Pukaskwa Coastal Trail: Hattie Cove to Fish Harbour (3 days / 51 km)
This was a 3-day backpacking trip on Pukaskwa National Park coastal trail. On this trip, we covered almost half of the trail, to Fish Harbour from Hattie Cove, the trailhead. This was a long weekend adventure. There is also the Mdaabi Miikana loop in Pukaskwa that is 25 km, but the coastal trail allows for more distance and views. The total coastal trail is 60 km one way. It can be done there and back for 120 km, Hattie Cove to North Swallow River and a boat shuttle back or the verse. It is a beautifully rugged park with the quiet of northern Lake Superior.
Trip Completed: August 2020
Starting Point: Hattie Cove campground
Ending Point: Hattie Cove campground
Total Distance: 51 km
Elevation Gain: 1,110 m
Duration: 3 days
Pukaskwa National Park. Marathon is the closest town with all facilities.
Traditional Territory: This route takes place on the traditional territory of Michif Piyii (Métis) and Anishinabewaki (source).
Maps & Resources
Guidebook: Coastal Hiking Trail Trip Planner Version 2 from Parks Canada
Map: Pukaskwa Chrismar Map
Campsite Reservations: Reservations can be done over the phone or online. You have to book campsites. I think the campground, Hattie Cove is non-reservation, but the backcountry is.
Permits: Upon arrival, you must go through a short orientation as well as pick up your permits for the trip.
Outfitters & Shuttles
We did not use an outfitter but the trip planner from Parks Canada (linked above) lists more boat shuttles and outfitters for this trip.
Day 1: Hattie Cove to Willow River (16 km)
I camped at Neys Provincial Park the night before to get an early start on the trail and often stay at Neys on my way through the area. When I arrived at Hattie Cove, I waited at the visitors center which was closed due to COVID, to wait for my hiking partner. I was able to use the free wifi outdoors which was appreciated as there is no service in the campground. Once my partner arrived we went back to the gate at Hattie Cove and went through a short orientation. There is a big parking lot at the trailhead as well as washrooms. We got on the trail around 10 am roughly.
The first 11 km of the trail is fairly busy as there are a few day hiking sights as well as the Mdaabi Miikana loop trail. You start in an old prescribed burn site that has several educational boards on it as you walk through. Between Hattie Cove and the swing bridge, you walk along boardwalks over wetlands, rocky ridges, long and flat plantation-like areas and some roots and steep climbs and accents. There are one or two views in this area which is Hattie Cove and Playter Harbour. Once you reach the White River crossing, the swing bridge, the number of people around reduces significantly. The steep gorge at White River is beautiful and definitely a good lunch spot. There are some campsites at White River, Playter Harbour and Hook Falls but we did not see them as they are off the main trail. They are good places to stay if you get on the trail later in the day as there is a 6 km gap between these and the next campsites. The trail then follows the White River for a few kilometres where there are a few viewpoints such as Hook Falls and views of magnificent cliffs over the river.
After Hook falls, the trail is completely inland for around 5 kilometres until you reach Willow River. This was my least favourite section of the trail. It wasn’t the hardest but there are fewer water sources, there are climbs and few views. There are a few inland viewpoints in here as you spend a lot of it on a bare jack pine covered ridge (great in blueberry season) that allow you to see the hilly topography. The last few kilometres are flatter but are very bouldery. Emerging out onto Willow River bay was one of the best end of day camping experiences I’ve had. After being inland for so long and out of the water I was pumped to see a beautiful beach on Superior. There are 6 campsites on this beach, 4 for hikers and 2 for canoeists or kayakers. Because there are so many campsites here, there were several people out enjoying the beach at night. You are spaced out enough to be alone if you want or you can easily go share a fire with others. We had a lovely swim once we set up camp and it was of course cold as Superior is. The beach is lovely and you can wade out for several dozen meters in the water.
Campsite: Willow River 2 (WR2). The middle sites of WR are tucked back in the trees and are spacious. All campsites have a privy and a bear box. This site also had several log benches. They are just a windbreak of trees away from the beach.
Day 2: Willow River to Fish Harbour to Willow River (19 km)
We were staying at the same campsite as last night so we headed out on a day trip. We packed ourselves a lunch of cliff bars and were on our way. It was a cooler morning, as you would expect for the coast of Lake Superior. We hiked to Fish Harbour and back. The trail from here is fairly different from what it was prior. It started with a view of Willow River, where we camped. The hike that day had some flatter sections, some boulder fields (actual boulder fields) and some beautiful and rocky views of Lake Superior. Some sections were tough climbs and we felt bad for the hikers we saw with their packs. There was also a big variety of landscapes to keep us interested and on our toes. There were some inland areas, some that were wet. Most sections of the trail are rocky. We crossed beaches and rocky shorelines, some areas that involved scrambling across boulders. The trail can be confusing to follow in these open areas but there are signs and cairns, we got turned around once. You just have to watch closely for trail markings.
Seeing this part of the trail made us really interested in coming back to do the rest of the trail when we had more time. It was a beautiful and rugged boreal forest that is unlike anywhere else. Over the course of the day we passed a few people, but not many as the trail is fairly quiet. My favourite views were one atop a hill between Slot Watch Cove and Willow River and along the alternate route right after Willow River where you can see that beautiful teal colour of the water. This alternate trail adds a few hundred meters and is pretty as it follows the shoreline. The shorter route is inland. We saw some kayakers around this area too. We got as far as just before Fish Harbour, where we ate lunch and headed back to camp.
That night at camp, while we were sitting on the beach, a moose walked onto the beach around 100 meters away. Once he noticed us he walked away. That night we went to WR1 to have a fire with someone we had met on the trail that day. WR1 doesn’t have a beach like the rest of the campsites as it is up a rock point. It does have a greater view of the shoreline and lake which allowed for a beautiful sunset.
Campsite: Same as day 1, WR2
Day 3: Willow River to Hattie Cove
We were returning to our start point on this day so no new trail. There were several people on the trail that day including both day hikers and backpackers. We were sad that we both had to work the next day and couldn’t stay longer. We returned to the trailhead around 3 pm (left camp at 8ish).
It was a wonderful weekend trip that I would do again in a heartbeat. The views were breathtaking and the route challenging. If I were to do it again I would take more water for the inland sections as the only water sources were beaver ponds. But overall it was a perfect trip. We met several wonderful people, some of whom we hiked with for a while and saw wildlife. There are a variety of ecosystems and vistas.
Avid adventurer, nature lover and lover of all outdoor sports. Lots of canoe tripping, some backpacking, cycling, tree hugging or any sport I can try.