Learn about Kawartha Highlands Signature Park

Image of Kawartha Highlands

The scenic Kawartha Highlands, encompassing 37,587 hectares, is the largest park in Ontario south of Algonquin Provincial Park.  Situated along the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, this relatively undeveloped area features a rugged rolling landscape of small lakes, wetlands, forests and rocky barrens.  The protection of the ecological integrity of the area is of paramount importance. Long-term protection of both natural and cultural heritage values is required for the preservation of this unique area. Traditional activities and diverse low-intensity recreational opportunities will continue to be available.

Natural Features

Among the mosaic of biological communities of the Kawartha Highlands there are features which stand out as areas of ecological excellence.  These features effectively portray the natural heritage valued by park stakeholders and must be protected as an ecologically and culturally essential element of the protected area.

In 2000, the Natural Heritage Information Centre of the Ministry of Natural Resources undertook a one year study entitled, “Reconnaissance Life Science Inventory of the Kawartha Highlands Signature Site”.  This is a direct excerpt from this report, except where noted (Limestone Plain).

Wilderness Qualities

In its purest form, wilderness is vast and primeval. It includes pristine landscapes and waterscapes, native plants and animals and clean water and air. It is a place where nature functions freely, unencumbered by industrial and agricultural activities. Wilderness is a place of natural wonder, a place of scientific and educational discovery and a place of solitude that has nurtured the evolution of the human body and spirit. Wilderness is a place where visitors minimize their impact on the landscapes and waterscapes with low impact camping and travel by non-mechanized means. The Ontario Parks minimum size standard for wilderness parks is 50,000 hectares (optimum 100,000 hectares), and for Wilderness Zones is 2,000 ha (the optimum is 50,000 hectares).

It was noted during an October 2000 helicopter survey of the Kawartha Highlands that much of the northern portion of the study area appeared to have undergone very little recent disturbance. The only significant recent human impacts observed in this area were a few widely scattered hunt camps, two major snowmobile trails and two old roads, which are also used by all-terrain (ATV) and off-road vehicles (ORVs). Some of the treed bog and fen communities appeared to be of exemplary quality, as was a White Cedar swamp just northwest of the boundary.

Based on numerous field visits during 2000, it was also noted that much of the existing Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park, which is immediately to the south of the area just described, is relatively undisturbed. The Provincial Park is dissected by two access roads that are used by ATVs and ORVs, and there is a small cluster of cottages on patent land on the western side of Bottle Lake. Besides these disturbance factors, the combination of the existing Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park and the extensive natural landscape to the north forms what could be considered a relatively intact “wilderness area”. Much of the south-central and south-eastern portions of the Signature Site also have wilderness qualities. Large wilderness areas, such as the northern portion of the Kawartha Highlands, may provide refuge for species that are particularly vulnerable to human disturbance or which deliberately avoid areas with human activity.

Rock Barrens

One of the outstanding features of the Kawartha Highlands is its representation of open gneissic rock barrens. These rock barrens occur throughout the study area, but are most extensive in the south-eastern quadrant of the site and immediately north of Long Lake, an area identified as a provincially significant Area of Natural and Scientific Interest (ANSI) primarily for its representation of rock barrens. The rock barrens support populations of the provincially rare Five-lined Skink and, at least formerly, Prairie Warbler. Other species of note on the barrens include the provincially rare Secund Rush, as well as breeding Whip-poor-will, Common Nighthawk and the Dark-eyed Junco, which is near the southern limit of its breeding range. Because of the extremely shallow to nonexistent soils, rock barren vegetation is particularly susceptible to disturbance by vehicles and trampling.

