Winter Hiking in the La Cloche Mountains
Killarney Provincial Park is home to some of the most stunning views in Northeastern Ontario. Rugged white quartzite peaks, dotted with green pine trees, jet out from crystal clear Killlarney waters. These rolling hills, known as the La Cloche Mountains, are thought to have once been higher than today’s Rockies. Now, they record some of the highest altitudes in the province—Silver Peak, in the lead, sits at 538m above sea level.
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Winter at The Crack
Standing on the top of Killarney Ridge, l looked out at the snow-capped La Cloche Mountains, frozen lakes, and white-dusted pine trees. It was a scene straight out of a Franklin Carmichael painting. In the summer and fall, the ridge is packed with people looking to climb “The Crack,” but on this bluebird winter afternoon I was the only person around for miles.
The Crack, one of the most popular summer and fall hikes in Northeastern Ontario, is a 7.6 km out-and-back trail that provides one of Killarney’s most iconic views at the top of Killarney Ridge. Before getting to that lookout, you must navigate a rock scramble to pass through a narrow crack between two rock faces (hence the name).
This wasn’t my first time on top of The Crack. I hiked it once before in the fall. I remember wondering whether I was even still in Ontario while scrambling up to the summit; looking out over the expansive view, I was floored by the ancient beauty of the La Cloche mountains. Appreciating how beautiful the moment was, as the season’s first snow fell, I couldn’t help but wonder what the landscape looked like in the winter.
How the Mountains got their Name
La Cloche translates to “the bell” in French, deriving from the “ringing” or “sounding” stones found in the region. French Voyageurs traveling through the area likened the sound from one of these stones being struck to that of church bells, and named them accordingly. The Anishinaabeg peoples who lived around the La Cloche mountains called them Sinmedwe’ek, which in turn translates to “bell rocks” or “sounding stones”.
According to oral histories, these ringing stones were used for ceremonies, to announce significant events, and as an alarm system; they could be heard as far away as the North shore of Manitoulin Island, Lake Nipissing to the East, and Parry Sound to the South.
The Granite Ridge Loop
These ancient mountains rich in history are the perfect place to strap on snowshoes or trail crampons and explore in the winter. Rachel Mantas, executive director of the Friends of Killarney Park, and I headed up Granite Ridge early one February morning to capture footage for a short film for FoKP. A nonprofit, the organization’s work includes programs vital to the protection and enjoyment of the Killarney Park, and essential conservation and research projects.
The 2.7 km Granite Ridge loop features an easy hike with jaw-dropping views. In no time at all, you’re at the top of the ridge with a series of lookouts to choose from. On a clear day, if you look to the South, you can see the North shore of Manitoulin Island surrounded by the ice of Lake Huron. Walk over to one of the Northern lookouts and immerse yourself in the white quartzite hills of the La Cloche Mountains covered in snow. It’s one of the best views of Silver Peak in the park.
Why Hike in the Winter?
Winter day-hikes, snowy camping trips, and days exploring trails on skis make winter in Northeastern Ontario my favourite season. Every year when the snow starts to fall, I get excited. Frozen lakes turn into trails navigable by foot and communities of ice-fishing huts while the snow peacefully layers over the surrounding landscapes, turning already stunning vistas into masterpieces.
Once you start moving, you’ll forget all about the cold. Inhale that crisp winter air and take a look around. You’ll see the sun cutting through the pine needles causing the snow to sparkle, hear the soft winds push the trees back and forth, and feel the heartbeat of the Northeastern Ontario forest.
I love taking my time to look around the sides of the trail in the winter. There’s often a story left behind in the snow. On this hike along I spotted deer tracks, wolf scat, an unidentified feather, and an imprint of an owl that had swooped down to catch a rabbit. Slow down and keep your eyes peeled, you never know what you’ll see.
Winter Safety Tips
When you’re hiking in the winter there are a few key essentials that you should always have with you in addition to snowshoes, poles, and trail crampons. Bring an updated first aid kit, compass, watch, map, water, and more snacks than you think you’ll need. Make sure to give yourself more than enough time to get back before it gets dark. If I’m doing a hike that’s extremely remote or if I’m by myself, I usually bring a fire source like a lighter or matches, a knife, a stove, a pot (in case I run out of water and need to melt snow), a wool blanket, and satellite communication like a Garmin inReach. Always let someone know where you’re going, and when you’re expected to return.
Reaching the Summit
Passing frozen waterfalls and lakes, and beginning my ascent through the forest, I reached the first lookout marked by the exposed white quartzite. When you reach a spot like that, you stop, soak it in, and stare out at the ancient La Cloche Mountains. You’ll understand exactly why it is worth braving the winter conditions.
When I finally reached the crack, the scramble had a thick layer of slippery ice all over it—remnants of unseasonably warm temperatures earlier that week. I put on my trail crampons and carefully worked my way through the maze of rock and ice. Once I was through, I spotted the tree. If you’ve ever seen a photo of Killarney, you know the tree I’m talking about. It stands on the top of Killarney Ridge completely exposed, and frames almost every photo taken from the top of The Crack, including paintings from The Group of 7.
Slowly, I walked to the top of the ridge, looking at every beautiful detail etched in the scenery. The snow-covered branches of pine trees swayed in the growing winds. The exposed white quartzite blended with the fresh snow. That famous tree stood its ground, framing a picture-perfect scene as clouds began to roll in. I stood there in silence, nobody around, and looked out at the mountains.
Trust me, hiking the La Cloche mountains in the winter is worth it for views like this.