The Western Uplands Backpacking Trail is an overnight backpacking trail with three loops covering distances from 32 to 88 km in length. We completed the first and second loops—a total distance of 58 km—over 4 days.
The trail is open year-round and is rated by the Friends of Algonquin Park as difficult due to steep climbs and descents, side slopes and sharp turns. The tough terrain can aggravate knee and hip injuries, and trekking poles are recommended.
This route and time frame should not be undertaken by backpackers without at least a few trips under their belt. The first loop, however, would be suitable for beginners with good fitness.
Trip Completed: September 2021
Starting Point: Western Uplands Backpacking Trailhead / Oxtongue River Picnic Ground
Ending Point: Western Uplands Backpacking Trailhead / Oxtongue River Picnic Ground
Total Distance: 58 km
Elevation Gain: 1,529 m
Duration: 4 days / 3 nights
The Western Uplands Backpacking Trailhead is located at kilometre 3 of Hwy 60 in Algonquin Provincial Park. The nearest town to the trail is Huntsville. The trail’s third loop can also be accessed from the Rain Lake Access Point near the town of Kearney (closed in the winter).
Traditional Territory: This route takes place on the traditional territory of the Omàmìwininìwag (Algonquin) and Anishinabewaki (source).
Maps & Resources
Campsite Reservations: Campsite bookings are made in advance through the Ontario Parks Online Reservation system. Sites are reserved in clusters by lake along the trail.
Permits: You don’t need to pick up permits before starting on the trail, though they can be picked up at West Gate. Instead, we printed two copies of our reservation receipt, left one on our vehicle dash and carried the other with us.
Outfitters & Shuttles
Outfitter: Since we have our own backpacking gear, we did not use an outfitter for this trip. For renting backpacking gear, a list of local outfitters is available on the Friends of Algonquin Park website.
Shuttle: Our route was a loop from the trailhead, so no shuttle was required.
Day 1: Trailhead to Lupus Lake (12.1 km / 313 m)
We left Ottawa around 10:30 am, arriving at the trailhead / Oxtongue River Picnic Ground just after 2 pm. After a bathroom break and a snack, we were on the trail by 2:30 pm with a 12 km trek to Lupus Lake ahead of us.
The first 300 m across the bridge to the start of the loop is flat and easy. At the fork, we headed east to complete the loops in a counter-clockwise direction. The first several kilometres saw several muddy patches, and our map notes this part of the trail is often flooded in the spring.
Overall, this leg featured some steep sections and muddy areas but was fairly quick-moving. Not wanting to delay our already late arrival to camp, we took only a few breaks, managing the distance in just under 4 hours total.
By 6:30 pm, we had arrived at Lupus Lake and scoped out both sites before picking campsite #1—the further of the two since most hikers travel clockwise. Although this site is right off the trail, it’s a gorgeous spot and far superior to the other site. Site #2 is accessed by a small side trail and is incredibly small (even fitting one tent would be tough), buggy even for September, and has poor water access.
As soon as we arrived, we got busy setting up our tent and boiling water for dinner. I really wanted to go for a swim, but with minimal daylight left in the day, it was getting chilly and I ended up deciding against it.
Campsite: We stayed at site #1 at Lupus Lake. While lacking privacy from the trail, it could fit multiple tents, features a beautiful view of the lake, and has great water access for swimming. There is also a thunderbox, but it doesn’t have a lid and the wood is beginning to rot.
Day 2: Lupus Lake to West Otterpaw Lake (12.7 km / 347 m)
After a much needed sleep in, we had a lazy morning at camp. By the time we ate breakfast and packed up our bags, it was 11:30 am—officially the latest we’ve ever stayed at a backcountry site!
The first kilometre of the day was nice and flat, but the hills soon came and were fairly relenting all day. With our late start, we were quickly hungry for lunch and planned to stop at the lookout over Susan Lake to eat. The lookout is about 4 kilometres from Lupus Lake and we arrived in just over an hour. It’s just past an incredibly steep climb—Strava suggests the hill has a maximum grade of 36%! But the log bench makes it the perfect lunch or rest stop.
Before continuing on our way, we stopped at the Susan Lake sites for a bathroom break. Unfortunately, the thunderboxes at these sites are in very poor condition. My boyfriend said he felt the wood sink when he sat down! The sites themselves aren’t that great either, so we’d recommend avoiding booking a night here.
