Habitat Highlights

The variety of habitats in Pinery help make the park a unique place.  Protecting these habitats is just one example of how Ontario Parks help preserve Ontario’s ecological diversity through its provincial parks.


Pinery Sunbursts Forest Floor

A path through Piner Oak Savanna

A path through Pinery Oak Savanna

Oak Savanna – A Thumbnail Park History

The open canopy of Pinery’s Oak Savanna allows an abundance of light to reach the understory of the forest. This allows many beneficial shrubs and wildflowers to thrive beneath the towering oaks. Many of these understory species are hosts to pollinators that are essential to Pinery’s ecosystems. Watch our video about Milkweed and Monarchs to learn more.

In recent history, management and protection have been the dominant factors in the preservation of Pinery’s natural environment. This wasn’t always the case. Two major factors in Pinery’s history have been fortune and circumstance, which have helped Pinery escape development a number of times.

Early colonists avoided agricultural development along the current area of the Park because the sandy soil was poor farmland. Development of the town of Grand Bend was encouraged by the construction of a sawmill nearby. In 1929, American developer Frank Salter wanted to transform the area into a million-dollar resort, but could not get the financial support to complete the project.

The land for Pinery Provincial Park was purchased in 1957 and the Park was opened to the public in 1959 for recreation. The enormous popularity of Pinery attracted over 1.5 million visitors annually and placed pressure on the fragile environment.

Based on forestry practices of the early 1960s, almost 3 million black pine trees were planted in the Park. Park managers of the time unfortunately viewed the Oak Savanna ecosystem as degraded because of its open areas. These pines put pressure on the ecosystem. Forest fires within the park were also suppressed.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that it was realized how rare and fragile the Oak Savanna ecosystem was. This globally rare habitat is a transition zone between prairie grasslands and oak forests and is kept stable by periodic forest fires. Over 99.93% of the Oak Savanna in the world has been destroyed or altered. However, through deliberate management techniques such as prescribed burns and extensive pine cutting programs, Pinery has restored its Oak Savanna ecosystems. Pinery now protects almost 50% of the remaining Oak Savanna in the world!

Freshwater Coastal Dunes

Pinery owes its existence to the Freshwater Coastal Dunes along the shores of Lake Huron. Unfortunately, humans threaten this rare and fragile habitat. Watch this video about Freshwater Coastal Dunes to learn what you can do to protect this unique ecosystem!

The sand dunes in Pinery are exposed to extreme temperatures and harsh conditions. Summer temperatures can reach a staggering 70ºC in the day and drop to 15ºC at night. Most of the insects, moths, and mammals that live in the dunes become active when the temperatures drop at night. Watch our video about Bank Swallows to see how these aerial acrobats make their homes in the dunes.

The sand on Pinery’s beach comes from as far away as 80 kilometers, from the shores and bluffs north of Grand Bend. Prevailing northwest winds create waves that erode the bluffs and the sand moves south with the lake’s long shore currents. Kettle Point, a headland to the south of Pinery, blocks the sand from travelling further. The equivalent of 8000 dump-truck loads of sand arrives at Pinery’s beaches in this way every year.

After being washed onto the shore by waves, sand grains blow over the beach like snow over a field. Driftwood and other objects on the beach create small pockets of still air, where the sand grains settle. As the sand piles up, it forms an “embryo dune.” If vegetation begins growing in the sand at this stage, it provides a stable place for a larger dune to be built.

Only dune grasses are hardy enough to survive the shifting sands of a newly formed beach. These grasses are able to survive being buried by up to one metre of sand. Tough underground stems called rhizomes push their needle-like points through sand to reach the surface, where blowing sand actually stimulates growth. Though food and moisture are scarce, dune grasses thrive and stabilize the dunes, allowing other plants to become established.

Between the first and second dune ridges is Pinery’s desert. On a hot summer day, ground level temperatures can reach 70ºC (166ºF)! The parched sand offers little moisture or food for the plants that live here.

Bearberry: Thick, waxy leaves help Bearberry retain water. Since its leaves are evergreen, Bearberry does not need an abundance of nutrients to grow a new set of leaves every year.

Yellow Puccon: Yellow Puccoon protects its stem from the heat by growing hairs that hold onto a layer of cool air. Its tap root digs as much as two metres below the surface for water.

Wormwood: Wormwood is covered in light-coloured hairs that reflect the sun’s intense rays. It survives in poor soils by taking two full summers to store energy before it produces seeds.

Behind the first dune ridge lies the undulating edge of Pinery’s parabolic dunes. These dunes form when strong winds undercut the vegetation and “blow out” sections of the dune ridge. The U-shaped dunes funnel the wind and intensify the movement of drifting sand. Reaching heights of 20 to 30 metres, the parabolic dunes advance like an army and cover everything in their path.

