The Highland Backpacking Trail is one of three backpacking trails in Algonquin Provincial Park. It has excellent, well-maintained campsites and has a convenient starting and ending point at Mew Lake parking lot.
The trail is considered intermediate but is suitable for beginners with good fitness. There are lots of ups and downs, and the trail can be very steep. However, the trail is well marked and easy to navigate.
Warning! There were lots of mosquitos in June / July. If backpacking at this time, bring a bug hat or forfeit your sanity! Though the campsites and sunsets make the trip worth it, despite the bugs.
Trip Completed: June 2020
Starting Point: Mew Lake parking lot
Ending Point: Mew Lake parking lot
Total Distance: 36 km
Elevation Gain: 1500 m
Duration: 3 days / 2 nights
The Highland Backpacking Trail leaves from Mew Lake, which is located off Highway 60 in Algonquin Provincial Park.
Traditional Territory: The Highland Backpacking Trail is located on the traditional territory of the Omàmìwininìwag (Algonquin) and Anishinabewaki (source).
Maps & Resources
Campsite Reservation: You can make your booking through the Ontario Parks Online Reservation. You’re booking for a campsite on a specific lake, not for a specific campsite. For example, we booked “Head Lake” which had 5 or 6 different campsites on it. Specific campsites are on a first-come-first-serve basis.
Outfitters & Shuttles
We didn’t need an outfitter for this trip, as we had all of our backpacking gear. If you need any gear, Algonquin Outfitters is nearby and can supply you with just about anything.
A shuttle isn’t necessary either, as the trail starts and ends at the same parking lot.
Day 1: Trailhead to Provoking East (6 km)
Driving to the trailhead: We left Mississauga at 7:30 am and were in Algonquin Provincial Park by 11:00 am, having made a brief stop in Huntsville for coffees and a bathroom break, and another stop in Dwight to pick up a treat from an excellent bakery. We had a friend living in the park, so we made a quick detour to pop by and say hello. It was around 12:30 that we reached the trailhead, had our backpacks on and were ready to start the trail.
Trailhead to Provoking Falls: The first section of the trail was fairly easy. There were some gradual ups and downs, and the trail is very wide here and well maintained. Being midday Thursday, we only saw one other group on our way in. Normally, this part of the trail is the most trafficked because a lot of people visit Provoking Falls for a picnic or swim.
Note: From the trailhead until the second fork, the trail is marked with Blue Diamonds stapled to trees. The trail is very easy to follow, but if you ever aren’t sure which way the trail goes, look out for the markers.
Provoking Falls to the First Fork: The trail got narrow here and there were a couple of sections where we had to cross a creek, either by hiking over planks of wood on the ground or by going over a boardwalk. At the first fork in the trail, there was a sign that indicateD which way was East and West. The direction you go depends on where you have booked your campsites; we were staying at Provoking East, so we went down the left trail (this means we did the entire trail in the clockwise direction). During this section there is a lookout for views of Starling Lake and Lake of Two Rivers.
First Fork to Provoking East: The trail to the campsites at Provoking East was fairly level; there weren’t a lot of ups and down to climb. However, the trail got noticeably more rugged, with more exposed rocks and very narrow sections. This is also the section where I became aware of the full force of the mosquitos (or so I thought).
Campsite: We stayed at the first campsite at Provoking East. We considered pushing on further to cover more distance on the first day, but the campsite was just so gorgeous so we elected to stay there. The campsite is on a part of the land that juts out into the lake a little, and we had tons of wind coming off the lake and running through our campsite. This meant no bugs!
Day 2: Provoking Lake East to Head Lake (16 km)
Provoking East to the Second Fork: The first section of the trail this day was fairly similar to the other parts around Provoking Lake. There were no major uphill climbs or downhills to navigate (at least not in comparison to what we would later experience). At the fork, there was a sign directing us to either take the First Loop or the Second Loop. If completing the full 35 km like us, you want to take the Second Loop.
Note: Once you begin the second loop, the trail markers change from being Blue Diamonds to Yellow Diamonds.
Second Fork to Harness Lake: At the fork, we had a long walk to Harness Lake and honestly it was pretty monotonous and quite challenging. There were a lot of steep inclines and declines in this section. There were several fallen over trees to go around or climb under / over. Although these obstacles looked difficult to navigate with a heavy backpack, they all were manageable to get around.
This section of the trail was the furthest point from any large body of water. The forest was thick, the bugs were atrocious and the trail was very rugged.
Lunch at Harness Lake: After some 12 km of hiking, we were absolutely exhausted. Drenched in sweat and itchy from bug bites, we stopped for a long lunch break at Harness Lake. We hung out here, resting our feet and rehydrating for about 45 minutes before we began our final section of the trail for Day 2.
Harness Lake to Head Lake: The final 4 km to Head Lake went by pretty quickly. Since the trail follows along the edge of the lakes, there wasn’t a lot of elevation gain here.
