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Adventure Touring Manitoulin Island’s Wild Side

Adventure Touring Manitoulin Island’s Wild Side

Judging by the dozen big touring bikes parked in the MS Chi-Cheemaun, the motorcycle touring potential of Manitoulin Island is no secret.



According to my GPS, the average travel time from the Toronto area to Manitoulin Island is about six hours – quite an ordinary duration by Ontario standards.

So why is it that every time I set Manitoulin as my destination I feel as if I'm setting off on a grand adventure? Perhaps it’s because getting to this hidden gem of Northeastern Ontario takes a bit of effort. There are two and only two ways to get there from the GTA.

Option #1: Follow the east shore of Georgian Bay along Highway 69 to Sudbury. Then, head west on Highway 17 to Espanola. From Espanola, follow Highway 6 south to Little Current, and once you’ve crossed the Swing Bridge, you are on Manitoulin Island. Funny how having to go up and around and back down to reach your destination makes the trip feel farther than it really is.

Option #2: This is my personal favourite. Ride up the Bruce Peninsula to Tobermory, hop aboard the MS Chi-Cheeman ferry, which will drop you off in South Baymouth on the south shore of Manitoulin Island. This might be the nicest day of motorcycle travel in the province, with the added steps of loading, unloading, and the restrictions of the ferry schedule enhancing the feeling of adventure.

Judging by the dozen big touring bikes parked in the belly of the boat, the motorcycle touring potential of Manitoulin Island is no secret. But our bikes are sporting more dirt than chrome and the objective for us is to search out the roads less paved.

First morning – Gore Bay. It’s amazing how quickly we acclimatize to the island pace. We manage to stretch our breakfast long enough to qualify as brunch. Without a set plan for the day, we do what any adventure rider would do – follow the road that leads uphill. East Bluff Road – it has the word “bluff” in it so it has to have something to offer. In this case it is a spectacular view of Manitoulin’s north shore. First impression? Nice!

“Lane” is the road classification we are interested in. These are typically single lane dirt access roads used by the locals to get to hunt camps and back fields – perfect fodder for an adventure bike. A GPS and a good set of maps like the Ontario Backroad Mapbooks are a must in order to find your way around. These back roads, as we find out, can go from single lane to where are we in a hurry.

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This intersection never needs repaving. How big are the rocks on Manitoulin Island? Big enough to stick road signs in them and call them roads. Yes, the surface here might be a million years old–not the smoothest ride but definitely one for the memory bank.

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Making our way around Lake Kagawong – a perfect adventure bike kind of loop. The west side consists of quiet country roads, the east side a twisty forest lane treat. It’s always a pleasure stopping at ma and pa types of establishments along the way. This one might qualify as Manitoulin’s version of the mall, everything you need in one spot. For us this means gas and ice cream.

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Bike or no bike, the view from McLeans Mountain is spectacular. Located near the town of Little Current, the approach is a gravel uphill road that would be a challenge on a touring bike, hence our dirt worthy steeds had the view to themselves. From here we explore gravel roads and grassy lanes as we make our way south.

The Manitoulin Rail Trail is not actually on Manitoulin Island. It starts at the north edge of the island and parallels Highway 6 north for about 50 km. With constant views of rocky shores, clear water channels, and the white quartz hilltops, this might be the most visually stunning rail trail in Ontario.

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Accommodations

Whether you like to build your own shelter on a grassy camp spot or drop your bags in a comfy room, there is no shortage of places to stay on Manitoulin Island, including campgrounds, lodges, and cottages. Lucky for us, we have a friend with a big front yard and lake views. It doesn’t get any better.

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Back at the ferry we take our place at the front of the line, not because we deserve it but because bikes are first on and first off – an appreciated perk for us two-wheel travellers. We feel like we just scratched the surface of Manitoulin’s adventure bike potential in the two days we spent there. Lucky for us, we have a two-hour ferry crossing ahead of us to plan our return.

Something to note: if you would like a more guided experience, the annual Ride Manitoulin Rally is a good time to visit. A guided adventure tour is part of the festivities.

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