The West Gate of the park is 43km from Huntsville, 170 from Barrie, 265 from Toronto. Near enough for a visit from most of those, though set aside as much of the day as you can – there’s a lot to see (and taking a break would be a good idea, too). From West to East gate is 56km, so you can traverse the park in a day, though with 15 marked trails before you get into the overnight hiking routes, you’ll not be stopping everywhere.
Stop at one of the gates and buy a permit (CAD 21, per car), then make sure you stick that on your dash at each stop (you might remove it in between if you have open windows – although there’s great tree cover, there was quite a breeze when I was there and I nearly lost it once).
The trails and campsites are well marked from the road, but a map is handy to know how far each one is. There are some long ones that need an overnight backpack trip, but some of the day ones really need a whole day for you to make the most of them. I headed East immediately, only just ignoring temptation, so as to start out there and work back to my start. I started with walk 11, Big Pines, which has some big trees. Really big trees.
The walks I covered, heading East to West. I started just after midday, finishing after 7pm:
- 11 Big Pines, 2.9km.
- 10 Lookout, 2.1km.
- 8 Two Rivers, 2.3km.
- 7 Bat Lake, 5.8km.
- 5 Track & Tower, 7.5km (there are two clearly marked shortcuts, cutting out the main lookout. The shortest (going from post 4 to 11) makes it 5km).
- 1 Whiskey Rapids, 2.1km.
Big Pines Trail is a 2.9km walk; relatively easy. The interpretive booklets for each trail are really good. Well-written, each one takes a different tack – talking you through the flora, or fauna, or human history. I learnt a lot without even really trying.
The Lookout Trail is just down the road, so very little time to rest in the drive, and is another straightforward walk. 2.1km with some ascent to get to the lookout. Great views guaranteed.
Two Rivers Trail is 2.3km, with a straightforward ascent up to another cliff, for more great views out over the wilderness.
After those shorter walks, it was time for a longer one. The walk to Bat Lake, with that lake near the end, is 5.8km. There’s a bit of a climb from 1km to 2.5 or so, then a drop before a pretty flat last 2.5 (after which I forgot I had ever climbed). The views are great, and there are likely to be fewer people on the longer routes – on this one, I barely saw another person on this cool, cloudy September Saturday.
Buoyed by this longer stroll, I drove back along the road a little, paused in the car for 5 minutes to give my legs a rest, and then headed out to cover the 7.5km of the Track and Tower trail. I found this fascinating, with the accompanying booklet (pick them up at the beginning of each trail) covering the human history of this part of Canada. Large parts of this trail lookout over, or walk along, the site of old railways, carrying people and logs in and out of the area. In places that is obvious, but in others, you’d have no idea, as the forest has well and truly taken back over.
You can take a shortcut on this trail, and cut it down to 5km. You’ll still get the track story, but miss out on the lookout point (a highlight of Algonquin) and the site of the old fire-lookout tower.
Fairly early in the walk, you come to views over Cache Lake, which is also overlooked by other trails; it’s a big lake of several parts.
Beyond the lake comes the shortcut turnoff, and, if you don’t take that, the climb up towards the lookout point and tower site.
The lookout point gives a fabulous view, described in the trail booklet as their favourite view out over the park. Although the fire lookout tower here was pretty much redundant – the areas it covered were viewable from elsewhere – it is well worth the climb to have a look.
The map makes it look like an out and back, but actually there’s a loop at the lookout point; just make sure you head right at info post 7 and it all becomes clear. The stairs up are also the stairs down.
After the excitement of the lookout, you head back down, along some narrow trails and then emerge onto a wide trail that is more obviously an old railway line. There are also trestles marking where a bridge once took the line across the water. If you have lots of time, or a bike, you can explore this old path much further along. If walking, just don’t miss the left turn which comes after a few hundred metres, marked by a couple of small signs.
The walk back to the car park is a long 2.5km, though you do get to look out over Grant Lake, which used to be known as Gem-of-the-Woods. It is a gem.
The back of the booklet lists other walks which have information available.
I was pretty tired after this 2 hour-plus walk, but still had over an hour of daylight and convinced myself one more walk was worthwhile. There is a 1km loop, but it is shut during peak weekends, and this one counted, so I was left with the Whisky Rapids Trail, 2.1km. There were lots of people milling about the car park when I arrived, but 30 minutes later as I finished, after 7pm, the car park was empty but for my tiny car.
I was enervated by this walk, helped by the start being a descent that I galloped down. Information points come thick and fast, with the booklet telling you all about the ecology of this area; it may look barren, but algae, slime and the like feed plenty of life, albeit life that is mostly too small to see. A squirrel ran across my path, surprised by one last human as the day quietened down, but that was it for life. Kingfishers are talked of as being an essential sight, but they were shy while I was there.
I headed off, making the most of the last of the daylight to get as much of my journey done. I wouldn’t recommend it, but I hadn’t eaten since 11am, and was pretty hungry, but not eating had allowed me to fit in a lot of walks. Having longer in or near the park would be far preferable, and allow slower progress and more contemplation on the walks. Without time for that, though, I had a fabulous day, filled with stories and sights.