“The Coastal Trail in Lake Superior Provincial Park is more difficult than the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa National Park” exclaims one of the staff working at the Lake Superior Provincial Park Visitor Centre. I roll my eyes – thinking “as if”. What does she really know?
Now that I have hiked a major section of the Coastal Trail over a three day period – and not the most difficult section which is the 20 kilometres from Gargantua to Orphan Lake – I concur with her assessment and take back my eye rolling.
In late August John and I were dropped off with loaded packs at the Orphan Lake Trailhead – one of the numerous entrance points to the Coastal Trail. Over three days we would hike back to the Agawa Bay Visitor Centre, a distance of 33.5 kilometres on the Coastal Trail itself and about another 4 kilometres on the Orphan Lake trail.
The Coastal Trail offered a lot of variety. We hopped over massive boulders, scrambled up and down slippery lichen covered rocks, enjoyed phenomenal sections of easy beach walking along with sections of flat rocks alongside Lake Superior; we took giant steps via small ledges in the rocks to get off the beach; we ducked our heads to get through cave like sections and at times I had to throw my pack up onto the rock so I wouldn’t lose my balance on an ambitious scramble. Fortunately at the end of every day there was the prospect of a campsite on the shores of Lake Superior – so a frigid wash-up to remove the day’s salt and sweat was always an option.
Here’s how the three days of hiking on the truly exceptional Coastal Trail unfolded – mainly by way of photos.
Day 1 – Orphan Lake Trailhead to Robertson Cove (approximately 11 kms, 4 hours)
At the end of the first day as we lounged on the beach at a truly fabulous campsite overlooking Robertson Cove I was feeling smug. In four hours we had knocked off 11 kilometres and quite frankly they didn’t seem very hard. We enjoyed the longest beach walk along with the highest climb on the entire trail – interspersed with some scrambling over bedrock and boulders. And the Orphan Lake section had delivered some beautiful views with quick hiking except on the descent. I figured if we really wanted to, we could knock the rest of the Coastal Trail off in one long day.
Was I ever wrong! Over the next couple of days the hike was both physically and mentally tiring as you really had to concentrate on where you put every foot, almost every step of the way. And on our first night I was kept awake for hours listening to four cells of rain beat our tent while lightening crackled overhead. That meant that the undergrowth the next day would be wet and soak us in short order. What fun!
Day 2 – Robertson Cove to a campsite north of Sinclair Cove (Approximately 16 kms and 7 – 7.5 hours of hiking)
After spending an inordinately long time picking my way through slippery massive boulders at the start of the day, I started to wonder if the trail was going to kick my butt. Fortunately once we reached Katherine Cove (another place with road access) the hiking got easier. And in fairly short order we had knocked off another three kilometres, putting us at the Sand River. Here you actually have to walk along the highway for a short stretch so you can get cross the river.
From Sand River to Barrett River – a distance of 5 kms, the hiking is a mix of everything you find on the trail – beach walking, boulder hopping and inland treks over large swaths of outcrop followed usually but steep descents. There are three campsites along the beach and in hindsight they are the best choices if you’re okay with a very long day on the last day.
The 5.5 km section from Barrett River to Sinclair Cove is marked by rugged terrain that is often spectacular but trickier and slower going to hike. There are lots of cobble beaches followed by jaunts inland; at the end of the day this feels like it’s being repeated ad nauseum.
Although there were some short sections of easy hiking, most of the day got our attention. By 5:15 PM when we stopped, I was bagged – and a little disappointed with our campsite. There was almost no level ground so a tree blocked part of the doorway to my side of the tent. As there had been little clearing done, the woods here were dark. However, there was a nice stream with a pool 50 metres away that beat jumping into the very wavy and frigid Lake Superior.
Day 3 – North of Sinclair Cove – Agawa Bay Visitor Centre (approximately 16 kms, 7 hours)
It wasn’t until we reached Sinclair Cove with its big sign that we realized that where we thought we had camped on the second night and the reality of where we camped were two different things. That was a little depressing as it meant at least a few more hours than we had figured on the trail.
It took us a solid hour to do just over a kilometre after leaving our campsite – an indication of just how rugged the terrain is. At Sinclair Cove you can take a worthwhile short detour to see the pictographs – which we did but we didn’t dare go out on the rock as our boots had no purchase whatsoever and people have drowned here.
After that detour the trail became incredibly interesting, weaving through massive boulders that had actually formed what looked like caves. While interesting it was very slow going. Steps up the rock were huge and on a couple of occasions the only way I could get up was without my pack. Once you get through this section, its generally easier hiking with plenty of lovely woods walking. You do have to cross the Agawa River – and again it is via the highway. Once you’re back on the trail in the woods, it’s flat and easy walking all the way through to the Visitor Centre.
Synopsis of the Coastal Trail
In hindsight I wish we’d had time to do the Gargantua to Orphan Lake section of the Coastal Trail as it’s supposed to be the prettiest part of the entire trail – even though I thought what we did and saw was fantastic. I HIGHLY recommend backpacking this trail but be prepared!
That means it shouldn’t be the first hike of the season, you should be in reasonable physical shape, pack for the wilderness (even though there are many places where you can bail), carry a good map and the other 10 essentials and let someone know your route and your planned arrival time.
You still have time to hike the trail this year. The mornings will start getting colder but it will be worth it to get the fall colours.
Further reading about the Coastal Trail
Check out my blogs on hiking the Coastal Trail in nearby (while sort of) Pukaskwa National Park to give you a feel of what can go wrong. You might especially like A Day From Hell on the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa National Park. In Lake Superior Provincial Park I also recommend the half day hike on the Nokomis Trail and the full day hike to see Agawa Falls.
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Thank you to Ontario Parks for helping a great deal with this trip and to Ontario Travel for getting me there. Check out the Lake Superior Provincial Park for more information and ideas of where to hike.