Day 5 Backpacking the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa

Beautiful mist rising off of Lake Superior
Beautiful mist rising off of Lake Superior

Day five was our last day of backpacking in Pukaskwa National Park on the Coastal Trail. For those of you who joined me at the beginning of the hike you might be wondering how we ever did it in five days considering the extremely slow and inauspicious start we had. Somehow we did – and this is how the last day unfolded.

It was even colder than normal, only 2°C according to my thermometer, on the last day of backpacking in Pukaskwa. I had a decidedly harder time than normal leaving the warmth of my tent. But I felt energized once I saw what a beautiful morning it was.

Backpacking in Pukaskwa on the Coastal Trail is worth it for view like this
Backpacking in Pukaskwa on the Coastal Trail is worth it for view like this 

Getting out of the tent at the end of a multi-day hike can be hard

My friend Ted got a fire going – as he did most days – and in no time we had water boiling and a hot cup of coffee in our hands. As a side note don’t forget the fire starter. 

Jo on the other hand seemed loathe to leave the tent and Keeper the dog wasn’t moving either. But they missed the first light and the mist rising over Lake Superior.

When we finally hit the trail it was about 9 AM and the sun had some warmth to it. It looked like it was going to be a great day.

Backpacking in Pukaskwa on the Coastal Trail and enjoying views of the Willow River
It’s equally beautiful over the Willow River

We had 16.4 km and about 8.5 hours of hiking ahead of us

We dispatched with the first 7.6 km to Hook Falls quickly – mainly because it was easier than expected. It was also very pretty. We passed small lakes, a waterfall and then hiked a series of ridges with views of the nearby hills. If we’d been a week later the colours would have been at their peak.

Backpacking in Pukaskwa and enjoying morning views like this
The morning offers views like this
Leaves are already starting to fall
Leaves are already starting to fall

Backpacking in Pukaskwa with a stop at Hook Falls on the White River

We arrived at Hook Falls on the White River for lunch – ahead of the suggested time for once. There are a few campsites here, and in fact our reservation had been for Hook Falls but I think the three of us were happy that we ended up at Willow River instead. Sometimes it pays to be slow.

I particularly enjoyed seeing the White River as my son had canoed it as a teenager. It’s a far more powerful river than I anticipated especially as it narrowed toward its’ end.

Backpacking in Pukaskwa on the Coastal Trail allows you to see Hook Falls on the White River
Hook Falls on the White River
A major set of rapids start here
A major set of rapids start here and a portage pullout
The White River has some incredible power
The White River has some incredible power

The hiking from Hook Falls all the way to the White River Suspension Bridge ended up being quite gnarly despite looking benign on the map.

Sometimes contour lines don’t tell much of the story. It involved a tremendous amount of up and down as well as some clambering over logs left from a period of flooding.

Looking down at the frothing White River from the bridge
Looking down at the frothing White River from the bridge
Pukaskwa National Park White River Suspension Bridge
Crossing the White River Suspension Bridge

White River Suspension Bridge to Playter Harbour

Once we made it over the suspension bridge the hiking got noticeably easier for several kilometres. It was almost like a walk in the park.

There was only one problem.

Jo’s knee started to let her know of its presence. She had pulled something on our first day when we were backpacking in the dark.

But it wasn’t until we were on the homeward stretch that it really started screaming at her. To her credit, Jo found some energy and resolve deep in her soul and kept moving forward. We checked out Playter Harbour as a possibility for the night but Jo was of one mind only and that was to keep going. And so we did.

The beach at Playter Harbour is also a campsite
The beach at Playter Harbour is also a campsite

Time for some easy boardwalk hiking

Once we had reached the extensive boardwalks through the swamp at the far end of Hattie’s Cove we knew we were home free. It was at most a couple of kilometres to the parking lot.

