Algonquin Provincial Park: Squirrel Rapids to Barron Canyon and High Falls Loop (4 days / 38 km)

The Barron Canyon is a stunning paddle along the East side of Algonquin Provincial Park. The canyon offers magnificent views paddling in both directions. 

This trip report starts and ends at the Squirrel Rapids parking lot in the northeastern part of Algonquin Provincial Park. It goes through westward Barron Canyon, makes a loop toward High Falls, and then goes through Barron Canyon once again and to Squirrel Rapids. We also added a hike along the High Falls Trail at the end of the trip.

Trip Completed: October 2020


Summary 

Starting Point: Squirrel Rapids 

Ending Point: Squirrel Rapids 

Total Distance: 37.5 km

Number of Days: 4

Number of Portages: 18 (7.5 km)

Difficulty: Beginner/Intermediate 

Location

This route is located in the northeast corner of Algonquin Provincial Park.

Traditional Territory: This route takes place on the traditional territory of the Omàmìwininìwag (Algonquin) and Anishinabewaki.

Maps and Resources

Maps: The Adventure Map: Barron Canyon 

Campsite Reservations: The reservation system is based on the lake you want to camp on. You will reserve a spot on the lake, not a specific campsite. Campsites are first come first serve once you arrive at your reserved lake.

Permits: Reservations can be made through the Ontario Parks website. Reservations should be done well ahead of time as this can be a popular route especially in the summer and on weekends. We used the Squirrel Rapids Parking Lot. There is no specific Squirrel Rapids access point on the Ontario Parks Reservation website. We ended up choosing the Achray Access Point to make the reservations. You then need to have your permits printed and left on the dash of your car in the parking lot. 

Outfitters & Shuttles 

Outfitter: We used the Portage Store on Barron Canyon Road. They also offer shuttles to/from Squirrel Rapids if you decided to do a one-way trip from Achray to Squirrel Rapids.

Shuttle: For this trip, a shuttle was not needed, as the route starts and ends at the same access point.

Trip Report: Barron Canyon

Day 1: Squirrel Rapids to Opalescent Lake (9 km)

Paddling Distance: 9 km  

Portage Distance: 1.8 km

  • Portage 1: 420m Cache Rapids to Barron Canyon River 
  • Portage 2: 440m Barron Canyon to Brigham Chute
  • Portage 3: 100m Brigham Chute to Brigham Lake
  • Portage 4: 740m Brigham Lake to Opalescent Lake

We started our trip driving from Bracebridge to Algonquin, a beautiful drive through the park to get across to the east side. We picked up our canoe at the Algonquin Portage Store on Barron Canyon Road. When we arrived at Squirrel Rapids parking lot the sun started to come out just in time for our launch.

We launched our canoe early afternoon to start our adventure. It was a short paddle down the river to Cache Falls Portage. The portages along this trip are very well signed with large yellow signs stating the distance of the portage and the location to which it brings you. The Cache Fall Portage was 420 m along an easy portage trail where you can catch glimpses of the rapids and falls.  

The next section we paddled down was the Barron River to the magnificent Barron Canyon. We passed areas of swampland where we had to weave in and out of logs that littered the waterways, many were hidden just below the surface (we successfully avoided about 70% of them).

The Barron River was part of a logging route that helped move timber toward the Ottawa River. We then quickly entered the Barron Canyon, a truly spectacular view! We paddled through with 100-foot cliffs on either side and admired the steep cliffs and waterfalls, taking pictures along the way. At the end of the canyon, we came to our second portage at Brigham Chute, a 440 m portage with a beautiful lookout over the waterfall. Laura enjoyed making a portage video diary over the course of the trip. She was able to balance the canoe without using her hands and make video diaries of the portages which I was endlessly entertained by when we were stuck in the tent on the rainy days. The portage led us to the start of Brigham Lake where it was a short paddle to our next 100 m portage around a set of rapids

One of the goals of our trip was to perfect the single-person canoe mount. We usually \ help each other get the canoe overhead, however, this time we had a light canoe and shorter portage allowing for some easy spots to practice. We then entered the main part of Brigham Lake. We paddled across to the other side for our final portage of the day and the longest portage of the trip. The portage was 740 m from Brigham Lake to Opalescent Lake where we had planned to camp. We had brought a few extra luxuries on this trip making our food bag very heavy so we ended up carrying the food bag separately. It affectionately became known as our food baby we had to take care of on the trip. Thankfully it got lighter as the trip went on. 

We had a snack at the end of the portage with a beautiful view of Opalescent Lake. We paddled across to the campsite on the point that many may have heard of. It has a beautiful stone bench, stone cooking table and awesome fire pit looking out over the lake and sunset. We were very excited to stay at the iconic site!

