Famous as the "park the birds built" at the southernmost point in mainland Canada
Point Pelee National Park is one of Canada’s smallest National Parks yet annually remains one of its most visited. This is due to the fact that it has a number of unusual attractions that are significant to a variety of interest groups. Founded in 1918 this 20 sq. kilometer park is the southernmost point of mainland Canada. A small sandy-based triangular peninsula jutting into Lake Erie is sits at the same latitude as Northern California.
Point Pelee National Park and the surrounding area were inhabited by aboriginals at the time of European discovery, abundant fish populations and the warmer than usual climate ensured a more than adequate food supply. The French voyageurs that “discovered” the area named it Pointe Pelee or “Bare Rock”. By 1918 overfishing and hunting and sand removal by the US government hade made a significant impact on the ecosystem and by 1918 at the urging of birdwatchers and hunters the Canadian Government designated the area as a national park.
The park includes a unique blend of ecosystems and vegetative zones. It is one of the largest remaining wetlands in southern Canada, it has a jungle-like Carolinian forest mixed in with savannah grasslands and an ever changing 20 kilometre (12 mile) long beachfront shoreline. All in all it supports over 700 species of plants with some found nowhere else in Canada. The lake effect and Carolinian forest combine to ensure that the park remains much warmer than other areas at the same latitude.
Perhaps its most unique aspect is the fact that it is known as “the park the birds built”. Over 370 species of birds can be found within its tiny borders and it lies on a major migratory route and birdwatchers from all over the world flock to the park to experience the spring migration. It also lies on the major Monarch Butterfly migration route over Lake Erie and every fall thousands of visitors congregate at the park to watch the spectacle. In between these two peak times it remains busy with visitors who enjoy its marvelous natural beauty and variety of activities.
Location of Point Pelee National Park
How to get to Point Pelee:
Point Pelee National Park is located about 10 kilometres (6 miles) south of the Municipality of Leamington or about 50 kilometers (30 miles) southeast of the City of Windsor and about 4 hours southwest of Toronto.
If traveling from Windsor:
- Take Highway 3 east towards Leamington. Exit at Erie Street and turn right (south). At Seacliff Drive (County Road # 20) turn left. Approximately 1 kilometre (0.5 miles) down the road you will see a sign to the park down Bevel Line (County Road # 33). Turn right on Bevel Line. The park entrance is approximately a 10 minutes drive down this road.
If traveling fromToronto:
- If coming from Toronto or other eastern parts of Ontario you will be traveling on Highway 401 West. At exit # 48 head south onto Highway # 77 towards Leamington. Highway # 77 turns into Erie Street in Leamington. At Seacliff Drive (County Road # 20) turn left. Approximately 1 kilometre (0.5 miles) down the road you will see a sign to the park down Bevel Line (County Road # 33). Turn right on Bevel Line. The park entrance is approximately a 10 minutes drive down this road.
Please note that signs to Point Pelee National Park are easy to follow. The park is open year round but opening times vary. Check out the official website at: Point Pelee for more information.
Point Pelee National Park activities:
People from around the world come to Point Pelee National Park to partake in bird watching and it is one of the globe’s premier bird watching destinations being named a UNESCO wetland of international significance. Birder’s World Magazine also named it one of North America’s top 15 birding spots and it has been named as the “Warbler Capital of North America”.
80% of all Ontario bird species have been spotted in the park at least once, almost 100 species nest here and about 50 remain over the winter months.
Species found at the Point Pelee National Park include:
- Horned Owls
- Blue Jays
Rare species found here include:
- Virginia Warbler
- Lesser Nighthawk
- Sage Thrasher
- Swallow-tailed Kite
- Cassin’s Sparrow
The most significant time for bird watchers at the park is without a doubt the Festival of Birds.
Festival of Birds
This is a month long festival in May each year that celebrates the annual spring avian migration. Bird watchers from around the globe make their way to Point Pelee National Park usually during the peak first 2 weeks of the month to see some of the highest concentrations of migrating songbirds on the continent.
The festival runs a number of events for both beginner and experienced bird watchers alike including:
- Birding hikes
- Identification workshops
- Birding techniques
- Educational lectures
Check out the site: Festival of Birds for more information.
