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Land of Lakes and Forests: Lake Superior Camping Trip

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Rocky shorelines, wind swept trees, endless lakes and rivers – these are the icons of the Canadian wilderness and Lake Superior has all of these aplenty.  For us it was a 9-hour drive from the Toronto area, but the drive is worth it as you get access to this rugged, wild and sparsely populated region of Canada.

Lake Superior is the largest lake in the world by surface area and is known for its stormy and moody disposition.  Half of the lake and coastline are in Canada, with the other half being in the US.  The Trans-Canada highway runs along Lake Superior, making it a common route for travelers going cross Canada.  There are numerous Provincial Parks and one National Park, giving you lots of choice for camping and exploring.

In addition to the natural environment, Lake Superior is Ojibway country and you can see pictographs at Agawa Rock and learn about how the indigenous people lived on the land and continue to today.  Another interesting component of Lake Superior is the Voyageur history and its importance on the historical fur trade route.Coastal Trail Lake Superior

Our first 2-week Lake Superior camping trip consisted of 4 nights at Pancake Bay Provincial Park, a 2 night backcountry trip at the Gargantua area of Lake Superior Provincial Park, 4 nights at Pukaskwa National Park and 5 nights at Agawa Bay campground at Lake Superior PP.  There is nothing we would change about our itinerary and we think this is a great first visit itinerary to Lake Superior. On our second trip to Lake Superior, on a cross-Canada trip, we added a visit to Sleeping Giant PP, near Thunder Bay.

Included in this article is a breakdown of the Parks we visited, the activities and hikes we did and other helpful information.  These activities are all family-friendly as we travel with our three kids, aged 8-12.

Lake Superior Camping Trip Map

You can find all of the Parks, campgrounds, points of interest and hikes mentioned in this post in the map below.

Pancake Bay PP

Pancake Bay PP is located just an hour north of Sault Ste Marie and as the name suggests, the campground is located along a large curved stretch of sandy beach. You get lots of folks from the Sault that come up every year and set up for a few weeks.sunset Pancake Bay

We were there the weekend after the August long weekend, which just happened to be their annual Adventure Days. There were lots of fun activities ranging from a staff parade, Amazing Race activity, water obstacle course for kids, live band, fundraiser fish cookout and more.

Pancake Bay Camping Review

The campground is located right along the Trans-Canada highway, meaning that you can hear road noise from most sites.  The Park offers 325 sites, in a few rows of powered and regular sites and is spread a few kilometers along the beach.  It is great to have bikes at this park as the long and thin layout makes the park a few kilometers from end-to-end.

The best sites are the ones directly on the water, although you will have to book early to nab one.  We managed to get one and we loved the direct access to the beautiful beach.  Our site (469) had great privacy, good access to toilets and water and of course the beach on our doorstep.  All sites have a fire pit and picnic table.  There are also 5 yurts in the Park that can accommodate 5 people each: a great option for those without camping gear or just getting started camping.Pancake Bay site

Pancake Bay has outhouse toilets throughout the park and a few comfort stations with flush toilets, showers and laundry facilities.  They also have a playground, which are kids loved to hang out at. There are programs offered at the amphitheatre and picnic shelter. Ice, firewood and park merchandise are available at the gatehouse.  There are also Park hosts that can answer your questions and sell firewood at certain hours.  We had good mobile reception, including data, from our campsite.Pancake Bay amphitheatre

If you are looking for provisions, the well-stocked Voyageur General Store offers camp food essentials, some camping gear, beer and alcohol and gas.  It is located 10 minutes south of Pancake Bay PP at Batchawana Bay.  Even if you don’t need provisions, make sure you stop for their rightfully-famous apple fritters – the best we have ever tasted!  The Chicken Shack, 5 minutes south of Pancake Bay PP, serves fried truck food.

Things To Do at Pancake Bay PP

Swimming – brave the chilly waters of Lake Superior on this lovely sandy beach.

Boating – if you have your own canoe, kayak or paddleboard, you can explore Pancake Bay by water.  We had our paddleboard with us and we had calm weather while we were there.Lookout Trail view

The Lookout Trail – the full hike is 14 km, but it is 3 km in, 3 km out, if you just go to the Lookout.  You access the hike from Ch. Lookout Trail Rd, across the highway from the Park.  The hike is through the forest and climbs gradually to the Lookout for great views of Lake Superior.

