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Hiking The Coastal Trail In Pukaskwa National Park

Hiking the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa National Park

The 60 kilometre Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa National Park is one tough trail. The trail weaves along the shore of Lake Superior, typically over a five day period. It’s worth every minute of agony to hike this trail – as the scenery is sublime, the campsites ridiculously gorgeous and the sense of accomplishment, huge.

It, I believe, is one of the very best long distance hikes in Canada. And although 60 kilometres may not sound like much – trust me, on the rocks of the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa, it is!

Lake Superior is your constant companion

The hike is often beside or in sight of Lake Superior – a lake that behaves like a teenager on hormones. One minute it’s glassy calm and the next it’s thrown a temper tantrum and kicked up waves that swallow ships.

It’s a lake you can’t help but respect – especially when you realize that it’s the largest lake in the world by surface area. It’s also bloody cold – averaging 4.4°C (40°F) at the surface.

Updated April 2020. 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. 

Three clean, organized backpacks at the start of the trip
Three clean, organized backpacks at the start of the trip

The end of the hike but I’m getting ahead of myself

By the end of the five day hike on the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa, my feet, shoulders, hips and even my arms were thanking me that it was over.

My friends and their dog started talking to me again. Actually by the end they were feeling pretty darned pleased with themselves – though that wasn’t always the case. But let me start at the beginning of the hike.

Getting to Pukaskwa National Park

Our trip begins the day before we start hiking. We drive seven hours to Pukaskwa National Park from Espanola – the town my friends live in six hours north of Toronto. You have to really want to go this park as it’s in the middle of nowhere.

The closest big city is Thunder Bay and it’s about 350 kilometres away. We arrive at the park by 3:30 PM – enough time to undergo the required backcountry orientation. (We’d made backcountry camping reservations months earlier.)

Then we stretch our legs and check out the Southern Headland Trail before heading to a B&B in Pic River – just five minutes outside the park. We had decided the day before that we wanted one last night of comfort though we could have camped in the park.

Lake Superior is covered in white caps
Lake Superior is covered in white caps
Waves are pounding the shores of the beach - and I'm thankful I'm not in a kayak
Waves are pounding the shores of the beach – and I’m thankful I’m not in a kayak

The boat ride to the start of the trail

The next morning I check in with Melissa of McCuaig Marine Services (807-229-0193). Her husband Keith shuttles hikers all summer and will be taking the three of us and a dog along with another group of six and their dog to the far end of the trail.

But Lake Superior isn’t behaving.

So we postpone our launch time to 9:30 AM. In my mind I’m happy we’re able to even get away but I’m not so happy about how little time we’ll have to hike on the first day. You’ll see what I mean later in the post.

It's not a good day on the water if you're prone to seasickness
It’s not a good day on the water with waves like this if you’re prone to seasickness

The boat ride is normally about two hours in length but today we take three hours. And they’re a tough three hours, especially early on in the trip when we’re rolling and pitching. The dogs aren’t too thrilled either.

"Keeper the dog is less than impressed with the boat ride"
Keeper the dog is less than impressed with the boat ride

At 1:15 PM we finally pull up to the beach, unload and watch the boat pull away with a group that’s just finished the trail.

The boat on the beach at North Swallow Harbour
The boat on the beach at North Swallow Harbour

We figure we’ll eat lunch around a fire with the other group from Caledon, Ontario before heading off. Interestingly and by sheer coincidence two of the other group are good friends of my sister-in-law. What a small world it is!

"Fantastic picnic lunch the other group is having"
Fantastic picnic lunch the Caledon Hills group is having – and yes we’re jealous
On the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa we say goodbye to the group from Caledon Hills
The group from Caledon Hills

Finally – hiking the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa National Park

We finally hit the trail at 1:30 PM …..and head towards the bear locker instead of Swallow River – another 15 minutes of lost time. It’s 2 PM by the time we’ve taken our shoes off, waded through the Swallow River and actually started on the right trail.

I'm the stooped one on the left starting the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa
I’m the stooped one on the left

White Spuce Harbour Campsite on the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa

Our goal for the first night is White Spruce Harbour – 10 kilometres away. There’s only one small problem. The trail is tougher than we figured and the rocks are sickeningly slick.

So our pace is slow – way too slow in my mind to get to our campsite. In fact by 5 PM we are just at the Hideaway Lake campsite – and it looks like slow going ahead.

On the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa it is slow going on slippery rocks
Slow going on slippery rocks
On the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa the inland scenery is beautiful
The inland scenery is beautiful
It's warm, humid & buggy - yes buggy in late September - on day one
It’s warm, humid & buggy – yes buggy in late September – on day one
On teh Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa it's slow going over slippery lichen covered rocks that were formerly on a lake bottom
Slow going over slippery lichen covered rocks that were formerly on a lake bottom
On the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa we spent a lot of time on our rears sliding down rocks on the first few days
We spent a lot of time on our rears sliding down rocks on the first few days
On the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa Keeper keeps a close eye on all of us -  on the first day
Keeper keeps a close eye on all of us –  on the first day
Some stiff climbing provides expansive views even under overcast skies
Some stiff climbing provides expansive views even under overcast skies
I've never seen moss blobs like this before
I’ve never seen moss blobs like this before
On the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa rainforest like growth on parts of the trail
Rainforest like growth on parts of the trail
On the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa there is lots of hiking along granite ridges
There is lots of hiking along granite ridges

Continuing on in the dark

After we pass the Hideaway Lake campsite – and the other group who has caught up to us – we are  left pondering if we’ll make it all the way to our intended goal. We as a group decide to continue.