There was a wonderful surprise that previous campers had already collected some wood for a fire. We set up camp, prepared for rain, collected extra firewood so we could leave some for the next group and started cooking dinner. We decided to quickly set up a bear hang spot before it got too dark, the struggle was endless. Some days you have great aim and can throw a rope with no problem and sometimes it just isn’t happening. It was the latter. After finally securing a bear hang spot, we ate dinner by the fire. Just as we were enjoying our drinks a mouse ran across my foot! We quickly realized that the field mice had property rights to the stones as they scurried about our feet and around our food. We quickly sealed up the food and secured it from any hungry mice. 

It was also Laura’s 28th birthday! I made chocolate cupcakes and brought a candle to celebrate. The mice and I sang happy birthday and we enjoyed the treats with our tequila and Tennessee honey whiskey. Our fun continued late into the night as we made bartending in the backcountry videos by Laura and sang along to some music. We started to hear what we thought was thunder, however, the night sky was clear and full of stars. We later found out that there is an army base nearby and you could hear artillery fire. We packed everything away and prepared for a cozy sleep in bed.

The Campsite:

  • Pros: Thunderbox, easy water access, large campsite many tents, great fireplace 
  • Cons: Okay bear hang, okay in the rain, MICE

Coordinates: 45°52’35.0″N 77°39’36.1″W

Day 2: Opalescent Lake to High Falls Lake (9.5 km)

Paddling Distance: 9.5 km

Portage Distance: 2.5 km

  • Portage 1: 650m Opalescent Lake to Ooze Lake
  • Portage 2: 300m Ooze Lake to High Falls Lake
  • Portage 3: 590m High Falls Lake to St Andrews Lake
  • Portage 4: 50m St Andrews Lake to Stratton Lake
  • Portage 5: 50m Stratton Lake to St. Andrews Lake
  • Portage 6: 590m St. Andrews Lake to High Falls Lake

This morning we stayed cozy in our sleeping bags while it rained outside. We had a wonderful cozy night on Opalescent Lake and we had the whole lake to ourselves. As the rain lightened up, we ate breakfast and packed up our bags to start the day. Our packs were quite tall because of our extra luxuries and we questioned whether we would be able to fit the canoe over our heads. Thankfully it just fit.

Our first portage was 650 m from Opalescent Lake to Ooze Lake. A relatively flat muddy portage leading into a very swampy lake. Ooze Lake lived up to its name and we paddle through shallow muddy water and weeds, dreaming of seeing Moose as we completed the short paddle across the lake. Our next portage was 300 m from Ooze Lake to High Falls Lake. The entrance was muddy as we unloaded our gear and prepared for our carry. At the end of the portage, there is a second portage which connects high falls lake to a small unnamed section of the river which will take you back through a series of portages up to Brigham lake. The portages are well signed so it is obvious which way we needed to go to get into High Falls Lake. 

High Falls Lake is a beautiful lake which had many small rocky islands to paddle and explore around. After checking out both of the campsites we opted to stay at the second one further down the lake. The campsite was on a little bit of a hill however there is a small beach-like/mud area where we had an easier time pulling out the canoe. Unfortunately for us, this task was made extra difficult since the water levels were so low. We precariously hopped across a few rocks hoping not to get our feet wet.

The campsite was great for us! There were a few tent locations, since it is on a hill some are quite sloped. We picked a flat spot close to a few trees to help us peg out our tent since it was supposed to pour later. If you had many people it would have been more difficult to find comfortable flat ground to camp on. There was an awesome campfire pit with logs to sit on overlooking the lake. I can imagine this site would be quite buggy in warmer months, thankfully less of a concern at the end of October. 

Once we had finished setting up camp we ate lunch and prepared hot chocolate to take with us on our afternoon trip to see High Falls. Our last task was to set up a bear hang which proved to be more of a physical and mental challenge than we had hoped. We tried to hoist our food bag up and one of the branches broke and everything came tumbling down. We then proceeded to find another spot, a little closer to the water than we would have liked, but after what felt like 50 million throws we managed to set up a decent bear hang and our food was secure. This trip was definitely not our time for easy bear hangs. We then started our paddle to High Falls.

When you look at a map the High Falls actually ends in High Falls Lake, as the name suggests. However, to see the main portion of the falls and the section you can swim in, you need to complete two portages and longer paddles through St. Andrews Lake and Stratton Lake. Presumably one could bushwhack through the forest to reach the start however you should always stay on marked trails in order to leave no trace and protect habitats. I would also recommend the longer paddle because it was absolutely beautiful!

Our first portage was 590 m from High Falls Lake to St. Andrews Lake. The take-out is difficult up a steep slope with many tree routes, however, this may be easier in higher waters. We had a nice calm day and had great views of the fall colours paddling through St. Andrews Lake. The next portage was a short and easy 50 m from St. Andrews Lake to Stratton Lake. You end up in a small weedy bay with, sticks and rocks which you need to navigate through. After a short paddle, you end up in the large open section of Stratton Lake. We then took a right to head down the finger of Stratton Lake that leads you to the start of High Falls.

