A Family Outdoor Adventure in Windsor Essex
Original blog by Kevin Wagar of The Wandering Wagars | September 2021
Experience A Family-Friendly Outdoor Roadtrip Through Southwestern Ontario
Since the birth of my kids, my family has made regular visits down to Ontario’s Southwest to explore the region’s wonders. Each time we visit, we’re introduced to new cities, towns, and attractions.
Towns like Leamington, Amherstburg, and Kingsville draw us in with incredible restaurants, cafes, and museums. But the part of Ontario’s deep south that has captured our hearts are the amazing parks and nature experiences that seem to jump out from us in every county.
Year after year, we’ve visited to experience the Monarch butterfly migrations, countless birding events, and the beautiful beaches.
You see, exploring the world has been both a passion and a profession for me for years. And after having travelled to more than 40 countries and every province and territory in Canada, it’s that deep southern dive in Ontario’s south that pulls my family and me back every year.
Essex County is absolutely blessed with some of the most magnificent and unique landscapes in the province. And while many Ontario travellers look north to the thick forests and rocky outcrops of the Canadian Shield, more and more travellers are recognizing the pristine wetlands of Ontario’s Southwest as one of the most important natural wonders of our home.
On our most recent visit to Leamington, we took some time to road trip around the county. The chance to re-introduce ourselves to the spectacular birding and nature experiences in Windsor Essex was a real treat. And to help you plan the perfect nature-based road trip through Essex County, I’ve put together an Ontario Southwest family outdoor itinerary.
We had stumbled on Hillman Marsh when our eldest son was just a year-old. On our first visit we were so shocked by the sheer number of colourful finches, yellow-headed blackbirds, herons, and egrets that we could barely pull ourselves away to explore the rest of the region.
The conservation area has 5-kilometres of trails to explore, but anyone who loves experiencing nature with kids will understand why we barely scratched the surface on our first visit. We would stop every few steps as another colourful, and seemingly fearless bird flittered onto a nearby branch to sing us a tune. But over many visits, we’ve had the chance to explore much of the 87-acres of shorebird habitat. And, 10-years later, we still find magic around each and every corner.
On our visit this past summer we saw a huge Great Blue Heron snatch up a fish right before our eyes. And we almost never visit without getting a glimpse of Bald Eagles.
One of the coolest parts of Hillman Marsh is the nature centre. While the nature centre is only open at certain times, if you time your visit right you’re in for a treat. There are experts on site who can help you to get to know the hundreds of bird species that migrate through the park each year. The whole family can also get involved with bird tagging events. And if you stil have time to spare, I suggest catching one of their live raptor displays which are held throughout the summer. You can find all of their events right here.
Amherstburg is one of the prettiest cities in Ontario. And, while enjoying a walk through King’s Navy Yard and a meal at The Salty Dog should be on anyone’s itinerary in the region, there’s another place close by that often gets overlooked by visitors. Holiday Beach Conservation Area is a place that had never been on my radar until this year. I’m so happy that we were introduced to it because it is now one of my favourite nature experiences in the region.
Holiday Beach Conservation Area blew our minds when we arrived. We’d been told about the great beach with the wonderful shallow slope into Lake Erie. And that’s what had pulled us in. We spent hours just lazing about in the waters and taking in the views of Michigan on the far side of the lake.
Holiday Beach is well-stocked to ensure that families have an incredible time. There are showers and comfort stations, picnic areas and even a beautiful campground that we will be sure to spend a few nights in the next time we’re in Ontario’s Southwest.
We soon discovered that there was much more to Holiday Beach than just the clear waters and sandy shores. A section of the conservation area is a sprawling marshland that is a popular spot for anglers and birdwatchers alike. This was perfect for us, as our eldest son had been itching for a chance to break out his fishing pole and seeing if he could land some of the trout, perch, and bass that fill the waters here.
While he cast his reel, my wife Christina and our youngest son climbed the nearby observation tower to see what kind of wildlife was around. And what we saw took our breath away.
The wetlands that surrounded us were teeming with birds. They saw brilliant white swans and egrets, stern-looking bald eagles, and herons treading through the shallow waters. And while the tower they met two of the volunteers that were preparing it for the upcoming Festival of Hawks. This yearly migration sees countless raptors make their way through the Conservation area each year between September and early November. There are even events where raptor experts are on hand to demonstrate tagging and talk about the fascinating characteristics of the birds.
No visit to Holiday Beach is complete, however, without a stop at Ure’s Country Kitchen, which sits just outside the boundaries of the park. This local hotspot serves up home-cooked favourites along with one of the best ice cream selections in Essex County. But the real draw of Ure’s is the epic 18-hole mini-golf course that winds around impossibly blue waters with a fun and challenging selection of holes that make it a perfect escape for the whole family.
Point Pelee National Park is, without a doubt, the jewel of Southern Ontario. So, it’s no surprise that our next day was spent at Canada’s southernmost national park. When we first visited here 9-years before, the park captured our hearts with sprawling beaches, long, shady hiking and cycling trails, and magnificent wildlife encounters.
Our son may have just been a tot then, but the nature caught his attention too, and pretty soon he was collecting books with photos of all of the birds that he saw while were exploring the park.
So time and time again we returned to Point Pelee to take in the bird and Monarch butterfly migrations that take place each spring and fall. Whether we’re hiking along trails past historic homesteads or traipsing along driftwood-strewn beaches, it’s hard not to feel completely at peace in this incredible National Park.
Each year the park seems to offer something new and exciting to experience. A few years ago they unveiled an incredible nature-based playground at Northwest Beach. The park, complete with climbing walls, rope gyms, and other play structures, is an enjoyable stop for visiting families. This past year, a new observation tower overlooking the southernmost point on mainland Canada was opened. The long climb to the top offers some of the best views in Ontario.
But our favourite place in all of Point Pelee National Park is the Marsh Boardwalk. This floating boardwalk, that reaches deep into the Point Pelee Marsh, is one of the most peaceful places to take a stroll. Visit at dusk and you might find beavers munching on the thick lily pad roots.
For a truly special experience rent a canoe from the Marsh Boardwalk Store or connect with nearby Pelee Wings Nature Store for a kayak or stand-up paddleboard rental. Head out in the morning while the waters are at their calmest and paddle through the cranberry marshes to get a unique perspective on the park.
For a treat nearby, stop by Freddy’s Restaurant about 5-minutes from the park entrance. This family restaurant serves up some of the best Lake Erie perch around.
Plan Your Next Adventure In Ontario’s Southwest
As safe travel in the province continues to require countless safety measures to keep ourselves and those around us healthy, these outdoor experiences in Essex County still offer your family the chance to safely experience the wonders of Ontario’s Southwest.