This is one of the more challenging hiking trails in Ontario. Not even in terms of technical difficulty, but in stamina and sure-footedness. It has rushing rivers, water crossings, coastal rocks, boreal forests, random fields of boulders, sandy beaches, and scenic views. But it’s not for the faint-hearted.
The coastal part of the trail is marked by rock cairns and is fairly easy to follow – if you pay attention. In the wooded sections the trail is also fairly obvious but stay alert and look carefully if your trail peters out – you likely just missed a turn. I lucked out with the weather and had little rain, but be prepared for storms as rain will make rocks slippery and slow you down even more than the uneven footing already does.
There is very limited cell service and emergency contact devices are recommended. I found hiking poles to be very helpful in providing extra anchorage in steep sections and additional stability during slippery sections such as river crossings. The full trail requires two river crossings, so water shoes or tough feet are a must! All campsites have food lockers, and I’ll admit it’s nice not to have to worry about hanging your food at the end of each day.
At this time of year, bugs were not a problem. Note that the trail can be done in different sections but requires a water taxi as there is no road access anywhere beyond the trailhead. I did the trail out and back, solo, and this was my longest backpacking trip.
Trip Completed: August 2021
Starting Point: Pukaskwa National Park
Ending Point: Pukaskwa National Park
Total Distance: 112km
Elevation Gain: Approximately 130m
Duration: 10 days
The trail leaves from Pukaskwa National Park (Hattie Cove campground).
Traditional Territory: This route takes place on the traditional territory of the Anishinabewaki.
Maps & Resources
Guidebook: The Backcountry Hiking Trip Planner by Pukaskwa National Park provides general info, hiking distances, and campsite information.
Map: The Adventure Map by Chrismar – Pukaskwa National Park (waterproof), can be purchased at the gatehouse.
Campsite Reservations: Book your backcountry campsites through Parks Canada. You cannot book campsites at Hattie Cove; these are first-come, first-serve, but the campground is rarely full.
Permits: Pick up your permit at the gatehouse. You also need to attend, either virtually or in person, a backcountry orientation seminar. Details are emailed to you close to your reservation dates.
Outfitters & Shuttles
Shuttle: A shuttle was not needed for my trip. However, trip options include using a boat shuttle/water taxi service to start/end at different locations to make the distance hiked shorter. The trail is only accessible by car at the trailhead – your only option is a boat shuttle to reach other access points. Remember that boats are dependent on Lake Superior conditions and weather – windy days, and fog, mean that your boat trip may have to be rescheduled.
Day 1: Trailhead to Chigamiwinigum Falls (7.8 km)
This section is fairly flat and you can hike it fairly easily. There are some nice trees draped with lichen, and boreal plants abound in the forest. The wetland boardwalk was being fixed when I was there, adding at least 1km to my hike due to the detour. Personally, my pack was so laden with food that I still took it slow, giving me a hiking time of about 3.5 hours. It’s one of the more popular trail sections as people will hike this as a day trip from the trailhead, and so you will likely encounter the most fellow hikers over this section. It culminates in a suspension bridge over White River (a 30-meter gorge), which is a pretty amazing view of cascading rapids between steep rock walls covered in trees.
Campsite: There are two campsites at Chig Falls, fairly close together. The second one has a nicer view of the water. It’s also a great swimming location.
Day 2: Chigamiwinigum Falls to Morrison Harbour (14.2 km)
Here you’ll get your first taste of views of Lake Superior. Willow River is a lovely area to stop and rest on a sandy beach. You will also cross another suspension bridge, this one over Willow River, a wide slow river very different from the White River. During this section, you’ll encounter large fields of boulders that require care to safely navigate. Be extra cautious if the rocks are wet. Hiking time was 3 hours 45 min to Willow River for lunch, then 3 hours to Morrison Harbour.
Campsite: There are two campsites at Morrison Harbour. The second one has more direct access to the little beach. Another great place for swimming.
Day 3: Morrison Harbour to Fisherman’s Cove (15.7 km)
This had more coastal and rocky parts to navigate. You’ll encounter your first larger elevation gain here as well, and some great coastline views. Overall I found the ups and downs to feel fairly gradual, with few parts that were immediately steep. But your legs will likely notice the long time spent walking on an angle. Hiking time was 4 hours 15 min to Oiseau Bay for lunch. On the trail leading into Oiseau Bay, there is an exposed sandy section that was very hot to hike. I think the Oiseau Creek crossing was originally supposed to have a bridge, but it was washed up against the shore. Instead, there is a convenient log jam that you can carefully cross, or take off your shoes for a refreshing walk across the very cold creek. Oiseau Bay has a huge sandy beach and is a popular endpoint for those wishing to do a shorter trip. After lunch, I hiked almost 4 hours to reach Fisherman’s Cove.
Campsite: There are two campsites here, both beautiful, separated by a narrow rocky outcrop. I had campsite one. The sandy beach and calm water will invite you to swim and relax. One of my favourite campsites.
