For Ontario backpackers interested in a 50 mile (80 kilometer) trail, Algonquin Provincial Park’s Western Uplands Backpacking Trail is one of the few backcountry options available. I hiked it in two nights and two days October 22-24 with rough splits of 5 miles (8 km) on Friday afternoon, 26 miles (42 km) on Saturday, and 19 miles (30 km) on Sunday. In short: the lakeside campsites were amazing (as well as numerous) and the remote wilderness feel of the well-blazed footpath exemplary; actual trail conditions on the ground, however, were extremely wet and muddy — including a few challenging stream crossings. All of the available signage and official descriptions of the trail kept referring to it as “rugged” so I guess that’s what was meant.
The Western Uplands Backpacking Trail is configured with three loops and numerous trail options, including an out and back segment for those starting from the Rain Lake area. With these various routes at play, I wasn’t surprised to see a fair number of backpackers on the trail with me in late October, even with most of the bright foliage on the ground and freezing rain in the forecast. I opted for the longest of the three loop options (minus the out and back because I was starting from the south at Route 60). When initially selecting my campsites through the park’s mandatory online registration system, I realized that 50 miles was a tad too long for me to undertake as weekend outing with a four hour drive on either end without slipping off a little early from work on Friday. I chose a site near Ramona Lake for Friday evening, and a spot on Pincher Lake for Saturday, which guaranteed my long splits from the start. Without having the ability to shorten my trip thanks to the campsite reservations, I knew I was locked in for a couple long days on the trail. Bring it on, I whispered to myself, as I hit confirm for the reservation. I needed a big trail weekend.
As it grew closer to my weekend, I watched as the weather forecast worsened. Snow and freezing rain seemed likely. Undeterred, I simply made sure I had my four season winter gear with me. Well, at least that was my plan. It would be great to test out my winter tent and get my down camp layers ready to go. I usually have rain-worthy layers and a trusty UL umbrella as part of my normal gear, so I wasn’t too concerned about moving in the wet and cold conditions. But it’s staying safe and warm at camp that is the real trick with bad weather. Heck, I even made sure to get snow tires on my vehicle for the winter in time for the trip, just in case the driving was difficult.
On my appointed Friday, I slipped out of work at noon for the drive along very scenic Ontario highways and byways. Four hours later, I was driving through snow flurries in Algonquin Provincial Park and at my designated trail head. By 4:15 p.m. I was on the trail proper, enjoying my first taste of mud. These Friday trail evenings never get old: the real world of work and everything else fades away, literally, with the setting sun. There was only one little catch as I smiled to myself marching through the woods. About three miles in it suddenly came to mind that I forgot my sleeping pad. Mind you, I’ve been backpacking for 15 years and have never forgotten a pad before. Not once. And here I was solo in Canada with the chance of rain and snow. But, well, I was super prepared with a zero degree sleeping bag and other down layers that were far warmer than necessary for my actual conditions. I figured all would be well.
By nightfall I was pulling into my campsite at Ramona Lake and feeling like the woods were all mine for the weekend. Snow flurries continued to swirl sporadically but not with enough precipitation to actually stick. I heard a loud crack in the woods and paused, knowing immediately that it would take a rather large animal to make that kind of sound. When I turned my headlamp off and paused to take in the woods and listen to my surroundings, I eventually saw the telltale dot of light through the woods indicating another campsite. I assumed the crack was a human or two foraging for firewood. I myself opted for no fire. I was tired and happy to settle in after dinner into my robust full-service tent — a rarity for this UL backpacker accustomed to tarps and single wall, trekking pole-hoisted shelters. As I figured out backpacking in Ontario, my wife would be more comfortable knowing that my solo Canada adventures would involve me overnighting in a tent designed to handle serious wind and snow. I debated whether or not I would tell her about my sleeping pad oversight.
