coastal trail pukaskwa national park
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Trail Deep Dive – Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa National Park

Nestled along the shores of Lake Superior in Ontario, Canada, lies Pukaskwa National Park—a pristine wilderness steeped in history and geological significance. At the edge of this park lies the Coastal Trail, an iconic route that offers adventurers a chance to immerse themselves in the rugged splendour of the Canadian Shield while tracing the footsteps of northern Ontario’s ancient cultures.

History and Cultural Significance

Archaeological evidence traces the human history of Pukaskwa back to the hunter-gatherer groups of the Palaeo and Archaic periods (7500 BCE to 200 CE). Identified archaeological sites in the park predominantly date to the Initial Woodland period (200-800 CE) and the Terminal Woodland period (600-1750 CE). It is believed that some of the area’s “Pukaskwa Pits” (Maandawaab-kinganan) may have originated during this time. These pits are a key feature of the park and can be found along the trail. These pits are depressions made by digging out and ringing an area with the cobbles found in certain areas. Most of these pits are found within 100 meters of the shoreline; however, at the time that they were made they would’ve been much closer to the shore line. The reason they are so far back now is due to continental rebound, which began after the last ice age and continues today. Knowing that these pits would’ve been much closer to the water, one theory, among many, is that the indigenous peoples used these to catch and store fish.

Cobblestone fields

Following contact with European settlers, from the 1700s to the mid-twentieth century, the local history of Pukaskwa underwent rapid transformations. Waves of European exploration and development, fur trading, timber harvesting, mining, and settlement reshaped the landscape. By the 1840s, Upper Canada’s expansion prompted the opening of lands in Ontario’s near north to colonists, spurred by mineral discoveries in the region. Subsequently, seasonal activities like fishing, trapping, logging (with up to 400 people in camps on the Pukaskwa River), mining, and recreational tourism became economic mainstays. The area also gained prominence in shipping, becoming intertwined with the lore of shipwrecks as early vessels navigated Lake Superior’s coastal waters well into the twentieth century.

Amidst the comings and goings of explorers and settlers, the presence of the Anishinaabe people endured. Stories recount their traditional activities such as fishing, hunting, trapping, and even carrying mail for the Hudson Bay Company. Many Anishinaabe individuals continue to engage in traditional practices within the park, including camping, fishing, harvesting plant materials, and participating in ceremonial rituals, ensuring their cultural heritage remains an integral part of Pukaskwa’s history.

Geological Marvels Along the Trail

The Coastal Trail isn’t just a journey through history—it’s also a voyage through geological time, offering a fascinating glimpse into the ancient forces that shaped the landscape of Pukaskwa National Park. From towering cliffs to cascading waterfalls, each step along the trail reveals the intricate myriad of geological features that define this pristine wilderness.

The park’s rugged coastline, sculpted by millennia of erosion and glaciation, showcases the raw power of nature in its most elemental form. Towering cliffs of ancient granite rise majestically from the shores of Lake Superior, bearing witness to the flow of time.

Pukaskwa national park
Navigating the rocky coast
Pukaskwa national park
Hiking through the forest

Practical Considerations

Before embarking on your journey along the Coastal Trail, there are a few practical considerations to keep in mind:

Permits and Reservations: Overnight camping along the Coastal Trail requires a backcountry camping permit, which can be obtained through the park’s website or visitor center. Reservations are recommended, especially during peak season.

Trail Conditions: Be prepared for variable trail conditions, including mud, roots, and fallen debris. Sturdy footwear, trekking poles, and appropriate gear for changing weather conditions are essential.

Weather Conditions: Check the weather forecast before setting out and be prepared for sudden changes in weather conditions. Weather on Lake Superior is famous for changing rapidly, and the coastal parts of the trail could become impassable in rough weather.

Leave No Trace: Practice Leave No Trace principles to minimize your impact on the environment. Pack out all trash, respect wildlife, and tread lightly to preserve the park’s pristine beauty.

Safety Precautions: Bring plenty of water, high-energy snacks, a first aid kit, and a map or GPS device to navigate the trail safely.

Campsite Amenities: All campsites have ample space for 1-2 tents (perhaps more depending on party size) a designated fire pit, privy and bear box.

The Trail

The trail begins at the Visitor’s Center; just off the side of the parking lot you will see a sign for the hiking trails. Hikers use the same trailhead for both the Coastal Trail and the Mdaabii Miikna. The Coastal trail is a 60 km linear trail, while the Mdaabii Miikna is approximately 25 kms, looping off of the Coastal Trail. Both of these trails have their own unique and interesting challenges, but they both feature the rocky and scenic coastline of Lake Superior. Hiker’s of the Coastal Trail have two options for hiking: Take a water taxi to or from the end of the trail at the North Swallow campsite and hike the 60 kms there or back OR hike the trail in both directions. We have made both choices and both have their merits.

Water Taxi at Hattie Cove

These challenging routes wind through a diverse landscape of rocky cliffs, dense forests, secluded beaches, and tranquil coves, offering hikers an unparalleled opportunity to immerse themselves in the raw beauty of the Canadian wilderness. Here are the key highlights of the Coastal Trail: 

  1. White River Suspension Bridge: This bridge stretches over the Chiguamiwimagim Falls approximately 7 kms from the trailhead. This raging waterfall is an awesome site to see and helps you appreciate the true power of nature.

  2. Hook Falls: Another powerful, although shorter, waterfall on the White River as it flows out into Lake Superior. It’s only about 9 kms from the trailhead and makes a great lunch spot!

  3. Willow River Suspension Bridge: This bridge stretches over the Willow River as you continue deeper into the backcountry. Just after this bridge, you have a choice to continue on a forest path, or take a detour along the coast.

  4. Oiseau Bay: This is the longest beach in Pukaskwa National Park and home to the endangered “Pitcher Thistle”. These unique plants only bloom once every 13 years. Watch your step!
Favourite Campsites: Willow River, Fisherman’s Cover, White Gravel River, White Spruce Harbour and North Swallow

The national park has an excellent document for backpackers to use when planning their hike. I’ll attach a link to it here. We also have trail journal videos as well a trail guide video you can watch to gain a better understanding of the trail and what you can expect. 

The Coastal Trail in Pukaskwa National Park is more than just a hiking trail—it’s a journey through time and geological wonder. As you venture along its rugged paths and breathtaking vistas, take time to immerse yourself in the rich and pristine wilderness. The Coastal Trail offers a glimpse into the soul of Pukaskwa National Park, inviting adventurers to forge unforgettable memories amidst the splendour of Lake Superior’s shores.

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