Mature Forests

The Kawartha Highlands supports a number of forest stands of exemplary quality, and many stands that have not undergone much recent disturbance. High-quality forests include:

  1. An old-growth Eastern White Pine-dominated forest to the southwest of the Tucker Road access point that probably has qualities of the forests that dominated the study area prior to a period of intensive logging during the past century (other relatively mature pine forests were found to be scattered throughout the study area during the October 2000 helicopter survey);
  2. Eastern Hemlock-dominated forests north of the western portion of Anstruther Lake, along the slopes on both sides of Bottle Creek, throughout the bottle creek ANSI, and in a few other locations;
  3. Sugar Maple-dominated forests on the limestone plain at the south-western end of the site, at the former forest reserve along Anstruther Lake Road, and at a few other sites; and
  4. Red Oak-dominated forests at the extreme north-eastern end of the site. The provincially rare Cerulean Warbler is usually associated with mature deciduous forests south of, and along the Precambrian – Paleozoic contact line in Ontario.

The regionally significant Marten is associated with mature, relatively undisturbed forests of the Precambrian Shield, particularly where there is a strong component of pine. Some species associated with large tracts of natural landscape, such as Moose, Barred Owl and the vulnerable Red-shouldered Hawk, also show a preference for mature, relatively undisturbed forests.

Limestone Plain

New information concerning the Kawartha Highlands alvar has arisen since the “Reconnaisance Life Science Inventory of the Kawartha Highlands Signature Site” (Jalava, et.al., 2001) was written. The location of this alvar is on the boundary of ecodistricts 5E-11 and 6E-9, so detailed examination of geological formations was required in order to determine in which ecodistrict it resided.  It was determined that this alvar is actually located within ecodistrict 5E-11, and not 6E-9 as previously thought.  This conclusion has arisen from further recent examination (Crins and Bakowsky, 2004), thus the text from the original report has now been replaced with this new information.

Limestone plain occupies a relatively small area of Crown land partly within the south-western end of the Kawartha Highlands, with the northern section in an aggregate permit area. It sustains the best known example of alvar vegetation between the Carden Plain and the Madoc area, as well as some of the most floristically rich forest stands in the Kawartha Highlands. The alvar community is provincially significant in the ecodistrict context and it is also considered a globally rare vegetation community type.

Most of the Kawartha Highlands Alvar consists of alvar woodland, which is dominated by trees (White Pine, White Elm, White Cedar, Sugar Maple), shrubs such as Common Juniper, and a graminoid herbaceous layer (Pennsylvania Sedge, Poverty Grass).  There are a few open sections of alvar grassland, dominated by Poverty Grass and scattered Common Juniper, particularly near the south end.

The alvar vegetation located approximately 500 m north of Flynn’s Corners, to the east of County Road 507, consists largely of extensive alvar grassland dominated by poverty grass.  In some sections, there are scattered Common Juniper.  Alvar woodland also is present with scattered White Oak, White Elm and White Cedar, and a herbaceous layer dominated by Poverty Grass.

While both sites have a similar flora, the major or dominant vegetation types occurring at each site are different.  The Kawartha Highlands Alvar site represents alvar woodland, while the Flynn’s Corners site is chiefly alvar grassland.  Since these two sites are the only alvars in ecodistrict 5E-11 for which representative values are known, and since they differ in their predominant representative values, both must be considered provincially significant.  Both vegetation types are unrepresented within the protected area system in ecodistrict 5E-11.

The Kawartha Highlands alvar appears to be in excellent condition throughout. There is evidence of past fire, but this is the ecological factor maintaining alvar on this dry site.

The limestone woodlands on Crown Land adjacent to the alvar are much richer in terms of nutrients than the gneissic bedrock and granitic till-derived soils that dominate the study area. Consequently, the species diversity is much higher on these limestone-derived soils. Within the study area, a number of vascular plant species were found only in the limestone woodlands. These include the provincially rare Butternut and the regionally rare Walking Fern.  

Bog and Fen Communities

The Kawartha Highlands contains some outstanding examples of bog and fen communities. A variety of such communities were documented during on-site fieldwork, and several additional ones were observed in the northern portion of the study area during the October 2000 helicopter survey. Of particular note is the Crane Lake Bog Complex, now incorporated into the park. The bogs and fens of the Kawartha Highlands sustain such provincially rare taxa as Billings’ Three-seeded Sedge, Marsh St. John’s-wort, and a variety of orchids including the provincially rare White-fringed Orchid. A number of species at the southern edges of their ranges in Ontario occur in the bog and fen communities, including Bog Fritillary (a butterfly), Spruce Grouse, Olive-sided Flycatcher and Lincoln’s Sparrow.

