Heaven’s Gate Trail / Kitchitwaa Shkwaandem Trail (4 days / 48 km)

Beautiful view of Mount Ararat Alexander lake

The Kitchitwaa Shkwaandem Trail is a rugged 48 km trail through the La Cloche mountains that rivals the nearby La Cloche Silhouette trail.

Trip Completed: October 2021

Trip Summary

Starting Point: Willisville Hiking Trail parking lot off Highway 6

Ending Point: Willisville Hiking Trail

Note: The trail continues past what is described in this report, ending in Fort La Cloche. Although the trail ends in Fort La Cloche, to access this end of the trail with a car, you have to pass through Sagamok Anishnawbek reserve land. Hikers should contact and get permission from the community before entering their territory. Otherwise, you can hike this to Fort La Cloche and back. 

Total Distance: 48 km 

Elevation Gain: 1400 m. Lots of up and down

Duration: 4 days

Difficulty: Intermediate

Location

Willisville, Ontario

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

Maps & Resources

Map: Heaven’s Gate Trail. Highly recommended that you download the GPS track from AllTrails. The trail, while marked, is not always clear. I’ve done this trail multiple times and the marking is improving with the new landowners. 

Campsite Reservations: None, all campsites are on crownland. 

Safety: Downloading the GPX track is highly recommended.

Outfitters & Shuttles

Shuttle: I completed this as an out and back so no shuttle was required. If permission is given from Sagamok First Nation this could be completed as an end-to-end.  

Trip Report

Day 1: Trailhead to Alexander Lake Island Camp

With a 5 hour drive ahead of me, I left bright and early Friday morning to get a nice early start on the trail. This trail starts at the small Willisville Hiking Trail parking lot. From here, you need to cross the road, and walk north 100 meters or so and you will see a small sign for the trail. The trail starts out in typical Killarney style with lots of ups and downs along the rocky ridges. Beautiful views north towards Espanola periodically break through the trees. At around 2 kilometres the trail starts to descend towards Horseshoe Lake. Keep your eye out for side trails on your right. These trails will lead down to lakeside campsites if you wish to stay along Horseshoe Lake. 

Just passed the 4km mark there is a 160m climb up Mount Ararat, over a distance of about 1.75km. Once you push to the top you are graced with a gorgeous view that rivals anything the neighbouring Killarney Provincial Park has to offer. To the east, these Killarney ridges can be seen rolling along the horizon. Dead ahead to the south, the islands of Lake Huron dot the water, and to the west, the La Cloche ridges stretch into the distance. I have also been up here for sunrise (pictured below too) which was incredible. This was the perfect spot for a Rocky Mountain tradition… a summit beer.

The next section of the trail steeply drops down to Florence Lake below. The trail flattens out and passes by a lean-to on the west side of Florence Lake. When planning the trip, I planned to stay here on Day 3 but up on Mount Ararat, I noticed a beautiful-looking campsite on the south side of Florence Lake that would offer beautiful mountain views.

I continued following the trail south, which meets up with an ATV trail between Florence Lake and Alexander Lake. Here I met two locals who were portaging from Florence to Alexander Lake. They lived in the area and told me about a great campsite on the island in Alexander Lake. They stow a canoe here year-round and allowed me to borrow it so I could get to the island. I excitedly agreed. My original plan was to make it to Wright Lake but I had to take this offer.

I set up camp on the island early in the afternoon. I took this opportunity to canoe over to the north side of Alexander Lake and scramble up the ridges. There are lots of great little scrambling areas to help ease my withdrawals from scrambling in the Rockies. That evening I was blessed with one of the greatest sunsets I have ever witnessed. A perfect end to the first day. 

