Frontenac Provincial Park: Big Salmon Lake – Tetsmine Lake – Gibson Lake Loop (3 days / 32 km)

I had a great time on this solo two-night backpacking trip. It was my first time visiting Frontenac Provincial Park and I’ll definitely be back. I travelled around the north end of the park and would love to visit the south end as well, which I hear is more rugged.

The park is beautiful and the campsites are well-maintained. The north section is beginner-friendly, with not a lot of elevation gain and generally great tread. There are some sections of trail with rocks and roots, but a lot of the time I was able to cruise along easily.

There is no car camping in this park, it’s for backpacking and canoeing only, which gives it a more calm vibe than parks like Algonquin, even on a long weekend.

Trip Completed: August 2021

Trip Summary

Starting Point: Salmon Lake Parking Lot

Ending Point:Salmon Lake Parking Lot

Total Distance: 31.6 km

Elevation Gain: 564 metres (according to my watch)

Duration: 3 days / 2 nights

Difficulty: Beginner

Location

This route is located in Frontenac Provincial Park. The nearest big city is Kingston and the nearest town / county is Sydenham.

This is the route I took.

Traditional Territory: This route takes place on the traditional territory of the Anishinabewaki, the Mississauga, and the Wendake-Nionwensïo (source).

Maps & Resources

Guidebook: N/A

Map: I used the official Frontenac Provincial Park hiking/canoe route map, waterproof edition. This is a great map! Not all provincial park maps are created equal, but I was really pleased with this one. It’s about $23 from the park website for the waterproof version, and it’s definitely worth it. There are so many intersections in the park that having a good map is essential.

Campsite Reservations: Reservations are required and can be booked through the Ontario Parks online system.

Permits: Permits are required and can be picked up at the park office.

Outfitters & Shuttles

Outfitter: I didn’t use an outfitter, but I think there are some in the area for canoeing.

Shuttle: I did a loop hike and didn’t need a shuttle. Given the limited number of access points to the park, I imagine that shuttles generally aren’t needed.

Trip Report

Day 1: Salmon Lake Parking Lot to Little Clear Lake (7.7 km)

I left Toronto around 10 am, which is a bit later than I would normally like, but I only had 8 km to hike so I wasn’t worried about a slow start. Between traffic and various stops along the way to pick up lunch and run a couple of errands, I arrived at the park around 2 pm.

The main park office is the only official entry point to Frontenac so I went there first to pick up my permits. From the park office, there are three different parking lots to choose from, depending on what section of the park you’re heading into. I asked the office for advice and they suggested the furthest one, Salmon Lake parking lot, which is about a 4 km drive from the office. Because there are so many interconnected trails, it is technically possible to use any of the parking lots and just hike farther to your destination, but I was trying to take it easy this trip and didn’t want to add extra kilometres.

A really cool thing about Frontenac is that even once you get started, there are many different ways to hike to the same destination. It’s not one big loop, but a series of smaller loops that are all connected, so you can make your hiking days longer or shorter at will. This also means you don’t have to pick your campsites quite as precisely as some other parks. As you’ll see on my second day, the shortest distance to my second campsite was 2.6 km, but I ended up hiking 15 km to get there instead.

For this first day, I decided to take the most direct route to my first campsite, which meant I passed through about 5 different intersections. I had to check my map at each of them to make sure I was still going in the right direction.

There were some ups and downs on the trail, but it wasn’t rolling. There were some roots and rocks as well, but not aggressively so. I was motoring along at about 4 km/h, which is basically my top speed when backpacking. The trails are well-marked and well-travelled.

The forest was mostly deciduous, primarily maple and other leafy green friends, along with some pine trees. Occasionally the trail would come out of the forest into a beautiful grassy meadow. There were lots of squirrels and chipmunks but no other wildlife. And no bugs! There was literally one mosquito all day.

I didn’t see any other backpackers but the park was fully booked that night, so I think a lot of people canoe camp here.

Campsite: After about 2 hours, I arrived at campsite 9c on Little Clear Lake, which had the most amenities of any backcountry campsite I’ve ever stayed at. There was an outhouse, a newly constructed wooden tent pad, a picnic table, firepit with a grill top, and a food locker labelled for my campsite specifically. I didn’t know any of this would be there so I was prepared to be fully Leave No Trace, from my Ursack to my trowel, and it was a nice treat. These amenities are part of what helps make this park beginner-friendly. You don’t need to know how to hang your food or invest in products like an Ursack right away.

I couldn’t use the wooden tent pad because my tent isn’t freestanding, so I squeezed in beside the picnic table instead. (There were hooks along the edges of the tent pad so it might be possible for some people, but I don’t carry extra guylines and didn’t want to fuss with it anyway. It was easier just to set up on the dirt.)

The campsites are in pods of four, so I had three neighbours. There were two outhouses between the four sites. I could see all of my neighbours, which I would say is a downside to Frontenac Provincial Park. Everyone was really chill and quiet that night, but if your neighbours want to party, or even talk loudly around a fire at night, you’ll definitely be affected. It makes it feel less wild, but there is also some comfort in having other people around if you’re new at backcountry adventure.

Little Clear Lake was beautiful and warm. It was actually pretty windy and cold this weekend so I didn’t go swimming, but it would be amazing on a nicer day.

Day 2: Little Clear Lake to Hardwood Bay/Devil Lake via the Tetsmine Lake Loop (15km)

It rained off and on all night, but stopped by the morning. Thankfully I stayed dry, though I was still pretty cold. Even on the August long weekend!