A treat to be hiking on something easy and flat
A treat to be hiking on something easy and flat
A long, easy section of hiking along boardwalk at the far end of Hattie Cove
A long, easy section of hiking along boardwalk at the far end of Hattie Cove

The end of the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa National Park

We arrived at the parking lot at 6:15 PM which I though was pretty darned good considering how Jo’s knee had slowed us down at the end of the day. The marching bands and flag wavers were nowhere to be seen. Instead it was an underwhelming finish. But my gosh it felt amazing to be done.

Despite the difficulty and hardships on this trail I wholeheartedly recommend it.

The final bit of boardwalk to the finish
The final bit of boardwalk to the finish

Dreaming of hot showers and a warm meal

But really our thoughts went like this – remove backpacks, get out of our boots and drive the two hours to Wawa for dinner. A warm meal and a comfortable seat in the car were very much on our minds. Interestingly only three cars were in the parking lot – ours and two from the group we had met on the boat on the first day.

It’s now been a few weeks since we’ve completed the hike. I had an email from Jo the other day – who is now on crutches and awaiting an MRI – saying this:

You know reliving the pics makes me want to do the trail again; is that a weird feeling? I don’t think it is. I would do this one again. The Coastal Trail is hard, gnarly, beautiful and desolate. If you ever get the chance – go!

For more information about the hike and for detailed maps (and to make backcountry reservations) visit the Pukaskwa National Park website.

Further reading about hiking in Pukaskwa National Park and in Ontario

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

Hiking the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa National Park - Day 5

  1. Hi Leigh,

    Great report. Thanks for sharing. My partner and I will be hiking the Coastal Trail in August (7 days/6 nights), and she will be carrying our 22 month old daughter. Do you have any warnings or suggestions about particularly challenging sections or terrain? We are especially wondering about the river crossings. We backpack with her frequently and hiked the Chilkoot with her last July but want to make sure we are prepared and don’t take any unnecessary risks. We have heard rainy weather can make the trail quite treacherous, so we are prepared to abandon hiking the entire trail and just set up camp in Hattie Cove if necessary.

    Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

    1. Hi Stephen, We never found river crossings to be an issue. The biggest, most treacherous part of the trail – if it rains – is walking on the rock. From something that looks completely easy, we found with our boots that it was massively slippery so we would literally get down on our butts time and time again. That could be hard with the weight of a 22 month old. There were also old beaches filled with odd sized rocks that even when dry were slow going to navigate.
      I have also hiked the Chilkoot and apart from the grunt up to the pass, and some muddy root filled sections, I didn’t find it that hard. The trail in Pukaskwa is definitely a notch harder.
      There is also a new backpacking trail in the park I haven’t done – a little easier I believe. It’s called Mdaabii Miikna
      or the ‘go to the shore trail’ and “delivers everything that Pukaskwa has to offer in a fraction of the time it takes to complete the Coastal Hiking Trail! This loop trail is accessed south of Playter Harbour and north of the White River Suspension Bridge via the Coastal Hiking Trail. It features serene boreal forest and the impressive Lake Superior coastline at Picture Rock Harbour.” More info is available on the Parks Canada website.

  2. Wow. Great blog and amazing pictures. I did the West Coast Trail in 2011 and wow does this look damn near identical. I love it. Looking forward to do this hike next summer. Thank you.

  3. Hi Leigh,

    My girlfriend and I are planning on doing this trip late August. Definitely looks beautiful. Anyway, I just wanted to ask you how difficult it was for the dog? We are hoping to bring our dog along but are uncertain about whether he could hack it. What was the most difficult terrain for the dog and how frequent did you come across it?


    1. @Charles After the first day the dog was completely pooped at the end of every other day and was in no rush to get out of the tent. But really he was fine – probably just a bit stiff. There was only one section on the 2nd or third day where we came through a cleft in the rocks to meet Lake Superior. It was wet and a bit tricky going so we lifted the dog to avoid any injuries. Places that were slippery for us were of no issue for the dog. It’s a glorious backpacking trip. Check closure dates this year as some work is being done in the park and if I remember correctly they are closing earlier than normal.