Day 4: Fisherman’s Cove to White Gravel River (7.1 km)
The highest elevation gain is found in this section, about 130 meters, over three peaks. The hike is mainly interior forest, so make sure your water bottle is topped up when you leave. You’ll have to cross White Gravel River – water shoes are very useful as the river has a rocky bottom, as the name suggests. Study the river mouth and you’ll see where it’s shallowest, which means going out into the lake a little. Undo your backpack as a safety feature before crossing – it’s not worth the risk if you slip to be weighed down by your pack while strapped in. The beach here is entirely rocky as well, so walk carefully. The river itself is home to Rainbow Trout, and you can see juveniles darting around the rock if you look carefully. Hiking time 4 hours.
Campsite: The three campsites here are well separated from each other, and I stayed at campsite 2, which is back from the water and requires careful walking on the stone beach to reach the lakeshore. Note that the first campsite is before the river crossing, while the other two are after. I recommend ending your day by crossing the river, and so heading south, book campsite 2 or 3. Heading north, if you stay here, get campsite 1. That way you can dry off at the end of the day, and start the next day dry as well.
Day 5: White Gravel River to Hideaway Lake (9.9 km)
Nice scenic views especially of Hideaway Lake, and lovely coastal sections along this stretch. There’s a fun spot with a rope to hold on to as support to clamber across a steep slab of granite. The stream just before Hideaway also requires some finesse to cross without getting wet. However, here’s the embarrassing part of the trip. After 5 hours 15 min of hiking, I was at Hideaway Lake. I had four more kilometres to make it to the end of the trail at North Swallow Harbour. I was tired, and since this trip was a vacation, I decided that I would enjoy it more if I stopped here instead of doing the extra 4 km of hiking today (and tomorrow on the way back).
So I didn’t do the whole trail, and cannot comment on the last 4 km (which includes the other river crossing). I was also lucky that no one had booked this campsite, because if someone had, I would have continued on. Hideaway is the only campsite in a 10.8 km section (from White Spruce Harbour to North Swallow River), and since White Spruce is only 3.1 km from White Gravel, if you pass White Spruce, you have to stop at either Hideaway or at the end (North Swallow).
Campsite: A nice little campsite, and there’s only one. A place to feel secluded.
Day 6: Hideaway Lake to White Spruce Harbour (6.8 km)
It felt a little strange taking the same trail but now in the opposite direction. It was nice as I knew now what to expect with each section, and the change in direction meant the views were still different, but also a little sad that there would be no completely new landscapes. With only half the food remaining in my pack, it was noticeably lighter. Hiking time 3 hours and 30 min.
Campsite: There is only one campsite here. It’s a nice sandy beach with a nice view.
Day 7: White Spruce Harbour to Oiseau Bay (17.5 km)
Hiking time 4 hours 15 min to lunch, which I had at Fisherman’s Cove (where the paddle campsites are), as there’s a nice beach there by the stream. Pro tip: washed-up logs are great backrests while eating! After lunch, it was 3 hours 15 min hiking to Oiseau Bay. At Oiseau Bay there is a section marked off where the endangered Pitcher’s Thistle can be found.
Campsite: There are two campsites, both set back from the beach in the forest, as there’s a slightly marshy area between the beach and the forest. A great sunset over the water.
Day 8: Oiseau Bay to Morrison Harbour (8.5 km)
Hiking time 4 hours. Had some rain, so was glad for the shorter day.
Campsite: Same as the hike in, but this time I had campsite one. It’s a bigger area but with less beach access, so I personally prefer the other site.
Day 9: Morrison Harbour to Hook Falls (13.2 km)
I was lucky enough, for the first time in my life, to encounter moose on the trail. Shortly after leaving Morrison Harbour, rounding a corner, there was a mama moose and her half-grown calf with her. I looked at them, they looked at me, and I backed off around the corner. The calf got spooked and ran into the woods, followed by the mother. It’s amazing how animals that big can disappear so easily. Hiking time was 3 hours, then lunch, and 3 hours 30 min hiking to the campsite. Close to the falls, the amount of driftwood piled high by the trail reminds of you the power of storms and water in this area.
Campsite: There are three campsites here. I had number one, the smallest, by a rocky outcrop and close to the falls, that is well separated from the others.
Day 10: Hook Falls to trailhead (8.8 km)
With my pack down to the non-food weight, I hiked the trail out fairly fast. Hiking time was only 3 hours. A very foggy morning made for some magical views of half-seen trees. I had left a change of clothes in my car so the drive home would be less smelly (and sweaty, the entire hike was very humid with little wind).
Clothes and food went well. Even though it ended up being hot and dry, I’d rather have layers for cold weather and not need them. I brought one paperback book with me as I prefer the feel of a real book when outside. It turned out to be the perfect reading for a trip such as this (for those interested, I can’t recommend it highly enough: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer). Though I fully enjoyed such a long trip by myself, the lack of company is not for everyone, and a travel companion can be especially nice if you’re sharing gear so pack weight is less per person. Like most backcountry trip, preparedness is important. Feet went less well – blisters, unfortunately, as I tried new insoles that did not fit properly. Bandaids made all the difference!
I have a biology background and enjoy being outside with nature in all its forms, and have a passion for photography and videography of all critters great and small. Feel free to peruse my nature videos from around the world on my YouTube channel.
YouTube: Nature Tidbits