Campsite: Island on Alexander Lake  

Campsite Coordinates: 46° 6’55.51″N  81°49’55.19″W

Day 2: Alexander Lake to Wright Lake

The next morning, I returned the canoe to the east end of Alexander Lake and continued down the trail to my next site: Wright Lake. The trail climbs up gradually on the south side of Alexander Lake. There are not many views on the trail here but if you scramble up the ridges on your right you can get awesome views of Alexander Lake and Mount Ararat to the east. I wanted to see my island site from above, and I was not disappointed with this little side scramble. After hiking around 6 km the trail opens up to another beautiful view of Lake Huron and hundreds of islands. A great spot for lunch. Similar to before, keep your eyes open for easy side scrambles off the main trail to get these beautiful views.

The trail then follows a steep drop down and then an immediate climb back up in classic La Cloche fashion. From the top of this climb to Wright Lake is a gradual decline through the forest with signs of black bear along the trail. The orange trail markings get fewer and far between starting around here. The trail also becomes less well defined, so the GPS was helpful.

The campsite at Wright Lake is nice with a fire pit right on the water. Though the view isn’t as beautiful as Alexander or Florence Lake, it is a great backcountry site. I recommend bushwacking and scrambling the ridges on the west shore of the lake or the small ridge on the southeast shore to really see the beautiful blue colour of Wright Lake. 

Campsite: Wright Lake

Campsite Coordinates: 46° 6’14.28″N  81°54’14.56″W

Day 3: Wright Lake to Florence Lake

Originally my plan was to make it all the way to the end of the trail in Fort La Cloche, but my change of plans on the first day wouldn’t make that possible. I have heard that from west of Wright Lake the trail is even less marked, and this is where the GPS will come in handy.

My goal for Day 3 was to hike back to Florence Lake and camp on the south shore. I knew a big rainstorm was coming so I packed up early and hustled the 6km back to the west end of Florence Lake. To get to the south side of Florence Lake, follow the Florence Lake Side Trail which is marked with a sign by the ATV trail between Florence and Alexander Lake.

This short trail will bring you along the shore of the lake with some beautiful rock outcroppings to set up camp. Every time I have done this trail I have stayed at this site as the view of Mount Ararat above Florence Lake is too beautiful to pass up. Day 3 was a relaxing day under the tarp as the rains poured down and the low clouds hugged tightly to Mount Ararat.

Campsite: Florence Lake

Campsite Coordinates: 46° 6’57.68″N  81°48’20.00″W

Day 4: Florence Lake to Trailhead

For the last day, the sun was shining, and I was feeling refreshed after a relaxing day 3. I brewed a cup of coffee and sat by the shore as the pink clouds said their good mornings. I packed up and made my way back to the trailhead. The climb up Mount Ararat is definitely a bit more grueling on this side. Within no time, I was back at my car and on my way home. Although I wasn’t able to complete the whole trail, I wouldn’t have changed anything with the trip. 


Reflections

As far as more primitive hiking experiences in Ontario come, this is a perfect trail. This trail is definitely easier when it comes to ruggedness and elevation gain but still offers classic La Cloche ridge walks and beautiful lakes. Even the 2nd time I came back here, I only went as far as Wright Lake as I’ve heard the east side of the trail is much more scenic than the west end. 

I wish there were more hiking trails like this in the province, especially when looking at the incredible trail systems in neighbouring New York state. This trail and the Ottawa-Temiskaming Highland trail are prime examples of what can be accomplished when volunteers and organizations come together to create something wonderful. The land that this trail passes through was recently purchased by a new conservation authority and they have been putting a lot of work into keeping this place naturally beautiful. If you head out here, follow LNT and keep this place beautiful for years to come. 


Author Bio

Sean Vandersluis is an outdoor enthusiast who loves exploring Canada’s outdoors. He always brings along his camera to capture some of Canada’s most beautiful locations. Mostly a backpacker in the mountains of western Canada, he has been trying to get into canoeing after moving to Ontario (but still prefers a good old fashion hiking trip). Follow his Instagram to follow along!

Instagram: @seanmarksluis and @seanmarkphotography

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