Without a doubt, Presque Isle State Park in Erie is one of the most beautiful spots in Pennsylvania. And while it’s possible to see much of the park by exploring the beaches, trails, and roads throughout the park, there’s nothing quite like exploring the park from the water.
There are many ways to do this including bringing your own boat, renting a kayak, or even paying for a Presque Isle boat tour. However, few realize that there are also free boat tours of the park that are offered during the summer months.
Departing from a dock near Misery Bay, volunteers with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources run 50-minute long pontoon boat tours of the Presque Isle’s interior ponds. While it’s possible to take a kayak or another small boat into these hidden waterways, these pontoon boat tours are the only tour option for the area.
In 2021, from early July through mid-September, multiple tours each Saturday and Sunday offer visitors to chance to see this overlooked part of the park and learn more about the area’s history.
Full details of how to sign up can be found at the bottom of this article, but no advanced sign-ups are allowed. Instead, you must show up a few minutes before the tour’s scheduled departure and hope you can snag one of the 16 available seats on the pontoon boat.
When I visited, I was lucky to snag the very last seat on one of the departures. I was surprised that even on a weekday afternoon, the available spots had filled up quite quickly.
The pontoon boat used on the tours features 6 metal seats at the front of the boat that are designed for two people and four single seats in the back of the boat. If possible, snag one of the front seats because the four single seats in the back are behind the driver and near the engine. This extra noise made it quite difficult at times for me to hear the narration.
It’s also worth noting that there is no cover on the boat, so you’ll definitely want to wear some sunscreen as there won’t be any shade on the boat.
The boat tours start by heading out towards Misery Bay. Along the way, volunteer guides offer an introduction to the park and tell a bit about the area’s importance in the War of 1812. After briefly riding out onto Misery Bay, the boat turns around and heads back towards the dock.
Don’t worry, the tour isn’t over yet. The pontoon boat passes the dock and heads into the ponds hidden deep in Presque Isle State Park. While there are some trails that reach portions of this area of the park, they are often quite soggy (or completely covered in water), making a boat the best way to see these spots.
The interior of Presque Isle State Park is incredibly beautiful and quite different from what you’ll see if you just stick to the heavily trafficked roads and beaches.
In this peaceful area, you’ll see many species of birds, beaver lodges, and maybe even a few animals. Along the route, the volunteer guides indicate points of interest and offer some great information about the area and the wildlife that lives here.
Looking into the water, it’s quite clear, and you can often see deep into the pond below the boat.
Exactly how far the pontoon boat ventures depends somewhat on the water conditions, but it typically is able to go at least as far as Long Pond, roughly 0.5-0.75 miles from the dock.
While you can certainly get further back on a kayak, the pontoon boats allow you to explore this area without the expense or energy necessary to kayak back into these beautiful ponds.
Overall, I highly recommend the free pontoon boat tours at Presque Isle State Park. They offer a ton of great information and allow you to see a part of the park that is normally difficult to reach.
If you’re trying to decide between this or taking the nearby boat tour on the Lady Kate (which costs money), it can make a lot of sense to do both. Aside from the first few minutes of each tour covering Misery Bay, they take you to two completely different areas of the park and really compliment each other well to give you a great overview of Presque Isle’s most beautiful spots.
How to Take a Free Pontoon Boat Tour at Presque Isle State Park
Free pontoon boat tours at Presque Isle run daily in 2021 from early July through September 12 and are one of the many great boat tours in Erie, PA.
If you’ve taken this boat tour before, it’s worth reading the information here as it has changed from how it was done a few years ago. What’s listed here is correct for the summer of 2021.
In 2021, tours are offered on Saturdays and Sundays at 9 am and 10:30 am. In previous years, there was also a 90-minute tour at 7p on Wednesdays and Fridays which will hopefully return in the future. This later boat tour gives you the best chance to see wildlife according to the guides on my boat.
There is no advanced registration for the boat tours and they are offered on a first-come, first-served basis starting 15 minutes prior to the departure time (so 8:45a for the 9a tour).
The boat tours do fill up quickly, especially on weekends, so I highly recommend arriving at least 30 minutes prior to the tour time to increase your odds of securing a spot.
The sign-ups are done in a small building adjacent to the boat dock. It is tucked away by the Canoe and Kayak rental area adjacent to Misery Bay. It is marked on the park map as “Pontoon Boat Tours”.
For those that use them, the coordinates for the boat dock are 42.160467, -80.093666.
It’s worth noting that the free pontoon boat tours are run completely by volunteers, so there may be days where they simply aren’t running if volunteers aren’t available. Also, bad weather may prevent tours from leaving as well. You may want to call the park before leaving home if the boat tour is your sole reason for visiting.
More information about the Presque Isle Pontoon Boat Tours can be found on the park’s event’s calendar.