Backcountry Camping Lake Superior PPcampsite Gargantua

Lake Superior PP is a further 45 minutes north from Pancake Bay. It is a large Park that offers lots of great opportunities to get into the interior of the Park.  The best access point for backcountry camping is Gargantua Road, where you can also access the Coastal Trail.  We will have a full post coming on our first backcountry family trip. This was our first time taking the kids into the backcountry and it definitely won’t be the last!

Pukaskwa National ParkHiking Pukaskwa

Pukaskwa National Park was the farthest north we went on this trip and is 400 km north of Sault Ste Marie.  Being a National Park, Pukaskwa is run a bit differently than the Provincial Parks.  The biggest difference is that this Park is first come-first serve for camping, so you don’t have to worry about reserving months in advance.  The Park almost never fills up, so you don’t usually have to worry about not getting a spot.  We also appreciated the lower camp fees, $36 for our family compared to $48 in the Provincial Parks.  The park is open from mid-May to mid-October.

Pukaskwa felt the most remote and wild of all the Parks we visited.  The scenery is Group of 7 pretty and the low laying fog that is typical of the area, created a moody and rugged atmosphere.  The average summer highs are 20 degrees, with average lows of 10 degrees.  The Pic River First Nation is located right outside the Park, which does a good job of incorporating indigenous stories and teachings into the visitor experience.Pukaskwa beach

Pukaskwa National Park Camping Review

Pukaskwa offers 67 sites at the Hattie Cove campground, spread over the North and South loop.  The South loop is closer to the Visitor Centre and Hattie Cove and has more powered sites.  The North loop is a bit quieter and has good access to the beaches.

We loved our site (48) on the North Loop.  It was a walk-in site (25 m from our car to the site) and was incredibly private, being the only site on Halfway Lake.  This site was wonderful in August, but the blackflies and mosquitoes might make it not so pleasant earlier in the season.  Each loop has a comfort station with flush toilets, showers and drinking water.  Each site has a firepit and picnic table.  Firewood can be purchased from the Park Kiosk, while ice and provisions are available in nearly Pic River.campsite Pukaskwa

We had no mobile reception in the Park, but there is free internet available at the Visitor Centre, although it is incredibly slow.  The Visitor Centre also sells Park merchandise and most programs take place here. You can buy a cup of coffee or tea at the Visitor Centre and there are some interesting exhibits and an area to sit on a rainy day.

Things to Do At Pukaskwa National Park

Xplorer Kids

If visiting with kids, pick up an Xplorer booklet from the Visitor Centre when you first arrive.  Designed for kids 6-11, there are lots of fun activities for the kids to complete as they explore the Park.  This made our kids very motivated to take on the Park’s many short hikes.  After they have completed the activities, they can return the booklet to the Visitor Centre for a landyard and Pukaskwa tag prize.

Interpretive Programming

Each day, the Park offers 1-2 FREE interpretive programs to learn about the Park’s geography and cultural heritage.  Our kids participated in and enjoyed a Clay program where they learned about the clay present in Hattie Cove, how clay has been used by the indigenous people and got to make their own clay creation.  Program calendars are posted at the Visitor Centre and the comfort stations.Pukaskwa clay program

Pukaskwa Hiking Trails

The multi-day Coastal Hiking Trail can be accessed from the Hattie Cove Visitor Centre.  The most challenging day hike is the White River Suspension Bridge hike via the Coastal Trail.  At 18 km, out and back, we didn’t think the kids would be keen on it.  However, you can day hike out to the campsites at Playter Harbour if they aren’t booked (booking mandatory at Pukaskwa).  These would also be good backcountry camp sites to visit with kids as they are 5-8 km hikes in.Pukaskwa family photo

Most of the hikes in the Hattie Cove area are short and modular, so you can make them as long as you would like.

Beach Trail (2 km) – from the North Loop campsite, it is a short walk to North Beach, a beautiful beach full of driftwood.  Although you aren’t supposed to make structures on the beach, the kids had a blast building teepees, log cabins and other forts.  This is also a great place to watch the sunset from.  The trail continues on to Middle Beach, which is also full of driftwood.

Bimose Kinoomagewnan (3.7 km loop) – I didn’t have many expectations about this hike, but it was one of my favourites at Pukaskwa.  The trail meanders back and forth between forest and the giant rocks with epic views of the Halfway Lake and Lake Superior beyond.  There are lots of wild blueberries to munch on and sign posts teaching the seven teachings from Anishnaable elders.