We secured our canoe up on shore while we went for a hike to explore High Falls. It is easy to walk along the paths and fun to explore the different sections. It is easy to see the fun swimming locations and rock slides, definitely to do in warmer weather. We saw a few other hikers along the rapids enjoying the views. You can also reach High Falls by hiking along the High Falls Trail for a few kilometres; this area can be very busy especially in the summer and on weekends. We took a break overlooking the rapids and waterfall drinking hot chocolate with Baileys and snacking. We then took the same return route back to our campsite through Stratton and St. Andrews lake. The inlet from Stratton Lake to St. Andrews Lake can be hard to find so make sure you watch the shoreline closely as this portage can be easily missed. In the afternoon the sun came out for our paddle back to camp.

We got back at camp around 5 pm just as it was getting dark. We quickly put together a fire and started dinner. We got lucky and found a large piece of birch bark on the forest floor and Laura created the birch bark burrito/spring roll technique to start the fire. Dinner turned out to be much more eventful than we had hoped. We were going to make a big pot of soup to keep us nice and warm. We had the X-Pot from Sea to Summit which has a metal bottom and silicon sides. We were cooking over our camp stove, the MSR Whisperlite International, as the X-pot is not suitable to go over the fire. We had the stove started and our pot filled with 4 cups of water, and as Laura went to put the full pot over the stove the metal bottom broke away from the silicon and the water flooded our stove. After drying everything out we had to come up with a plan B on how to cook dinner. We had a small kettle so we could boil water in shifts, however, despite our best efforts our flooded stove would not restart. Luckily, we had a tiny Pocket Rocket stove as back up so we ended up making soup in our mugs. In the end, we had a very concentrated salty sou, which turned out better than we had anticipated. After all of the portaging, our bodies were craving salt.

Again, I had to contend with the mice at the campsite. I had put my graham cracker and chocolate down on the log while I cooked my marshmallow, and when I turned back they were nowhere to be found! As I searched the ground I saw a little field mouse running away with my chocolate. We had an awesome fire all night long, made smores, drank tequila and sang our little hearts out. 

The Campsite:

  • Pros: Thunderbox, great fireplace set up, good tent spot in the rain 
  • Cons: Okay bear hang, MICE, smaller tent spots, harder water access 

Coordinates: 45°51’52.4″N 77°41’06.6″W

Day 3: High Falls Lake to Barron Canyon River (7.5 km)

Paddling Distance: 7.5 km

Portage Distance: 2.7 km

  • Portage 1: 450m High Falls Lake to Unnamed River Section 1
  • Portage 2: 50m Unnamed River Section 1 to Unnamed River Section 2
  • Portage 3: 290m Unnamed River Section 2 to The Cascades
  • Portage 4: 350m The Cascades to Brigham Lake Parking
  • Portage 5: 270m Brigham Lake Parking to Brigham Lake
  • Portage 6: 100m Brigham Lake to Brigham Chute
  • Portage 7: 440m Brigham Chute to Barron Canyon River

Since the forecast for the morning was very rainy we decided to have a nice sleep in. When we woke up around 9 am it was still pouring with rain. I sacrificed myself to the rain in order to get the food for breakfast (my full bladder was driving me out of the tent anyway). We made food in the vestibule of the tent and enjoyed coffee with baileys and oats. We spent the morning reading, sleeping and relaxing in the tent. The rain finally let up at noon and we packed up camp to start back towards the canyon. We knew we had many portages ahead of us avoiding shallow rapids and jumping between small lakes.

We broke camp early afternoon as the rain stopped and paddled down High Falls Lake towards the portage. This is the portage that leads you back to Ooze Lake however if you take the left it is a 450 m portage from High Falls Lake to Unnamed River Section 1. When we got to the end of the portage it was a tiny hop across the river to the other side, we paddled all two canoe lengths before the next portage.

The next portage was 50 m from Unnamed River Section 1 to Unnamed River Section 2. There were beautiful waterfalls and rapids along these sections of the river and a few fun swifts we were able to navigate through despite the low water. The next portage was 290 m from Unnamed River Section 2 to The Cascades. This section feels like you are constantly portaging and then paddling only for a few seconds.

The next portage was 350 m from The Cascades to Brigham Lake Parking. We were excited about the next portage because it was supposed to be our fifth and final portage of the day. The portage was 270 m from Brigham Lake Parking to Brigham Lake. You have to be careful on this portage because if you take the wrong direction you will end up in the parking lot; the portage is well signed so we easily navigated through. There are a few log bridges across this section however all of the portages were well signed and mainly flat. 