The hours march on. I spend a lot of time looking at the map wondering where we might find some flat ground to pitch the tents. I spy a lake but when we reach it I’m disappointed. There’s no flat ground.

So we continue – with headlamps now – and ever more slowly. Stomachs rumble but we ignore them. When we reach the coast I can’t find the cairns in the dark and the rock is so slippery that I’m scared of falling and breaking something.

Jo says she can go no further which is fine by me. Somehow we find two sort of flatish sections of ground and pitch our tents in the dark.  We have a quick snack and fall into bed at 10 PM. Never have I been so happy to be in a tent.

As I lay in my tent waiting for sleep to overtake me I lay wondering what can possibly lie ahead after a start like this.

On the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa we try out guerrilla camping - the best we could do at 9:30 pm in the pitch dark
Guerrilla camping – the best we could do at 9:30 PM in the pitch dark
We stopped here when I couldn't make out the cairns in the dark - about a km from our intended campsite
We stopped here when I couldn’t make out the cairns in the dark – about a km from our intended campsite

I highly recommend purchasing the Adventure Map of Pukaskwa National Park before showing up in the park. It covers hiking and paddling routes.

Further reading on hiking in Pukaskwa National Park

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest board.

Hiking the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa National Park

 

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 26 Comments
  1. Welcome back, Leigh! This already looks like a great first day despite a late start and some of the surprises along the way. You’ve shown us another beautiful part of Canada. Those moss blobs are awesome! Looking forward to the rest of the photos and tales of adventure.

  2. My friend Moses Fisher and I hiked the entire length of this trail in 15hrs 1min 36secs. We did it packing as little as possible, however we’ve both taken the more leisurely place with full tripping packs and believe me… it is no less arduous. Hope your trip was enjoyable despite the rough start. Sept is a rough month to be doing that trip.

    1. @Loic I read about you in the pamphlet. I have done loads of backpacking this summer so feel in very good shape but my friends were new to backpacking so this trip was a hard one to start with. Despite our inauspicious start we finished when we planned to though the days were long. At least we always made it to a campsite after the first day.

  3. Hi Leigh, Your photos are beautiful! What a rough trip, so far! Even doggy lookks like he’s saying…”You really mean we’re doing this!” 🙂

    Good to see that you’ve made it back safe and sound!

    1. @Nancie I’d have to say that the trip really never got easier – but we did manage to camp at a real campsite every night – and those were gorgeous!! The dog thought we were off our rocker by day three.

  4. I love the Not Impressed dog. He just remains so steadfastly Not Impressed by what the humans have gotten him into.

    I’m lucky, the benefit to doing most of my outdoors adventures in the far north summer and early fall is that it’s hard to get yourself stranded in a true dark. The downside is that when it is dark, it’s very, very dark.

    1. @Jess The Not Impressed dog grew more and more unimpressed with each passing day. The day after we finished he slept the entire day. In the summer you’d have really long days for this hike – but then you’d probably have to wear a bug net.

  5. One of my first hikes as a kid with my parents in the Great Smoky Mountains we had a 13 mile first day hike up to the top of the Appalachian Ridge. About a mile into the hike the trail crossed a river. The bridge was out and the river was quite deep. It took us two hours to find a crossing as my dad went up and down the river looking for a safer crossing. We finally ended up crossing right there.

    This delay made us walk the final 2 miles in the pitch dark going up a mountain with lame flashlights. It sucked, so I can feel your pain here. It is a tough way to start of a hike.

    1. @Ted Backpacking in the dark is not an experience I want to repeat any time soon though if we hadn’t done it we most definitely would have had to spend an extra night on the trail – with reduced provisions.
      Your trip doesn’t sound like any fun – but at least it didn’t ruin your love of the outdoors.

  6. How well I remember that trail! We too started in the rain and were surprised at the difficulty. Aren’t you so glad to have done it though! Such an amazing, remote and gorgeous trail. I can’t wait to read the rest of your tale 🙂

    1. @Jenny We read a lot of your information on the parks website. I’m so glad we did it and I’d do it again in September when the bugs are at a minimum. I’ll take cold nights over bugs – plus the beaches were deserted. Just a gorgeous part of the world and kudos to you for getting your kids out there on the trail.

  7. hello: thanks for the great shots and stories. i know this trail very well, i worked at pukaskwa for 23 years and hiked the entire trail at least 5 times. 2 times on my own. it takes 4 days…that’s about 16km (10 miles) a day. 5 days would be more ideal.

    1. @Jan It was awful at first but then you put some distance from the trip and it feels pretty cool that we were able to backpack as far as we did in the dark. The trip ended up being fantastic with incredible scenery every day.

  8. Great trip blog! I am considering doing either this or the coastal trail in the Lake Superior Provincial Park. How do you feel the parks compare? I’ve yet to experience either.

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