The stretch between Susan Lake and Rainbow Lake was noticeably buggy—even for early September. Once we passed the Rainbow Lake sites, we came across an unexpected fork in the trail. Here there is an old map showing there used to be an additional trail to Loft Lake and East End Lake that connected with the third loop. There is also a handwritten sign that reads “From here to junction past East End will no longer be maintained (including sites on East End Lk and Loft Lk).”
About an hour later, we approached a beautiful beaver dam over West Otterpaw Creek, which we initially thought we’d have to walk across. Luckily, the trail veers to the left taking you over some rocks instead to the other side of the creek. From here, we found it difficult to navigate. There wasn’t an obvious trail marker pointing us alongside the creek, so we figured the trail went inland. We quickly realized our mistake once what we thought was the trail began to disappear. We checked our map, realized the trail follows the creek for a little while and turned back.
The final 3 kilometres to West Otterpaw Lake were slow and tiring, and we were very ready to set up camp. This leg involved a lot of steep climbs that made the trek feel long and enduring. So, of course, it began raining too. We took a risk and continued past the first two vacant sites at West Otterpaw, hoping the furthest—site #1—wouldn’t be occupied. Luckily, no one was there and it was the nicest of the three sites on this lake.
We took a few long breaks, so it took us nearly 6 hours in total to reach our campsite on this day. But we arrived with a bit more time to set up camp and eat dinner before dark than we had the day before.
Campsite: We camped at site #1 on West Otterpaw Lake. If you’re hiking in a counter-clockwise direction like us, this is the last of three sites you’ll hike past. The site is spacious with great tree coverage and there is a thunderbox. The water access isn’t great though and is not an ideal place to swim. My boyfriend saw a mink scurry away when he went to fill up our water filter!
Day 3: West Otterpaw Lake to Maggie Lake (East) (21.6 km / 594 m)
When I woke up to a puddle of water squeaking under my sleeping pad, I should have known today wouldn’t go to plan. For context, we later realized the spot we had chosen for our tent had a slight depression where the rainwater pooled overnight. This, combined with a tent already at its end of life, meant the water seeped through the groundsheet and tent floor.
With a long day ahead, we packed up in good time, setting off on the trail around 9:30 am. The first stretch of the day between West Otterpaw and Tern Lake was very hilly, gaining about 150 m of elevation in 3 kilometres. Luckily, the terrain was nice and flat from Tern Lake to Pincher Lake, which allowed us to pick up our speed and quickly get some distance behind us.
From Pincher Lake, it was another 3 kilometres to the second site at Clara Lake (officially site #1) where we had planned to stop for lunch. We dropped our packs at this beautiful campsite and carried our lunch over to a rocky spot over the lake. We unintentionally rested here for at least an hour, basking in the sun and soaking our feet in the cool water. This was my favourite moment of the whole trip.
After lunch, we continued climbing up and down the many hills between Clara Lake and Maggie Lake. There are also many rocky sections which resulted in a small slip and fall for each of us. Just after my fall, it began raining. I already had my pack cover on from the morning drizzle, and I actually chose not to put on my raincoat. We were expecting a ton of rain the following day and I wanted to keep my jacket dry until then. For me, this ended up being a great decision.
Once we reached the bridge a bit more than halfway between Clara Lake and Maggie Lake, we realized the rain had stopped. I was also running low on water and managed to hop down onto some rocks to filter a bit of water for the final stretch.
From the map, it was hard to tell which sites were Maggie West and which were Maggie East. Luckily, we were greeted by an explicit sign at the fork, telling us to go left. At this point, we were pretty exhausted. We had only expected 18 to 19 km for this leg, and we’d already surpassed this point. We crossed our fingers that one of the first sites would be vacant.
Unfortunately, the first three sites were occupied, meaning we needed to hike another 500 m or so to reach the final two sites. Of course, the only site that was available was the very last one—site #1—which we reached after a grand total of 21.6 km. Including breaks, it took us 8 and a half hours to travel from site #1 at West Otterpaw to site #1 at Maggie East.
By the time we arrived, I was beat. With daylight disappearing, we quickly set up a clothesline to dry out our wet gear from our morning tent mishap. While our stuff hung to dry, I went for a swim to freshen up. We ate a quick dinner and set up our tent—this time with our tarp overhead. My right knee was feeling sore from the day and all I wanted to do was fall asleep.
Campsite: We camped at Maggie East site #1. The site wasn’t great. It was buggy and muddy and we struggled to find a place to pitch our tent (especially since I didn’t want to wake up in a puddle of water again). The site has a thunderbox and decent water access.
