Algonquin Provincial Park: Canoe Lake to Sunbeam Lake Loop (4 days / 38 km)
This is one of Algonquin Provincial Park’s classic loops. Starting and ending in Canoe Lake, this loop is the perfect trip for beginners looking for a challenge or an intermediate looking for a ‘tune up’ trip to get ready for further adventures. It is a combination of small and medium-sized lakes, short and long portages, and incredible wildlife sighting opportunities. Even though this is a great beginner trip, it has no shortages of challenges to face, but always with great rewards.
This report will cover a beginner level pace, however I will add notes for those who are looking for a greater challenge.
Starting Point: Canoe Lake Access Point 4
Ending Point: Canoe Lake Access Point 4
Total Distance: 39 km
Duration: 4 days / 3 nights
This route is in the southwest part of Algonquin Provincial Park, leaving from Canoe Lake just off of Highway 60.
Traditional Territory: This route in Algonquin Provincial Park is located on the traditional territory of the Omàmìwininìwag (Algonquin) and Anishinabewaki (source).
Maps & Resources
Maps: Jeffs Map Algonquin West or The Adventure Map Algonquin 1: Corridor North
Permits: Reservations can be made through the Ontario Parks reservation portal. Reserving a campsite on the lake (online or by phone) means one of the sites on that lake is reserved for you. You may not reserve a specific site. First come, first served. Permits can be printed at home or downloaded to your device or at Access Point #4.
Outfitters & Shuttles
Outfitter: For this loop, you can use The Portage Store, Algonquin Outfitters or Algonquin Bound. The Portage Store is right on Canoe Lake.
Shuttles: No shuttle is needed as this route starts and ends at the same place. Parking is available at the lake access.
Day 1: Canoe Lake to Joe Lake (8 km)
Portages: 200 m
Starting in the southeastern bay of Canoe Lake, we paddled north through the scenic though often busy Canoe Lake. With typical moderate to strong headwinds, we hugged the right shore until reaching the islands near the centre of the lake. We used those islands to block the wind and safely move to the north of the lake where we once again hugged the right shore.
Having made good time, we stopped at the Tom Thompson Memorial near the north of the lake, as this was the 100th year anniversary of his mysterious death on the very same lake. After taking in the sites, we continued north, making a right at the fork. As we rounded the bend we heard a great commotion and saw the hind of a moose rushing into the woods, no doubt startled by us.
Reaching the end of the lake, we took a short and easy portage to Joe Lake. At around 200 m and wide enough to drive on, this is as easy as any portage gets in the park. Complete with a composting toilet. I had not realized it at the time, but for some campers new to canoe tripping, this sets an impossibly high standard for the rest of the trip’s portages. Once on Joe, we travelled northeast until we came across one of my favourite sites on the lake.
Campsite: Joe Lake. A rocky peninsula about halfway along the lake. Not only is it a beautiful site, but it also has possibly the best views of the lake.
Day 2: Joe Lake to Sunbeam (12 km)
Portages: 200m, 540m, 495m, 110m, 390m.
On the second day I woke up to was I thought was a beaver splashing around in the bay. I was delighted and a little bit shocked to open my tent and see a young moose chomping away on some tasty lilies. Though I did my best to be quiet, the moose took off into the woods the moment I tried to open my sleeping bag.
Knowing that today was going to be the most challenging day of the trip, we woke up early, had a fast breakfast and took off onto the water. Heading east through the Joe Lake system, we managed to skip all but the last portage (200 m) going to Burnt Island Lake by dragging our boats through the shallow creeks connecting all the lakes.
Having turned four portages into one portage, our spirits were already high when we were treated to a rare sight: Burnt Island Lake was almost still as glass. Heading north we made quick time getting to the North Western bay where we would find our first “real” portage. We stopped for some food and to fill up our water bottles and soon took off up the longest portage of the trip.
This portage was made more difficult by a steep muddy section. It was then that the campers realized that the two easy 200 m portages were not something they could expect anymore. After conquering this 540 m portage we loaded up our boat, paddled two minutes, unloaded and took off onto another long portage (495 m). Having not yet gotten over the unexpected challenge of the previous portage, our campers were rather pleased that this one was less elevation and generally easier to traverse.
We once more loaded up, paddled an extremely short distance and unloaded to get past our next portage, an easy 110 m trek. Waiting for us was an even shorter paddle. However, the takeout for the next portage is along a steep slope of granite, made even more challenging by some blow-down. After successfully unloaded, the next 390 m of portaging seemed easy in comparison. Greeting us at the end of a long day of portaging was Sunbeam Lake.
Campsite: Sunbeam Lake. This is a beautiful small lake with dramatic islands. We chose the first island across from portage, unloaded our gear and took a much needed swim in the lake. That night we were treated to a lovely orange and pink sunset.
Day 3: Sunbeam Lake to Tom Thompson Lake (5 km)
Portages: 670 m, 275 m, 130 m, 300 m (not on the map), 470 m
Setting out on a day that is more hiking than it is paddling, we decided to have a post breakfast swim and take our time enjoying the sites of Sunbeam.