Southern Headland Trail (2.2 km) – great views of Haddie Cove and Horseshoe Bay as you walk along the headland.  The kids enjoyed posing with the classic Canadian red chairs, picking more blueberries and learning about the geological formation of Lake Superior.

Manito Miikana (2 km) – the first part of this trail is through the lush forest, but the loop at the point gives you great views of the landscape that inspired the Group of 7 painters.

Renting Paddleboards/CanoesPaddleboard Hattie Cove

You can rent canoes or paddleboards at the Boat Launch area on Hattie Cove (right near the Visitor Centre).  We put our paddleboard in at Hattie Cove, which was a nice cove to explore.

Lake Superior PP

Lake Superior PP is a massive park that you could spend years exploring.  Most campers base themselves at the Agawa Bay campground, although the Rabbit Blanket Lake campground also offers sites and there are numerous backcountry sites throughout the Park.  This year the Park celebrated its 75th anniversary and it is easy to see why outdoor enthusiasts have been visiting this Park for decades.Orphan Lake swimming hole

The Park offers an incredible amount of diversity with its rugged coastline, numerous interior lakes, waterfalls and endless hiking and paddling opportunities.  The 65 km Coastal Trail is one of Canada’s most famous multi-day hikes and it is possible to do sections of it on day hikes.  The Park offers a huge interior to explore with over 200 backcountry camp sites.

Lake Superior PP is a Dark Sky Reserve and the stargazing can be really incredible on a clear night.

Agawa Bay Camping Review

Agawa Bay campground has 147 sites spread over a thin strip of land along the large Agawa Bay.  The most desirable sites are directly on the water, but they book up as soon as camping reservations open, 5 months in advance.  The electrical sites are closer to the front gate and Visitor Centre, but offer less privacy.  All sites have a firepit and picnic table.  There are pit toilets and drinking water throughout the campground, with two comfort stations with flush toilets, showers and laundry facilities.  Firewood, ice and canoe rentals are available at the front gate.  If you need provisions, you need to make the trip into Wawa, 45-60 minutes away.

We had site 254, which wasn’t directly on the beach, but right across the road.  We still had views of the beach and Lake, while having more protection from Lake Superior’s windy shore.  We had cooler weather while we were there and a few stormy nights.  While the first row of campsite has the best views, they are exposed in bad weather.  In August, we found hardly any mosquitoes.  Watching the sunset each evening was a nightly ritual.Lake Superior PP campsite

The Visitor Centre at Agawa Bay is very well done with museum exhibits about the Lake, the wildlife, flora and fauna of the region and the cultural history of the area.  You can purchase park merchandise, coffee and tea and many of the Park’s naturalist programs happen here.Lake Superior sunset

Things to do at Lake Superior PP

Naturalist Programs at Agawa Bay

Every day there are a couple of naturalist programs offered, ranging from guided hikes to family activities to informative talks.  The kids participated in a Voyageur family program where they learned about Voyageur way of life and got to see if they had what it takes to be a Voyageur.  We also participated in a campfire evening program with stories and songs.  A weekly schedule of activities is posted at the Visitor Centre and at comfort stations.Voyageur naturalist program

Excellent Hikes

There are lots of wonderful hikes in the park, although most you will need to drive to as the Park is really large.  Pack a lunch and spend a day at the various hiking trails throughout the park .  The Coastal Trail is a multi-day hike that winds along the coast of Lake Superior PP.  There are lots of points where you can do a day hike on the Coastal Trail. Since the campgrounds along the Coastal Trail are first come, first serve, you can also use the campgrounds as a base for your day.  You can make a fire and swim at your own deserted beach.Hiking Lake Superior

If you are doing any of the Coastal or backcountry trails, a park map is useful and can be purchased at the Agawa Bay gate.  We asked about bear spray and they said it wasn’t necessary in the Park.

Orphan Lake (8 km loop) – this trail takes you around Orphan Lake with epic views of Lake Superior from high above the cliffs.  We made a day of it and added a short (1 km) walk up the Coastal Trail to the Raised Beach campsites where we had lunch and swam.  We then retraced our steps back to finish the Orphan Lake loop.  Our total waking time was probably about 3 hours.  Make sure you take the side trail to the Baldhead River where there are a series of waterfalls and pools to swim and play in.  There are lots of wild blueberries along the way.

