Bon Echo Provincial Park: Abes & Essens Lake Trail (3 days / 17 km)

The Abes and Essens Lake Trail is the only backpacking trail in Bon Echo Provincial Park and one of few in Eastern Ontario. A short drive from Kingston and Ottawa, this trail is a great option for local backpackers of all skill levels. 

The trail is made up of three interconnecting looped trails—Clutes (3.5 km), Essens Lake (9.6 km), and Abes (17 km) and is rated by Ontario Parks as moderate to difficult since day-hikers frequent the area. The first loop is clearly well-used as it is wide and well-groomed. Beyond this, many sections feel like bushwacking and are somewhat tricky to navigate, at least in the spring/early summer.

With 5 backcountry camping sites along the trail, it’s suitable for beginner backpackers with good fitness. In fact, this was my first ever backcountry camping trip! We took it slow, completing the trail as a 2-night trip. For more experienced backpackers, it’s totally doable with just one night of camping.

Trip Completed: June 2020

Trip Summary

Starting Point: Abes and Essens Trailhead Parking Lot

Ending Point: Abes and Essens Trailhead Parking Lot

Total Distance: 17 km

Elevation Gain: 282 m

Duration: 3 days / 2 nights. The trip could easily be completed in 2 days.

Difficulty: Beginner

Location

The Abes & Essens Trail is located in Bon Echo Provincial Park in southeastern Ontario. Off Hwy 41, the nearest town is Cloyne—about an hour and a half from Kingston.

Traditional Territory: This route takes place on the traditional territory of Annishinabewaki and Omàmìwinìwag (Algonquin) (source). 

Maps & Resources

Guidebook: N/A

Map: Bon Echo Provincial Park and Area by Chrismar Mapping (Paper Map)

Campsite Reservations: Campsite bookings are made in advance through the Ontario Parks Online Reservation system. You reserve specific sites along the trail.

Permits: Upon arrival, permits are picked up at the entrance gate.

Outfitters & Shuttles

Outfitter: We didn’t use an outfitter for this trip since we had our own backpacking gear.

Shuttle: The trail is a loop from the parking lot, so a shuttle is not required!

Trip Report

Day 1: Trailhead to Essens Lake (2.6 km / 1 hour)

We departed Ottawa around 4:00 pm on a Friday with a 2-hour drive ahead of us. After picking up our permits at the park gate, we parked at the trailhead, swapped Birkenstocks for hiking shoes, and set off with our packs just after 6:00 p.m. 

From the parking lot, we turned east towards the main trailhead. Since we were hiking the trail in a counter-clockwise direction, instead of entering the trail here, we walked a few minutes up the road to the alternative trail entrance. This brought us onto the east side of the Clutes loop. There is no signage here, but you can’t miss it. Just don’t turn around too early, thinking you’ve missed it like we did and have to double-back.

The first part of the trail up to the clearing on Clutes Lake is wide and well-groomed on flat and easy terrain. At the fork, we turned right to continue onto the Abes loop. From here, the campsites on Essens Lake aren’t far. This first section of the Essens loop features slightly more difficult terrain, becoming a little steeper and buggier. As the clearing breaks, the first Essens Lake campsite is just ahead, marked with a bright orange sign. 

In total, it took us 55 minutes—at a very slow pace—to make it to our campsite on Essens Lake. We arrived around 7:00 pm, with plenty of time to set up camp, cook a quick dinner, and refill our water bottles before dark.

Campsite: Essens Lake, #526. There are two sites on Essens Lake and we stayed at the first one. The site was fairly unremarkable. It was in a wooded area, which meant lots of bugs, especially near the thunderbox. There wasn’t a particularly good view of Essens Lake, but there was water access. However, it was weedy and wouldn’t make the best swim spot.

Day 2: Essens Lake to Little Rock Lake (8.8 km / 3 hours)

We slept in a bit, only getting out of our tent around 9:00 am. Before packing up our gear, we made a quick breakfast of instant oatmeal to fuel for the day. Around 11:00 am, we finally set off on our way to Little Rock Lake, heading slightly inland toward the other campsite on Essens Lake. 

Once reaching site #527, the trail veers back to shore, hugging the lake for about a kilometre. The next wooded section features overgrown bushes and is where the day’s bushwhacking begins. Quickly, we reached a fork in the trail and followed the sign to merge onto the Abes loop. A few minutes later, we found a beautiful lookout and decided to stop for lunch. From here to the two campsites on Abes Lake, the trail is pretty unremarkable. 

We made a quick stop at the first Abes site to fill up our water bottles, knowing it was the most reliable water source nearby, and continued on. The section between the second Abes site and Little Rock Lake was gruelling—the deep woods were incredibly buggy, much of the trail was brush, and several sections were confusing to navigate. The apex of the trail is under-travelled in the spring, and we practically had to forge our own path. We felt like we had been walking forever.

