I just returned from my first backpacking trip – 3 days and 2 nights on the Western Uplands trail at Algonquin Park. The trail has three different length loops, ranging from 32 to 88 km. We did what’s known as “the first loop” – the 32 km option, with an extra 6k thrown in.
To get to Algonquin we took the Parkbus – a terrific initiative that takes city-goers in Toronto and Ottawa to several park locations, including Algonquin, Bruce Peninsula, Killarney, and the Georgian Islands. We caught the bus at 7:00 am right at a nearby subway station (York Mills) and after picking up some more passengers in the city we were off. The bus makes several different stops in Algonquin, for the Western Uplands trail you will need to get off at the West Gate stop. This is where you need to pick up your backcountry camping permits.
Earlier in the week I had phoned and asked if there was potable water at West Gate and the lady assured me that there was no problem with asking the staff in the office to fill up our water bottles and bladders. Wrong. The staff made a big deal about it but in the end my husband was able to talk them into helping us out. The sinks in the washroom are very shallow and you need to keep one hand pushing down on the faucet to get water so that would have been a nightmare if we had to use those.
We arrived at West Gate right on time at 11:00 am and after collecting our permits and filling up our water we were ready to hit the trail and leave West Gate at 12:00 pm.
The trail head is actually 3 km down the highway from West Gate, and so the beginning of your journey looks like this:
After not too long you finally arrive at the parking lot and trail head. There are outhouses here and water fountains, so we could have filled up our bottles here but ah well, live and learn.
The first leg of the trail is 4.4 km. It starts out easy enough, but soon you are going up and down a lot of hills. There are a lot of tree roots and rocks on the trail and it is somewhat slow-going. We made it to Maple Leaf lake for a little break around 3:30 pm. There were quite a few people set up at Maple Leaf already. This photo of the camp site where we took our break is pretty indicative of what you’ll find on this trail. Fire pits with a surrounding bench, a place to pitch your tent, and a bit removed from the site a privy toilet. All in all, much better amenities than what I was expecting!
We still had 6.6 km to go to where we were spending the first night – Maggie Lake. There was some more ups and downs and the trail was much of the same. Along the way you pass some neat rock formations like this:
The first site we passed at Maggie was empty but didn’t offer much in the way of a view so even though we were really tired at that point we pressed on. There are sites all around the lake (15, not including the 2 canoe-in sites in the middle of the lake). Luckily the second site right off of the main trail was really great (and empty!). It was secluded and we had a ton of privacy, plus the camp site was HUGE. We arrived at the site around 5:45 pm and we were pretty wiped out.
One note of caution – the chipmunks and mice are not afraid of humans AT ALL so be very judicious with your food and keeping your gear neatly stowed in your tent! The chipmunks weren’t too bad, but once the sun went down there was tons of tiny little mice all over the place! They will run right over your foot and try to get into everything!
Maggie Lake is stunning. It’s a dead lake, so if swimming is your thing it’s not for you, but it’s a fair size, has a rocky bottom, and has beautiful, clear water.
There were a ton of loons on the lake and it was amazing to hear their calls through the night. We also woke up at one point to hear a barred owl, which has such a unique call. No doubt he was after the hundreds of mice at our site!
The next morning we took it pretty slow and luxurious – we made some coffee, had a nice warm breakfast and took our time packing up camp. We set out on the trail at 10:00 am on the nose. We had a long second day planned with 16.6 km of hiking. We weren’t planning on the trail being quite so rugged from Norah Lake to right before Ramona Lake. There were quite a few of very steep, rugged hills. It was fun, but it was also slow-going. Originally we planned to stop at Eu Lake for a lunch break but we decided to push through and just eat snacks on the trail as we were running behind schedule. One word of warning – right after Oak Lake the trail takes a turn that’s not well marked and if you’re not careful you’ll end up going the wrong way down a portage (not that it happened to us or anything…*cough*).
We arrived at Ramona Lake around 3:00 pm or so and we took a little breather and filtered some more water. The trail had been pretty rough up to that point and we were exhausted, but we still had another 4.5 km to go until we arrived at our second camp site at Guskewau Lake. Luckily the trail gets a lot easier after Ramona. We made pretty good time and hit our site at Guskewau at 5:45 pm.
A lot of the sites at Gueskewau were already full but surprisingly the most secluded site (the most northern one) was free. It wasn’t as nice as our site at Maggie Lake, but it was still pretty good.
It’s hard to tell from this photo, but Guskewau is a more muddy lake with some marshland. The mosquitoes were quite a bit worse than at Maggie, but died down once we had a fire going.
Speaking of mosquitoes, they of course were awful this time of year. I may have looked like an idiot, but my bug jacket came in SO handy! Best $12.00 I have ever spent!
The next morning we didn’t have far to go, but we wanted to make sure we left extra time to make it back to West Gate to catch the Parkbus back to the city. We only had 3.9 km of trail which was fairly easy-going and downhill most of the way. Finally we arrived back at the parking lot and took a much needed break.
Unfortunately we still had to walk 3 km on the highway back to West Gate, which was the hardest 3 km of the entire trip! It was hot and sunny on the highway and it seemed to take forever. Once at the West Gate we cleaned up in the bathrooms (yay flush toilets!) and relaxed in the shade until the Parkbus came to take us back to the city. All was well on the journey until we were about 30 min. north of Barrie. We switched bus drivers and the new driver took us on a really weird “shortcut” that included driving around Barrie for 30 minutes, and then he decided to take a side road with a 50 km/h speed limit. How that’s quicker than going on the freeway I’m not sure. We ended up getting home 1 hour and 15 minutes late, but at least we were in an air conditioned bus with a cushy chair, so it could have been a lot worse.
All in all I would say our first backpacking trip was a success! I can’t wait until September when we have another trip planned for Bruce Peninsula. I can already see why this is such an addictive hobby!