Nearly two years after our first winter camping experience at Silent Lake Provincial Park, we still haven’t made much progress toward gearing up to go winter camping on our own. Between buying our first home and paying for our wedding, the idea of dropping thousands of dollars on a decent-quality hot tent and accessories all at once doesn’t seem very practical (yet).
As a result, we’ve had to find other ways to enjoy the outdoors in the winter, namely the rustic cabins at many of Ontario’s parks. We’ve really enjoyed our experiences staying in rustic cabins at Arrowhead Provincial Park near Huntsville, and Pinery Provincial Park near Grand Bend on the shores of Lake Huron. It’s more glamping than camping, but it’s better than nothing at all.
When we finally got around to making New Year’s Eve plans, we decided we wanted to leave the hustle and bustle of the city’s party scene behind us, and ring in the new year in the woods. Unfortunately, every yurt and cabin in the province was already booked. We were disappointed, but we knew we probably should have reserved something months in advance.
Luckily, as fate would have it, someone posted in one of the many Ontario backcountry camping-related Facebook groups I follow that they could no longer make their reservation at Silent Lake and were looking for someone to take it off their hands. I sent them a Facebook message right away and we negotiated the details of the transfer. I was wary of being scammed – I had to eTransfer this person money and trust that they would transfer the cabin reservation to me, after all – but in the end we decided to trust each other as honest, decent backcountry campers and it worked out fine.
How to get to Silent Lake Provincial Park
Just north of the Kawartha Lakes and Highlands, Silent Lake is an easy 2.5 to 3-hour drive northeast of Toronto. Take Hwy 401 past Bowmanville, turn northeast up the 115 to Peterborough, and continue north on 28 past Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park.
New rustic cabins at Silent Lake Provincial Park
Until last year, Silent Lake Provincial Park offered eight yurts and plenty of room for traditional winter hot/cold tenting in its campground. In 2017, park staff added 10 rustic cabins near the park entrance in an area they’ve named Six Point to make it even more appealing to winter glampers like us.
The cabins are right next to the lake and comfort station, and gliding distance to a cross-country ski trail. The park’s snowshoeing trails are a short drive to another area of the park, but the roads are relatively well maintained even in the depths of a winter freeze like the one we had over New Year’s weekend.
These cabins are not cheap. The cost of renting the cabin at Silent Lake for two nights was $125 per night, plus taxes and reservation/administration fees. The total came to $368. We could stay in a decent hotel for that amount of money, but we’d much rather get away from TVs and WiFi to enjoy the great outdoors for a weekend. We think that’s worth paying for.
One important note about renting cabins at Silent Lake: The park office requires a $250 damage deposit hold on your credit card when you check in. Silent Lake is the only park we’ve encountered so far that does this. In order to remove the hold on your card, you must call park staff to inspect your cabin before you check out.
Inside the rustic cabins at Silent Lake
As we discovered upon arrival, the cabins at Silent Lake are even better than the older cabins we’ve stayed in at Arrowhead and Pinery. These newer models feature an insulated, heated mud room entrance that are perfect for drying out your wet winter gear, or enjoying a cup of coffee or hot chocolate in the morning while everyone else in the cabin is still asleep.
This extra room also came in handy for storing and preparing food and drinks without freezing as temperatures plunged well below -30°C at night and into the -20s during the day. We’re usually pretty hardy when it comes to preparing food outside in the winter, but your fingers and your food can freeze pretty quickly at those temperatures.
Aside from the mud room and fun decor made by park staff, Silent Lake’s rustic cabins are standard-issue:
- Queen bed, and a set of bunk beds with a double mattress on the bottom and a single on top
- Bedside table with a lamp and drawer
- Dining table and seating for four
- Electric or gas fireplace and baseboard heating
- Kitchenette with microwave, electric kettle, mini fridge, counter space for food preparation, and shelves for food storage
- Outside: Gas barbecue and picnic table
The cabins at some parks include a Keurig coffee maker and a wooden bin to hide away your belongings, but those were absent from cabin 205 at Silent Lake. To see more photos of the inside and outside of the cabins, visit the Roofed Accommodation – Silent Lake Camp Cabins page on the Ontario Parks website.
