Of the six national parks that call Ontario home, Pukaskwa National Park feels the most remote. Located on the shores of Lake Superior and surrounded by thousands of square kilometres of forest, it truly feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere. This guide to Pukaskwa National Park explores everything you need to know about hiking, camping and enjoying this stunning park (and even how to get to the famous White River Suspension Bridge). With ample hiking opportunities and gorgeous landscapes, you won’t want to miss this spectacular park.
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When we first rolled into Pukaskwa National Park, the park was covered in a thick blanket of fog. The tips of the trees were obscured from our view, and sounds were muffled, nearly silent. Unlike the US-portion of the Lake Superior, the northern shore is rugged and remote. Pukaskwa National Park, which makes up about 1,900 sq. km. of forest and coastline, is the perfect example of the beauty of Lake Superior.
Pukaskwa National Park has some of the best hiking and camping in the province. You can also swim (if you’re brave enough), try your hand at backcountry camping, and find the best vistas overlooking Lake Superior.
About Pukaskwa National Park
Located along the shores of Lake Superior, near Marathon, Pukaskwa (Pronounced PUCK-a-saw) National Park has some of the most beautiful and dramatic landscapes of Northern Ontario. It is the largest of the six national parks in Ontario, and it’s also the least accessible.
It’s nearly 12 hours of driving from Toronto, almost four hours from Thunder Bay and five hours from Sault. Ste. Marie. The nearest town of Marathon is the only place you’ll find a motel, which means you’ll want to visit Pukaskwa National Park for a multi-day camping trip to get the most out of it.
It also feels quite remote. Most of the time, you’ll hear nothing but the crash of waves against the shore, the loon calls on the water and the rustle of leaves in the wind. It feels like paradise.
Pukaskwa National Park is home to the Anishinaabe culture and adjacent to Biigtigong Nishnaabeg (Pic River) First Nation. The Indigenous culture has been woven into the fabric of Pukaskwa National Park, evidenced through the Visitor Centre exhibits, Anishinaabe camp, informative signs and more.
Parks Canada and local First Nations groups have partnered to bring visitors together to experience the beauty of this mystical place. At this park, you’ll see gorgeous landscapes of pines, find the smooth granite of the Canadian Shield, rest on the soft sandy beaches, listen to the call of the loons, and maybe even see a bear or moose that call this park home.
There’s honestly so much to do in Pukaskwa, hiking, camping, backpacking, swimming, exploring, wildlife viewing, and so much more. The best part of this park is that you could stay here forever and only see a sliver of it.
How to get to Pukaskwa National Park
There’s really only one way to get to Pukaskwa National Park, and that’s by car. You can take The Trans-Canada Highway all the way to Highway 627. Once you turn there, you’ll pass through Heron Bay and Ojibways of Pic River First Nation, cross the bridge, and you’ll be in Pukaskwa National Park.
What you need to know about Pukaskwa National Park camping reservations
There’s nothing quite like camping at Pukaskwa National Park. It just feels so remote and silent; it was probably my favourite place to camp when I went on my Lake Superior road trip. But it also made me the most nervous.
Why, you ask?
Well, Pukaskwa National Park is a first-come-first-serve camping system. There are only 67 camping spots in the Hattie Campground, 37 electrical sites and 30 non-electrical sites. There are also five oTENTiks available for booking. (The oTENTiks and backcountry sites are the only ones you can book online.)
Since it took me a while to figure out that you couldn’t reserve the front-country sites and there was no real information online on how it works, let me break it down for you.
When you arrive at the park, hop out to talk to the people at the gatehouse, they’ll tell you whether or not the campground is full. Then go search for a site. In our case, the whole southern loop was full, and we grabbed one of the few remaining non-electrical campsites in the northern loop. If the campground was full, we would have backtracked to White Lake Provincial Park or head forward to Neys Provincial Park.
Once you pick your campsite, the park rangers suggest you place something there (or in our case, my travel buddy hopped out and stayed at the site while I went back to the gatehouse) to mark that the campsite had been chosen. Then you go back to the gatehouse to check-in and pay.
Then settle in and set up camp!