Pinguisibi (Sand River) (6 km out and back) – this trail takes you up the Sand River, an ancient Ojibway route.  You can hike along the trail, but we had fun exploring the huge rocks along the river and the three waterfalls.

If you are in the north part of the Park, Trappers is a good short hike where you can sometimes see beavers.  Old Woman’s Bay and South Old Woman’s River is a popular hike near the Rabbit Blanket Lake campground.

Agawa Rock Pictographs – Ojibway recorded their dreams and spirits in red ochre on Agawa Rock for centuries.  This 0.5 km loop takes you through mossy rock chasms to a ledge right on the Lake where you can view the pictographs.  You want to choose a calmer day to explore Agawa Rock, which can become dangerous in windy conditions.  The Agawa pictographs are open mid-May to mid-September.

Coastal Trail Sections – Between Agawa Bay and Orphan Lake, there are numerous possibilities to hike sections of the Coastal Trail.

The Park Warden suggested the Coldwater River to Katherine Cove section has being particularly picturesque.  We estimated it was about 6-7 km one-way and the terrain is challenging as most of the trail is directly on the rocks along the coast.  We dropped a bike at Katherine Cove and walked south from our car at Coldwater River, where there is a small place to park.

We used the campsite at Robertson Cove to prepare lunch on the fire and on a warmer day, this would be a great area to swim with a sand spit linking to an island with a “bathtub”.  We also picked lots of wild blueberries on this hike.  One of the things we loved about Lake Superior PP was how easy it was to get into the backcountry, even just for the day.Robertson Cove campsite

Swimming at Bathtub Island – this location and activity isn’t marked in the Park information booklets, but is a popular not-so-secret fun thing to do at Lake Superior PP.  Park in the Katherine Cove parking lot, and it is only a 10-15 minute walk south to the best beach we found on Lake Superior. Cars also park along the highway, but we didn’t want to risk a ticket.  This stretch of sand is beautiful and the big attraction is the island offshore that has a large bathtub like basin.  You can wade from the beach to the island along the huge sandbars, with the water being waist deep.  Surprisingly the water here felt warmer than most of the other places we swam in Lake Superior.  This is definitely a fun activity and you can bring a lunch and spend the day on this lovely beach.Bathtub island swimming

Visit the Visitor Centre – Plan to spend an hour exploring the interesting and interactive exhibits at the Agawa Bay Visitor Centre.  We were very impressed with the Visitor Centre and we all learned a lot about the region here.  The back deck is a great place to charge devices and enjoy a hot cup of tea or coffee.  They also sell ice cream at the Visitor Centre for a special treat.

Canoe Rental – the Park rents out canoes by the day or week at the Park gate.  While you can paddle directly off Agawa Bay, the smaller lakes and rivers in the Park offers calmer waters.  We did use our paddleboard off the beach at Agawa Bay.

Sleeping Giant Provincial Park

Sleeping Giant was the northernmost park we visited, conveniently located less than hour from Thunder Bay.  Similar to Pancake Bay, it is a favourite for locals and had a really nice community feel.  The cliffs overlooking Lake Superior are spectacular and the peninsula really does look like a sleeping giant from afar.  With over 100 km of hiking trails, including the epic Top of the Giant hike, a great swimming beach and nice campground, Sleeping Giant is a great park to visit.

Marie Louise Campground Review

The front country camping is located on Marie Louise Lake with over 200 sites, of which half are powered.  There are lots of wonderful lakefront sites in the main camping area, but if you want more privacy, the 300 sites, located across the lake are for you.  All sites have picnic tables and a firepit and there are comfort stations and pit toilets throughout the site.

After encountering fierce mozzies at Pukaskwa in July, we were excited to not encounter any at Sleeping Giant.  In a normal year (we visited during Covid 2020), there are educational programs offered, a visitor centre/museum and entertainment at the amphitheatre.

We had site 85, which was good enough for us as we booked last minute and this is a very popular campground.  However, if you are booking early, try for a lakeside site.

There are backcountry sites located throughout the park, with the prime ones located off the Kabeyun Trail, on Lake Superior.  Reservations need to be made for your preferred zone each night, with the campsites being first come, first serve.