What to bring to be comfortable in the Silent Lake cabins
Although the cabins provide the bare essentials, you should still plan to pack gear similar to a camping trip to enjoy your stay in the cabins at Silent Lake Provincial Park:
- Bedding. There’s a queen-size mattress, a double, and a twin. We typically bring fitted sheets to cover the mattress protectors, as well as our sleeping bags, pillows, and extra warm blankets.
- Cooking equipment and dishes. While there is a kitchenette with a microwave and electric kettle, and a barbecue outside, you may want some other options. We typically bring our backcountry camp stove, as well as pots and pans, dishes, cooking utensils, etc.
- Dishwashing items. There is no running water in the cabins, so you’ll have to walk your dirty dishes down to the comfort station’s (heated!) dishwashing room. It has hot water and a double sink, but you’ll have to bring your own soap, sponges, and dish towels.
- Weather-appropriate clothing. Due to the -20°C and below temperatures, this was not a trip where you could get away with just wearing an extra layer. From merino wool base layers to Sorel boots and snow pants to balaclavas, we needed all of it to stay warm outside and avoid getting frostbite. A friend who joined us for one night was sorely prepared for the cold temperatures and could only stay outside a few minutes at a time.
- Outdoor activity gear. With a few feet of freshly-fallen snow, snowshoes or cross-country skis were key to getting around on the deep snow. Some of the trails are challenging, so hauling a sled for kids might be a good idea. The park has plenty of firewood for sale, but keep in mind that it takes longer to get a fire going in the winter and they don’t give off as much heat as you’d hope.
- Indoor entertainment. Eventually, you have to come inside. Cards, board games, books, magazines, and the radio can provide entertainment when you just can’t be outside any longer.
Winter outdoor activities at Silent Lake Provincial Park
The main outdoor activities at Silent Lake Provincial Park in the winter are snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and ice fishing. There are more than 40 km of groomed cross-country ski trails at the park as well as the 3 km Bonnie’s Pond snowshoe trail.
We borrowed a pair of snowshoes from my cousins and decided snowshoeing would be our main activity for the weekend. You can also rent snowshoes from the park office, but they don’t seem to offer ski rentals.
Down the main park road past the Granite Ridge campground and yurts is the parking lot for the Bonnie’s Pond trail. There aren’t many parking spaces and many people have large trucks and SUVs, so unfortunately you may need to find parking elsewhere if the lot is full. Luckily, we were able to take the last spot with our little Pontiac Vibe and put on our snowshoes out of the hatchback.
With the freshly fallen snow, the forest was peacefully quiet and stunningly beautiful. Thanks to the frigid temperatures, we only saw a few other people on the snowshoe trail and felt like we had the forest to ourselves.
Someone had recently cleared the path from the Bonnie’s Pond trail to the scenic lookout, so we followed their snowshoe tracks and made the climb to view the lake from above.
We turned back to the Bonnie’s Pond trail at that point because the park staff had posted signs saying the trails were not maintained beyond this point. We were pretty cold and tired by this point, so we didn’t want to push our luck and potentially get lost in the woods.
If the lake is frozen solid, you can shortcut back to the cabins across the lake once you descend from the lookout point. There weren’t many people walking across the frozen lake or ice fishing the weekend we visited (and in fact the staff member we spoke to at the park office said she wouldn’t walk on the ice herself), but we decided it had been cold enough long enough to give it a try.
Ringing in the New Year at Silent Lake Provincial Park
About half an hour before midnight, we got dressed to ring in the New Year outside, just as we had planned. We lit a fire and tuned our little battery-powered radio to the local CBC station to keep track of time. At five to midnight, we poured ourselves some champagne and waited for the countdown.
I guess CBC doesn’t do countdowns, because we hastily realized it was midnight when the news report started and the announcer said it was a balmy -30°C. By then, after less than five minutes outside, our champagne had already turned to slush.
The three of us said ‘cheers’ and toasted anyway, gulping down the icy drinks and wishing each other a Happy New Year before dousing the fire and retreating inside to enjoy warmer temperatures.
We checked out the next morning following an inspection by park staff and, thankfully, got the $250 damage deposit back.