Kawartha Highlands is one of the newest provincial parks in Ontario. This park has no on-site facilities, visitor centre, or ranger station. This raw approach makes it a tripper’s dream, as once you leave the main put-in-point at Anstruther Lake, you leave the crowds behind.
Our 3-Day canoe trip through Kawartha Highlands was blessed with amazing weather, calm waters, and great company. And while the route does have its fair share of portages, only one was challenging, the rest were all just a chance to stretch our legs and grab a snack on dry land.
Starting Point: Anstruther Lake at Fire Route 60C. There is parking available on-site for those with a valid provincial park pass. If you don’t have a pass there is a payment box located within the parking lot.
Ending Point: Anstruther Lake at Fire Route 60C
Total Distance: Approximately 21 km through 5 lakes
Duration: 3 Days at a relaxed pace. The trip could easily be completed in two.
Difficulty: Beginner (however there is one long portage to watch for)
Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park is located about 1-hour north of Peterborough and about 27-minutes north of Burleigh Falls.
Traditional Territory: This route in the Kawartha Highlands is located on the traditional territory of the Mississauga, Anishinabewaki and Haudenosaunee (source).
Maps & Resources
Map: Because the park is so new, there aren’t a lot of detailed maps yet.
- Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park by Ontario Parks (Paper Map)
- Kawartha Highlands by Unlostify (Paper Map)
- Kawartha Highlands by Unlostify (Digital Download)
Campsite Reservations: Campsites need to be booked ahead of time. The park is increasing in popularity, and booking early is recommended, especially for the high season. You can access the park reservation system here. There are about 100 campsites spread throughout 17 lakes within the park. Campsites are well spread out.
Resources: Make sure to check out the Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park website for the latest info prior to your trip.
Outfitters & Shuttles
There are a few outfitters that supply those looking to explore Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park. For this trip, we used a local operator called The Land Canadian Adventures run by Briagh and Bretton Clark. They supply everything from canoes, gear, paddles, and food to fully-guided trips through Kawartha Highlands and other parks and canoe routes in Ontario. You can check out their website here.
For this trip we were a mix of both experienced and inexperienced campers, we opted to use gear available nearby. The quality of the gear and food supplied by the Land was absolutely top-notch, and I can’t recommend them enough.
Kawartha Highlands has six recommended canoe routes. These range from easy to moderate.
Day 1: Anstruther Lake to Rathbun Lake to North Rathbun Lake (7 km)
Our trip started in late September. The weather was grey and a cold rain combined with high winds made the large waters of Anstruther Lake pretty choppy. Anstruther Lake is busy with many cottages and powerboats. Luckily the wind kept most of the motorboats on shore, but the wind and waves made for a tough paddle to the first portage. The Anstruther Lake stretch is about 2.6 km and heads north then northeast as the lake bends to the left.
Although the initial paddle was tough, once we circled around the northeast bend towards Rathbun Lake, the wind was blocked and the rest of the paddle was easy. There was an island along the Eastern shore that we were also able to use as a bit of a shelter before making the cross across the open water.
Portage from Anstruther Lake to Rathburn Lake (162 m): By the time we reached the Anstruther Lake to Rathbun Lake portage, the skies were beginning to clear. The portage from Anstruther Lake to Rathbun Lake is an easy 160 m jaunt. The ground is rocky and solid, although it could be muddy after a hard rain. There are docks here for easy egress and ingress.
When we got to the Rathbun Lake ingress point, there were more docks. There are also a number of boats that are regularly moored here due to a fishing restriction on Anstruther lake, most anglers go to Rathbun Lake to fish.
Rathbun Lake is sheltered and makes for very easy and scenic paddling. There are a few campsites, including Nichol’s Island, which is near the portage to North Rathbun Lake, that look excellent. The entire journey across the lake is a little over 1 km.
Portage from Rathbun Lake to North Rathbun Lake (164 m): This is a short and smooth portage. The ingress point at the end is very stable and enters into a narrow stretch of the lake for about 700 m before opening up. You’ll notice that the colours of the rock here really begin to pop with beige, copper, and gold.
Campsite: Our campsite on North Rathbun Lake was site #212. It’s located directly adjacent to the portage to Serpentine Lake. The campsite is big and wide. There is also a small peninsula nearby if you want to spread out and get some privacy from the rest of your camp group.
Tip: Site #212 is directly opposite a large rock wall. It catches the sunrise brilliantly for a great view for early risers.
Day 2: North Rathbun Lake to Serpentine Lake to Copper Lake (6 km)
We woke up early the second day since we knew that this section of the trip would start off with a long portage from North Rathbun Lake to Serpentine Lake.
Portage from North Rathbun Lake to Serpentine Lake (1.5 km): This portage isn’t challenging other than being a slow and steady ascent before making a sharp descent to the ingress point at Serpentine Lake. If the ground was muddy, this would definitely be a difficult portage.
The portage lets into a reedy creek that feeds into Serpentine Lake. This part of the paddle is very narrow with a gorgeous rock cliff on the left side. Stick to the right and side of the lake to access the portage to Copper Lake. This part of the route is around 2.5 km
If you can stretch your trip for a day, Serpentine Lake is beautiful, and I would love to go back and camp on this lake as well.
Portage from Serpentine Lake to Copper Lake (200 m): The Serpentine to Copper Lake Portage is a short and easy one. It’s quite flat with a rocky base.
Campsite: We camped about halfway down the lake where it narrows before rounding a bend (Site #233). The campsite was spacious and flat. There weren’t any notable features, but it was a comfortable place to stay.
Day 3: Copper Lake to Rathbun Lake to Anstruther Lake (8 km)
We had a relaxed morning on Copper Lake before the 1 km paddle to the Copper Lake to Rathbun Lake portage.
Note: There is a potential 370 m portage toward the end of Copper Lake. There’s a creek you can take, however this may be impassable in low water, in which case the portage trail would be needed.
Portage from Copper Lake to Rathbun Lake (216 m): This is one of the most beautiful portages within the park. Towards the end of the portage, on the right-hand side of the trail is Copper Lake Falls.
Getting to it requires a bit of a tough climb and passing some large boulders, but it’s definitely worth the challenge. The waters on the top of the falls are very shallow, and the base of the falls makes for a pretty fantastic shower.
The ingress point isn’t in Rathbun Lake itself, but rather a long, winding marshland. There’s a fairly well-established route through the marsh, however we did encounter a few small beaver dams and blocks that required us to drag the canoes over.
Once we exited out into Rathbun Lake, the rest of the route was simply a matter of retracing our trip from Rathbun to Anstruther. Although the weather on the way back was warm, sunny, and calm, making for a much more comfortable paddle.
The trip went by flawlessly. It’s a really flexible route that can be travelled as quickly or as slowly as you would like. If you can spare either the speed or the time, I’d recommend making camp on Serpentine Lake if you can spare it. It’s very beautiful.
Kevin Wagar is an adventure and travel writer based in Brampton Ontario. He share’s his personal travel experiences, most of which are shared with his wife Christina and their two sons on his website wanderingwagars.com.
Kevin is also the editor for UltimateOntario.com, a publication focused on inspiring locals and visitors to explore some of the most amazing attractions and experiences in Ontario.
YouTube: Wandering Wagars