KILLARNEY, Ontario -- It's not often that artists play key roles in creating parks.
But that's what happened with Ontario's enchanting and outdoorsy Killarney Provincial Park, a sprawling North Woods backcountry at the north end of Lake Huron's Georgian Bay.
Four of Canada's titular Group of Seven landscape painters trekked to Killarney to paint its distinctive white-rock La Cloche Mountains, pinkish granite outcroppings, bright blue lakes, pine and hardwood forests, boggy lowlands and rocky coastline.
The artists were known in the 1920s for rejecting European painting styles and for developing a bold, stark northern landscape with lots of color. Today their paintings are Canadian national treasures.
Painter Franklin Carmichael came to Killarney in 1926, followed by Arthur Lismer, A.J. Casson and A.Y. Jackson.
It was Jackson who pushed Ontario to create a forest reserve to keep trees from being cleared for timber, and a small tract around Trout Lake was created in 1933. It was later renamed O.S.A. Lake for the Ontario Society of Artists.
A formal park was created in 1964. Lakes were named after Jackson, Carmichael and Casson.
Killarney is a craggy land of black bears and moose, bald eagles and loons, mosquitoes and black flies (depending on the season), bobcats, beaver and wolves, and the Northern Lights. The 121,884-acre park is favored by backpackers, canoeists, sea kayakers and boaters.
Killarney is known for its majestic, breathtaking scenery, and its unspoiled beauty. It is, some say, among the prettiest spots in Ontario. And that's saying a lot.
Its lakes provide the best access to the interior of the park, which is four hours north of Toronto and 10 hours from Akron. The lakes can be connected by portages of varying lengths to make trips from a weekend to up to two weeks.
It's largely a wild park with limited highway access. Highway 637 provides access to the southern fringes; there is no direct road access on the west or north.
Off Highway 637, there is a visitors' center, a campground, canoe operations and trailheads. That's where you can get access to the park's premier trail: the La Cloche Silhouette Trail, a strenuous 47-mile loop that takes seven to 10 days. The trail, completed in 1987, is named after a 1939 painting by Carmichael (1890-1945).
Highway 637 also provides access to the quiet village of Killarney, a community of 500. It offers lodging, meals and outfitters.
Daughter Maureen and I spent four days exploring via foot, canoe, kayak and boat from a base at the very comfortable and charming Killarney Mountain Lodge. It was built in the 1950s by American trucking interests, and Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa was a frequent guest. It offers lodging, meals, a lounge, swimming pool, sauna and excursions into the park for visitors.
We hiked to the overlooks on Granite Ridge that offered forested vistas of the La Cloche Mountains and Georgian Bay. The ridges are dominated by scrubby jack pines, red and white pines, blueberries, juniper, mosses and lichens that thrive in such dry conditions.
We scrambled over bare rock to approach the Crack, a high overlook that is the park's most iconic day hike. We hiked to the red-and-white Killarney's East Lighthouse that dates to 1866. We paddled a canoe on Bell Lake and kayaks on picturesque Georgian Bay with its 36,000 rocky islands.
Red and pinkish rocks dominate in the southern end of the park. The white-rocked quartzite is found to the north.
The La Cloche Mountains that run east to west are the park's most striking feature. From a distance, the range appears to be snow-capped but it's just the dazzling white sedimentary rocks.
The range is one of the oldest in North America (2.5 billion years) and once stood as high as the Rocky Mountains. Today it is a series of worn-down rocky ridges, with Silver Peak the high point in the park at 1,768 feet.
They got their name because the Indians reportedly struck the quartzite rocks to sound warnings. The mountains were dubbed La Cloche, or Bell, by French fur trappers.
Hiking options include 2.5-mile Cranberry Bog loop; the 1.9-mile Chikanishing Trail, which takes you along the rocks on Georgian Bay; and the 4.7-mile George Island loop.
Killarney is now surrounded by the Killarney Lakelands and Headwaters Provincial Park. It was created in mid-2006 and covers 37,919 acres.
One of the most interesting features in the sleepy village of Killarney is the fish and chips you can get at Herbert Fisheries on the Killarney Channel. The operation is the only commercial fishing operation left in Killarney, and it serves fresh-from-the-water whitefish.
If you go
The George Lake Campground has 126 sites and six yurts for overnight in-park lodging. There are two swimming beaches at George Lake. The park also offers 180 backcountry canoe-in and hike-in sites.
The camping season is May 1 through Oct. 12. Call 888-668-7275 for reservations. Reservations are a must for backcountry camping and for the park's 11 main paddle routes. The park charges between $10 and $18 a day for visitors' vehicles.
For information, contact Killarney Provincial Park at 960 Highway 637, Killarney, Ont. POM 2A0, or call 705-287-2900.
You can also contact the Ontario Parks at http://www.ontarioparks.com. For a copy of the Ontario Parks Guide or more parks information, call 800-ONTARIO. For other Ontario outdoor recreation and getaways, visit http://www.ontariotravel.net/outdoor.
For booklets about hiking trails and other materials, contact Friends of Killarney Park, Killarney, Ont. P0M 2A0, or call 705-287-2800. You can also check out http://www.friendsofkillarneypark.ca.
For Killarney Mountain Lodge, write to 3 Commissioner St., Killarney, Ont. P0M 2A0, call 800-461-1117 or 705-287-2242 or visit http://www.killarney.com.
For local outfitters, contact Killarney Outfitters, Killarney, Ont. P0M 2A0, call 800-461-1117 or visit http://www.killarneyoutfitters.com. Or try Killarney Kanoes, P.O. Box 66, Stn. B, Sudbury, Ont. P3E 4N3, call 705-287-2197 or 888-461-4446, or visit http://www.killarneykanoes.com.