In the Autumn, the farther north you head in Ontario, the more awestruck you are by the vast beauty that mother nature reveals. As I sit in the 2002 Ford Freestar heading north of Highway 11, I begin to see the thick reds, vibrant oranges, and piercing yellows become more and more defined the further I drive. This eventually leads me to Algonquin Provincial Park. We had decided to test out the waters of one of Algonquins mot popular trail, the Highland Trail, specifically the Yellow Loop. The weather hap spiked in October and provided 3 days of +25 weather, and clear blue skies, coupled with the beautiful landscape of autumn in its prime.
Day 1 – We got in quite late, probably around 4:30pm or so, and after scrambling to find somewhere to fill up our water bottles and find a rope to hang food (which I’d forgot) we had our packs ready to go. I had originally planned a 3-night trip to tackle the 35km trail, since I had only done a few backpacking trips and it was Shauna’s first. However, we decided due to a weather update that if we left a day early we could beat a torrential downpour and not have to deal with packing everything soaking wet and walking through mud on our last day.
The first day was a breeze. A cool 5.6km hike to the west end of Provoking Lake. As the trail suggests there is a decent amount of steep climbs right from the get-go, but you’re offered great lookouts along the way to make up for any frustrations. It took roughly 2.5 hours and we set-up camp just as the sun was setting. Dinner was a stir-fry with rice and veggies, and we dozed off fairly quick. It was a warm night with a gentle breeze and we were able to keep the fly off the tent and have a cool sleep.
Day 2 – Not one to set an alarm, I awoke around 9:30am. After a quick dip in the lake and a quick meal of oatmeal we packed up camp and were ready to hit the trail by about 11am, not quite as early as I had hoped. Today’s range was to be 11.3km, taking us the the Northeast Corner of Harness Lake. Again, we had a clear blue sky and saw only one other group on the trail heading the opposite direction, so you truly felt you had the trail to yourself. A third of the way into this leg there’s a beautiful looking over some marsh and you can see a little cabin tucked away in some trees. As usual, as we kept moving forward I realized I had underestimated the length, and overpacked supplies. With heavy packs we really began to feel some strain at the 3-hour mark, so we took a lunch break around 2:30pm on North end of Head Lake. While it can be a little daunting in length, the sheer beauty of the trail, and the fact that there’s little to no bugs in the fall makes this trail nearly perfect – I’ve only hiked the trail in dry fall weather, however I could see bugs being an issue here in June/July. While I had predicted a 4-hour hike, it took about 6.5 hours – but the campground on Harness Lake made it all worthwhile.
Easily the most beautiful campsite I’ve ever stayed on while in Algonquin. I wondered the second it came into view if this was a spot A.Y Jackson, or Tom Thomson had relished as well. The site created a bit of a peninsula and had three beautiful pines curving our the end. The view showcased the narrows of the lake of created picturesque landscape. We quickly set everything up and while Shauna took the opportunity to snag a few Z’s, I got to work on a fire and a spicy tomato sauce. Now, while meals always taste better camping, I must say this was some of my best work. We definitely decided to soak in the night still of air, and after finishing the pasta, we enjoyed a couple bottles of wine and some s’mores. It might seem like unnecessary weight, but having a crisp clear night, a skyline full of stars, and full bellies, some red wine feels exactly right. It didn’t take long for the wine to have its effects and we were off to bed.
Day 3 – Again, planning on waking up early was never in the cards. We awoke around 9am were witnessed the full beauty of natures mirror. The morning air was non-existent, the water not a ripple, and the trees in full bloom. We packed slowly, painfully aware that the exhaustion we felt yesterday would be little compared to todays trek. We left the site at 10:30am and took off for our 16.2km day. This part of the trail is much more in the lowlands and we began to feel and hear our first real sign of bugs. Our lack of talking was telling of our exhausting, and the only soundly were that of crunching leaves beneath our feet. I had expected to reach a landmark of ‘Mosquito Creek’ about 2 hours into the trek, but didn’t see any sort of signs. About 3.5 hours in we saw the sign I had expected to see an hour and a half ago for ‘mosquito Creek’ – I became slightly afraid that we’d been walking at a far slower pace and still had 11km ahead of us after 3.5 hours. But alas, I was pleasantly surprised a short while later that we’d met back up with the blue loop and had completed not 4.7km but 8.1km.
We decided to push an extra 2.5km and have lunch on provoking lake. We’d been on the trail for about 5.5 hours and this was much needed. While we let our bare feet dry in the sunlight, we ate a dehydrated curry that tasted delicious at the time. While I’d like to say we were excited for the final leg of our journey, we were not – in fact, it seemed quite daunting in general. The best lookout on the whole trail is about a 1km jaunt from the main trail, and although we were beat, we decided to drop our bags in the woods and head over. This by far the best lookout and worth the extra sweat. After getting back to the bags we felt slight relief knowing we had the final 4km stretch ahead of us. While we again kept underestimating the distance to my beautiful blue van, after climbing the quick set of hills at the beginning of the trail, we reached the parking lot. With a mass sigh of relief gave a cheer, decided a picture was too much effort, packed the van and left.
Looking back, the beauty of the trail, relaxation of each campground, and the taste of food easily belittle the exhaustion that was felt that last 8-hour day. The Highland Trail in Autumn is truly something of wonder and should be enjoyed by anyone looking for a little adventure.