Finally, we spotted an orange sign ahead! We were so relieved that we ran the rest of the way to the site. Exhausted and drenched in sweat, we dropped our packs, ready to relax for the rest of the day. It had taken us 3 hours to hike to Little Rock Lake, arriving with plenty of time to swim and read our books before dinner. 

Campsite: Little Rock Lake, #530. This is the only site in the area, so camping here feels like a true backcountry experience! In fact, to this day, it’s my favourite campsite of all time. Unfortunately, the site sees full sun in the afternoon, but the private lake has excellent swimming to help cool off.

Day 3: Little Rock Lake to Trailhead (4.7 km / 1.5 hours)

Bright and early, we woke to the sound of a snapping turtle laying an egg just a few metres outside our tent. Before breakfast, I jumped in the lake for a swim, feeling sad to be leaving such a wonderful campsite so soon. But our relaxing time at Little Rock Lake also left us refreshed and rejuvenated, and by 10 am we were on the move again.

About 15 minutes in, we reached the end of the Abes loop. Rather than continuing onto the west side of the Essens loop, we decided to take a quick detour along the bottom of the Abes loop (or the top of the Essens loop, depending on how you look at the map) towards the water feature marked on the map. It wasn’t much to see, but we snapped some pictures anyway before retracing our steps. 

Now on the Essens loop, the terrain got a little steeper, but we managed just fine without trekking poles. About 2 kilometres later, we had completed the Essens loop and continued onto the west side of the Clutes loop. This final stretch to the trailhead was flat and easy, and our pace significantly quickened. Our spirits were high and we didn’t want the trip to end! Alas, we made it to the official trailhead, taking a celebratory selfie before walking the final metres to our car. 

Reflections

Our first backpacking trip went well and we learned a lot. Sure, we had a few hiccups and inconveniences, but we expected this and planned accordingly! Luckily, by day 3 we were able to look back and laugh at some of the less fortunate events of the trip. Ultimately, we drove home eager for the next two backpacking trips we had planned for the summer. 

Plus, we’d both consider coming back to this trail sometime. If we do, we’d do a few things differently. 

What Went well

The trip length was well within our comfort zones. We deliberately planned to take this trip slowly – and we were glad we did when my boyfriend lost the toenail of his big toe mere days before the trip – because this significantly slowed our pace. If we were to hike this trail again, we’d definitely make it a 2-day, 1-night trip. In fact, all of the hikers we met along the trail had opted for this shorter option. 

The Little Rock Lake campsite was phenomenal. I’d hike the trail again just to go back to this site! It’s well off the trail and completely isolated on a private lake. Complete with excellent swimming, it was a five-star stay!

We were both happy with our gear—new and old! We each bought new 60-litre Gregory packs ahead of this trip and they couldn’t have been more comfortable. I also tried out a new pair of sturdy, Salomon trail running shoes which didn’t cause my flat feet any discomfort. Not all of our gear was particularly lightweight or top-of-the-line, but everything worked well for us.

What Could Have Gone Better

As we were trying to fall asleep on night one, our tent was literally attacked by a raccoon—with holes we’ve since patched to prove it! We had just turned off our headlamps and tucked into our sleeping bags when we heard the frightening sound of an animal loudly scurrying around our site. Suddenly, the animal was at our tent, scratching with its claws and pushing its body weight into the tent walls. After shining our headlamps in its eyes we realized it was a raccoon, but this didn’t scare it away—it continued to claw at our tent, also managing to puncture my boyfriend’s brand new sleeping pad. Only after raising our voices did the raccoon finally leave us alone. 

It was a truly terrifying experience on our first backcountry camping trip. By the next morning, we felt defeated, and pushing on was mentally tough for both of us. We had put our food, cookset, and scented toiletries in our bear hang and kept our site clean, so the only reasonable explanation for the animal’s behaviour was a history of food being made available by campers at this site. Clearly, we survived to tell the story—one I share as a friendly reminder to leave no trace when camping! 

I regret not wearing hiking pants. I am a super sweaty human and wore shorts to cope with the mid-June heat, but the near-bushwhacking sections and fierce mosquitos wreaked havoc on my legs, leaving them scarred for the rest of the summer. I’ve spared you the photographic evidence.

I’ve never had so many mosquito bites. The bugs were ferocious in the wooded sections of the trail, particularly between the Abes campsites and Little Rock Lake. All the bugproof clothing is recommended for your sanity if hiking this trail in the spring or early summer. Don’t end up like me with hundreds of bug bites from head to toe… 

Gallery


Author Bio

Sarah loves spending time outdoors—be it on foot, in the water, or on her bike. She’s been camping all her life but is relatively new to backcountry trips. An endurance athlete at heart, there is nothing she loves more than the physical and mental challenge of any camping adventure. When Sarah isn’t sleeping in a tent, she can be found training for triathlons and dreaming of travel. She currently lives in Ottawa, Ontario. 

Instagram: @sarahvt97

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