Autumn is said to be the best season to visit Canada’s Parks: no crowds, plenty of wildlife and lots of spectacular viewing points to witness the country’s vibrant fall colors. Algonquin Park in Ontario ticks all of these boxes – and sometimes an additional one: rain. Fortunately though, Canada’s nature is impeccably beautiful, even when wearing a sodden raincoat.
First, a few facts about Algonquin Park:
- It’s the first one of 110 parks in the province of Ontario to be named Provincial Park
- It’s in the top five of biggest parks in Ontario and definitely one of the more popular ones.
- It stretches out over 7,653 square kilometres (2,955 square miles) – about 1/4 of Belgium…
- It is about 300 km north of Toronto (our starting point), and about 300 km west of Ottawa (the next city on our travel route)
- A Day Permit (if you use the park facilities, not if you’re merely driving through) costs 16 CAD per vehicle
- The Visitor Centre is located near the East entrance.
The highway 60 – a scenic drive from West to East
The only tarmac road that runs through the park is the Highway 60, near the south end. The curvy road takes you from the West Gate to the East Gate (56 km) and covers only a minor fraction of the entire Algonquin Park, but it’s a starting point for dozens of walking trails and other activities. You can easily spend a week here, hiking, birdwatching, mountain biking, swimming, kayaking etc. There are kilometer markers at one-kilometer intervals so it’s very easy to locate all walks and facilities, especially if you’re only here for a day, like us… We made two major stops: at Arowhon Pines and Whitefish lake.
The remote hinterland: Arowhon Pines
At km 15 on the Highway 60, a dirt road leads to Arowhon Pines. I’m not sure why we chose to do this 15.4 kilometer drive. Perhaps because it looked very attractive on the map: an off the beaten dirt track that goes deep in the remote hinterland, running parallel to a big blue smudge on the map called Canoe Lake, so we thought we might catch a glimpse of it along the way. The road finishes with a big black dot, peacefully resting on the banks of another big blue smudge: Joe Lake. The black dot is Arowhon Pines, a waterfront resort that is well above our budget (200 euro per person per night), but exploring the premises doesn’t cost you anything.
I moose say…
As we’re hunting for a lunch spot back on the Highway 60, something completely different catches our eye: moose! Whenever you see a line of cars chaotically parked along both sides of the highway: hit the breaks and park there yourself, because it always means there is something to see. All camera’s were pointed at a mother and baby moose, grazing at a seemingly relaxed pace. A pretty sight but you don’t want to get too close though. Apparently a moose cow will do anything to protect her calf… Interesting fact: when a bear attacks you, you’re supposed to play dead. When a moose charges, it’s much safer to run away. The animal just wants to scare you off most of the time so if you run away, it won’t chase you very far. Here’s a good read on the subject: http://www.unbc.ca/safety/wildlife.html
The Centennial Ridges Walking Trail
Length: 11 km
Start: at km 37.6 of the Highway 60.
Difficulty: a very demanding 10.4 km loop trail with spectacular scenic lookouts along two high ridges.
Estimated walking time: 6 hours (it took us 4, the rain might have speeded things up for us)
The guide is always right
Fifteen walks have their starting point along the Highway 60. We pick the Centennial Ridges walk for two reasons: 1) the high chances of seeing wildlife according to the Park brochure and 2) the scenic lookouts. We’re especially keen on seeing the different colors of the maple leaves from high up…
On the parking area we put on our hiking shoes, two shirts and an extra sweater (it’s cold and windy!). Just as we’re about to start the walk, a group of tourists and a guide return from the same walk. The guide first takes a look at us, then at her watch and says: “Don’t you have raincoats? It will start raining heavily at 4 o’clock, you will be right in it.” This must be the first time that I hear someone predicting rain right to the hour. “And your outfits are too warm”, she continues. We hesitate to take action. “The trail goes up and down the whole time, you don’t want to be sweating too much in those conditions…” Intrigued by her 4pm rain forecast, we change gear. The sweater goes off, the raincoat goes on.
The walking trail immediately challenges our stiff and untrained muscles and as soon as we get to the first lookout, it becomes clear that we’re too early for the famous autumn leaf colors: a few treetops are colorful all right, but it’s not quite the spectacle we had hoped for. It will take another two weeks before the leaves start turning and by then we’re in Québec, 1.000 km further east… Minutes after that realization, it starts pouring rain. We look at the time and – for real – it’s 4pm. The guide had it exactly right! Our goal for the rest of the 11 km walk is to make sure our camera’s aren’t getting soaked. The slippery trail looks a lot less attractive in the rain, but the views are still magnificent.
A wild duck is still wildlife…
You should know that Algonquin is home to over 40 mammals, 30 kinds of reptiles and amphibians and more than 130 breeding birds. We were looking forward to seeing moose, raccoons, beavers and maybe even wolves and brown bears during the walk, but all we really saw during those 4 hours of hiking, was a duck. Sitting still. In the distance. So it might have been a dead duck. But, ironically enough, as soon as we hit the road again and return to the Highway 60, there they are: mother moose and her child. Right after we just walked 11 km deep into the forests of Algonquin to spot wildlife… We found out later on that we’re not the only ones with this experience. More wildlife is seen along Highway 60 than in all of the Park’s backcountry. And yes, especially moose (there are about 3.400 in the park) like to make an appearance right next to the highway. It has something to do with the high concentrations of salt that are present in the grounds and water pools along the road – leftovers from the winter highway maintenance. The salt attracts moose and the moose attract tourists. There’s even a name for the occasional rows of cars randomly parked on the side of the highway, sometimes blocking the rest of the traffic: a moose-jam!