Day 4: Maggie Lake (East) to Trailhead (11.9 km / 275 m)
With a 12 km hike and a four-hour drive back to Ottawa ahead of us, we set an alarm for 6 am. To speed up the morning, we even skipped our oatmeal breakfast, eating a Clif bar each and some dried mangoes instead. We were on the trail by 8 am, and honestly, I wish I wasn’t so excited to be nearly finished. We figured we could be at the car by noon if all went well.
I felt okay for the first few hundred metres of the day, but then my right knee began to really hurt. At first, just the downhill sections caused pain. Then, it was every other step. Eventually, every step sent a sharp pain shooting through my knee. And, by this point, we had only travelled 3 kilometres.
Our pace slowed to a crawl as I continued hobbling over rocks and roots, wincing and grunting at the pain, and double-polling with my trekking poles to try to keep the weight off my knee. I practically burst into tears at every sight of a steep descent because stepping down was the worst. But I just kept putting one foot in front of the other.
There were frequent breaks, several tears, and many moments of questioning whether I’d make it. But when I could hear the highway in the distance, I knew I was close to the end of the loop. From there, I knew the final 300 m to the car was on flat terrain, which was the least painful for my knee. By the time we reached the bridge over the Oxtongue River at the trailhead, the sun was shining.
Needless to say, I don’t remember much from this leg of the trip, other than the pain and suffering and joy of making it back to the car. With breaks, it took us just over 5 hours to hike this segment. On the way home, we stopped at the Lake of Two Rivers store for a delicious, greasy lunch.
Overall, this was a tough trail that literally pushed me to my limit. We didn’t love any of the campsites and the views were mediocre, so we finished the trip feeling like our effort—and my injury—hadn’t been worthwhile. But we learned some valuable lessons, which I look forward to applying to our trips next summer—that is, if I can convince my boyfriend to go backpacking again.
What Went Well
My trekking poles saved me! I was given a pair of trekking poles for my birthday last October, and they are truly a game-changer for backpacking. I don’t know what I would have done without them once I got injured. In fact, I probably would have been injured sooner without them helping to alleviate the pressure on my knees when hiking downhill. I strongly recommend trekking poles to anyone with bad knees or hips, and especially for the relentless ups and downs of trails like this one.
What Could Have Gone Better
I got injured… The relentless ups and downs aggravated my right knee, bringing back a bout of “runner’s knee” I thought I had fully rehabilitated a few years ago. I think the 21.6 km we hiked on day 3 was a bit too much for me, causing this type of overuse injury and inflammation to ensue. It certainly wasn’t a fun final day on the trail.
There were a few important lessons I learned from this:
- When route planning, always expect the distance to be a few kilometres longer than you expect. For us, this means we’ll probably stick to a maximum distance of 16 km per day for now, knowing that I hit my limit at around 20 km. As much as I always want to push past my limits, injuries are no fun in the backcountry, and I’m thankful it wasn’t anything more serious. I certainly want to prevent a serious injury from occurring on trail in the future.
- Similar to the above, we learned that we prefer having a good balance between physical exertion and campsite relaxation while in the backcountry! On this trip, we more or less hiked all day, without a ton of time to recover at camp. It’s likely this contributed to my injury as well. We definitely would have enjoyed this particular route a lot more with a fifth day or even a rest day built into our itinerary.
- We were exhausted before we started, as we hadn’t fully recovered from our first canoe trip the weekend before. This was another contributing factor to my injury, for sure. In future, we will avoid planning back-to-back trips!
- I should make some additions to the first aid kit we carry on future trips. Namely, I should make sure I pack enough KT or sports tape for a range of injuries. I actually had two pieces of KT tape in my toiletries bag, but I needed three pieces to properly tape my knee. I did have some ibuprofen, but I didn’t take any. I probably should have!
- Most importantly, I seriously need to properly rehabilitate this injury. I do not want this to happen again! As I’m writing this, I’m happy to report that my knee has mostly recovered, but I know I need to stick to a good strength plan this winter in preparation for future backpacking trips.
We desperately need a new tent! Our $25 Canadian Tire tent has served us well on dozens of frontcountry and backcountry trips. But it’s time to invest in a more expensive, more waterproof, and more lightweight backpacking tent. If I can avoid it, I never want to wake up in a puddle of rainwater again!
Sarah loves spending time outdoors—be it on foot, in the water, or on her bike. She’s been camping all her life but is relatively new to backcountry trips. An endurance athlete at heart, there is nothing she loves more than the physical and mental challenge of any camping adventure. When Sarah isn’t sleeping in a tent, she can be found training for triathlons and dreaming of travel. She currently lives in Ottawa, Ontario.