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A Challenging Hike On The Lake Superior Coastal Trail

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

The Lake Superior Coastal Trail 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’ve hiked a major section of the Lake Superior 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 I take back my eye rolling.

Exceptionally beautiful hiking on the Coastal Trail
Exceptionally beautiful hiking on the Coastal Trail
Get a detailed topo map before you go
Get a detailed topo map before you go

This post includes some affiliate links. If you make a purchase via one of these links, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. 

The Coastal Trail – starting at Orphan Lake Trailhead

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 hiked back to the Agawa Bay Visitor Centre, a distance of 33.5 kilometres on the Coastal Trail itself. Plus we hiked 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 heaved ourselves up 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  3 days of hiking on the exceptional Lake Superior Coastal Trail unfolded.

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 felt 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.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. You really had to concentrate on where to put your foot, almost every step of the way.

And then on our first night I was kept awake for hours listening to 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!

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail
All smiles at the Orphan Lake Trailhead
A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail
The Orphan Lake loop hike would also be very worthwhile
A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail
My pack didn’t seem heavy on the first day out
A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail
Some early colours looking out over Lake Superior
Lovely, easy beach walking on our first day out
Lovely, easy beach walking on our first day out
There were numerous occasions where you hiked right beside Lake Superior
One of the best sections of sandy beach walking we encountered
One of the best sections of sandy beach walking we encountered
A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail
We had to wade through water twice on the trail
Dramatic veining in the rocks
Dramatic veining in the rocks
 When the sun comes out the coastline looks almost like the Caribbean
When the sun comes out the coastline looks almost like the Caribbean
Our campsite was in the woods and protected from the winds on night one
Our campsite was in the woods and protected from the winds on night one

Day 2 – Robertson Cove to a campsite north of Sinclair Cove (Approx 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 this trail was going to kick my butt. Fortunately once we reached Katherine Cove (another place with road access) the hiking got easier.

In fairly short order we knocked off another three kilometres, putting us at Sand River. Here you actually have to walk along the highway for a short stretch so you can get cross the river.

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail
This is fun if you have good balance
We start the second day picking our way through this boulder field
We start the second day picking our way through this boulder field
Sometimes the undergrowth in the forest is so thick you can barely see the trail
Sometimes the undergrowth in the forest is so thick you can barely see the trail
Sections of easy flat walking on these rocks that you wish lasted forever
Then you get sections of easy flat walking on these rocks that you wish lasted forever
 Walking so close to Lake Superior could be extremely dangerous on stormy days
Walking so close to Lake Superior could be extremely dangerous on stormy days
Beach walking on route to Sand River
Beach walking on route to Sand River
This is something you don't get on the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa National Park - highway walking or road noise
This is something you don’t get on the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa National Park – highway walking or road noise
A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail
Watching a photographer at rock on the Sand River

Sand River to Barrett 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.

NOTE – 2020 update

A reader let me know that the highway is currently down to one lane at the Barrett River and no pedestrian traffic is allowed across the bridge. Someone else kindly suggested checking out Naturally Superior Adventures on Facebook as they have a video of the river crossing that will answer all questions.

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 full 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.

My
My least favourite type of terrain on the trail
I rather liked the hiking on
I rather liked the hiking on “dinosaur like eggs”
A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail
Big, medium and little boulders – a common sight along the trail
A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail
Last photo of the day as I am officially done – and ready to have a tent up and a hot meal

Day 3 – North of Sinclair Cove – Agawa Bay Visitor Centre (approx 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.

Pictographs at Sinclair Cove

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.

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail
Happy to be leaving our dark campsite
A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail
The scenery on the way to Sinclair Cove is very pretty, especially with islands off in the distance
A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail
It’s worth taking your time on the slippery sections of trail
A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail
On many occasions along the trail we came across large mossy outcroppings
A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail
One of the sights you see on the way to the pictographs
A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail
The pictographs are on the vertical wall. This is not a place you want to be in a storm!
A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail
Some of the pictographs that were easy to see without venturing out far on the rock
AYou encounter some of the most rugged section of the trail after the pictographs
You encounter some of the most rugged section of the trail after the pictographs
Another very steep section where your whole body is focused on getting down safely
Another very steep section where your whole body is focused on getting down safely
Enjoy a section of boardwalk after you've crossed the Agawa River
Enjoy a section of boardwalk after you’ve crossed the Agawa River
Sandy walking through open woods with lots of old bear scat around
Sandy walking through open woods with lots of old bear scat around
You know you're minutes away from the end when you see benches
You know you’re minutes away from the end when you see benches
A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail
Enjoying a “high” and a wonderful sense of accomplishment even after just three days on the trail

Synopsis of the Lake Superior Coastal Trail 

In hindsight I wish we’d had time to do the Gargantua to Orphan Lake section of the Coastal Trail. 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. Always let someone know your route and your planned finish date. 

