was successfully added to your cart.

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

“The Coastal Trail in Lake Superior Provincial Park is more difficult than the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa National Park” exclaims one of the staff working at the Lake Superior Provincial Park Visitor Centre.

I roll my eyes – thinking “as if”. What does she really know?

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

Exceptionally beautiful hiking on the Coastal Trail

Now that I have hiked a major section of the Coastal Trail over a three day period – and not the most difficult section which is the 20 kilometres from Gargantua to Orphan Lake – I concur with her assessment and take back my eye rolling.

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

Get a detailed topo map before you go

In late August John and I were dropped off with loaded packs at the Orphan Lake Trailhead – one of the numerous entrance points to the Coastal Trail. Over three days we would hike back to the Agawa Bay Visitor Centre, a distance of 33.5 kilometres on the Coastal Trail itself and about another 4 kilometres on the Orphan Lake trail.

The Coastal Trail offered a lot of variety. We hopped over massive boulders, scrambled up and down slippery lichen covered rocks, enjoyed phenomenal sections of easy beach walking along with sections of flat rocks alongside Lake Superior; we took giant steps via small ledges in the rocks to get off the beach; we ducked our heads to get through cave like sections and at times I had to throw my pack up onto the rock so I wouldn’t lose my balance on an ambitious scramble. Fortunately at the end of every day there was the prospect of a campsite on the shores of Lake Superior – so a frigid wash-up to remove the day’s salt and sweat was always an option.

Here’s how the three days of hiking on the truly exceptional Coastal Trail unfolded – mainly by way of photos.

Day 1 – Orphan Lake Trailhead to Robertson Cove (approximately 11 kms, 4 hours)

At the end of the first day as we lounged on the beach at a truly fabulous campsite overlooking Robertson Cove I was feeling smug. In four hours we had knocked off 11 kilometres and quite frankly they didn’t seem very hard. We enjoyed the longest beach walk along with the highest climb on the entire trail – interspersed with some scrambling over bedrock and boulders. And the Orphan Lake section had delivered some beautiful views with quick hiking except on the descent. I figured if we really wanted to, we could knock the rest of the Coastal Trail off in one long day.

Was I ever wrong! Over the next couple of days the hike was both physically and mentally tiring as you really had to concentrate on where you put every foot, almost every step of the way. And on our first night I was kept awake for hours listening to four cells of rain beat our tent while lightening crackled overhead. That meant that the undergrowth the next day would be wet and soak us in short order. What fun!

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

All smiles at the Orphan Lake Trailhead

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

The Orphan Lake loop hike would also be very worthwhile

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

My pack didn’t seem heavy on the first day out

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

Some early colours looking out over Lake Superior

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

Lovely, easy beach walking on our first day out

There were numerous occasions where you hiked right beside Lake Superior

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

One of the best sections of sandy beach walking we encountered

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

The rock patterns and colours will blow you away on this hike

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

We had to wade through water twice on the trail

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

Dramatic veining in the rocks

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

When the sun comes out the coastline looks almost like the Caribbean

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

Our campsite was in the woods and protected from the winds on night one

Day 2 – Robertson Cove to a campsite north of Sinclair Cove (Approximately 16 kms and 7 – 7.5 hours of hiking)

After spending an inordinately long time picking my way through slippery massive boulders at the start of the day, I started to wonder if the trail was going to kick my butt. Fortunately once we reached Katherine Cove (another place with road access) the hiking got easier. And in fairly short order we had knocked off another three kilometres, putting us at the Sand River. Here you actually have to walk along the highway for a short stretch so you can get cross the river.

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

This is fun if you have good balance

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

We start the second day picking our way through this boulder field

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

Sometimes the undergrowth in the forest is so thick you can barely see the trail

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

Then you get sections of easy flat walking on these rocks that you wish lasted forever

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

Walking so close to Lake Superior could be extremely dangerous on stormy days

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

Beach walking on route to Sand River

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

This is something you don’t get on the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa National Park – highway walking or road noise

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

Watching a photographer at rock on the Sand River

From Sand River to Barrett River – a distance of 5 kms, the hiking is a mix of everything you find on the trail – beach walking, boulder hopping and inland treks over large swaths of outcrop followed usually but steep descents. There are three campsites along the beach and in hindsight they are the best choices if you’re okay with a very long day on the last day.