Things to Do at Sleeping Giant

Hiking – Top of the Giant with Kids

There are so many great trails throughout the park and many of them are short and sweet, perfect for families.  If you Google “best hikes in Ontario”, the Top of the Giant hike at Sleeping Giant will come up on every list and I was determined that if we only did one hike in the park, this would be it.  The trail is 22.4 km long, however you can bike in and cut 10 km from the hike.  It’s 950 ft of elevation gain so be prepared to work and like we always do, bring candy rewards for the kids!

Begin at the South Kabeyun Trailhead (a 5 min drive from the campground) and bike 5 km down the Kabeyun Trail.  Bring a lock and leave your bikes at the Talus Lake trail (there are even bike racks).   After 1.5 km, take the turn onto the Top of the Giant trail, where you will climb for 2.7 km.  Bring bug spray as we encountered lots of mozzies on this hike.

When you get to the top, you will be rewarded with incredible views over Lake Superior.  Keep going around to the Chimney for the classic cliff view over the Lake.  Of course, you then have to retrace your steps back down, but that is much quicker. This hike took us 6 hours return.  We really enjoyed the bike/hike/bike combo and it definitely made it a more manageable hike with kids.

Marie Louise Beach

The great beach right at the campground was one of the highlights of our visit to Sleeping Giant.  The best part is that the water in Marie Louise is way warmer than in Lake Superior.  It is a nice and large sandy beach with an enclosed swimming area, two playgrounds, and volleyball courts.  Bring your floaties and spend the perfect summer day lounging.

Biking

In addition to biking Kabeyun Trail, biking is also permitted on:

  • Sawyer Bay Trail
  • Sawbill Lake Trail
  • Burma Trail
  • Pickerel Lake Trail

Boating

Bring your own canoe, kayak or SUP and you can explore Marie Louise Lake from the beach or the big lake – Lake Superior.  Canoes and kayaks are available for rent on Marie Louise Lake, from the park office.

Terry Fox Memorial and Lookout

All school children know and love Terry Fox, the courageous one-legged runner who set out to run across Canada to raise money for cancer research.  The Memorial Site is just outside Thunder Bay and not far from where Terry had to end his cross country run.  There is a very touching statue of Terry Fox with fantastic views of Sleeping Giant and the Lake.  There are picnic tables around the park, making this a great place for lunch.

Terry Fox Memorial

Panorama Amethyst Mine

The Thunder Bay area has Canada’s largest amethyst deposit and kids will love digging through the rocks for a gemstone souvenir.  For $10/person (kids under 5 are free), you can dig your own amethyst and take your souvenirs home for $4/lb.  The Panorama Amethyst Mine is open 10-6 in the summer, 7 days a week.

Lake Superior Tips

Provisioning

This area of Ontario is quite remote and it is best to bring your provisions with you.  The Voyageur General Store at Batchawa Bay has basic grocery and camp supplies, but Wawa is your best bet for groceries and other supplies.  Wawa is located between Lake Superior PP and Pukaswa and we can recommend the following places in Wawa:

Blueberry pancakes

Wawa Valu-Mart – well stocked grocery store.

Young’s General Store – pickles, crossbows, fudge, blueberries, moccasins, candy and more.  This General Store has lots to look at including old equipment and machinery.Young's General Store

Krazy Fries – cheap and delicious deep fried everything.  Poutine with real cheese curds, deep fried pickles and more.Krazy Fries Wawa

Tim Hortons – us Canadians aren’t used to being too far away from a Tim’s.  Campers will be happy to find that there is a very busy Tim Hortons in Wawa.

Home of Winnie the Pooh

On your way to Pukaskwa National Park, be sure to stop briefly at White River, the home of Winnie the Pooh.  It was here over 100 years ago that Lieutenant Harry Colebourn was travelling through White River and purchased an orphaned black bear, that became known as Winnie the Pooh.  There is a Winnie statute to check out and the White River District Historical Society has lots of Winnie memorabilia.White River Winnie Statue

Our Verdict

The Lake Superior area of northern Ontario is absolutely gorgeous and we were awed by the landscape and amazing camping and hiking opportunities.  It is easy to see why people rave about the area and often make the long drive up to this wild and rugged area.  It has so many of the classic Canadian wilderness features: lakes, wildlife like moose, bears and beavers, rivers and waterfalls, windswept trees and rocky coastline.

It is an amazing part of Canada to explore and we are already dreaming about our next trip to Lake Superior.

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Lake Superior CampingCamping Guide to Lake Superior

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