Algonquin Park: Highland Backpacking Trail (3 days / 35 km)

I just got back from hiking the Highland Trail on my first ever backpacking trip. The trail was rugged and pushed me (and my hiking partners) to our limits. The 35km trail turned to 38km with our poor navigation skills, but we made it through, had some great laughs, and saw some amazing views.

The campsites were so beautiful and peaceful, but the trail was rough and filled with mosquitos. I am still scratching as I write this blog!

In this article, I will cover my trip report, what went well, and what could have gone better! Even though it was challenging, I definitely recommend the trail to anyone looking for a challenge. 

Trip Completed: June 2021

Trip Summary

Starting Point: Highland Trail Access Point Mew Lake Campground

Ending Point: Highland Trail Access Point Mew Lake Campground

Total Distance: 35km

Elevation Gain: 1549 m

Duration: 3 days / 2 nights

Difficulty: Beginner / Intermediate (suitable for beginners but will be challenging)

Location

The Highland Trail is located in Algonquin Provincial Park, it has two loops. The first loop is 19 km and the second is 35 km. The trail is marked with blue blazes on the first loop, and yellow on the second. Both loops are recommended as overnight backpacking trails. The first loop could be done in 1 night and 2 days while the second loop should be completed in at least 2 nights and 3 days.

Map: Map courtesy of Jeff’s Maps. Highlighted are the campsites we stayed at.

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

Maps & Resources

Map: I used Jeff’s Maps, both a printed copy and a version on my phone. I also used google maps during the trip to find my place in relation to the maps.

Campsite Reservations: I reserved a campsite at Harness Lake and Provoking West through the Ontario Parks Reservation Portal. When reserving your campsite, you reserve a spot at the lake and each individual site is first come first served. This may mean adding additional mileage onto your day if the first sites are not available. Keep this in mind when booking your sites.

Permits: During ‘normal’ times you need to pick up your permits at the Mew Lake Campground office. However, because my group and I were camping during COVID, we did not need to pick up permits. You do, however, need to carry a digital or hard copy of your confirmation with you. 

Outfitters & Shuttles

For this trip, we did not require any outfitters or shuttles. The trail starts and ends at the same place so a shuttle is not needed.

Trip Report

Day 1: Trailhead to Harness Lake (20 km)

We left Toronto around 7:30 am and made it to the trail by 11:30 am, this included a stop at the Barrie OnRoute for bathrooms and breakfast and a gas break. Arriving at the trailhead we saw a few hikers leaving the trail and 2 groups heading in around the same time as us.

Our first campsite was booked on Harness Lake, 19.6 km from the trailhead. We were heading east around the trail. Heading from the trailhead to Provoking Lake had some pretty decent inclines, but the trail was well-marked and easy to navigate.

When we got to the first loop there was a sign marking which way takes you east and which way takes you west around the trail. We went east. The next section until Provoking lake was pretty flat and went by quickly. Once you reach Provoking Lake there is a sign pointing you in the right direction.

Our first wrong turn: To the left of the trail leading to Provoking Lake there is a portage route down to Lake of Two Rivers. Unfortunately, due to my group’s poor navigation skills, we had thought we were further on the trail and meant to follow these yellow portage blazes instead of the blue.

This mistake cost us going down the 960 m portage trail arriving at the Lake of Two Rivers, where we realized we were not supposed to be there. So, we had to turn around and backtrack our way to Provoking Lake. This mistake added an additional 2 km onto our already 19.6 km day.

The rest of the blue blazes around the first loop were super easy to navigate, the trail was well maintained but the mosquitos did start to get pretty bad at this point. We didn’t realize how long the 6km around Provoking Lake would actually be and it felt like forever before we hit the real yellow blazes.

Before leaving Provoking Lake, if going east, fill up on water. There is some water along the way but it was mostly stagnant ponds and bog water through dense mosquito swarms, so make sure you have enough for the long stretch.

About 200 m before the second loop we stopped for a much-needed break to eat some snacks and drink some water. We were feeling pretty frustrated at this point because it was taking us longer than expected, especially with our detour. However, once we made it to that intersection we got some much-needed hope.

First loop to second loop: From the intersection of the first and second loop we had 8km to Harness lake. It was already 5 pm when we got there and we were getting worried about making it there before dark.

The 8 km from the intersection to Harness was BRUTAL. There were so many trees fallen down making it hard to navigate. A couple of the fallen trees had blazes on them, making it even more difficult to see ahead.

At one point, I was ahead of my group and got a little turned around in the forest, when I made it back onto the trail I realized the tree with the blaze was knocked over (it was about half a tree anyways). I propped it up and waited for my two partners to catch up so they wouldn’t make the same mistake I did.

Going through Mosquito Creek was absolutely miserable, if you stopped for even a second you got eaten alive. I hiked the day in my bug suit and raincoat because the bugs were so bad. Definitely bring a bug net for your face if you plan on doing this trail: it kept me sane. Once we got out of Mosquito Creek we were running low on water but only had a few kilometres to go so we decided to push on.

