Prepare to be starstruck at Torrance Barrens. Located on 4,700 acres of crown land (government-owned land) west of Gravenhurst, Torrance Barrens is a conservation area and dark sky viewing reserve. Its gorgeous landscapes were formed over 2 billion years ago, and you can feel the history in its serene energy. It was deemed a conservation area in 1997 for its unique terrain, and in 1999 it was designated the world’s first permanent dark sky preserve, thanks to its total absence of artificial light.
Just a two-hour drive from Toronto, you can witness the vibrant, panoramic display of stars, planets and constellations dramatically come to life in the night skies. It’s a humbling experience. Seeing the unblemished starry sky with the naked eye, in much the same way as people in the past, makes it easy to appreciate how it has captured our imaginations and ignited speculations and predictions for centuries.
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As mentioned, the skies are so clear at Torrance Barrens you can take in the spectacle with your naked eye, however zooming in with the right gear will blow your mind. The smooth granite bedrock at the main observing area allows for easy gear set up and the open landscapes provide unobstructed viewing opportunities.
Astro-photographers have captured dramatic pictures of the Milky Way, dazzling displays of meteor showers and the northern lights dancing across the sky. Amateur and professional stargazers catch the celestial show through binoculars and telescopes. For optimum viewing, check weather reports and sky forecasts before you visit.
It’s imperative that each guest plays their part to preserve the environmental integrity of Torrance Barrens. Practice proper etiquette before and after dark. For example, avoid the use of bright white lights as they contribute to light pollution. Use red lights instead, which are more conducive to star gazing. Keep noise levels at a minimum and do not leave anything behind, including litter and garbage.
Just a two hour drive from Toronto, Torrance Barrens is located at 3924 Southwood Road in the Muskoka Lakes region. Heading north, follow Highway 11, then turn west onto District Road 13, which becomes Southwood Road. Hiking trails are accessible from the parking lot and there is no admission fee to enter the park.
The landscape at Torrance Barrens consists of Precambrian bedrock, wetlands and low growing trees and plants. Choose from two main loop trails and an extension for hiking. The Main Trail is roughly 3 km around the shallow Highland Pond, while the more challenging Pine Ridge Loop Trail is 5 km long. Tread lightly and stick to the marked trails, boardwalks and paths.
While on your hike, consider how incredible it is that you are walking over landscapes formed over 2 billion years ago. Notice that although sections of the earth have been stripped of the rich soil that sustains tall trees, it still manages to maintain a unique ecosystem, with the perfect conditions for hardy low growing trees and plants, essential to local wildlife. Nature’s resilience is so inspiring; all the more reason for us to respect and protect it.
Look out for industrious beavers and graceful White-tailed Deer, two of the many mammal species that make Torrance Barrens home. Over 90 species of birds have been spotted in the reserve, including the rare Eastern Bluebird and Cooper’s Hawk. Another rare resident is the Massasauga Rattlesnake whose habitat is in the wetlands. Note that Torrance Barrens is in bear country, so stay vigilant.