  4. Hi Leigh
    My husband and I are hoping to do the Coastal trail this fall. We have been in touch with the boat charter. My question: how did you coordinate taking the charter with another group? As we are only 2 we definitely don’t want to charter the boat for just us but also aren’t too excited about the prospect of carrying food for 10 days (+ 10 days worth of dog food!) to do the out and back without the boat shuttle….which leads me to another question-if we were to do 6 days on the trail as an out and back starting at Hattie’s cove and turning around at Fisherman’s Cove would we miss some of the best areas of the trail? (Hideaway lake, White Spruce Harbor).
    Thanks for your help!

    1. Hi Jenn,
      The fellow who runs the boat charter knows its expensive so he will make suggestions over the summer for other groups to hook up with you. Reinforce that. And yes you would miss some of the best area of the trail. Every day had its charms – and miseries – but they were all amazing days. I’d say bite the bullet save for the charter – how often will you ever get here? and do the whole trail. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed and carrying food for 5-6 days is way easier. Get a dog carrier so he/she can carry at least some of the kibble.

  5. Hey Leigh, just read this series. Awesome as always. Would you say this was more or less challenging than the Akshayuk pass? I did that last year (the whole 100Km) and wanted to get an idea… Thanks a bunch!

    1. @Mo I’d say slightly less challenging because you don’t need to carry as much food. But the actual walking was actually more challenging at times – especially when the lichen covered rocks were wet and everything was “slicker than snot”. I would call it one of the best backpacking trips in Canada – and once on the trail we say only one other person in 5 days. If you’re going earlier than September be very prepared for bad bugs.

  6. What a great trip report – detailed information and great photos. Can’t wait to make the hike Fall 2016. Thanks for the help! … Nick

  7. Hi Leigh, I’m planning on hiking the trail this year. Beyond trekking poles, are there any pieces of gear you wouldn’t do without or wished you’d had on the trail?

    1. @Kiirsten When it got wet I found the trail terribly slippery – even in good leather hikers. I was on my butt a lot because of that – on purpose. Wonder if lightweight Yactrax would help. Make sure the pack is rugged as you may be dragging it up rocks. My friends pack was returned to MEC after the 5 days as it fell apart. Bring bug dope. I think I was fine for everything else – but did find the first few days that I had a heavy load.

  8. Excellent photography! I enjoyed your well written description of the hike. Pukaskwa is a favourite repeat destination, and we have enjoyed the day hike to the White River suspension bridge. Your Coastal Trail description encourages us to consider a lengthier overnight hike, to the Willow River.

    1. @Don It’s a tremendous hike BUT do it in the fall when the bugs have mostly disappeared. I have heard horror stories about how bad the bugs can be. It’s one of my favourite backpacking trips in Canada.

  9. What a great series. The photos are amazing. Interesting that though Jo hurt her knee on the first day it waited until the last to act up. Glad she was able to hike out.

    1. @Billie In hindsight we realize that she was really lucky. She just happened to be on prednisone on the trip and that kept the inflammation down. Without that – and Tylenol and Advil, I’m not sure how the trip would have gone.

  10. They say misery loves company and sometimes misery just loves misery. It is funny after the hard trip how you and your group would love to go back. I feel the same way after every hike especially after a good meal, a soft bed, and some time from the experience.

    1. @Ted It’s amazing the perspective you get after a few days of recovery time. There is another coastal trail a few hours by car south of where we were which I’d like to do some day. It’s in Lake Superior Provincial Park.

  11. Sounds to me that you should all just be glad you finished!! I hope Jo’s knee is nothing serious.

  12. Leigh, Thanks for sharing your story on Pukaskwa park. We did the circle tour around Lake Superior in 2012 and 2013 and that park was one of our favorite stops on both trips. The short hikes close to the campground and the White river hike were some of the best we have done and we wouldn’t hesitate to do them again. The only problem is that there is too much of the world left to explore.
    Hope you have many more safe hikes!
    Doug and Jan from Wisconsin

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