We hopped onto Brigham Lake and found out the site we had wanted was already taken by other campers. There is one other site on the other side of the lake however it wasn’t as nice. We decided to continue on through the canyon. We were definitely getting tired of the continuous portaging, however, the thoughts of the beautiful Barron Canyon pushed us forward. The sixth portage was 100 m from Brigham Lake to Brigham Chute where we were greeted with wonderful rapids and waterfalls. We then portaged Brigham Chute 440 m to the Barron Canyon. We were very excited to be done with our portages for the day.

Our paddle back through the canyon was again stunning. Definitely worth paddling both directions through the canyon to fully appreciate its magnificence. It was just after 5 pm and starting to get dark so we were in search of a campsite. We paddled through the canyon and on the other side saw a campsite, upon paddling to the first site on a small point it was quite windy and exposed. While it offered beautiful canyon views we opted for the next campsite tucked away in the bay to be protected from the wind.

The campsite was a great pick! It was an easy out and in access and had large flat areas suitable for multiple tents. The campfire setup was perfect and even provided a tree as a nice backrest for the benches. Since we were still without a pot we ended up having our very concentrated salty soup with an Oreo cookie appetizer for dinner. We finished the night making smores by the campfire. The wind kept the sounds of the forest alive, just enough to spook us from wandering too far from the fire. After making sure the fire was out we retreated into the tent.

The Campsite:

  • Pros: Easy bear hang, good firepit, easy canoe access, no mice, connected to the next-door campsite, good for big groups
  • Cons: Need to paddle out to get clean water, buggy in the summer

Coordinates: 45°53’01.2″N 77°35’51.8″W

Day 4: Barron Canyon River to Squirrel Rapids (3.5 km)

Paddling Distance: 3.5 km

Portage Distance: 420m

  • Portage 1: 420 m Barron Canyon River to Cache Rapids

We woke up in the morning and chef Steph made oats and coffee for breakfast. We had a beautiful view of the sunrise at our campsite and enjoyed our coffee with the magnificent view. We knew we had a long drive back to the city and we wanted to hike the Barron Canyon Trail, so after breakfast, we packed up and were back paddling on our way down the river.

This section of the river is beautiful, with mist coming off of the water and beaver dams lining the shores. As we were paddling down the river a beaver let us know he was there with a huge slap of his tail on the water, startling both Laura and me. Just before we reached our one and only portage of the day there was a group of minks playing in the water and along the rocks. We kept as quiet as we could in our canoe and watched them play. They eventually spotted us and swam back to shore.

We then completed the one and only portage of the day 420 m from the Barron Canyon River to Cache Rapids. The portage had an easy flat path to follow alongside the rapid. We completed the short paddle to the end of our trip, the Squirrel Rapids parking lot, where our car awaited us. 

We loaded up the car and had a quick snack before driving 5 minutes down the road to the trailhead of the Barron Canyon Trail. The trail is only a couple of kilometres long and offers stunning views of the canyon. If you are in the area this hike is definitely worth the uphill climb. The trail is a steady uphill climb until you reach the edge of the cliff. Caution signs warn you not to get too close to the edge as you are able to go right along the sides of the cliff. It was a very cool perspective to be at the top of the canyon compared to paddling down below the day before.

We admired the view and our canoe route as we explored along the cliff. We were the only ones on the hike and enjoyed the last few moments of solidarity before heading back to civilization. The trail continues along the edge of the cliff where we were occasionally scared by grouse as they flew out of the bushes when we got close. The hike back down to the parking lot was an easy downhill trail where we were the first ones to sign the new visitor’s book. We made it back down to the car and drove to drop the canoe back off at the Algonquin portage store. Definitely a fun memorable trip for the books. 

Reflection

This is definitely a must-do trip! It is a great trip that can easily be shorted or lengthened by a few days depending on how many days you have. You could also cut down the portage considerably.

It is a great trip for beginners without too many long portages and offers unique and stunning canyon views. It’s always important to keep in mind that flexibility is key, even if you plan everything perfectly, weather and other paddlers can quickly change your plans. While in the moment more portages did not seem appealing, our decision to paddle further on the third day through the canyon was a good one. We ended up with a great campsite and it gave us enough time the next day to do the Barron Canyon Hike.

These trips also remind me that you have to enjoy the rain! As long as you have a good tent set up, tarps, a book to read and good company it can make any rainy day a good one. 

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Author Bio

Author: Stephanie Rider

I grew up on an island in Muskoka, spending days canoeing, hiking, swimming and exploring. I have enjoyed canoe tripping my whole life and am an avid outdoor enthusiast. My passion for the environment leaves me with the motto to not only follow leave no trace principles but to also leave nature a little bit cleaner than when I found it. Through my trips, I hope to highlight this point and help educate others on sustainable outdoor etiquette. I love writing about my adventures and hope to provide insights, inspire and encourage others to explore nature. 

Website: Tripping and Tequila

Instagram: @stephrider

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