Our first portage was the longest of the trip at 670 m, from Sunbeam Lake to Aster Pond. After yesterday’s practice, we had our portage game on lock. With some notable elevation changes, this portage is a challenge, but nothing too difficult.
After another short paddle across yet another pond, we set off on our next two portages: 275 m portage to Willow Lake, and then 130 m portage to Kooy Pond. As luck would have it, the pond was mostly mud, forcing us to walk around the north side of the pond to the next portage.
Our final portage of 470 m was particularly challenging as it was really just part three of an unexpected 900 m portage. (I should note that on other trips Kooy Pond has been either fully or at least halfway paddle-able). The last leg of this portage is thankfully downhill but ends with a steep descent towards the lake. Thankfully we still had high spirits – cursing out our frustrations at Kooy as we loaded up our boats with nothing but water in front of us.
Choosing the most beautiful site on Tom Thompson Lake can be a challenge. However, it is an incredibly busy lake, especially on weekends. So we took the first site we found that was open.
Campsite: Tom Thomspon Lake. To our luck, the first open site was the first site to our left after the narrows. A beautiful long site along with some dramatic rock faces. Having made great timing on our portages, we set out to paddle around the lake to do some site seeing. It is there that we discovered that the crown jewel of the lake, a large island with two sites, was fully available. Not wanting to repack and re-setup we made peace with our choices and enjoyed the evening.
Day 4: Tom Thompson Lake to Canoe Lake (13 km)
Portages: 200 m
Having spent the last two days spending more time on our feet than in our boats, we were all very happy to know that we had 12 km of paddling to enjoy with only one short portage.
After a big “leftovers special” breakfast we took off down south where we encountered a beaver dam blocking the mouth of the lake. This is a consistent feature for as long as I have been paddling. However, there is sometimes enough water flowing over to get a boat over top. Gathering as much speed as we could, each boat attempted to slide over top. Each boat ended up getting stuck on top. But what is a canoe trip without a beaver dam drag?
With the morning’s excitement behind us, we slowly paddled down the long narrows known as the Little Oxtongue River. It’s a beautiful and easy paddle through one of my favourite spots to see moose. Our moose sighting days had seemed to be all but behind us when spotted what looked to be a moose further down the river. Staying quiet and paddling slowly, we snuck up to what turned out to be a turned-over tree sticking out onto the water.
Disappointment did not last long as we were treated to the sight of two beavers working away on their den around the next corner. At the end of the river came the small but exciting Lake Teepee, home of Camp Arowhon, one of the many summer camps found spotted around Algonquin Park. After avoiding some less-than-in-control sailboats we found ourselves back in Joe Lake. Stopping at the most westerly sight on the north shore, we enjoyed our lunch on the Gibraltar Lookout, found behind the campsite.
Back in our boats, we headed south to our last (and first) portage of the trip, the 200 m long “Highway” portage that connects to Canoe lake. Heading south on Canoe Lake we were treated to a mild tailwind and reminisced about how difficult it was to paddle into the wind at the start of the trip. Sticking to the same island hopping route we used on day one, we made quick time back to the access point where we celebrated our journey with freezies and popcorn.
As far as first canoe trips go, this had it all. Great scenery, wildlife, campsites and more than enough challenge. The campers were all proud of what they accomplished, no doubt feeling like they accomplished more than they would have thought possible. Even though this loop never takes you too far into the park, you sure do feel remote when you camp on Sunbeam Lake.
As this is a trip I have done many times, I would like to add some notes to any intermediate paddlers looking to take on this loop. This makes a great two night trip. You can choose to camp anywhere, but Burnt Island and Tom Thompson are my choices. This leaves you with two days of great paddling on either end of a challenging portage day. It is also not unreasonable to do this all in two days as an intermediate paddler if you are looking for a high-speed, low drag experience. My first time doing this loop was done that way, having spent my only night on Burnt Island. Though if I were to do it again, I would choose to camp on Sunbeam to make the days more even.
There is also an alternative route from Sunbeam to Little Doe Lake (opposite Tom Thompson) when the water levels are high enough. This option has two easy portages and a beautiful section which in a snaking narrows through what used to be a lake. When this option is available it is certainly more preferable than Sunbeam to Tom Thompson if you have already had enough portaging on your trip.
A few important notes about this section of the park. There are a lot of moose in this area. As beautiful as they are, they can be very territorial. If threatened they can become aggressive. So keep your distance and always give them the right of way. Most likely they will avoid you at all costs, but I have experienced stubborn moose in this area before.
The second note is that because of the high traffic of inexperienced campers, Joe, Little Doe, and Tom Thompson all have a history of “problem bears” that have come to associate campers with an easy meal. The risk of a physical encounter with a problem bear is very low, however, the risk of having a bear visit your site at night and making off with your food is much higher than anywhere else in the park. So adhere to the recommended food storage methods set out by park officials!
As always, stay safe and enjoy tour adventure!
Kevin Fraser is an outdoor educator, canoe guide, and the owner and operator of Wild Connection Outdoor Education. As a lover of the outdoors, Kevin is passionate about sharing his curiosity of nature as well as teaching wilderness living skills. When not teaching and guiding, he can most likely be found relaxing around a camp fire or playing in rapids in a canoe.
Website: Wild Connection