The autumn migration brings different species of birds as they make their make their southern feeding grounds. Many birds of prey are to be found then, species include:
- Golden Eagle
- Peregrine Falcon
- American Kestrels
- Sharp-shinned Hawks
- Northern Saw-whet Owl
While not as many or as colorful as in the spring it nevertheless still is a very popular time for bid watchers at Point Pelee National Park.
Monarch Butterfly Migration
Fall also brings another rush of sightseers to Point Pelee National Park to see the annual migration of Monarch Butterflies that fly through the park. The butterflies are on their way south to Mexico for their wintering grounds and the park is a natural funnel on their way south as the Great Lakes provide a huge barrier for them. The shortest distance across the Great lakes is at Point Pelee but even then the 50-kilometre (30 mile) flight can prove insurmountable if the wind and weather conditions are not perfect.
The migration occurs from late August until early October and generally peaks for only a few special days each year, usually sometime in September. Even then, if the are roosting in the trees they are hard to spot. It is only when flying en-masse that one can truly appreciate this unique spectacle.
To check the exact state of the migration to see if it’s a good viewing time there is a butterfly hotline at (519) 322-2371 or a Twitter page with updates @pointpeleenp.
During the migration the park visitor centre has Monarch migration interpretive programs including a larvae-hatching area where you may be lucky enough to see a butterfly emerge from its cocoon. There is a the live monarch exhibit showing all of its life-cycle stages from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly . You can even join an expert naturalist at the peninsula’s tip (the best viewing spot) to count the butterflies.
Of course in addition to birds and butterflies there are many other species of animals to be found within the parks borders. Most large animals have long ago been hunted from the park. The largest remaining is most likely the little seen coyote. A few deer remain but are also scarce and seldom seen.
Other animals you may encounter include:
- Grey Squirrel
- Flying Squirrel
- Amphibians and reptiles such as frogs, snakes and turtles
There are 12 kilometres (7.2 miles) of hiking trails though Point Pelee National Park and they are the best way to truly explore and experience what the park has to offer. The park is a low-lying sand spit so for the most part all the trails are very easy to traverse.
The 8 trails include:
The Marsh Boardwalk – This is the most popular trail in the park, it is a short 1 kilometre (0.6 mile) walk along a floating boardwalk through the marshlands. A variety of animals and birds are usually seen.
Centennial Bike & Hike Trail – Stretching from the Visitor Centre to the Marsh Boardwalk this 4 kilometre (2.4 mile) winding trail passes by three unique ecosystems of the park: forest, beach and savannah.
DeLaurier Homestead & Trail – A short 1.2 kilometre (0.7 mile) trail it offers some interesting aspects of the park as the trail leads you through three ecosystems: savannah, open fields and swamp forest. There is also the historic DeLaurier Homestead to explore and an observation tower that allows you to view an eagle-nesting platform.
Shuster Trail – A short 0.5 kilometre (0.3 mile) trail that connects Tilden Woods Trail to East Barrier Beach it is a good spot to have a chance sighting of bald eagles.
Tilden Woods Trail – Beginning at the visitor centre this 1 kilometre (0.6 mile) trail includes a boardwalk and passes through two ecosystems: swamp forest and savannah it is especially beautiful in the spring as wildflowers begin to bloom.
Chinquapin Oak Trail – Connecting Centennial Bike & Hike Trail with Tilden Woods Trail this 4 kilometre (2.4 mile) trail is unique for its Chinuapin Oak trees, a species usually found further even as far south as Mexico.
Tip Trail – This short 1 kilometre 0.6 mile) trail leads you to the southernmost point of mainland Canada. You usually catch the shuttle to its drop-off point then make the trek on foot down the trail for the remainder of the way. This is the best sopt to see the various migrations the park has to offer.
Woodland Nature Trail – This 2.75 kilometre (1.7 mile) trail begins at the visitor centre and passes through the oldest forest in the park.
Insider Tip: The shuttle is a free service that leaves the park visitor centre every 20 minutes from April to October. The 10-minute journey runs to The Tip visitor centre. From there it is just a short walk to the southernmost point on mainland Canada jutting deep into Lake Erie.
