Adventure Report: Camping at Sandbanks Provincial Park – August 2020

True to blog form, I thoroughly neglected writing anything here for the past… seven months or so. The whole never-ending global pandemic thing kind of dragged me down, along with the back to school routine and hitting a massive wall that much of the world seems to have hit simultaneously. I also had a fun work contract in there for four months (not sarcasm, it really was a fun work contract)! Now we’re staring down the arrival of warm weather again and, while dragging myself through the Ontario Parks reservation system chaos this year, I’m inspired to revisit some of last year’s adventures.

Sandbanks Provincial Park is notoriously busy even outside of the sheer ridiculousness that is the County during the COVID pandemic. I spent the summer of 2020 sporadically checking the Ontario Parks online reservation system for big cancellations (they were penalty-free that year, so people were dropping bookings for various reasons without having to cough up a bunch of money).

That’s how I started summer with absolutely no camping booked and ended up with sites at Bon Echo, Bonnechere (which I passed on to my sister because we ended up staying with my dad in an actual house), Presqu’ile (for my sister and her friends thanks to my fast fingers), and Sandbanks. I don’t know how I snagged a check-in Monday check-out Saturday at Sandbanks in August without selling a kidney, but I did.

That time happened to coincide, in part, with my mom’s days off work, so from Monday to Wednesday it was Gramma, Grampy, the kids and me.

RVing at Woodlands

We were at Woodlands Campground Site 727, chosen solely because it was the only available site. When I first booked it I expected to be tenting, but luckily the reservation info said it would accommodate trailers/RVs including those over 32 feet (which can be hard to find in the older parks!). All I knew about it was that the photos made it look long and lean, and the site note said ‘in field no trees.’

I actually don’t understand the Ontario Parks site designations at all. Site 727 is listed as poor quality, with poor privacy and no shade/full sun. I wasn’t expecting much, so I was really surprised when we got there to find a pretty stellar site. Matt found it on Google Earth before we went so I knew we’d be able to back the trailer onto a gravel pad, but the poor privacy, no shade, poor quality ranking? Not so much, if you ask me (you didn’t, but I’m telling you).

First of all, there are trees. The site backs onto a little grove, and there’s a path back there that I’m assuming people use to go pee at night. There are two big trees on the far right side of the site, the ideal distance from one another for both our camping hammock and our drying lines. And those trees offer shade! Yes, breakfast typically came with some blinding sun on the picnic table, but the hammock was a respite as was the trailer awning, and it didn’t feel like we were living in a solar flare or anything.

As for privacy, the angle of the site meant that we actually felt fairly secluded. The road went right by, but there wasn’t a lot of traffic. To our right and left, more trees kept us separate from our neighbours. Maybe in a tent the neighbour to the left would’ve been more visible, but the RV was a good barrier. I have definitely been in less private sites, that’s for sure.

So, Ontario Parks, your classification systems continue to mystify me, but I would totally stay at that spot again. We wandered through the non-forested side of the campground once or twice and I maintain we had one of the best spots if one was to stay at Woodlands but not… y’know, in the woodlands.

My one big thumbs down about this campground: We had to drive to the beach, realistically. If you had older campers who could ride bikes without it actually taking longer than walking, you could do the Woodlands trail to Dunes. I walked it once with the kids and although it was a nice walk there’s no freaking way I’d do it with all the beach stuff (though one could easily pull a camp wagon down the trail). We turned a corner and ran into a middle aged man on a hoverboard vaping, which was truly the best part of that walk.

Driving to the beach wasn’t a problem while we camped Monday to Wednesday, but it became an issue on Friday when I tried to drive the kids to Dunes to hike after breakfast. The intense day use crowds at Sandbanks shut the whole parking lot down and I ended up getting mired in traffic and routed all over the park so we left and went to North Beach Provincial Park instead but that was also crowded. Later on in the week I had to run out and buy power steering fluid for the SUV and, even using the bypass lane for already-registered campers, I still hit a park ranger road block and had to wait it out in traffic.

If things continue for the County in 2021 the way they did in 2020, I would only camp on weekdays. As it is, I’m generally planning to avoid Sandbanks unless we make a day trip some weekday afternoon/evening.

What We Did

The trailer came home filled with sand so… we lived at the beach for a few days! Between late breakfasts and late dinners we’d pack a cooler bag and beach toys into the indispensable Coleman folding wagon, through drizzle, high winds, and sun. We split our time between Dunes (on the off hours, later in the day) and Outlet Beach. I, and the kids, liked Dunes better because it’s certainly calmer and more sheltered, but it’s undeniably busy and a much smaller beach. We didn’t even go near it on the weekend days. In the evenings after the day use campers were gone, though, it was nice and quiet, and the playground was right there.

As I said above, the one time I tried to hit Dunes even on a Thursday I found myself driving right out of the damn park, so we continued on to North Beach PP. I learned this year that any camping permit gets you into other parks, so we didn’t have to pay anything and mercifully arrived when the line was short. But, the parking lots and road were crowded so we stopped at the first opening we could find, which left us on rocky shore. It was, overall, really crowded and hellish to get out of when it was time to leave. My verdict: there is no point in trying to go to a public beach Thursday-Sunday in the County.

Aside from that, as I mentioned we walked the Woodlands trail once, which is more like a big wide path through the park. I wanted to hike the Dunes trail but… parking. We had a lot of campfires, did some colouring outside under the awning, and at one point I did an LCBO run, LOL. We didn’t explore the County because it was just so crowded and seemed impossible to navigate especially during COVID when I had to drag the kids everywhere with me (I felt bad enough bringing them into the LCBO, honestly — this year we’re all a little more used to COVID protocol and everyone has masks that fit their faces).

Thoughts for Another Visit

I’m of two minds for campsites for another time. I think I would happily stay in one of the Outlet River A Campground electric sites (of which there are only a handful). I didn’t get the chance to scope those out, but that said, they are all made for trailers up to 18 feet max, which leaves us with literally one option, site 159. No direct beach access, but walkable… but also the potential for more noise and crowds because of that beach proximity, from what I gather online. The Outlet B electrical sites are made for larger trailers (and more open with less shade/privacy as a result) but still involve a bit of a trek.

Then there’s the West Lake Campground, which I drove through while being routed around the day use traffic shutdown and kind of walked through on the Woodlands trail. This is a newer campground, clearly made for RVs/trailers, and within easy walking distance of Dunes. But it’s very, very open (I couldn’t tell if it’s designed to eventually grow in). And the aforementioned day use road block traffic goes riiiiight through the gatehouse area which I imagine is super-annoying.

The kids liked Dunes the best (even though it’s probably the most crowded beach) so I think I’d either give West Lake a shot or, honestly, by the time we get back to Sandbanks without having to fight nine thousand other people for a place, they may be old enough to bike from Woodlands.