To see an explanation of my ranking system, and definition of how I classify site types, go HERE
The main draw at Balsam Lake is the beach - it's a great beach, perfect for people with younger kids because you can walk out pretty far before it gets deep and it's nice and sandy, not rocky or mushy. The park does have two trails, Lookout Trail which is 2.6km and the Plantation Trail which is 4.2km. We did the Lookout Trail several years ago. It's a nice walk but the lookout isn't spectacular by any stretch of the imagination.
I've never been in the park gift shop, but they do have one. Chris has been in it, but only to pay for a bag of wood. When I asked him, he said there wasn't much there, a few t-shirts and the odd trinket. There is also a park store, which is actually outside the park boundaries but is very well stocked, considering Balsam isn't one of the big, famous parks. They have a good selection of candy, chips, camping gear, beach toys, clothes (including Balsam Lake Provincial Park souvenir shirts) and a few things for basic meals like spaghetti noodles, kraft dinner, Mr. Noodle cups etc.
If you go to Balsam Lake, you should first be aware that there are 7 campground sections plus the walk in sites. Not all of these sections are the same, in fact, there is a huge difference. We've stayed in four of the sections but have walked or biked through the rest.
Lakeshore Campground, which is divided further into north, south and central. South and Central are mostly electrical, and while they have a few of the nicest sites in the park, they also have some of the ones I'd never want to stay in. That being said, a lot of these sites are pull-through, perfect for larger trailers which is what you usually see here. But they aren't private. In essence, it's a field with a few scattered trees.
A few summers ago, we came here to camp for the first time, and since we didn't know much about the sites, the staff at the permit office issued us a permit for a site in Cedar Grove, but then circled a bunch of other sites that were available on our park map and sent us out to explore. She said if we saw another one we liked better we could come back and they'd change our permit information.
So we drove around, and a lot of the ones available were in the Lake Shore Central section. I gotta tell you, in the summer, when it's busy? The central rows of this area looked like a ghetto. The tents and trailers are so close, it can be hard to tell where one site starts and one ends. The clothes lines set up to dry beach gear flutter against neighbours trailers and kids run rampant all over the place.
There are a few exceptions though. In Lakeshore South, the sites along the far edge are a bit more private and become more like Woodland sites than Field sites. Especially #125. Also, if you head to the back, on the opposite side of the main road from the main grid, there are some nice sites down the arms shooting off. (Example, 110-114)
At Lakeshore Central, the best sites are the ones on the water - 502, 503, 505, 506, 508, 510, 512 and 513. These ones go fast and are usually booked well ahead of time (actually just checked and all these sites are fully booked all through the summer and most of September.) I'd rank these as woodland sites with a privacy rating of 2-3. But again, if you head to the ones north of the main road, 93-109, you'll get more privacy. (Keep in mind these are non-electrical sites and probably not suitable for a larger trailer.
|This is us set up at site 28. Nice and roomy and moderately private|
Hawthorn Valley Campground is actually pretty nice as well. These are non-electrical woodland sites and a brand new comfort station has just been built for this area. The sites are a bit more private, at least surrounded by trees rather than a sprawling field. The only issue you might have with them is that they are on the edge of the park and a cottage road runs along the other side of the fence, so you'll have a fair bit of traffic noise in the summer. On the plus side, you are close to the path to the park store, should you feel the need to make a candy run.
Maple Grove is a mix of electric and non-electric woodland sites mostly ranked 2-3 on the privacy scale. It's also one area that, even in July, was nearly empty, so if you're looking for a bit more quiet, you might want to consider staying in this section. The sites are well treed, but there are a few that are really small, so go online to the Ontario Parks Reservation site and check the dimensions in the pop up box for each site.
The first few times we camped at Balsam we stayed in the Cedar Grove Campground. These sites are also a mix of electric and non-electric. Our first time here we stayed on site 342, which is right beside the outhouse. Normally, I wouldn't have chosen a site next to a vault toilet, but at the time our kids were pretty young and my days at camp went like this...make the long walk to the comfort station with one, get back to camp, almost get to sit down and the other has to go...get back, and start the cycle all over again. Here, they were excited because we let them go by themselves. Also these vault toilets had sinks outside with running water, so we didn't have to go far to wash their hands after toasting marshmallows. (kids love them...yes, but OMG it can be a pain to scrub all the marshmallow from between their fingers so being able to wash their hands at a sink was a bonus.) We weren't so close that smell was a problem though, otherwise I wouldn't have been willing to stay at all.
I'm not sure if it was bad luck on our part, or if we happened to go when the same family was there both times, but in the two times we stayed at Cedar Grove, both on the same line of sites, we had kids riding their bikes past our site in a big group, because they'd built a ramp with some old patio stones right in front of the vault toilets. The second time we were there, after the park warden told them they had to stop, they decided to play a huge game of tag which involved running through anyone's campsite they wished. It was incredibly annoying to say the least. When you are camping, especially in an organized campground like this, you expect to have people close by. You expect to put up with some one a few sites over playing guitar and singing badly until eleven at night, and you expect to hear dogs barking, babies crying and someone banging around early in the morning, but you shouldn't have to worry about a dozen kids streaming through your site, screaming their heads off and jumping over your fire pit every two minutes. Also, we'd brought our dogs this time, and Dixie, who is afraid of our neighbours chihuahua, was snarling and baring her teeth. We hadn't taken them camping often, so she was completely bewildered as to why she was tied up and in a strange place. Having noisy, screaming kids running around her didn't help at all. I spent half the trip worrying some kid would get bit and we'd have to deal with court cases and someone telling us we have to put our dog down. I suppose we could have called the Warden to report it, and in retrospect, we probably should have. Dixie didn't bite anyone, but it was a close call sometimes. By the way, there is a $150.00 fine for rowdy behaviour that interferes with other people's camping experience, so considering how many kids were there, the park would have made a killing if they'd actually fined the families.
Anyway, that's a bit off the point. The sites in Cedar Grove aren't super private by any means, but they do have clear separation between them. I'd rank most of them a 3, some only a two. The electrical sites are woodland type. Some of the non-electrical sites are meadow sites, very little shade but there is some shrubs and stuff to give you privacy from your neighbours. Actually, the non-electric sites were mostly empty when we were there in July both times. We were there midweek so I can't say how full they would be on a weekend.
Poplar Plains sounds like it would be more of the open-field-with-a-few-poplar-trees type campground but in actual fact they are a mix of woodland campsites and meadow type. Though the sites are fairly nice, both times we've been to the park in summer, this section was almost deserted. If there's a reason for this, I don't know it. I will say, when we walked through it one morning, the mosquitoes were a bit bad, so maybe that has something to do with it.
I haven't been to the walk in sites, so I shouldn't really comment on them here. I'll try and take a walk through this small area next time I'm in the park.
Over all, Balsam is a nice place to go, especially in the off season. Our experiences camping there in May and June were really great. In the summer, probably because of it's close proximity to several towns and even a few cities, it can get really busy and noisy. In my experience (which isn't all that vast as of yet) the parks further south attract more party-type campers and less of those who want a quiet, peaceful wilderness getaway. It might also be that not many families want to endure longer car trips with their kids to get to a more northern camping destination when there's a perfectly good Provincial Park close at hand. Maybe its a combination of both. Either way, be prepared for a not-so-peaceful trip, For me, Balsam is a great place to go for a few nights, when you want to fit in a last minute trip, but I wouldn't consider it a place to go for a week long vacation. If I had a week, I'd definitely go further north where there are less crowds and more things to do than hang around at the beach.