Fees for a campsite range from $10 to $120 and change yearly. Be sure to check the fees section of the Parks Canada website for up-to-date admission and camping fees.
Check-in is 2 pm, and check-out is 11 am. There are quiet hours in place from 11 pm to 7 am. Firewood can be purchased at the park gatehouse.
You are in black bear country, so that means you have to keep your campsite bare by placing anything with a scent (food, cooking utensils, toiletries, etc.) away in your vehicle or food storage lockers located at the comfort stations.
Hiking in Pukaskwa National Park
I put one foot in front of the other, surrounded by mossy trees, listening. The only sounds came from the swoosh of my pants, the thud of my foot hitting the ground, and the loud chime of my bear bell. We were in bear country, and, as much as I wanted to, I was determined not to see a bear. I knew it was a real possibility since Pukaskwa National Park is in the heart of black bear country in Northern Ontario, but I didn’t want to see one while I was hiking, so far from help.
Hiking in Pukaskwa National Park had to be the most beautiful hiking I had done on my Northern Ontario road trip. That’s because Pukaskwa National Park offers some of the best trails in Ontario. No matter which route you take, you won’t be disappointed.
There are six major trails in Pukaskwa, the Coastal Hiking Trail, Mdaabbii Miikna, Southern Headland Trail, the Beach Trail, Manito Miikana, and Bimose Kinoomagewnan.
The last four are shorter moderate hikes that give you a good taste of Northern Ontario and the stunning but rugged shores of Lake Superior. You can combine these hikes to tour around the whole park, which can take about 3.5 to 4 hours.
Let’s talk about those first.
Southern Headland Trail
This 2.2km trail leads you around the southern arm of Horseshoe Bay. Leaving from the visitor centre, this hike can take about 1h 15m to complete, especially if you want to take photos as I did. The rugged trail starts by climbing up the smooth rock indicative of the Canadian Shield and taking you to breathtaking views of Pulpwood Harbour. Keep an eye out for tiny arctic-alpine plants and lichens among the rocks.
Starting from either the Northern Loop campground or the Southern Loop campground, this 2km, 1h hike will take you along the three sandy beaches of Pukaskwa National Park. Horseshoe Beach is the most protected and offers calm waters to wade in after a long hike. Be sure to check out the lookout at the end of the boardwalk section, showcasing a “Group of Seven Moment.”
These easels, set up around Ontario, highlight some of the Group of Seven’s greatest work in the places that inspired them. A.Y. Jackson loved painting Pukaskwa and what would eventually become the national park.
Manito Miikana, “Spirit Trail,” is a 2km extension to the Beach Trail, taking you along the northern arm of Horseshoe Bay. Climb up a rocky ravine to panoramic views of Lake Superior and the Pic River dunes. At the tip of the peninsula, you’ll be greeted with two viewing platforms overlooking the brilliant blue lake and rocky shoreline.
Head inland on this 3.7km hike around Halfway Lake. Bimose Kinoomagewnan, the “Walk of Teachings,” will teach you about the Seven Grandfather Teachings from Ojibway elders. Along the way, you can read from interpretive signs about love, honesty, respect, wisdom, truth, humility and bravery and how the next generation has represented these teachings through art. Make sure to take in the gorgeous scenery of Halfway Lake too.
Coastal Hiking Trail in Pukaskwa National Park
The Coastal Hiking Trail is a 60km (120km in-and-out) hiking trail that takes you along Lake Superior’s wildest shores, over cobblestone beaches, steep climbs, narrow bridges, river crossings and driftwood obstacles. But you’re rewarded, more than once, with show-stopping views over Lake Superior. The Coastal Hiking Trail is for expert hikers who have tackled this type of terrain before.
The Mdaabii Miikna is an 11.5km addition to the Coastal Hiking Trail. It’s relatively new but offers stunning vistas of the rocky shores of Lake Superior. There are several backcountry sites along this stretch of trail and some of the most scenic spots. While I didn’t tackle this trail while at Pukaskwa National Park, I overheard a ranger talking about the 1km stretch of trail from Playter Harbor South campground to Picture Rocks North campground as one of the most challenging sections of trail in the park.