The 5.5 km section from Barrett River to Sinclair Cove is marked by rugged terrain that is often spectacular but trickier and slower going to hike. There are lots of cobble beaches followed by jaunts inland; at the end of the day this feels like it’s being repeated ad nauseum.

Although there were some short sections of easy hiking, most of the day got our attention. By 5:15 PM when we stopped, I was bagged – and a little disappointed with our campsite. There was almost no level ground so a tree blocked part of the doorway to my side of the tent. As there had been little clearing done, the woods here were dark. However, there was a nice stream with a pool 50 metres away that beat jumping into the very wavy and frigid Lake Superior.

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

My least favourite type of terrain on the trail

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

And then you come across fabulous outcrop like this

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

I rather liked the hiking on “dinosaur like eggs”

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

Big, medium and little boulders – a common sight along the trail

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

Last photo of the day as I am officially done – and ready to have a tent up and a hot meal

Day 3 – North of Sinclair Cove – Agawa Bay Visitor Centre (approximately 16 kms, 7 hours)

It wasn’t until we reached Sinclair Cove with its big sign that we realized that where we thought we had camped on the second night and the reality of where we camped were two different things. That was a little depressing as it meant at least a few more hours than we had figured on the trail.

It took us a solid hour to do just over a kilometre after leaving our campsite – an indication of just how rugged the terrain is. At Sinclair Cove you can take a worthwhile short detour to see the pictographs – which we did but we didn’t dare go out on the rock as our boots had no purchase whatsoever and people have drowned here.

After that detour the trail became incredibly interesting, weaving through massive boulders that had actually formed what looked like caves. While interesting it was very slow going. Steps up the rock were huge and on a couple of occasions the only way I could get up was without my pack. Once you get through this section, its generally easier hiking with plenty of lovely woods walking. You do have to cross the Agawa River – and again it is via the highway. Once you’re back on the trail in the woods, it’s flat and easy walking all the way through to the Visitor Centre.

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

Happy to be leaving our dark campsite

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

The scenery on the way to Sinclair Cove is very pretty, especially with islands off in the distance

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

It’s worth taking your time on the slippery sections of trail

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

On many occasions along the trail we came across large mossy outcroppings

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

One of the sights you see on the way to the pictographs

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

The pictographs are on the vertical wall. This is not a place you want to be in a storm!

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

Some of the pictographs that were easy to see without venturing out far on the rock

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

You encounter some of the most rugged section of the trail after the pictographs

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

And another very steep section where your whole body is focused on getting down safely

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

Enjoy a section of boardwalk after you’ve crossed the Agawa River

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

Sandy walking through open woods with lots of old bear scat around

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

You know you’re minutes away from the end when you see benches

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

Enjoying a “high” and a wonderful sense of accomplishment even after just three days on the trail

Synopsis of the Coastal Trail 

In hindsight I wish we’d had time to do the Gargantua to Orphan Lake section of the Coastal Trail as it’s supposed to be the prettiest part of the entire trail – even though I thought what we did and saw was fantastic. I HIGHLY recommend backpacking this trail but be prepared! That means it shouldn’t be the first hike of the season, you should be in reasonable physical shape, pack for the wilderness (even though there are many places where you can bail), carry a good map and the other 10 essentials and let someone know your route and your planned arrival time. In the near future there will be a blog covering off everything you need to know to hike the full trail including shuttles, fees, location of campsites and more.

You still have time to hike the trail this year. The mornings will start getting colder but it will be worth it to get the fall colours.

Further reading

Check out my blogs on hiking the Coastal Trail in nearby (while sort of) Pukaskwa National Park to give you a feel of what can go wrong. You might especially like A Day From Hell on the Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa National Park. In Lake Superior Provincial Park I also recommend the half day hike on the Nokomis Trail and the full day hike to see Agawa Falls.

Click on the photo below to bookmark to your Pinterest board.

A Challenging Hike on the Lake Superior Coastal Trail

Thank you to Ontario Parks for helping a great deal with this trip and to Ontario Travel for getting me there. Check out the Lake Superior Provincial Park for more information and ideas of where to hike.

Leigh McAdam

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta
HikeBikeTravel
Follow me on FacebookTwitterInstagram and Pinterest

Author Leigh

Avid world traveler. Craves adventure - & the odd wildly epic day. Gardener. Reader. Wine lover. Next big project - a book on 100 Canadian outdoor adventures.

More posts by Leigh

Join the discussion 2 Comments

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.