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At the time of the first European contact in the 17th century the lake was called Ouentironk ("Beautiful Water") by the Wyandot (Huron) people.

It was also known as Lake Taronto until it was renamed by John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, in memory of his father, Captain John Simcoe, Royal Navy.

The narrows, known as "where trees stand in the water", an interpretation of the word 'Toronto', was an important fishing point for the First Nations peoples who lived in the area, and the Mohawk term toran-ten eventually gave its name to Toronto by way of the portage route running south from that point, the Toronto Carrying-Place Trail.

Regarding the translation of 'Toronto' as meaning "where trees stand in the water", this would have been the likely outcome of the Huron practice of driving stakes into the channel sediments to corral fish.

Before the completion of the Trent Severn Waterway, the water level on Lake Simcoe was quite low enabling residents to cross in wagons or walk in ankle deep water to the mainland.

However, when it was completed, the water table increased by several feet.

A 1675 map by Pierre Raffeix referred to the lake with the French term Lac Taronto The term Taranto refers to an Iroquoian expression meaning gateway or pass.

Taronto had originally referred to The Narrows, a channel of water through which Lake Simcoe discharges into Lake Couchiching.

Eastside Simcoe includes the towns of Beaverton, Brechin and Lagoon City.

Fresh-cut saplings placed in the water and sediments would have sprouted branches and leaves, persisting for some time, leading to a place "where trees stand in the water". From the east, the Talbot River, part of the Trent–Severn Waterway, is the most important river draining into Lake Simcoe, connecting the lake with the Kawartha lakes system and Lake Ontario.

From its connection to Lake Couchiching, the Severn River is the only drainage from the lake to Georgian Bay, part of Lake Huron (Simcoe itself is not one of the Great Lakes).

The lake is bordered by Simcoe County, Durham Region, and York Region.

The city of Barrie is located on Kempenfelt Bay, and Orillia is located at the entrance to Lake Couchiching.

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