Originally created 07/31/05

Canada: Exploring Algonquin Provincial Park



ALGONQUIN PROVINCIAL PARK, Ontario - We certainly weren't alone on Lake Opeongo. Off in the distance we could see other canoers pushing themselves around. Occasionally a speedboat buzzed across the water, its speed and aim mocking the lurching of our amateur paddling.

Even so, solitude could be found here. Cozy inlets provided close-up views of the maple and spruce forest packed right up to the water's edge. A tiny island in the middle of the lake - maybe 400 square feet - offered shade and an inviting beach.

And then, suddenly, it didn't matter how many people were around. Near one marshy edge of the lake, two loons reared their heads back and called to each other. Their signals were only seconds long but rich and looping and soulful.

This moment was emblematic of a late-summer camping trip to Canada's Algonquin Provincial Park, an enormous expanse of lakes and forests three hours north of Toronto.

To be sure, the secret is out about the place. Algonquin has long been a favored destination in Canada for canoeing and fishing in the summer and cross-country skiing in the winter. Campgrounds are booked well in advance.

But for non-Canadians - notably Americans, who generally have limited familiarity with their neighbors to the north - Algonquin ranks as a genuinely new place to explore. Most likely, no one you know has been there.

As a provincial park, Algonquin is the equivalent of a state park in the United States. That means there's no one thing you have to see, like the geysers at Yellowstone or Half Dome at Yosemite.

Algonquin also tricks the visitor who expects such a specially preserved chunk of land to be virgin pure. Algonquin was once clear-cut by loggers and veined with railroad tracks; only in the past 100 years have forests and moose reclaimed the place.

But neither of those things is a strike against the park, which is a sprawling 3,000 square miles, twice the size of Rhode Island.

For one thing, despite having only provincial park status, Algonquin has national park-quality facilities and amenities, such as the big and thorough museum in the visitor's center that explains how the forest regrew. Pamphlets available on the area's plentiful and well-marked hiking trails reinforce that lesson and offer other guidance about the site.

Also, like big national parks, Algonquin gives visitors multiple ways of diving in.

For heartier adventurers, there are backcountry campgrounds a good distance from major roads. These provide starting points for deep sojourns into the middle of the park, which is accessible to hikers and canoers only, no cars.

Campers looking for something a little easier can pitch their tents right by their cars at one of the eight campgrounds along Highway 60, the only road that traverses the park. Some have flush toilets and showers; others are more rustic.

Although some of those campgrounds can be big, with more than 240 sites, ours - which was on a lake - felt quiet and woodsy.

Selecting and reserving a campsite is easy through the Ontario Parks Department's Web site, which also offers a nice amount of candor about the condition of the individual sites, with comments such as "Privacy: Low" when appropriate.

And if you're the kind of traveler who wants a day in the great outdoors to end on a comfortable bed, Algonquin has that, too: There are three lodges in the park that offer individual lakeside cabins, a good option for families.

Each lodge has a restaurant with fixed-price menus and lets you bring your own wine, since no alcohol is sold in the park. One of them, Bartlett Lodge, sits in the middle of a peaceful lake, requiring guests and diners to be shuttled across in a little motorboat.

The night we ate at Bartlett, the food (I chose lamb chops as a main course, and my wife had salmon) was pretty good, though not great. But the price was decent for the remote setting, around $40 per person (plus tip and tax), and the meal certainly beat the pot of beans and grilled sausage we had rustled up on the campfire the previous night.

Best of all, that civilized dinner was only about a mile from our tent. We slept well that night, with only one disturbance - a couple of loons belting out their rich calls, somewhere off in the dark.

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If You Go...

ALGONQUIN PARK: www.algonquinpark.on.ca or (705) 633-5572. A good place to stock up on provisions before an Algonquin adventure is in the nice town of Huntsville, Ontario, just outside the park. Huntsville is a three-hour drive north from Toronto. Montreal is about seven hours away.

CAMPGROUNDS: Reserve campgrounds at www.ontarioparks.com/english/reservations.html or (888) 668-7275. The reservation fee is about $10. Car campgrounds range from $20 to $27 per night; backcountry camping is $7 for adults; children 6 to 17, $3.50.

PARK LODGES: At Bartlett, rooms/cabins range from $122 to $168 per person, per night, depending on the season; www.bartlettlodge.com or (705) 633-5543. Other lodges are Arowhon Lodge - www.arowhonpines.ca or (705) 633-5661 - and Killarney Lodge, www.killarneylodge.com or (705) 633-5551. There are also a few dozen inns and motels on the roads surrounding the park.