“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.
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Lake Superior Coastal Trail summary
Distance: 65 km (40.4 miles) one way but lots of options to shorten the hike.
Level of difficulty: Hard to challenging thanks to slippery rocks and boulders along with some steep climbs up big rocks. Think gnarly in places, especially with a backpack.
Access points: Multiple location along the length of the trail. The northern access point is via Gargantua Road and the southern one comes out near the Agawa Bay Visitor Centre.
Backcountry permits: Reservations are required for backcountry camping. You can also call 1-888-668-7275. There is a self registration kiosk at Gargantua Harbour in the north.
Time needed: 5 – 6 days for the full Lake Superior Coastal trail but there are lots of options to shorten the hike.
Best time to hike: Late August into early September is ideal. The bugs have dropped off and the temperatures are usually ideal for hiking.
Before you start the hike: Go to the Visitor Centre to get the latest on trail conditions (or closures) and to print your permits.
Guided hikes: None as of 2023. If you’re planning to backpack you should have lots of backcountry experience as the Lake Superior Coastal trail is no place for the novice.
Storing food: There are now food lockers and bear boxes along the trail – but please practice Leave No Trace principles and pack everything out you pack in.
Cell phones: Occasionally there is cell reception along the Lake Superior Coastal Trail – eg. at the Coldwater Campsite. Try periodically at high points or when you’re near the highway.
Gargantua Bay to the Orphan Lake trail
The 18.5 km section of the Lake Superior Coastal trail from Gargantua Bay to the Orphan Lake trailhead is the toughest and not one I have done. My experience starts at the Orphan Bay trailhead.
If you are planning to start at Gargantua Bay (accessed via a 14 km dirt road off the highway that will take you 45 minutes to drive), you should know that there are rocky demanding sections and challenging conditions, especially when the rocks are wet – though that’s true of all the rocky sections on the trail.
Unfortunately the Lake Superior Coastal Trail officially starts 8 km north of where the access road comes in at Gargantua Bay. If you don’t care about doing the full end to end hike, you can give it a pass but purists will have a hard time with that. If you hike the 8 km one way you’re rewarded with excellent views from the Devil’s Chair and a lovely campsite at Warp Bay.
There are campsites over the first easy kilometre starting in Gargantua Harbour and then the steep climbing begins. Try to enjoy the mix of forest and coastal walking as you approach Rhyolite Cove – and a campsite after 5.7 km of hiking. If you got a late start, this is a good place to spend the night.
There is another campsite, Mermaid Lagoon, after a further 1.7 km, 7.4 km from the trailhead. The Buckshot Creek Campsite is next at 10.6 km. It’s tough hiking with lots of elevation gain on and off to reach the Beatty Cove campsite at the 14.4 km point. There are also campsites at Baldhead North, not too far from where the Orphan Lake trail intersects the Coastal Trail.
Sometimes on the Gargantua Bay to Orphan Lake section you won’t be hiking faster than just over a kilometre and hour, so plan accordingly.
Our Lake Superior Coastal Trail experience 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 Lake Superior Coastal trail.
Over three days we hiked back to the Agawa Bay Visitor Centre, a distance of approximately 33.5 km on the Coastal Trail plus we hiked 4 km on the Orphan Lake trail to reach the Coastal Trail
The Lake Superior 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. (Don’t forget a bathing suit in case other people are around.)
Here’s how our 3 days on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail unfolded.
Day 1 – Orphan Lake Trailhead to Robertson Cove (about 11 km in 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 km 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!
Day 2 – Robertson Cove to a campsite north of Sinclair Cove (Approximately 16 km 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 3 km, putting us at Sand River. Here you actually have to walk along the highway for a short stretch so you can get across the river.
Sand River to Barrett River hike
From Sand River to Barrett River – a distance of 5 km, the hiking is a mix of everything you find on the Lake Superior Coastal 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 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 m away that beat jumping into the very wavy and frigid Lake Superior.
Day 3 – North of Sinclair Cove – Agawa Bay Visitor Centre (about 16 km, 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 Lake Superior Coastal 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 Agawa Bay Visitor Centre.
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.