I was up dark and early on Saturday to start my day on the trail. It was chilly but no rain was falling yet. The night was surprisingly fine, despite the pad. I hit the trail but stopped to watch as the sun slowly rose to take in dawn across the lake and trail. I noted this on my first backpacking trip report in Ontario, but the lakes truly are the star of the show up here. They provide expansive views equal to many a mountain summit. The first backpackers I met on the trail were a pair of young guys waking up next to a lake and marveling at the mist drifting along its mystic surface. They wondered if people back home would even believe this. I smiled at their joy.
I needed to keep my pace up to complete 26 miles by evening but made sure to stop for breaks here and there to take it all in. In addition to the views and late autumn forest beauty, I encountered a couple challenges that brought the trail some fun texture: high-water levels, assisted by beaver dams, and lots and lots of mud.
Let’s start with the mud. As I encountered backpackers over my weekend, I would often smile and blurt out a “Hey, enjoying the mud?” greeting. It was a constant. At first I picked and danced my way over rocks and wood to keep from sinking in, but by the end of the outing I was often just walking straight through the middle of the trail up to my shins in mud. If this is the type of thing that would put a damper on your hiking weekend, I could understand. But it really is just mud. One of the keys to enjoying this for me was having a change of warm layers — including down booties designed to walk around camp in — to switch to at night. Then it’s just a matter of a little grimace to put the muddy set of gear back on in the morning. I also found that even when it was getting chilly with my wet feet, keeping my whole body warm and layered, as well as keeping up a brisk moving pace, kept things from actually feeling too cold. I have no idea what this trail is like in less wet seasons but I have a sneaking suspicion it’s muddy most of the year.
Beavers. I never saw one of them in the flesh on this trip actually but oh boy did I see evidence of their handiwork. Almost every stream had some evidence of their activity; many bodies of water had extravagant dams rerouting water and creating new ponds, marshes, and streams as a result. For me as backpacker this resulted in, yes, pretty beaver dam viewing. It also resulted in some higher water crossings than planned for on the trail. I also had to literally walk across two dams, which is not the most stable bridge substitute. I survived and it was fun. But I would certainly caution another backpacker to be prepared for such trail challenges.
I lucked out Saturday and avoided all precipitation. I even hit my designated campsite at 26 miles before the light began to fade, giving me time to set my tent up, collect a little bit of fallen debris for a small fire later, and enjoy the tranquility of my lakeside campsite.
With my little fire crackling, I took in a startling view of bright stars and the band of the Milky Way once the sun had completely set. On a whim, I even pulled my phone out and played Don McLean’s “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” as I stared upwards and lost myself in the cosmos and music. To remind me of how fleeting these moments can be, I went to my tent for another layer and when I came out watched as fast moving clouds gobbled the stars up one by one as they moved across the heavens. Least my fire was still going. I sipped my whiskey.
On Sunday, I was up early again and experienced a spectacular dawn of purple hues across Pincher Lake. I had 19 miles to get to my car, and a four hour drive home as a reward. I intended to enjoy my hike, sure, but I can’t lie that my destination was far more present in my mind than on my rambling Saturday. I did end up getting some light rain for part of the day. I was almost thankful for it because it meant I brought the right stuff and actually got to use it.
There are so many fantastic lakes with perfect campsites on this trail that I felt like a prospective homebuyer checking out open houses each time I stopped to get a sense of a site and its views. It’s a blessed park in this regard and I can certainly imagine coming back to do a shorter loop configuration just to take in a night in one of these gems. Even deep into the day on Sunday, however, I felt I kept running into campsites still in the process of enjoying the morning or packing up. It’s a popular spot, no doubt, and the campsites closest to the trail head were certainly the busiest. This trail is for everyone — from the 50 milers like me to the go-heavy weekend warriors.
I was pleasantly surprised not to have been bothered much by the absence of a sleeping pad. This would/could have been more dangerous in lower temperatures or if I hadn’t brought ample sleeping insulation. For me, the campsites weren’t too rocky to necessitate the cushion of a pad and it was a blip rather than a threat. That being said, I won’t make this mistake again. Least not for another 15 years. I was not pleasantly, surprised, however, to get back to my car and realize my handy-dandy UL umbrella had disappeared from the straps on my pack. I’m guessing I lost it during my final scramble over stream-side boulders to get around a beaver dam . . .