Campsite: We arrived at the first campsite on Head Lake and thought about stopping for camp, but I wanted us to get a little more distance in to make the following day a bit shorter. So we left the lovely, spacious campsite and pushed on for another kilometre. To our disappointment, all of the other campsites were taken! So much for that idea. We ended up having to double back to the initial campsite, in the end adding 2 km onto the 16 km we had already hiked to get to Head Lake.
It wasn’t all bad though, as the first campsite on Head Lake is really nice and has a great spot to swim.
Day 3: Head Lake to Trailhead (13 km)
Head Lake to Faya Lake: In my opinion, this was hands down the hardest section of the entire trail. I couldn’t believe how steep some of the sections were – and how they just kept going! I’d round a bend thinking “it must level out now” only to find the steep incline kept ongoing. For the entire trip we had been very diligent in stopping for a break every 3 km, but in this section, we had to drop that down to 2-2.5 km. It was absolutely brutal.
Faya Lake to First Loop: Thankfully, things eased up a bit after Faya Lake. There were still some challenging ascents and descents, but nothing compared to what we had just finished in the previous section. There were long stretches of flat ground, although there were a few huge fallen trees along the pathway.
First Loop to Provoking Falls: Once we had rejoined the First Loop and were following along the west side of Provoking Lake, the trail returned to the reasonably mild ups and downs we had encountered on the first day. During the last two sections, the sky turned grey and I kept expecting it to rain (which would have been a welcome relief – I was drenched in sweat and the bugs were having a time and a half on my exposed hands). Unfortunately, the rain did not materialize.
Lunch at Provoking Falls: Instead of basking in a shower of rain, however, we decided to go for a lunchtime swim at Provoking Falls. Be careful here – although a small waterfall there are some high volume, rocky spots which could be dangerous to fall down.
The final stretch! From Provoking Falls, we only had 2.5 km to the parking lot, a hike we did at a quick clip with no stopping. There were one of two steep parts, but overall not too bad. Finally, we could hear the hum of cars on Highway 60 – never have I been so excited for civilization. The camping and hiking itself was a wonderful experience, but after this final day, my feet, back and knees were sore and I was ready to cut my hands off if it meant the bugs would leave me alone!
Overall, I’d say the trip went really, really well. Especially considering this was my first backpacking trip. Despite this, there are a few things I’d do differently on my next trip.
What Went Well
The trekking poles were so helpful. I don’t know what I would have done without them. They were invaluable climbing up the steep sections and saving my knees during the steep declines.
My bug hat maintained my sanity. Never again will I go anywhere without my bug hat. I don’t care if it looks silly. My face and neck returned from the trip only slightly bug-bitten, and after the bug apocalypse of 2017, I will never take chances with my face and neck again.
Our campsites were beautiful. Not all campsites are created equal in Algonquin, and we lucked out by visiting three stunning campsites – two for overnight camping and one for a long lunch and swim break.
We made delicious camping meals. For our dinners, we had Thai Red Curry and Taco Bowls (I’ll include a recipe for both in a separate post). Having an awesome, hot meal at the end of a long day is a total game-changer on a challenging camping trip.
What Could Have Gone Better
The steep sections were so goddamn steep. There were a few times where we’d round a bend, finally finishing the steep section, only to realize that the next part was even steeper. Especially between Head and Faya Lake, the trekking poles saved me.
The mosquitoes were brutal. They weren’t always that bad at the campsite, but during the day they were unbelievable. Millions of them. Swarming. As mentioned above, the bug hat was a saviour, however I also wish I’d brought mosquito repellent for my exposed hands. I usually carry some Watkins Bug Cream but couldn’t find it for this trip. Next time I’ll definitely bring some.
I wish I had a breathable, mosquito-proof hiking shirt. I ended up doing most of the hike in my raincoat because the bugs could not bite through, but that made me insanely hot and sweaty. Next time I’ll bring a technical hiking top that can withstand mosquitoes.
I got so many blisters. This has little to do with the trail itself (though the rocky steep sections did not help). But I didn’t sufficiently break in my new hiking boots and boy oh boy, did my feet suffer. I was not able to sleep the night I returned from backpacking because my feet were in so much pain; walking is a slow struggle because I cannot put my body weight on my entire foot. Don’t be like me – break in your shoes ahead of time.
We packed more food than we ended up needing. I brought 2x more rice than was necessary, 2x more apples than we ended up eating and we had 9 extra protein bars and a whole lot of trail mix. I expected to be much hungrier during the hiking portion of the day.
Actually, my backpack was all around heavier than I needed it to be. Next time I’ll be more attentive with using strategies for lightweight backpacking to get my pack weight down
Mikaela is the voice behind Voyageur Tripper, an outdoor adventure blog that enables people to improve their skills in the backcountry. She previously worked as a wilderness guide, leading trips in Ontario, Quebec and Nunavut. Mikaela is also the founder and operator of Trip Reports.
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