I cooked oatmeal for breakfast and then, unfortunately, I ran out of stove fuel as I was trying to make a cup of tea. Apparently, there was less fuel left in my canister than I thought. I resigned myself to eating uncooked ramen for dinner that night and cold-soaked oatmeal for breakfast the next morning, but the trip was short enough that I didn’t mind too much. Everything was wet enough from the rain that I knew I likely couldn’t get a fire going.

There were three main options for getting to my next campsite this day: 2.6 km, 10 km, or 15 km. I went for the 15km because I wanted to see more of the park and because I hadn’t brought enough to do to spend a whole day in camp.

The trail is less well-travelled in this area of the park, but still very well marked. The trail around Moulton Gorge was very brushy, but fun too. It got more rugged after the gorge for a bit, more rocky and rooty with some extra ups and downs, but it wasn’t excessive.

Between the gorge and Clearwater Lake, it was a green tunnel, but then it opened up again and passed by lakes and through meadows. I saw a few day hikers (from which access points I’m not sure, I thought I was pretty deep in the park), but no other backpackers.

I had lunch at campsite 11 on a big lake, McNally Bay, with lots of pine trees. This is the only section where I found the navigation confusing. There were lots of blue markers in all directions and finding the particular trail I wanted to follow was a bit tricky.

I took a quick side trip to see the Kingsford Dam before leaving the McNally Bay area. The park boundary passes through this lake so there were parked motorboats, but I didn’t see any on the water. (Motorboats aren’t allowed in Frontenac, except on the lakes that form the boundary.)

After leaving McNally Bay, the trail passed by an old mica mine and then started to roll for a bit. I hit another intersection and headed onto the north section of Gibson Lake Loop, which was my favourite part of the park. It’s not the most efficient way to get anywhere and there aren’t any campsites on it, so I had the feeling it doesn’t get as much use. It was up high and peaceful.

Campsite: I spent about 5 hours on the trail including breaks, and arrived at camp at about 4 pm. I stayed at campsite 10a on Hardwood Bay/Devil Lake. It’s off the trail by 0.3 km and down a big hill, so the first thing you do the next morning is hike up the hill.

There was an outhouse again, this time for all four campsites instead of just two. (It was enclosed in metal and smelled really bad.) There was also a food locker again and a firepit with a grill, but no wooden tent pad. These four sites are less built-up than those on Little Clear Lake. There still wasn’t much privacy, but two of the sites were empty this night, so I was grateful for that.

Motorboats and jetskis are permitted on this lake because it’s a boundary lake, so it’s a bit noisier than some other options in the park and has more of a cottage lake feel.

I sat around in my sleeping bag at the picnic table and ate my uncooked ramen, which wasn’t half bad. I did try to start a fire but didn’t have any success with the wet wood. I did some reading and called it an early night.

Day 3: Hardwood Bay to Salmon Lake Parking Lot (8.9 km)

I woke up to see blue sky for the first time on this trip! The sun was shining and there was lots of bird and small mammal activity around camp.

I didn’t bother cold-soaking my oatmeal for breakfast because I had some snacks left and I only had a couple of hours to hike this morning, so I ate my snacks and got on my way. I like hiking in the morning, so I was on the trail by 7:45 am. I passed through a beautiful marshy field area and saw my first deer of the day. (There would be three more deer later.) The trail had great tread and it was excellent hiking.

I approached Little Clear Lake (where I camped on night one) from the east side this time (I came up the west side on day one) and was stunned by how beautiful it is in the sun. The trail is mostly flat through here, soft and piney.

There are a couple of big ups to do and the trail passes by more settler artifacts, like an old barn, a rusting car, and some machinery. One of the reasons the trail is so easy in this section is because it follows old farming pathways.

At the end of the Little Clear Lake loop, I met back up with the same trail I’d come in on Saturday and followed it back to the beginning. The section closest to the parking lot is actually the most rugged this loop gets, oddly enough.

I finished at 10 am, had an early lunch, and hopped back in my car to hopefully beat the traffic heading back into the GTA on the Monday of a long weekend. (I was mostly successful.)

Reflections

I underdressed for the weather somewhat (I just refused to believe it was going to be cold in August) and running out of stove fuel was kind of a bummer, but no reflection on the park itself or the route.

The hiking in this section of Frontenac is beginner-friendly and so are the campsites. For the first time in a while, I picked a route that was within my current physical limits (I usually end up picking routes that challenge me) so that was a pleasant change and led to me having a very relaxing weekend.

My advice to someone looking to go hiking in Frontenac is don’t be afraid to mix and match the trails, and maybe take a longer route to your next campsite than you need to. Have some fun with the different options.

Something to note is that I didn’t have cell service anywhere in the park. Your mileage may vary, but don’t plan to be able to communicate with the outside world or use non-downloaded navigation.

Overall, I had a great time and will definitely be back for more.


Author Bio

Caledonia is a moderately experienced backpacker and hiker who likes picking up new hobbies and anything that can be classified as type 2 fun. Her first backpacking trip was a solo four-night loop of La Cloche Silhouette in 2016, which is not an itinerary she recommends. She’s hiked seven of the nine sections of the Bruce Trail and hopes to finish the other two in 2022. She’s originally from Vancouver Island and currently lives in Toronto.

Instagram: @eachyear

Responses