Algonquin Park is not only Ontario’s first provincial park, it’s also the first park my Dad visited when he immigrated from Iran in 1976. He took us there at least once a year, and it’s by far my favourite place for multi-day canoe trips. While my reasons may be nostalgic, it seems I share this preference with Canadians far and wide: Algonquin has inspired a symphony, dozens of books, hundreds of scientific papers, artwork by Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, and draws visitors from across the country and around the world.
With over 1500km in canoe routes, Algonquin is especially known as an ideal destination for beginners and paddle jockeys who want to try their hands at multi-day paddling trips. Canoe camping in the Algonquin allows you to explore ponds, lakes and rivers unreachable by car or on foot, and to find remote spots among the park’s 1900 campsites. If a multi-day trip through the Algonquin’s paddle and portage routes appeals to you, here’s what you need to know before embarking.
The experience factor
Experience matters, but having extensive canoeing experience doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll want to opt for a longer, more advanced route. Your ability to navigate the ponds, lakes and rivers of Algonquin also depends on your current fitness level and the pace you want to take. Are you going with a group of similarly experienced paddlers? What are the ages of your travel companions? How much time do you have? How hard do you want to go? All this will impact your route choice.
A more leisurely trip could cover 5 to 15km a day, whereas trippers working at a more energetic pace could easily get through 20 to 30km – there’s no “right” way to do it. Look into paddling workshops at MEC, check out the Ontario Parks backcountry page, and get comfortable with day trips in a canoe before you embark on your first overnight.
If you’re new to canoe camping and wary about portages (when you carry your canoe and gear over land), look into some of the paddle-in campsites that don’t require portaging. There are a few on Canisby and quite a few from the Rock Lake access point. You’ll just be a paddle away from your vehicle, so these are great options for beginners or young families.
Algonquin Park is over 7000 square km, so unless you have months at your disposal, resign yourself to the fact you won’t cross every lake or see every impressive cliff face. (Not in one trip, at least.)
It’s also important to recognize that only Highway 60 goes directly through this massive park – and only through the southern part. Otherwise, you’re looking at up to a seven-hour drive around the park’s perimeter, so pick your access point wisely (you may want to pick the one closest to where you live).
When to go to Algonquin
Summer is obviously a popular time in Algonquin, and some weekends will have the popular routes booked up. If you can, consider a spring paddling trip around the first few weeks of May. According to the Algonquin backcountry rangers, it’s a magical window after the ice melts (but before bugs), is a quiet time for visitors, and can be some of one of best time to paddle in the backcountry.
Where to go in Algonquin
There are lots of expert Algonquin resources available to help you plan your trip. Here’s a rundown of some of the park’s best routes, including how much time and skill you’ll need to navigate them.
Smoke Lake to Ragged Lake
Access point #6
Average duration: 1 to 2 nights
This is one of the most recommended routes for beginners. You can grab a canoe from the Canoe Lake Portage Store, and put in at Smoke Lake, across the highway. Keep in mind that because this is one of the more popular places to embark on a paddling trip, the area is usually quite busy. If you want to avoid the crowds, you’re best to pick a different route, but if you’re just looking to get your paddles wet and test your mettle, this is a great place to do so. Many people complete this route in less than two days, but if you want to meander and relax a bit, give yourself more time.
Access point: #4
Duration: 3 to 4 nights
This loop offers stunning contrasts in scenery. Your flotilla can put in at Rain Lake, then meander through Islet, a smaller lake with weedy bays that’s freckled with little islands. This route ends up at McCraney Lake, which features sandy beaches and steep, terraced rock faces. Another reason to love this route: the solid portage over an old, unmaintained railway bed. If you’re looking to lose the crowds, here’s the place to do it. Thanks to the difficult portage, not many people want to make this trek, but the solitude and views make the journey worth it.
Access point: #11
Duration: 5 to 6 nights
Venture into the more remote Algonquin through Opeongo, the park’s largest lake. The eastern and northern shores of the lake are pebbled with red gravel and pines. To get to the more remote areas, you’ll have to paddle to the north arm of Opeongo, and unlike many other lakes off Highway 60, there are no cottages on Opeongo. At times, high winds can make it nearly impossible to get across by canoe, but the extra effort pays off. (If the conditions are terrible, you can hire a water taxi and put in at Proulx.) Once you’ve made it, be sure to take in the unbeatable views from the viewpoint next to the abandoned watch tower on Big Crow Lake.
Oxtongue River Route
Access point: Oxtongue Lake
Duration: 1 to 2 nights
Here’s a subdued and breathtaking route that’s ideal for people who want to get a glimpse of wildlife. Moose sightings are frequent, as well as deer, turtles, loon and even the occasional wolf and bear. The Oxtongue hugs the southwest boundary of the park, drifting off into Oxtongue River-Ragged Falls Provincial Park. This route offers a quiet trip through a canopied river that’s especially impressive when the leaves turn in the autumn. Bring your hiking boots and be sure to check out Ragged Falls. Fair warning: if you want to keep your trip easy, make sure you follow your map carefully to avoid paddling through nearby rapids.
Wendigo to Achray
Access point: #25
Duration: 6 to 7 nights
If you’re looking to take on a few, smaller rapids, then this is a great route. You may even get some whitewater in the Petawawa Rapids if you cozy up to the shore. Just be sure you have whitewater experience, or that someone in your party does. Shooting these rapids, though exciting, can get pretty intense, so be sure to play it safe and scout the area first.
Along this route, you’ll come across some of Algonquin’s hidden gems, like May and Greenleaf lakes, which are filled with beaver dams. There are some great spots for cliff jumping on these smaller lakes, but again, be sure to scout the area and look before you leap. Veteran canoers will appreciate the route’s epic portages. And by epic, I mean tough, but perfect for people who want a more physically challenging journey.
What to pack
The main things to remember when preparing for a multi-day canoeing trip is to bring quality waterproof gear and to pack light. After all, you’re probably going to be portaging, so only bring what you’re willing to carry. Make sure you have everything on the full checklist, especially these specifics for backcountry canoe tripping:
- A good, waterproof GPS
- A comfortable sleeping bag
- A light, inflatable sleeping pad
- Maps and relevant guidebooks
- Non-negotiable water safety gear
- Your canoe, of course (bring your own or grab one from any of the Algonquin outfitters).
Don’t forget your camping permit, which is required for any overnight stay, and be sure to check out this seriously sweet interactive map of Algonquin’s waterways. The creator of this has gone above and beyond, adding interesting and important details to the map to help you plan a more informed trip. Remember to follow the Leave No Trace principles as you escape into Algonquin’s lake and campsites so that others can enjoy Canada’s favourite paddling destination after you.
Photos: Shutterstock / Brian Lasenby, Shutterstock / Inga Locmele, Shutterstock / pavels, Shutterstock / CMT Photography, Shutterstock / Bob Hilscher