However, there is a day-hiking section of the Coastal Hiking Trail that you can enjoy while camping at Pukaskwa National Park.
White River Suspension Bridge via the Coastal Hiking Trail
Hiking to the White River Suspension Bridge is la crème de la crème of Pukaskwa National Park. Getting to the bridge is no easy task. It can take anywhere from 6 to 9 hours along difficult and challenging terrain. The 18km in-and-out hike to the White River Suspension Bridge via the Coastal Hiking Trail is one of the most interesting hikes I’ve ever been on.
The first 4.5km (and also the last 4.5km) was the most challenging part of the hike, but it then evened out into a relatively flat section where it was much easier to walk at a good pace. The view at the suspension bridge was worth it.
Let’s break it down.
The first exciting section of the trail is the Hattie Cove Fire Walk, a 700-metre section of forest that was wiped out in a prescribed burn in 2012. You can barely see the evidence of the fire now since the forest has regrown spectacularly. There are informative signs that explain what happened and why as you walk through this section.
You’ll then follow a relatively easy trail split between boardwalk, boggy trail and rocky terrain as you round Hattie Cove. At the tip of Hattie Cove, you’ll enter the wetland, a stretch of boardwalk that doesn’t even look like it should belong in Ontario.
The next section is the hardest since you’ll have the scramble up and down ravines, over rocks, through tight trail sections, through marshy trail sections before you reach the turnoff for the Playter Harbour campground. It’s worth stopping here to sit on the rocks taking in the view. (Plus, there’s a privy if you need it!)
On the next 2.3km section, the trail will start to become more manageable. You’ve still got hills and rocks to tackle, but it’s definitely not as tough. You’ll pass the northern and southern trail entrances of the Mdaabii Miikna.
From the southern entrance of the Mdaabii Miikna, it’s only another kilometre or so to the White River Suspension Bridge. This section was the easiest and flattest. You walk through a mossy forest (which feels like there is a bear around every corner) and only have one more ravine crossing before you reach the bridge.
The White River Suspension Bridge is spectacular. The bridge spans 30 metres across the White River gorge and hangs 23 metres above Chigamiwinigum Falls, a stunning set of rapids on the river that leads from White Lake to Lake Superior.
I loved hanging there, suspended over the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen, taking it all in. The White River suspension bridge is one of the most scenic bridges in Ontario. Stopping for lunch here is a great idea, and you’ll get the strength back in your legs to do it all over again on the way back.
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Other things to do in Pukaskwa National Park
Hiking and camping are just two of the fantastic things you can do at Pukaskwa National Park. Dive into the Anishinaabe culture, learn about the cultural and natural history of the park and explore the famous shoreline.
At Pukaskwa, you can visit the Anishinaabe Camp, which was handcrafted by local knowledge keepers. The camp illustrates a traditional life, but it’s also there to keep the spirit and traditions alive. There are numerous programs held here, such as Nishnaabeg Gkinoohmaaged (“The act of teaching by an Anishinaabe”), where you can learn about plans, art, traditions, history and more from teachers from surrounding Indigenous communities.
Join in the drum circles held regularly at the Anishinaabe camp, where you’ll learn songs, stories and teaching that have been kept over the years.
Don’t miss checking out the visitor centre, where you can grab free Wi-Fi while exploring the beautiful indoor exhibit showcasing the history of the park and the people that live here.
Some of the best views of Lake Superior’s shoreline can only be seen from the water. You can rent canoes or stand up paddleboards (currently $21.50 for 5 hours) from the park, or bring your own and launch it at the Hattie Cove boat launch.
From here, you can explore the calm waters of Hattie Cove, or if you’re more experienced, head out into the rougher waters of Lake Superior.
With showers closed for the 2020 season, we knew that we would want to swim at least once. But Lake Superior’s waters are notoriously frigid. At Pukaskwa, you can go for a swim at one of its three beaches, with Horseshoe Bay Beach being the most accessible. This beach of soft sand blends into the calm waters of the lake. And it stays shallow for quite a while as you wade into the waters.
Averaging only 4°C, it’s a refreshing dip. You’ll want to stick closer to shore where it’s warmer, or if you have one, bring a wetsuit to make swimming much more enjoyable.