At around 7 pm, my group and I started to lose hope that we would ever make it to our campsite – we kept hoping there would be a clearing somewhere we could quietly and respectfully stealth camp and call it a night. To our disappointment, there were no clearings and the mosquitos were super bad so we had to just keep pushing.

Campsite: We made it to the first site on Harness Lake at 8 pm. Thankfully, it was empty because I don’t think we would have made it to the next site still sane.

The campsite was beautiful, I wish we had had more time to enjoy it but was just glad we made it in one piece. The privy at this campsite was very clean and looked like it had barely been used. The water was serene and clear, our campsite had a beautiful lookout. The mosquitos were pretty much non-existent so we had some great relief.

When we got to the site, we filtered water, set up our tents, found a spot for our bear bag and got to cooking. We had planned to make Kraft dinner on the fire our first night but were so exhausted we didn’t want to have to wait for the water to boil on the fire so instead we had our curry and rice on the stove. We did build a small fire so we could eat our hot dogs and roast some well-deserved marshmallows and also keep us warm.

It was about 12° all day and at night dropped to somewhere between 5°c and 10°c. I was in my tent alone and my hiking partners were sharing a tent. At some point, around 1 am it was so cold that I ended up crawling into their tent because I could not sleep. There were also a couple of Moose (we think) calling all night. Every time I would just fall asleep I would be woken by the moose party!

Day 2: Harness Lake to Provoking West (13 km)

We woke up in the morning around 8:30 am but it was so cold that we only managed to crawl out of the tent around 9:30 am. We packed up our tents, found our bear bag, made oatmeal for breakfast, filtered our water and set off on the trail by 10:45 am.

Our second campsite was booked for Provoking West, a 13 km day. This day felt a lot better. Coming down the west side of the trail, there were more checkpoints and campsites along the route so we knew where we were most of the day and how much distance we had actually travelled.

We took our first break at Head Lake; we made it to the second campsite around 11:30 am and decided to break for lunch there so we could push through the rest of our day until we reached our campsite. The campsite here was super beautiful, the water was pristine and the bugs weren’t so bad. We even made a little chipmunk friend as we made our PB&J wraps.

Up, down, and then up again: Going from Head lake to the next lookout (4.2 km stretch) was rough. There were again a lot of steep inclines and declines. We passed a couple going the opposite way around the lake and they warned us that the beaver dam before the lookout was pretty mushy so to be careful.

Another wrong turn: When we arrived at the beaver dam, our poor navigation skills came out to play again. It looked like the trail continued around the lake/swamp so we continued around into the forest. We continued about 100 m and then realized there were no blazes or anything that looked like a trail.

My hiking partner decided to hike up the huge incline to see if the trail was up since we knew the lookout was soon. The trail was not up. Finally, I convinced my partners that we needed to go back to the dam because this was not the trail and we had spent about 45 minutes circling around in the forest trying to find any blaze.

When we finally made it back to the beaver dam we saw the faded yellow blaze just across and to the left. There was some relief but also frustration, why didn’t we see it before! If you do decide to do this trail GO OVER THE BEAVER DAM! The mud was very wet, but thankfully my trekking poles kept me stable and we all made it across without falling.

After the beaver dam fiasco, I felt frustrated and defeated so I hiked ahead of my group to get some space. Pushing up those inclines was rough but when I saw the lookout ahead the relief was so needed.

Lookout to Provoking West: I waited at the lookout for my group and we took a well-deserved break for snacks and water and also to tend to one of my partner’s blisters. Her feet were in rough shape but thankfully she pushed through. We wrapped up the blisters, drank lots of water and continued on our last 4 km stretch to Provoking West.

This section went pretty fast, and when we made it to Faya Lake we were pretty much out of water and were going to refill at the campsite there. But the side trail had a pretty steep decline that we did not want to climb back up so we pushed forward.

The last 2 km from Faya to Provoking West felt great as we made it back to the blue blazes and knew we were close. The blue part of the trail is super well maintained so we knew there would be fewer fallen trees and obstacles to climb over and around.

Campsite: We made it to the first group (6, 7, and 8) of campsites around 5 pm and hoped to take the first one but it was taken so we went in to find 7 and 8. There was a solo camper on site 7 but thankfully site 8 was empty. The sites on Provoking West were closer together so we could see the other camper at site 7 but it was still spacious enough that we didn’t run into each other.

Provoking Lake was another beautiful site. The water was clear, the moon was bright and the campsite was spacious.  Here we got our tents set up, found a tree for our bear hang and then got to cooking. Unfortunately, our site didn’t have a grill so we had to get creative with putting our big pot for Kraft Dinner into the fire. Nothing beats a warm pot of mac and cheese after a long day.

After dinner, we cleaned up, got our bear bag up in the tree and went down to the water to watch the moon. It was so beautiful but there was cloud cover so we only saw a few stars. This night was warmer and the Moose must’ve stayed up at Harness Lake because thankfully we had a peaceful night of rest.

