The surprising secrets of Sandbanks: 6 reasons why this provincial park is even better than you thought
Even if you go often, you might not realize you can reach out and touch ancient history
Sandbanks Provincial Park is renowned for gorgeous soft sand and endless beaches, safe shallow waters and epic sunsets, as well as being a great base to explore Prince Edward County's pastoral wine country. And you can check "see world's largest freshwater baymouth dune system" off your bucket list. Last year, the park's Outlet Beach achieved Blue Flag status, only the second Provincial Park in Ontario to receive this honour for high quality beach management based on environment, education, safety, and accessibility.
Though, here, sandcastles take on epic proportions, kites seem to touch the sky and you can take a stroll on the beach and walk forever, Sandbanks is far more than three beautiful beaches. Anyone who visits can tell you that this is a special place, but even they may be pleasantly surprised to learn about six more reasons the park is better than one might expect.
You can reach out and touch ancient history
Sandbanks feels like many different retreats, all within one park. The two-kilometre cycling and walking trail at West Point, between the Park's Outlet Beach and Lakeshore Beach on Lake Ontario, feels a million miles away from the busy beaches. The narrow shelves of limestone jut out into the pale blue waters of Lake Ontario. Look closely at the rock shelves to see 450 million-year-old fossils such as the hinged shell of the brachiopod, the flower-like crinoid or the shiny black pieces that are broken trilobites. An excellent cross-breeze makes this a cooling break from the beach on a hot day, and a great place for a picnic.
Tranquility, and paddleboarding, can be yours
You can rent a canoe, kayak or stand-up paddleboard right on the water at the Park's Woodyard, and paddle up and down the river, or even venture out to the Lake. Between the Park's East Lake and Outlet Beach on Lake Ontario, lies the Outlet River, a short, meandering stretch of placid water winding through cattail marsh and lily pads, where painted turtles sunbathe, dragonflies hover and red wing blackbirds chirp. You may even spot a muskrat in the marsh. The paddle might take less than an hour but the scenery makes you want to stop and linger. Warning: as you're near Lake Ontario it gets so shallow you'll likely have to get out and drag your boat.
Magic can happen before your eyes in the freshwater pannes
Want to see something magical? Wait for the rain. One moment the pannes in between the sand dunes at West Lake appear to be dry. After rain changes the levels of Lake Ontario and Park's West Lake, the pannes transform into swampy wetlands, then the next day they can be perfectly dry sand again. "The sand is permeable," says Jack Stokes, a Natural Heritage Education Assistant at the park. "These freshwater pannes are a sand wetland where the water level fluctuates on daily basis. Last year when we had all our flooding, the pannes were basically a swamp."
No rod, no problem!
The Outlet River is an ideal place to drop a line and try fishing. It doesn't matter if you "don't fish" — at the Park's Woodyard, you can sign out a rod, reel and fishing tackle. Sandbanks participates in the Tackle Share Program, established by the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) and sponsored by Ontario Power Generation. East and West Lake are popular for yellow pickerel, smallmouth and largemouth Bass, Northern pike and various pan fish. Or on a hot day you can stand right in the Outlet River to stay cool while you fish.
The monarchs love it here too
Summer is the season for monarchs and they begin to arrive at Sandbanks and the shores of Lake Ontario in May. A species of "special concern" in Ontario, monarchs are threatened by dwindling habitat and the loss of milkweed along their migration routes. The females lay eggs, pass on, and the next generation hatches into caterpillars and takes flight in late summer, the numbers intensifying into September and October. The butterflies hang out on the Lake's north shore, waiting for a tailwind to carry them south across the lake, flying as much as 80 kilometres in a single day. Not only do these featherweight creatures fly right across Lake Ontario, but some 3,000 kilometres to central Mexico where they spend the winter. Sandbanks is a popular choice for the monarchs — but nearby Presqu'ile Provincial Park does usually attract even more butterflies.
The incredible tenacity of trees (and people)
Take a walk in the dunes and you'll see trees that have taken root in these sandy inhospitable conditions and grown despite it all; amazing roots that reach down and suck life out of shifting sands. The Park is working hard to bring back the forest to the dunes and surrounding landscape. Over 100,000 trees have been planed over the past decade or so, and approximately 37,000 pine, spruce and oak trees were planted in spring 2018, in partnership with the organization Forests Ontario and with the help of volunteers and the Friends of Sandbanks, a local non-profit that supports the park.