What to pack for a camping trip in Pukaskwa National Park
For Pukaskwa National Park, you’ll need to think about a couple of extra things to bring:
- Illumination: make sure to bring a powerful flashlight, because Pukaskwa is in the middle of nowhere and is extremely dark.
- Warm clothing: weather on Lake Superior can change drastically. When we were there, it was foggy, sunny, warm, and chilly in a matter of 24 hours. Bring extra sweaters and blankets for this park.
- Hiking boots: you’ll want sturdy and reliable hiking boots for these rocky and slippery trails.
- Wetsuit: swimming in Lake Superior is so much fun, but it’s even better when you’re wearing a wetsuit built for these frigid waters.
Pukaskwa National Park is the least visited National Park in Ontario (and the least visited in eastern Canada.) Which is so surprising to me because it is incredible. The ample hiking opportunities and the gorgeous Lake Superior landscapes make this park one of the best in Ontario. Hopefully, this guide to Pukaskwa National Park will convince you to go and enjoy some of the best Northern Ontario has to offer.
One of my biggest regrets from the first year of my travels was that I wasn’t brave enough to try any of the local food. I was raised a picky eater and that, combined with debilitating anxiety and an eating disorder, led to me believing that I would either hate or be allergic to anything I hadn’t tried before. I love trying new things, and I’ve found a thousand amazing dishes that I never would have discovered if I’d continue to eat from supermarkets around the world. Trying new food isn’t scary, and you’ll build your confidence up as you fall in love with more and more things.
One of the first lessons I learned on the road was that your plans will nearly always change. You’ll arrive in a place and hate it and want to leave immediately, or you’ll fall in love with a destination and want to spend longer there. You’ll make friends with a group of awesome people and want to change your plans so you can travel with them for longer, or you’ll find out about an amazing-sounding town that’s nearby and want to head there instead.
Sure, you should have a rough plan for your trip, but don’t book everything in advance or you’ll likely feel too restricted and end up regretting it. Book a one-way ticket and your first few nights of accommodation — you’ll figure the rest out along the way. It’s not as intimidating as it sounds. If you’re in a tourist destination there’ll always be someone who’s willing to take your money by giving you a place to stay.
If you do only one thing before you leave, make it getting travel insurance. I’ve heard far too many horror stories of travellers injuring themselves in remote places and ending up in hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debt. Don’t think that it won’t happen to you, because you know those travellers thought that, too. I’ve use World Nomads for my travel insurance provider for six years and recommend them to everyone I know. They were fantastic to deal with when making a claim.
People laughed at me when I said that I was carrying around a dozen spare passport photos, but they’ve been incredibly useful and saved me a ton of time and hassle. Who wants to wander the streets of some rural town in Cambodia searching for someone who can take your photo ? Friends of mine had to do this !
I’ve used them to apply for visas around the world, to get a new passport when mine expired while I was on the other side of the planet, and I even needed one to buy a local SIM card in Nepal ! Having spares in my backpack meant that I didn’t have to waste a day researching and then wandering around a city to try to find someone who could take a passport-sized photo of me.
I’m fortunate to have never had to deal with lost luggage, but I did have my backpack ripped open on a flight and I was grateful to have not had anything valuable in it at the time. I’ve also been on dodgy buses in Southeast Asia where we’ve arrived at our destination and people have had items stolen by someone hiding out in the luggage hold while we were transit.
If there’s anything I’d be upset to lose, I keep it in my daypack, which is always by my side on travel days. For me, that’s my passport, laptop, dashcam, external drive, a debit card, and some spare cash. As long as I have all of these, I can survive indefinitely.
When you travel, you’re in the sun more than most people thanks to months of island-hopping and beach time, as well as entire days spent outside exploring. Wear sunscreen every single day, regardless of the weather and temperature, because you really don’t want your trip of a lifetime to result in skin cancer or a body that’s blanketed in leathery wrinkles.