Without their protective blanket of vegetation, sand dunes would soon be blown away in the wind. In the past, human activity has disrupted Pinery’s natural defenses. We now work to restore and preserve dunes many ways.

  • In the early 1970’s, lower limits were set for the number of visitors allowed to use the park at one time.
  • Nature reserves limit access to sensitive areas and minimize human interference with natural processes.
  • Boardwalks allow visitors to cross the dunes without trampling vegetation underfoot.
  • Playing and climbing on the dunes is no longer allowed.
  • Volunteer groups and park staff have planted over one million dune grasses since 1978.

Pinery has been protecting our Freshwater Coastal Dunes from erosion due to trampling by human feet. Watch our video on Rolling Boardwalks to see our latest efforts to protect the rare Freshwater Coastal Dunes.

Pinery trail and sign.

If you could use Rolling Boardwalks on your property or in your community, click here for building plans and step by step instructions.

Consult the pamphlets at the following links to learn more about Pinery’s beaches and dunes and about beaches and dunes in general.

During the summer months, visitors can join a Park Naturalist for an evening program or guided walk to learn more about the dunes. All of these programs are part of our Summer Discovery Program.

School and youth groups may wish to learn more about Pinery’s dunes by booking a program such as Sand Dune Succession. This, and other programs, can be booked through our Group Education Program.

Butterfly Milkweed on the dunes.

A View from the Cedar Trail Ext Boardwalk--Sarah Litterick 2022

Pinery River Mist

Pinery River Mist

Old Ausable Channel

The variety of habitats in Pinery help make the park a unique place.  The protection of these habitats is just one example of how Ontario Parks helps to preserve Ontario’s ecological diversity through its system of provincial parks. One of the unique habitats in Pinery is the Old Ausable River Channel.

The Old Ausable Channel possesses all of the qualities that once characterized the watersheds of Southwestern Ontario. Today, clean, clear water still flows through this channel.

Freshwater mussels are an indicator species that help us monitor the health of the ecosystem. The presence of mussels, some fish species, and aquatic insects help us to know that the Old Ausable Channel is mostly free of pollutants and other contaminants. To learn more, watch our video about Freshwater Mussels.

Visitors often wonder why it is called the “Old Ausable Channel” and if this rare ecosystem is manmade. The answer is no, but humans did shape the landscape around Pinery. The Old Ausable Channel is a time capsule of what this area use to look like before colonists altered the landscape. To learn more, watch our video A Snapshot of History.

A major influence on the water quality of the Old Ausable Channel was the development of agriculture outside of the park boundaries. In 1876, farmers drained the nearby Lakes Burwell and George to use the land for agriculture. This was accomplished by cutting a channel, just south of the current park, from the mouth of the Ausable River to another section of the river, through Lake Burwell. Sand deposited because of this first cut quickly destroyed the Port Franks harbour.

In 1892, a 400-yard trench was dug to link Grand Bend to Lake Huron. This second cut created the harbour in Grand Bend but reduced the amount of water that flowed through the park. This diverted flow protects the Old Ausable Channel by preventing agricultural run-off and pollutants from reaching the channel.

Visitors often wonder why it is called the “Old Ausable Channel” and if this rare ecosystem is manmade. The answer is no – but humans did have a hand in shaping the landscape around Pinery. The Old Ausable Channel is now a time capsule of what this area use to look like before settlers altered the landscape, to learn more, watch our video A Snapshot of History.

The second major influence on the water quality of the channel is the topography of Pinery. On the east side of the Park is a ridge of dunes. The ridge and its underlying bedrock keeps rain and ground water within the park. A parallel ridge of freshwater dunes next to Lake Huron directs water into the lake. The Old Ausable Channel’s location between these ridges helps to funnel rain and groundwater into the channel.

The third major influence on the quality of the Old Ausable Channel is its water source. Freshwater springs beneath the river provide a clean source of water. The two river cuts divert pollutants, the slope of the land stops pollutants from entering the Park, and the springs continually supply the river with clean water. The hydrology of the channel creates a unique aquatic ecosystem that boasts several rare fish species.

In addition to fish, the Old Ausable Channel is home to an abundance of turtles. When fishing in the channel, anglers must remember to catch-and-release only and ensure the safety of all animals in the channel, including our turtles. To learn more, view our video on Responsible Angling.

To explore the river, paddle a canoe along the water, hike the nearby trails (Riverside, Bittersweet, Hickory, and Heritage), or bike along the Bicycle Trail. More information about the channel can be found in the many trail guides available at the head of each trail and for download here.

During the summer, park visitors can join a Park Naturalist at an evening program, Ooze n’ Gooze, or a Canoe Hike as part of our Discovery Program.

School and youth groups may wish to learn more about the Old Ausable Channel by booking a program through our Group Education Program.