Atlantic Coastal Plain Communities

Marsh communities dominated by disjunct Atlantic Coastal Plain flora develop on peaty, sandy or gravelly shorelines of lakes and rivers that typically experience fluctuating water levels. It is believed that fluctuating water levels are very important in the continued maintenance of this vegetation. Where water levels do not fluctuate greatly, shrubs usually become established along the water’s edge. However, in areas with fluctuating water levels, Atlantic Coastal Plain species survive in the seedbank along nearshore areas. During periods of low water levels, these sites become exposed, allowing the coastal plain species to germinate, thrive and set seed. In this way, they have managed to persist in this area for over 10,000 years.

In Kawartha Highlands, the best-developed Atlantic Coastal Plain marshes occur along the shoreline of Bottle Creek and on the upper portion of the Deer Bay Creek watershed that includes Loucks, Long, Buzzard, Vixen, Stoplog and Shark Lakes. These species occur in other scattered locations in the study area where suitable habitat exists, such as the vicinity of Serpentine Lake. The exposed shores of these waterbodies consist of peat, as well as coarse sand, cobbles and occasional boulders. A number of the Atlantic Coastal Plain species are provincially rare. These include Bayonet Rush, Carey’s Smartweed, Snail-seed Pondweed, Virginia Meadow-beauty, Twin-scaped Bladderwort and Yellow-eyed Grass.

Concentrations of Species-at-Risk

There are several areas of concentration of species-at-risk within the Kawartha Highlands, and all known significant concentrations are associated with the six features described above. Although the mapped occurrences of rare species correspond closely, of course, with the field observation points, certain areas within the Kawartha Highlands clearly have higher concentrations than do others. Of particular importance are the shorelines that support Atlantic Coastal Plain flora and the alvar community.


Kawartha Highlands - Activities


Fish for small and large mouth bass, lake trout, brook trout and northern pike.


There are 6 recommended canoe routes through the park, ranging from easy to moderate in difficulty. Call the Park Office to purchase a park map, for trip planning assistance.

Wildlife Viewing

The wide variety of habitat types in the park allows for a high diversity of wildlife species. Watch for Common Loon, Great Blue Heron, Osprey, Beaver and Otter on park lakes. The park’s rock barrens attract a number of bird species including Whip-poor-will, Common Nighthawk, Scarlet Tanager and Eastern Towhee.  Many species of warblers, vireos and sparrows are found in the park as well. Moose and Black Bear are often seen by careful observers and Eastern Wolves and Coyotes can be heard howling at night. White-tailed Deer, Red Fox, Marten, Fisher and numerous other mammals are likely to be seen.


Motorboats are permitted on lakes that have, or access, private or tenured land. Motorboats are not permitted on all other lakes including Sucker Lake. To prevent the use of motorboats for camping, overnight mooring of motorboats is prohibited in the park.

Winter Activities

Winter camping is allowed and you must obtain a permit by calling 1-888-668-7275 or online at https://reservations.ontarioparks.com. Please note that although you have made a reservation for a designated campsite, you are required to camp at least 30 metres away from any designated campsite, shoreline, trail or portage between December 1st and March 31st. We recommend that you camp in low sheltered areas where there is a good supply of standing dead firewood for warmth and cooking.


Hunting in this park is subject to the Ontario Hunting Regulations. Certain restrictions apply. For more information, contact the park or your local area or district office of the Ministry of Natural Resources.

Kawartha Highlands - Facilities

Backcountry Camping

Kawartha Highlands has 108 backcountry campsites spread over 6 recommended loops. Most sites have three tent pads, a designated fire ring, picnic table and a privy toilet. Campsites are only reachable by canoe; there are no car-campsites in the park. Call the Park Office to purchase a park map, for trip planning assistance.

Park Store

There is no park store, but there are grocery and hardware stores in the communities of Buckhorn (west side of park) and Apsley (east side).

Boat Launches



No, but canoes and kayaks can be rented nearby.


Blog Archives