Pukaskwa Coastal Trail

This year we celebrated Canada Day on the beautiful and rugged Coastal Trail of Pukaskwa National Park. We hiked a total of 82.4 km in five days (41.2 km of the linear 60+ km trail) in one of the most challenging back-country camping trips we have undertaken to date. The trail was enticing, grueling and absolutely amazing.

Pukaskwa National Park, one of the least visited national parks in Canada, is a gem. The coastal trail is somewhat legendary with a reputation for being a rugged and challenging trail. Most people opt to get dropped off at the end of the trail by boat and hike the linear 60+ km trail one way. This was also our plan until we found out that the price tag for the boat drop-off was $695. While this price may be reasonable when multiple people split the cost, we decided to forgo the boat ride and simply hike in and re-trace our steps out again.

Day One

We planned what seemed to be reasonable itinerary for our level of fitness and back-country hiking experience. Little did we know, we were about to take on a real challenge. We began with a 27.6 km hike from Hattie Cove to Fish Harbour, undoubtedly a long first day. We flew through the first 17 km of the trail which was all inland. Crossing the roaring White River on a suspension bridge was a definite highlight and we arrived at Willow River feeling optimistic. The trail then began to hug the shore of Lake Superior and became increasingly more challenging over the next 10.6 km. By the time we arrived to our campsite we were exhilarated, exhausted and ready for a good night sleep.

Day Two

Day two was meant to be a recovery day with only 12.3 km to hike from Fish Harbour to Fisherman’s Cove. After a blissful sleep-in, we took our sweet time packing camp before heading back on the trail. Aside from a swampy four kilometer inland portion of the trail around Adihk Lake, the scenery was absolutely incredible. Vast white sandy beaches, clear turquoise water, hidden coves and beautiful outcrops revealed themselves as we hiked along the shore of Superior. While we admired the landscape around us, we also realized that we were in for another challenging day. 12.3 km turned out to actually be 13.6 km of difficult terrain (in fact we actually measured all distances to be greater than those shown in the park’s distance guide) and we arrived at Fisherman’s Cove feeling far from rested.

Day Three

We originally planned to spend our third day hiking even farther while leaving camp set-up at Fisherman’s Cove to await our return at the end of the day. We even fantasized that we could potentially hike all the way to the end of the trail. However, thunderstorms in the morning made us relinquish those plans and we ended up spending a much-needed day of relaxation in camp.

Day Four

The rain clouds lifted the following day and we began our hike out with 24.2 km from Fisherman’s Cove to Willow River. The scenery was as incredible the second time around and somehow the trail seemed to have become even more difficult despite having consumed two liters of wine and three days worth of food. Our legs were starting to give out and we became a little delirious but we persevered.

Day Five

On the fifth day, we hiked 17 km from Willow River back to Hattie Cove. The final two kilometers seemed to go on forever and we literally counted down the last 900 meters using Chris’ GPS. That evening, we celebrated with nachos and wine and began talking about going back…

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A “floating” boardwalk along the Pukaskwa Coastal Trail near Hattie Cove campgroud

Looking Back

Compared to some of our previous back-country multi-day hiking trips (including hiking over 43 kilometers in one day with over one kilometer of vertical climbing and descending on the Kepler Track in NZ, and hiking the entire Kabeyun Trail at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park in less than a day), the Pukaskwa Coastal Trail was surprisingly strenuous and we have been wondering: why was it so hard?

Well, the amazing coastal scenery came with challenging terrain. Everything was a boulder field, everything was up and down, and when wet, everything was slippery. There definitely were nice flat parts of the trail where you could carry your momentum forward, but these seemed to be the exception.

While the difficulty of the trail snuck up on us, the beauty of it was stark and mesmerizing. We will have to go back to finish off those last 20+ km of the trail and maybe even explore more of the coast’s hidden coves, beaches and other gems by boat.

Tips for Future Hikes

A few notes if you are interested in hiking the Pukaskwa Coastal Trail:

  • Definitely do it!
  • Plan to go with a few other people to split the cost of a boat drop-off or save-up $695.
  • Pack lightly (i.e. dehydrated meals, light-weight gear, and maybe don’t bring two liters wine).
  • Back-country campsite reservations need to be made in advance. In our case five days in advance was sufficient.
  • Pukaskwa National Park has a very handy coastal hiking trail trip planner available online.

Happy hiking!

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