Skeleton River into nearby Skeleton Lake.
In the community of Bala, guests can find the scenic Bala Falls situated in the heart of the community. These falls are easily viewed by all guests as they are located directly underneath the main roadway in town – District Road 169. For the best view of the falls, head out onto the viewing platform attached to the hydro plant. The observation deck is open to the public daily beginning on Victoria Day weekend from 9 am to sunset. COVID protocols do apply so please bring your masks and stay socially distanced.
Access to the bottom area of the north falls is also available via Margaret Burgess Park, and access to the bottom area of the south falls will be available again when the work to the Portage Landing Park is complete. The work is expected to be complete by the end of June.
The falls mark the location where the water from Bala Bay on Lake Muskoka empties into the Moon River. In turn, the Moon River winds some 40 km before flowing into Georgian Bay.
On the opposite side of Muskoka, the Hollow River descends over a smooth granite surface to form the Hollow Falls, also known as Long Slide Falls. These falls are located slightly north east of Dorset, off Haliburton County Road 8.
The falls are largely hidden from the roadway by trees and a high granite ridge. However, a brief hike reveals a gently sloping waterfall sliding over the Canadian Shield at a roughly 30-degree angle.
Regardless of where you might find yourself in Muskoka, you will never find yourself very far from a waterfall. With a little bit of research and planning, one can find themselves whiling away the hours or even the days discovering what makes the region sought-after by nature lovers and waterfall chasers near and far.