Hiking in the fall is actually a fabulous time to do it. Even though the mornings start getting colder, you don’t get the bugs and the fall colours make an appearance around mid-September.

Check out Lake Superior Provincial Park website for more information and ideas of where to hike.

Shuttle service on the Lake Superior Trail

Figuring out the logistics on this trip can be a challenge. Lake Superior Adventures now offers a shuttle service which makes all the difference. Check out this page for drop-off locations and their pricing.

Some items I’d recommend you bring on this trip

You’ll be camping on this hike. Be sure to test out any new equipment beforehand and have a look at your old gear to make sure there aren’t any glaring problems.

Some of the things I’d recommend include the following:

  • Water treatment tablets like these ones as they’re fast and lightweight.
  • A lightweight camping pillow so you get a good night’s sleep.
  • Compression sacks for your bulky items are hugely helpful. I always use them for my sleeping bag now.
  • Compeed for blisters – way better for fast healing than anything else I’ve used.
  • If you have a gear failure on the trail, these gear patches can save the day.
  • The one piece of warm clothing that always comes with me that will last you a decade is the Patagonia down sweater. I personally like the one with the hood. They are ideal for cold nights in camp.

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 Day 2 on the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa. 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.

For great maps and detailed information I highly recommend that you visit the Voyageur Trail website.

Click on the photo below to bookmark to your Pinterest board.

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

Thank you to Ontario Parks for helping a great deal with this trip and to Ontario Travel for getting me there. 

Leigh McAdam

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 61,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

This Post Has 16 Comments
  1. Good for you and thanks for sharing your trek. You pushed through many kilometers in a short time. We have done the trail many times but take in much more slowly.

  2. Nice pictures. I would love to also see pictures of your campsites. I have learned a lot from seeing how others set up, as well as seeing their gear. On a 4-week kayak trip on the canals of England my son & I discovered dozens of ways to set up our tarp between the tents, so we could cook or just sit in our folding chairs when the weather did what it often does in England.

    Another hike suggestion. Twillingate NFLD. Phenomenal coastline. We circled both Islands, spending 2 gorgeous weeks. Icebergs, whales, cliffs, amazing beach campsites with epic campfires… And then there are the most incredibly friendly people in the world – really!

    1. @Geoff – great idea and heading to Patagonia so will take the campsite photo suggestion to heart. I’ve been to Twillingate but only had a day – and it was one of the most memorable ones. Thanks for the great comment.

  3. Great write up, thanks! I’m looking at doing the same trip in late July and wondering what sort of presence from biting insect I can expect. I’m a crazy magnet for them and I swell up like the Michelin man. I imagine along the shore would be ok but is much of the trail in the woods? Also, how present is the noise from the highway?

    1. @Christian I did the hike in late August so bugs weren’t an issue. But based on what I’ve seen a little further up the coast in Pukaskwa National Park, I would go prepared with a bug net and some sort of bug juice with DEET. We weren’t inland a lot but on the last day I do remember many kms of forest walking. I have heard light coloured clothing is better too.
      Highway noise was really never an issue except for those few minutes you have to walk the highway. I’ll be curious to hear if more people hike the trail this summer as they try and stay close to home.
      Have a great trip!

  4. Thanks for sharing your trip. Great photos! I am curious which rivers you used the highway to cross, and if it was necessary…? The highway is currently down to one lane at the Barrett River and no pedestrian traffic is allowed across the bridge. Did you use the highway there? I’ve heard that it may be possible to cross at the mouth by I haven’t seen any pictures of the Barrett River to confirm. Any info would be helpful… planning to do this next week.

    1. @Dave I would contact Lake Superior Provincial Park OR Ontario Parks directly for info. Thinking back to the river, I thought the mouth was too wide to wade. Then I went back to my map and enlarged it but don’t want to give bad info. I’ve gone through my photos but don’t see any walking on the highway. I know you’d like more than I can offer but my experience with Ontario Parks is that they are helpful.
      There is an excellent book too – the Voyageur Trail Guidebook which has very detailed maps.

    2. Me again Dave – found the section in a photo of the book – description says “It turns E down a razorback rock ridge and descends to the Barrett River Beach. Trail follows the beach for its length, 800m, turning E to the bridge over the Barrett River at Highway 17. Maybe you can hitchhike across the river – it would be a super short ride. Make up a sign beforehand???

  5. Hey Dave, check out Naturally Superior Adventures on Facebook. They’ve posted a video of the river crossing, and it should answer all of your questions.

  6. Thanks for sharing your experience! I was wondering what you opinion is on bringing a dog on the trail. We are hoping to hike the coastal trail with our lab but wonder if some of the sections might be too steep and rocky. Thanks!

  7. Wonderful post! Love your Alberta stuff as well. I’m wondering how this hike compares to some of the backcountry hikes in the Rockies, like Skyline or Tonquin.

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