There have been so many times when I’ve been too shy to ask someone to take my photo in a place and I’ve almost always regretted it. After eight years of travel, I probably only have around 200 photos of me around the world. Photos of the beautiful places you visit are great and all, but when you get home, they’re not all that different to the ones everyone else has taken there, too. Photos with you in them are special and they’ll mean a lot more to you when you look back at them. You’ll gain more respect from the locals if you can at least say hi, please, sorry, and thank you. On that note, remember : if you don’t speak the language, it’s your problem, not theirs. And please don’t start speaking louder to make yourself understood. Try miming instead, or using a translation app on your phone.
Travel isn’t conducive for sleep, whether it’s snorers in dorm rooms, early risers rustling plastic bags, or drunk backpackers stumbling around in the middle of the night. Even if you don’t stay in hostels, you’ll still have to deal with street noise from outside, loud bars nearby, and uncomfortable overnight journeys. Pack some ear plugs and a sleep mask in your bag to help improve your sleep. I’ve been using Sleep Phones to block out light and listen to podcasts and I love them.
I’d always been all about the packing cubes, until I discovered vacuum-sealed versions of them ! You throw your clothes in, seal the bag, then roll it up to push out all the air. I can literally fit twice as many clothes in my backpack when I use these ! Even if you don’t want to carry more things in your bag, it frees up so much space that if you need to pack in a hurry, you can just chuck everything in.
Sometimes your bank will block your card, sometimes your card won’t work in an ATM, and sometimes you could even lose it or have it stolen. Bring at least three debit/credit cards with you that are all linked to different accounts ( with money in them ! ) Keep one in your backpack, one in your daypack, and one on your person.
I carry a spare 300 USD that’s split up in various places in my backpack, daypack, and occasionally, my shoe when I’m nervous I’ll be robbed. It means that in a worse-case scenario, I can pay for some food, a dorm bed, and a Skype call to my family to get an emergency wire transfer until I can get back on my feet again. I went with U. S. dollars because it’s the most widely accepted currency around the world and easy to change.
When I decided to see if it was possible to visit the Maldives on a budget back in 2014, information was so sparse that I couldn’t even find a photo of the islands I’d decided to visit. Well, that trip was one of my highlights of the past eight years and I’m so glad I went, despite not being able to find any information online. And the advantage to that lack of information was getting to be the only tourist on an entire island — I had the whole beach to myself ! If you know it’s safe to travel somewhere, but can’t find out much else, go for it. It’s probably far easier to get there than you think. And if not, it makes for a good story.
I’m definitely testament to that ! But expecting everything to go perfectly on your trip is only setting yourself up to fail. Nobody goes travelling and comes back without any stories of mishaps. No matter how prepared you are, at some point you’re going to get lost, get scammed, miss your bus, get food poisoning, injure yourself… the list is endless ! Expect it to happen, and don’t beat yourself up when it does. In a month’s time, you’ll find it funny rather than frustrating.
It achieves absolutely nothing and makes you look like an asshole. Instead, calm down, put a smile on your face, think of how this will make a great story one day, and rationally figure out an alternative plan. This too shall pass.
What happens if you arrive in a city, go to grab your fax confirmation for your accommodation, and your phone and laptop are out of battery ? I always make sure I have a copy of my guesthouse name and their address, as well as directions if I won’t be taking a taxi. Once I arrive, I’ll grab one of the hotel’s cards, so I’ll always know where I’m staying, and can show it to locals to ask for help with finding my way back.
So many people will tell you not to travel with jeans, but if you wear jeans all the time at home, you’ll want to wear them while travelling, too. I didn’t start travelling with jeans until my second year of travel, and guy, I missed them so much ! They’re not *that* bulky so you really don’t need to worry about the extra space and weight. And in many cities in Europe, you’ll want to wear jeans to fit in with the locals — you don’t want to look like a grubby backpacker in Paris !
Checking out is when you’re most likely to lose something. Whenever I check out of a place, I check the bathroom, I check under the beds, I check the desks, and then I make sure I have my passport, laptop, camera, money, phone, and external drive. I’ll be fine if I leave anything else behind. Having a routine that you go through every solo time will help you keep track of everything. I learned my lesson with this one when I left my passport behind in a guesthouse in Bagan, then left it in an apartment in London two months later.