Backpacking Algonquin Provincial Park: Highland Backpacking Trail (And Some)

I moved to Canada.  Now I needed to backpack.  It’s been a number of years since I had to start from scratch to get to know an area.  After some internet and trail guide perusing, I seized on Algonquin Provincial Park as a great place to start.  Algonquin boasts three established backpacking trails with designated backcountry camping sites, all of which must be reserved in advance.  At three hours away from Ottawa by car (and about the same from Toronto, interestingly enough), it felt like the perfect place to start.  All I got in for my first weekend on the trail was a one-nighter but boy Algonquin Provincial Park did not disappoint.

Of the three backpacking trails, the Western Uplands Trail was a tad too long for a Saturday overnight at 60 miles and the Eastern Pines Backpacking Trail was quite short at 10 miles, so the Highland Backpacking Trail and its 22 miles seemed like the way to go.  But 22 miles, even for just one night, is not quite long enough.  I glanced at a couple maps and figured out a way to park at Cache Lake (more on that later), incorporate 5 miles of the Track and Tower Trail, and use a few miles of the Old Railway Bike Trail to connect the two.  The result was a circuit of approximately 30 miles, give or take, based on my Gaia trip planning.  With a few side trails and a short road walk on Route 60 to the parking lot, I ended up GPS-tracking 34 miles total.

I couldn’t depart Friday evening because of a quasi-work social commitment, so I leapt out of bed early and got on the road by 6:30 a.m. Saturday morning. It was new, scenic country for me to drive through, so I was looking forward to it for its own sake. The highlight of the journey out was not one but two stops for breakfast sandwiches at diners along the way. Downright hobbit of me. I also made sure to check out the Algonquin Provincial Park visitor’s center, which had a lovely park exhibition and a couple stuffed moose on display. Oh, I also pulled over on the highway to pose with a moose sign for old time’s sake. Much to my chagrin, those would be the only moose to make my acquaintance this weekend.

I hit the trail at 11:00 a.m. from Cache Lake. If you know the park, you might be wondering how and why I parked at Cache Lake. The answer revolves around the campsite reservation I ended up with. Not surprisingly, my late planning had me missing out on some of the primo backpacking sites. Not a problem, I thought, since there were a handful of canoe-designated sites available in roughly the same place (Harness Lake) . . . and I had a packraft! As such, the reservation mandated Cache Lake as my designated parking area for the trip. I had the packraft all set to go in the car but then thought better of carrying its extra bulk and weight if I didn’t need to. I figured I could bushwhack, if needed, to the canoe site on the lake.

Hitting the trail isn’t exactly right. The first mile was on a highway to get to the Track and Tower trailhead. I think Stockholm Syndrome has set in with me and backpacking along busy roads. I kind of like it. Don’t get me wrong, it sucks. Dodging cars, picking your way around debris and trash, and finding ways around and behind guard rails isn’t why I go to the woods. But there’s something charming in its lack of charm. And in no time I was on the trail for real. The first segment of the Track and Tower Trail introduced me to the new (to me) features of the woods up here. Lots of evergreen trees were mixed in with the deciduous mix of maple, beech, and oak. I love pine, spruce, and hemlock, so I welcomed them. The soil was lush and brown, and hilly and rocky in an odd way in comparison to the mid-Atlantic region. I wasn’t ever really going up or down for very long per se but I was rolling up and down riveted terrain all day long. Boulders and rock formations greeted me, reminding me of woods I grew up in back in Massachusetts. But the best feature was definitely the preponderance of lakes. After years in the aforementioned mid-Atlantic, I had grown unaccustomed to lakes and ponds in the backcountry. In Canada they’re the star of the show.

The Track and Tower Trail took me to a gorgeous lookout where an old tower used to stand (hence the name). I met a number of day hikers (lots, in fact) along the way, some of whom grumped at my hiking speed as I politely asked to pass. I didn’t stop and explain, but I had many miles to get done before nightfall and I started late! On the way down from the lookout, I met a friendly hiker who lived in Toronto but hails originally from Hyderabad. We chatted together for a couple miles about life and backpacking. I wanted to share email addresses to arrange a future trip together but didn’t get around to it before we went our separate ways. I need to get back in the habit of being on the hunt for like-minded outdoors people to meet up with up here in Canada.

My separate way had me veering off on the Old Railway Bike Trail to connect to the Highland Backpacking Trail. Though flat and graveled for bikes, the trail went through open lake and river land with expansive views that more than made up for the boring tread way. It was early for fall color but every once in a while a brilliant red sugar maple had already turned to offer a stark contrast with the green of the forest. I kept my pace up and hit the Highland Backpacking Trail proper at 1:30 p.m. From there, I first went east around Provoking Lake – and hiked up to another terrific overlook – and then back around in a counterclockwise direction to eventually hit my camping area for the night at Harness Lake. The miles were a bit longer than I had anticipated for some reason and ended up at about 18 total. As always, the late-afternoon stretch dragged on. At one point I felt I was caught in a time warp as I lumbered up and down small ridges, each of which had a nearly identical red maple nestled amongst evergreens at the top.

I reached Harness Lake around 6:00 p.m. and the sun was still shining brightly. I found my designated campsite without too much hassle or need to bushwhack and settled in for a brilliant evening in one of the best campsites I’ve slept in. I pulled out my little UL backpacking chair to enjoy the lake view. It doesn’t always make the gear list but for a solo journey like this, I knew I had a few hours in need of some extra comfort. I watched the sun set over the lake before lighting a small fire using just the fallen tree debris scattered around the site. I’ll admit to packing and consuming a tad more whiskey than I probably should have, because it was so perfect out there I realized it would have been better to take it all in and remembered with a sharp mind.

I was up and on the trail by 7:30 a.m. the next morning. I was emotionally prepared for a slightly longer trek out than initially thought but at 16 miles total and I was eager to both have a big day on the trail and also get home in time to have Sunday dinner with Cheryl. The weather was perfect throughout the weekend in a goldilocks not too hot, not too cold kind of way. There were remarkably few insects too, despite passing by scarily named Mosquito Creek and Fly Lake.

I finished up the Highland Backpacking Loop (minus the out and back stretch that connected to the backpacker parking lot) and backtracked along the Old Railway Bike Trail to pick up the second prong of the Track and Tower Trail to finish my journey. I marveled at the final lake of the weekend and returned to my car with a big smile. Canada is going to be a great backpacking refuge for the next few years, surprising no one.

Route Notes: Here’s my original Caltopo route plan. Not included on it: the out and back from Cache Lake along Rt. 60 to the Track and Tower Trail parking area AND the out and back to the Track and Tower Lookout in the lower SW of that trail. Also, a couple other side trails. All added up to 18 miles of walking (~29 km) on Saturday, moving from 1:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., and 16 miles (~26 km) of walking on Sunday, walking from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. I recommend this journey, though if you parked at Track and Tower you might have a better time skipping the car-dodging road walk.

UL Gear Notes: Though I have many UL shelters, tarps, and even some more traditional tents, I went with the incredible Durston Gear X-Mid 1. Lord, it’s a great shelter. I was also equipped with my beloved Zpacks Arc Blast 55 L and a combo of Western Mountaineering UltraLite sleeping bag and Thermarest Neoair X-therm to stay comfy. It was overkill for the lows but I succeeded in being comfy. And I had my chair. Judge all you want.

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