The Muskoka region in Ontario is one of Canada’s most famous cottage regions. The area hosts more lakes than you can count, and all the rivers connecting them. For those who love to be on the water, Muskoka, as it’s commonly referred to, is heaven. Many of Canada’s rich and famous have properties in the Muskoka, Ontario region. And during the summer months, the small, sleepy towns in the region explode into huge hubs that cater to the thousands of cottage goers and weekend day-trippers that make their way north to experience gorgeous, endless, nature. One of these small towns is Bala, Ontario. Bala is one of the key hubs of Ontario’s cottage country. Bala, Ontario is more than just a place to launch a canoe. There are a lot of reasons to visit Bala, Ontario, but our favorite is the annual Bala Cranberry Festival.
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About Bala, Ontario
Bala is often referred to as the Heart of the Muskoka region. This picturesque small town sits where Lake Muskoka empties into the Moon River. The town of Bala itself is only home to a few hundred residents, however, those numbers skyrocket during the summer season. Bala is also a very popular spot for leaf hunters during the fall season. The fall colors of the Muskoka, Ontario region are legendary. In fact, we love the fall colors of Muskoka so much that it made our list of the top family-friendly fall activities in Ontario. Bala is home to the Kee to Bala, a famous and historic music hall in the heart of downtown Bala. The Kee to Bala has been the heart of entertainment in Muskoka for nearly 90 years, hosting acts such as Louis Armstrong, Blue Rodeo, and Drake. Outside of the high season in Bala, the next most popular event is the famous Bala Cranberry Festival, annually hosted the weekend after Canadian Thanksgiving in October.
How To Get To Bala, Ontario
Bala, Ontario is about a 200 km drive north along HWY 400 from Toronto. Now, this doesn’t sound like much for a day trip from Toronto. There is, however, a catch. During the peak season from early June to mid-September, tens of thousands of visitors are also making the journey north to Muskoka from Toronto. I would love to offer you some tips on avoiding the traffic, but beyond visiting in off-peak seasons, or avoiding the Friday journey north and the Sunday journey back, there are no secret paths that haven’t already been jammed up by cottage goers with similar desires. The traffic starts to dissipate after passing Barrie, Ontario, and by the time your reach Muskoka, things move pretty well.
You can also take a bus from Toronto to Bala through a transit in nearby Gravenhurst. Or you have the option to catch a Via Rail train from Toronto to Washago and then a connecting bus through to Bala.
Bala Muskoka Cranberry Festival
Bala is known as the Cranberry Capital of Ontario. And they live up to that reputation every year with the Bala Cranberry Festival. The town is home to the largest cranberry marsh in Ontario, the Johnston Cranberry Marsh. During the Bala Cranberry Festival, the town explodes with music, events, and food. And there is one theme through it all. Cranberries. The vendors and display line HWY 169 and Bala Falls Rd. And it’s hard not to get taken up in the festivities and music. The Bala Cranberry festival has become one of the most popular things to do in Muskoka during the fall season. In fact, it’s considered to be one of the best fall festivals in Ontario.
Food at the Bala Cranberry Festival
If you love a little sweet and sour flavoring, the food at the Bala Cranberry Festival is for you. Everything has a cranberry twist, from the sausages, pies, ice cream and more. In fact, the food is so popular at the cranberry festival in Bala that the vendors have a hard time keeping up with demand. So make sure you order early to avoid missing out on the tastiest choices.
What to see and do at the Cranberry Festival in Bala
The Bala Cranberry Festival is focused on family-friendly events. There are free shows cycling through along Bala Falls Rd. that will keep everyone entertained. Our boys were especially enamored with the live wrestling shows. They had never seen wrestling before and found themselves getting caught up in the action in front of them. And all the entertainers at the festival are amazing with kids, even taking the time to pose for photos and chat.
Johnston Cranberry Marsh and Muskoka Lakes Winery
The Bala Cranberry Festival is also a great time to visit the Johnstons Cranberry Marsh. A free shuttle (with festival admission ticket) will take you the 20 minutes to the marsh. Here you can wander around the cranberry bog, taste some cranberry treats and more. Johnston Cranberry Marsh is also home to Muskoka Lakes Winery. The onsite store offers tastings of the delicious cranberry wine. The cranberry wine is made from local Muskoka cranberries and is a great takeaway from the festival.
The cranberry marsh is also a cool place to check out how the cranberry industry has modernized over the years. Johnston Cranberry Marsh has a number of pieces of antique machinery to show how things have changed over the years. You can also join a cranberry bog tour. For a small fee, you get a guided tour on a covered wagon around the cranberry bog. The marsh also offers the option of wading into the cranberry marsh for an epic photo throwing the cranberries into the sky. It might sound hokey, but it was a load of fun!
Or you could just wander through the streets and shops of Bala to see all the fun things this small town has to offer. A popular stop is the Balacade, Bala’s entertainment hub for the young and young at heart. It is full of new and retro video and pinball games. And there is of course the Kee to Bala, a popular place for summer concerts in Muskoka.
Parking during the Bala Cranberry Festival
There is no getting around this part. Parking at the Bala Cranberry Festival is a nightmare. The traffic along HWY 169 is bumper to bumper with visitors trying to find parking within Bala. The festival has numerous paid lots within the city. These are staffed by volunteers dealing with the constant flow. Those who want to avoid the $10 average daily cost of parking at the festival often park on the side of HWY 169 or hunt for available street parking within the town itself. If you opt for parking along HWY 169, you may be looking at a hike of up to a few kilometers to get to the heart of town. There is a shuttle that runs through the event areas and up to the Johnston Cranberry Marsh. The shuttle at the Cranberry Festival can help ease some of the pain on your feet.
Where to Stay in Muskoka, Ontario
Best Muskoka Resorts
A visit to Muskoka just isn’t the same if you aren’t staying on the lakes. This is even more special during the fall season when the autumn colors of the region explode into a rainbow. Muskoka is famous for its hospitality industry and boasts some of the most stunning resorts in all of Canada. Here are some of our favorites.
The Rosseau is situated about 25 minutes from Bala. The resort sits on the granite bluffs of the Canadian Sheild and offers panoramic views of Lake Rosseau. You can check out prices and availability here.
Located about half-an-hour from Bala in the town of Port Severn, Severn Lodge is a family-friendly Muskoka resort. With amazing activities on and near the resort and delicious dining, it’s a perfect place to relax during the Bala Cranberry Festival. You can check out pricing and availability here.
Other Bala Hotels and Resorts
Resorts and hotels in Bala book up quickly, especially during big events such as the Bala Cranberry festival. You can check out prices and availability of all the best places to stay in Muskoka using the search tool below.
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