The Centennial Bike & Hike Trail accommodates both hikers and cyclists along its 4-kilometre (2.4 mile) length. Bike rentals are available in the park from the Cattail Café near the Marsh Boardwalk. Note that rentals are only available from May 1 to the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend. Cyclists must remain on the trals at all times.
Canoeing is a popular activity as 66% of Point Pelee National Park is freshwater marshes that make for an excellent paddling adventure. This is an excellent way to get up close and personal with nature and combining canoeing with an activity such as bird watching lets you experience the animals in their natural habitat in a way unlike any other.
Canoes can be rented from the Cattail Café at the Marsh Boardwalk. You can also partake in the Freighter Canoe Tour which is a guided group tour in a 10-person canoe. These tours operate from July 1 – Labour Day.
Please note that the area is fairly low lying and wind and weather conditions can change rapidly. It is recommended that you always wear a life jacket and never go out in a canoe alone.
The popularity of kayaking continues to increase across Canada and is a popular activity at the park. Silently gliding through the marshland with its cattails is an awesome experience that everyone should try. Unfortunately there are no kayak rentals at the park right now so if you wish to partake in this activity you must bring your own. Kayak rentals are available just outside the park though from a company called Pelee Wings.
The same safety conditions and warning as applied to canoeing above are also to be followed when kayaking.
Lake Erie fishing is famous the world over and the waters off the park provide some excellent fishing opportunities. On any given day you will see many a fisherman either on shore or in a myriad of different vessels out in the lake.
My fishing in Ontario pages should give you a good idea as to what to expect in terms of sport fish available and what you can catch them with. It should be noted that the waters of lake Erie are one of the world’s premier fishing destinations.
Point Pelee National park is a day-use park only so it provides an excellent collection of picnicking facilities as the park is a little out of the way and there is limited access to food therefore most people bring their own and a picnic is on their itinerary.
All picnic areas have covered shelters and toilet facilities and most are located near beach areas.
Unfortunately individual camping is no longer permitted within Point Pelee National Park. At one time camping was so popular at the park that it became the most visited national park in the country. Its small size and fragile environment could not sustain the throngs of people setting up campsites each year. In order to protect the park individual camping has been banned and is only available on a limited group basis.
There are 2 group campsites available inside the park:
Little Raccoon South and Little Raccoon North. Both can hold a maximum of 20 people and a minimum group sixe of 8 is required for booking with a maximum of 4 nights stay.
The following rules also apply:
Year round camping is available to youth groups (aged 6 – 16) and educational groups with full time students from a recognized educational institution.
During the months of May, September and October group camping is open to registered not for profit groups. Reservations must be made well in advance and only 1 booking is allowed per month.
For individuals or all others who wish to camp there is facilities available in the nearby communities of Leamington and Amherstburg.
Point Pelee National Park boasts the longest beach in the area at 20 kilometres (12 miles) in length. This makes it one of the most popular swimming destinations in southern Ontario. The beaches are smooth and sandy and the water is generally warm enough and comfortable for swimming. The to most popular beaches in the area are without a doubt Northwest Beach and West Beach. Both have excellent swimming conditions and provide facilities such as washrooms, change rooms and picnic areas.
Note: The beaches are monitored and never disregard posted warning signs. Winds can whip up quickly resulting in strong undertows and rip currents that can be life threatening to even the strongest swimmers. Children should be supervised and monitored at all times and you should never swim alone.
The park is open all winter long for activities such as cross-country skiing and ice-skating. A shelter is provided for cross-country skiers at the White Picnic area. There is a wood stove available at the shelter and free wood is provided. The park has very good skiing conditions but the trails are not groomed. Ice-skating is a popular activity and you will see many locales skating on the ice on any given day, weather permitting.
Point Pelee National Park is of interest to many types of visitors. Of course if you are a bird watcher I’m sure you are quite familiar with what the park has to offer. For others, the park still makes for a great day trip as it really is a unique part of Canada and is well worth the time taken to come see.
There really is something to be said for walking to the tip jutting deep into Lake Erie and standing at the southernmost point on mainland Canada. There is a lot of activities to partake in and the park makes for the perfect place to spend a day.
For those visitors traveling to Toronto and beyond down the 401 corridor from Windsor I would highly recommend a diversion for at least half a day to Point Pelee National Park. You can spend some time here and still make it to Toronto for dinner.