Day 3: Provoking West to Trail Head (4 km)

We woke up and got out of our tent earlier because it was thankfully warmer this day. The last day on trail meant a nice breakfast buffet of our leftover food, we had oatmeal, pop tarts, dried fruit, jerky, and some cup noodles. 

We had about 4 km to the trailhead for our last day. We left our site around 10:30 am to finish our trek. On the way around Provoking and out of the park we saw quite a few hikers heading in for day hikes and overnights as it was Thursday and the weekend was coming.

Back to the Falls: Provoking West to the falls was a breeze after the brutal first two days. We made it to the falls around 11:15 and took a 20-minute break to soak our feet in the cold water, eat some snacks and filter more water for the last stretch.

I wanted to challenge myself to see how fast I could make it to the trailhead from the falls (about 2 km) so I pushed ahead. This was the part of the trail we had already completed coming in so it was easy to navigate. The inclines and declines were definitely worse on the way out.

I ended up making it to the trailhead in about 24 minutes and then waited for my group. We made it out of the trail and into the car around 12:30 pm and headed on our way. It felt so good to make it to that parking lot and I was thrilled to have completed my first backpacking trip alongside some good friends. That post-trail high will never get old.

Trip Video

Reflections

What Went Well

My hiking partners and I were pushed to our limits and successfully completed the trail in one piece. Some highlights of my first backpacking trail included:

Successful bear hangs: Now there’s no way to know for sure if a bear attempted to get our food… But, our bear hang was there every morning! That’s a success in my books.

Renavigation to the trail: Yes, we got majorly lost 2 times, but after both fiascos we were able to find our way back to the real trail. If you ever get lost on a trail, google maps will show your location even without signal. This can help find where you are in relation to your map.

Bug suit and spray: I was on the fence about buying and bringing a mesh bug suit because I didn’t want to look like a newbie hiker afraid of the wilderness. However, that bug suit saved my sanity. I highly recommend bringing at least a head net if you plan to hike the trail, especially in early summer.

No blisters: I wore my smart wool socks with my Merrell trail runners and successfully finished the trail with no blisters. Invest in a good pair of wool socks for your feet on these long treks! Shout out to my hiking partner that finished the trail through the pain of her blisters with the help of a few flimsy bandages.

Trekking poles: This was my first hike using trekking poles, and what a life saver. From sketchy ‘bridge’ crossings to super steep declines, my poles saved me from destroying my knees and falling on my face. Especially at the end of days 1 and 2 when I could barely lift my feet, the poles kept me stable and able to get through the end. BRING THEM!

What Could Have Gone Better

Too much food: We ended up carrying out extra protein bars, tortilla wraps, snacks, and soup out of the trail. For future trips, I will definitely be making a strict food list/plan and sticking to it. I went to the store last minute to pick up my trail snacks and ended up buying way too much.

Not enough bug spray: I brought a small bottle of Ben’s bug spray with me and a pretty decent amount of sunscreen. If I were to do this trail again I would leave the sunscreen at home because 95% of the trail is in such dense forest you don’t get much sun, and instead, I would bring a larger bottle of bug spray. We emptied my bottle of bug spray the first day and thankfully one of my hiking partners brought a larger bottle with them.

Leave earlier: I would leave earlier from both the city and the campsites. On our first day, we were about 45 minutes short of arriving at camp in the dark, which would have been dreadful. On day 2 we didn’t arrive until 5-6 pm. It would have been nicer to get in earlier to take our time setting up camp and enjoying the sites.

Earplugs/headphones: The first night at Harness Lake included a show of moose calls/mating all night. It was impossible to sleep through and I definitely regretted not bringing headphones or earplugs to have some quiet to sleep through the night.

Warmer sleeping clothes: I froze both nights on the trail. The first night dropped to about 5°c and the second night was around 12°c. My sleeping bag’s comfort rating is 11°-14°C and I used my Sea to Summit thermal liner that is supposed to add an additional 8°C to your bag. I don’t think it helped and I froze through the night in my light leggings and long sleeve.

Lighter pack: This is more of a long-term goal, my pack weighed about 25 lbs with food and water. I did not realize how much of an impact this would have on my hiking pace until it took 8 hours to hike 20 kms. I definitely plan to invest in lighter equipment as my budget allows. I will also get rid of some items that I didn’t use, for example I brought two battery banks and didn’t even use a full one.

Along with the lighter pack, I definitely think we overestimated our abilities in hiking that first 20km day. If you plan to do the trail, definitely consider your own hiking experience and try to book more even days. Unfortunately due to the cancellations of COVID, there were not many options available so going to Harness on the first night was the only free campsite.

Overall, I had a super challenging but rewarding first backpacking experience. I can’t wait until my next adventure (Western Uplands Trail here I come!

Gallery

Author Bio

Hi! My names Kat, I am a beginner backpacker located in Ontario that just recently decided to put my dreams into action! You can read more about this trail in my blog post about it.

Website: Kat’s Trail Log

Tiktok: Kat’s Trail Log

Instagram: Kat’s Trail Log

YouTube: Kat’s Trail Log

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *