Algonquin Provincial Park: Cedar Lake to Carl Wilson Lake Loop (2 days / 31 km)
This two day loop is a moderately challenging loop that, nonetheless, can be done as an overnight if you’re so inclined. It starts and ends at the Brent Access Point (#27) on Cedar Lake and heads northwest through a series of smaller lakes up to Carl Wilson Lake. Coming back you can retrace your steps or make a loop by heading north on Carl Wilson and cutting back by way of some small lakes and steep portages. Carl Wilson is a great destination and this route is worthwhile for anyone looking to get some solitude within a day’s travel of an access point and who doesn’t mind a bit of work.
Starting Point: Brent (Cedar Lake, Access Point #27)
Ending Point: Brent (Cedar Lake, Access Point #27)
Total Distance: 31 km
Elevation Gain: Varied. The highest point on the loop is about 120m above the starting elevation on Cedar Lake. Biggest portage climb is 54 meters over 760 meters, Ironwood Lake to Bug Lake.
Duration: 1 nights / 2 days (would be good as a 2 night trip too)
This route is located in Algonquin Provincial Park and begins at access point # 27 (Brent/Cedar Lake). This access point is on the north side of the park and is accessible from Highway 17.
Traditional Territory: This route in Algonquin Provincial Park is located on the traditional territory of the Omàmìwininìwag (Algonquin) and Anishinabewaki (source).
Maps & Resources
Map: Jeff’s Algonquin Map or Algonquin Park Canoe Routes (digital) – The paper copy can be purchased at Algonquin Outfitters
Please note, at this time Jeff’s Maps should not be purchased as the current owner of the business has not been fulfilling orders. Jeff will be coming out with an Algonquin map through his new map company, Unlostify in the future. In the meantime, both the Park’s Official Canoe Routes Map and Backroads Mapbook’s Waterproof Algonquin Map are viable alternatives.
Campsite Reservations: Reservations are required for the lake you wish to camp on. Campsites on that lake are first come first served and can be reserved through the Ontario Parks reservation portal.
Permits: The Park is now allowing trippers to print their permits at home. Permits may still be picked up at the office serving the access point (in this case, the Kearney office).
Outfitters & Shuttles
We did not use an outfitter for this trip. Algonquin Outfitters operates the Brent Store (located at Brent) and I have used them in the past. They provide excellent service and a wealth of information about the area. Even if you don’t plan on using them for a rental, make sure to stop by the store and say hello. I guarantee you’ll learn something about your route once you talk to the staff there.
Day 0: Brent Access Point to Campsite (0.5 km)
The Brent access point (#27) on Cedar Lake’s north shore is an interesting spot to visit. At one point Brent was a small but thriving town built up around a railway station and the Park’s lumber industry. As with the other towns that used to dot the Park, Brent no longer exists as an actual permanent settlement. However, unlike many of those other towns, there’s still a thriving little community up there. It’s worth taking a look around the area if you arrive early for a trip, which is exactly what I did for this particular loop.
The plan was to meet up with a couple of friends at Brent and head over to Carl Wilson Lake for a quick three day loop. My friends were driving in from Ottawa, while I had paddled up from Canoe Lake over the past couple of days. Thanks to some poor planning on my part, I arrived at Cedar a day ahead of schedule, which gave me some time to walk around Brent and check out the sights (and sites).
Brent has a little bit of something for everyone. There’s a drive in campground for those who prefer car camping. There are also a couple of jump-off sites for backcountry trippers who are arriving late and don’t want to navigate Cedar after dark (an option that future me should have paid more attention to, but we’ll get to that). Brent is also home to a number of cottages, an interesting historic walk and Algonquin Outfitters’ outpost on Cedar Lake, the Brent Store. In other words, it’s basically Grand Central Station for North Algonquin.
I started my tour of Brent by following the Brent Historic Walk. This is a hike stroll that goes from one end of the Brent settlement to the other, stopping at points of historical interest along the way. The history on display is fascinating. The Cedar Lake area used to be a hub for logging operations in Algonquin, and you can certainly see that legacy in Brent. I’d suggest this trail for anyone looking to kill time while in Brent, but I don’t know if it’s worth making a trip to Brent specifically for the walk. I did, however, learn that the Brent Diner used to offer a full steak dinner for fifty cents. Sadly, the diner is no longer in operation. But you can buy jerky at the Brent Store, so it’s kind of the same thing?
Once I’d gotten my fill of Brent, I paddled back to my campsite on Cedar’s north shore to wait for my buddies to arrive. I had picked my site based entirely on proximity to Brent. It was the first paddle in site to the west of the access point and my nearest neighbour was a cottage barely hidden by the trees (the residents of that cottage are lovely people, I stumbled into them while I was exploring around my site and they invited me in for dinner). As far as cottage adjacent sites go, this one was actually pretty decent. It had enough room for a few tents, a little mini westward facing beach that gave a great view down Cedar and, most importantly, it was less than a ten minute paddle from the parking lot. This turned out to be extremely important as my buddies didn’t arrive until late, long after night had fallen and a blanket of clouds accompanied by a very thick mist had settled in.
The upshot of all this was that my buddies arrived to a pitch black access point and me pointing at my canoe with a half crazed glint in my eye, promising that our site was “just” a ten minute paddle away. Ten minutes in broad daylight is one thing. Hell, ten minutes under a full moon is one thing. But ten minutes when you can’t see past the edge of your paddle without the Bat Signal is another thing altogether. Did I mention that this was one of my friends’ first backcountry Algonquin trip? I’m sure he was brimming with confidence as we made our way slowly along the shoreline with me muttering “wait, we should be there by now” every thirty seconds. Fortunately, we eventually made it to the site and settled into our tents for the night.
Campsite: Cedar Lake – Campsite #31 – I chose this site specifically for its proximity to the Brent access point. This is the first site west of the access point on the north shore, and it did not disappoint. It’s a decent little spot no more than a ten minute paddle (or 15 minute walk) from the access point, but that doesn’t feel like you’re giving up on privacy by staying there. The site is fairly level, with a very small rise from the beach up to the rest of the site. It’s also a fairly compact site, everything is within twenty feet of the fire pit. Despite its compactness, it doesn’t feel cramped.
I counted four spots that would work pretty well for tents. Two up behind the fire pit that would be good for any sized tent. A third, small, spot just between the fire pit and the beach. This would give a great view of the water, but is probably best used as a place to cook and prepare food instead of as a tent site. There’s a fourth, semi-secret spot that I didn’t notice until my second day on the site. It’s off to the right when looking up at the site from the water, and is surrounded by a circle of pine trees. It feels like it would be very cosy and would work well for anyone hanging a tarp or a hammock tent.
You can walk to Brent from this site. There’s a path past the thunderbox that goes off into the woods. Follow it (the last twenty feet will feel like it’s pretty much disappeared) and it will take you out behind some nearby cottages. From there you can walk along a gravel road into Brent if you’re so inclined. (FYI: The people in the cottage next to the site are really nice and really friendly. I stopped and had a quick chat with them and they invited me in for dinner within about 30 seconds, despite the fact that I hadn’t showered in four days and must have smelled like an escaped lab monkey.)
Day 1: Cedar Lake to Carl Wilson Lake (16 km)
The next morning dawned grey and wet. It was one of those days where it didn’t so much rain as the air simply condensed on your skin in a constant mist that never. let. up. Paddling across Cedar was like paddling through a cloud. The portage to Fry Lake is west of Brent, about two-thirds of the way down Cedar on the east shore. By the time we arrived at the portage we were all good and wet, but looking forward to the first carry of the day.
I mentioned earlier that this was one of my buddies’ first backcountry trips. More specifically, this was his first backcountry trip to include portaging. Well, here’s a thought: If you’re introducing someone to the joys of backcountry paddling, there are probably better portages to pick for their first carry than the Cedar Lake to Fry Lake climb (1,500 m). This portage starts off uphill and stays that way for the next kilometre and a half. The terrain isn’t super friendly and, when it’s been raining for a day and a half, it’s slippery AF in more than a few places. My buddies were tandem carrying the canoe, which meant that they were trying to navigate this slippery slope while also adjusting for each other along the way. The good news is that they were both smiling when they finished and neither of them tried to dump me overboard for suggesting the route.
Fry Lake isn’t much to look at. It’s basically a small pond that, as far as I can tell, exists only to break up what would otherwise be a 2.5 km + portage from Cedar Lake to Gull Lake. We were across it fairly quickly and then it was on to the 1,000 m portage between Fry and Gull. This is another portage that feels like it’s entirely uphill. Uphill, that is, until you get to about the 80% mark and then it’s very sharply downhill. I was carrying solo and, once again the terrain was difficult. I actually lost my footing at one point and did a slow motion tumble at a place where the path slopes across a small hill. Fortunately, both I and the canoe were ok. The rock that I slipped on, however, is probably still suffering from all the verbal abuse I heaped on it that day.
There’s one campsite on Gull Lake but, honestly, I don’t know why you’d want to stay there. Gull is an OK lake, but it’s nothing special. If I was looking for a private lake between Cedar and Carl Wilson there are definitely better options (that I’ll touch on later). There is a neat little island in the middle of the lake, so at least it has that going for it.
It’s a short 470 meter portage out of Gull Lake to Glacier Lake, and an even shorter paddle across Glacier to the next portage. We stopped at the beginning of the 345 m portage from Glacier Lake to Camp Five Lake for some lunch and to chat with a couple of trippers who had been staying on Carl Wilson but decided they’d rather get soaked by the rain closer to their vehicle. They were heading back to Cedar for the night and while I understand the sentiment, they ended up missing out on a gorgeous evening once the clouds (finally) cleared off.
Camp Five is another smaller lake. It doesn’t take much time to paddle from the top to bottom, but there’s a bit more to see than there was on Glacier. Camp Five has one campsite on the west shore and a clearing in the southeast corner that seems manmade. The map shows ruins in this area, and my guess is that this used to be the site of a logging camp (logging camp #5, perhaps?). It could also have been the site of a band camp, but that seems less likely.
The 1,235 meter portage between Camp Five and Varley Lake is another long one. However, unlike the other two longer carries along this route, this portage is relatively enjoyable. It’s flat(ish), well marked and also happens to be the portage where we (finally) started to see some blue sky peeking through the clouds. It wasn’t much blue sky, basically a tiny swatch of colour in a vast tapestry of grey and, uh, more grey, but damn it was good to see. By the time we put in on Varley there was blue in a couple of spots and I was starting to feel cautiously optimistic that we wouldn’t have to spend the night digging trenches around our tents.
Varley is an interesting lake. There’s a ring of dead trees that completely encircles the shoreline and kinda makes it look like a perfect place to shoot a horror movie (like, I don’t know, The Varley Lake Witch Project maybe? Call me Hollywood, I’m ready). We threw out various theories as to what had caused the die off as we paddled across the lake; none of which ended up being close to the truth. It turns out that, beside the portage over to Carl Wilson is a pretty solid beaver dam that any beaver would be proud to take credit for. My guess is that before that dam went in, Varley Lake was a lot lower. Once the water levels started to rise, the trees along the shoreline drowned, resulting in the ring of dead forest. I have no idea if this is scientifically accurate, and am far too lazy to look it up, so we’re going to say that it is and move on to Carl Wilson (after finishing the short, easy 345 m portage over from Varley Lake to Carl Wilson Lake).
By the time we arrived on Carl Wilson, the clouds were definitely breaking up. That was the good news. The bad news was that they were being broken up by a pretty significant headwind blowing down from the north. I was riding in the middle of the canoe for the first part of our paddle up from the portage, and I have to admit there were more than a few times where I thought we might be about to go over as the waves crashed into us. Fortunately, no canoes were dumped until after we’d found our campsite for the night.
We ended up on the eastern shore, at a site about halfway up the lake. As far as campsites go, it was a good one: multiple tent spots, a good fire pit, fantastic swimming thanks to the soft as silk sand bottom and a great view up and down the lake. We set up with the sun shining overhead, swam a bit, ate some dinner and enjoyed our campfire until long after the stars had come out.
I think the highlight of that night was burning pieces of a newly downed pine we’d found. The wood was still pretty green and didn’t burn that well. But, from time to time, waves of flame would race up and down the branches, seemingly burning just above the wood. Then they’d disappear as quickly as they came, leaving the wood itself untouched. I’m not sure what exactly was causing this, and since my tree science is rusty these days, we’ll have to agree to call it magic and be done with it.
Campsite: Carl Wilson Lake – Site #2 – The site is located on the eastern shore of Carl Wilson, at about the halfway point, and is well worth checking out if you’re staying on Carl Wilson (and you should stay on Carl Wilson). The site offers great views, decent tent spots and some of the sneaky best swimming I found all summer.
The shoreline along the site is rocky. There’s a narrow slip in the rocks that’s good for one canoe, but loading/unloading can still be a bit of a balancing act (or unbalancing act as my buddy found out during a slow motion dumping while trying to get in the canoe later on). The site rises away from the water, with a number of different level spots. Despite the slight change in elevation, it’s not a difficult site to get around.
Probably the only mild negative about this site is the fact that there are only two decent tent spots. The good news is that both spots are quite good; broad, flat surfaces with good views of the water and decent trees nearby if you want to build a tarp structure. The sites also quite close together, so get ready to listen to some snoring.
Day 2: Carl Wilson to Cedar Lake (by way of Little Cedar) (15 km)
We woke up the next morning to an absolutely gorgeous day. Blue skies, sun shining overhead etc… I’m sure if I’d looked hard enough I could have found a few cartoon bluebirds to sing with me as I danced through the forest. We ate a leisurely breakfast then set off to complete our loop back to Cedar.
There are three ways to access Carl Wilson. The first, and closest to Brent, is the one we used to come in the night before through Varley at the south end of the lake. There are two other routes at the north end, one of which takes you up to Little Cauchon and would be handy if you were heading further into the interior. The second route, and the one we took to get out, takes you out through Ironwood Lake and Bug Lake and back into Cedar by way of Little Cedar. It’s a decent route, and both Ironwood and Bug Lake are surprisingly nice, but man, a couple of those portages are something else.
The 370 m portage from Carl Wilson to Ironwood is easy enough. There’s a little bit of up and down but nothing too exciting. It deposits you on Ironwood, which has one campsite and would make a really nice private lake for a night. Then you get to the Ironwood to Bug Lake portage and all thoughts of private lakes disappear in a haze of sweat, sadness and swearing.
Saying the Ironwood to Bug portage adds some elevation would be an understatement. Basically, you start walking from Ironwood, and pretty soon you realize that climbing would be a more appropriate verb to describe what you’re doing. The trail goes up and up, getting steeper and steeper, and then, when you’re pretty sure it a) can’t go up anymore and b) can’t get any steeper it does c) both of those things. There’s about 65 m of elevation change across that 760 m portage and boy, do you feel it. It is, however, nice and wide with decent terrain, so at least the Algonquin Park Portage Design Committee isn’t actively trying to trip you down the hill. They save that for the next portage.
Bug Lake was, surprisingly, not buggy at all. Maybe the air is too thin for the bugs at that lofty altitude. There are a couple of campsites on this lake but my guess is that the combination of the name and the nearly kilometer of low maintenance portage you have to climb from either direction to get there, means that if you were to book a site on Bug Lake you’d probably have the place to yourself. The 875 meter portage down to Little Cedar is just as steep as the one up from Ironwood. I found the terrain less forgiving on this one, particularly the final descent towards Little Cedar that follows along what must have once been a stream bed and is now just an obstacle course of slippery rocks, mud and tears.
We arrived at Little Cedar with the sun hot and high in the sky. There was a gentle breeze blowing down from the north and it was perfect conditions for the last leg of the trip. The old CN rail bed passes along the north shore of Little Cedar, and it’s neat paddling alongside it back towards Cedar while thinking about the trains that once brought people and goods into the park. Once back on Cedar we stopped at the first campsite on the west shore, where there are some fantastic ruins from the old Kish Kaduk Lodge. The lodge operated in the park until 1975 and there are still some impressive remnants in the area. In particular, the two stone fireplaces, complete with chimneys, that still stand in the middle of a debris field of fallen walls are an awesome sight. I highly recommend checking this site out, as well as reading up on its history here. (If you aren’t getting to Cedar any time soon, check out the many pictures of the ruins over at Tour du Park, then check out the other 80 historic locations catalogued over there. Peek’s a ruin finding machine).
After exploring the ruins we got back in the canoe and headed for Brent. We were fortunate to have a tailwind pushing us along; I don’t want to think about how awful that paddle might have been with the wind coming from another direction. The rest of the trip went uneventfully and pretty soon we were pulling up to the access point, happy to be back and looking forward to some post-trip burgers (which, FYI, are a bit of a drive away. Brent needs to bring back the 50 cent steak dinner).
I highly recommend the loop up to Carl Wilson for anyone looking for a nice one or two night trip. There’s a bit of work involved, but the payoff is well worth the effort. Carl Wilson is a beautiful lake. There are only a few sites spread out around the shoreline so it doesn’t feel too crowded.
In retrospect, that string of portages in between Cedar and Carl Wilson may not be the best way to introduce someone to carrying a canoe, but they weren’t insurmountable either. I’d recommend this trip for anyone looking to get away for a short trip who has a couple of previous trips under their belt. I wouldn’t want to start my portaging career with some of that uphill, but Carl Wilson is definitely worth the effort once you’re comfortable with the whole hiking-with-boats thing.
Drew runs the All of Algonquin website where he chronicles his experiences in Algonquin Park. He has been visiting Algonquin for over 20 years and in 2016 decided to make it a goal to paddle all of Algonquin’s canoe route accessible lakes. Turns out there are a lot of canoe route-accessible lakes in Algonquin. You can follow along with his progress on his blog or through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Website: All of Algonquin