We hear the roaring White River long before we see it. Then suddenly we emerge from the forested trail onto the suspension bridge, cautiously gazing through the open steel mesh floor to frothing Chigamiwinigum Falls below. As far as we can see both upstream and down, it’s non-stop whitewater as the wild river thunders through the gorge. Northern Ontario wilderness at its finest.
What impresses us most about Pukaskwa National Park is it offers outstanding remote wilderness while being easy to access. Roughly halfway between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, the park preserves the wildest and most scenic stretches of the Lake Superior shoreline. It’s only a 15-kilometre (9-mile) drive off the Trans-Canada Highway to reach this wonderland of ancient granite bedrock, rocky headlands, golden sand beaches, and stunning vistas at every turn.
To impress the residents, learn how to correctly say Pukaskwa. Despite what its spelling might suggest, it’s pronounced “puk-a-saw”. The exact meaning of the word has been lost in time. Thought to have Ojibway origins, it may refer to the cooking of animal bone marrow. No doubt about it, Pukaskwa has a much better ring to it than Marrow Cooking Park.
The park’s visitor centre at Hattie Cove is one of the most inviting we’ve come across anywhere, with spectacular views out large front windows. Colourful murals with traditional designs and an authentic birchbark canoe add to the setting. In summer, wander over to the nearby cultural camp where interpreters relate stories and practices of the Anishinaabe people.
The road ends at Hattie Cove just inside the park entrance, so you may as well put your car keys away for the rest of your stay. The only way to get around is by walking or paddling. The Coastal Paddling Route provides outstanding opportunities for canoeing or kayaking, while the 60-kilometre (37-mile) Coastal Hiking Trail ranks among Canada’s premier backpacking routes.
The good news is you don’t have to tackle multi-day wilderness expeditions to enjoy the park. A wealth of amazing landscapes can be viewed on day hikes from Hattie Cove. In many places there is a feeling of walking through a Group of Seven painting.
Our favourite short hike is the 2.2-kilometre (1.4-mile) Southern Headland Trail. Starting next to the visitor centre, it climbs the rocky hills where a pair of Parks Canada’s iconic red Muskoka chairs overlook Hattie Cove. It then winds along the top of the headlands where we can appreciate the vastness of Lake Superior, eventually ending at an attractive sandy beach in Horseshoe Bay near the campground.
Interpretive panels along the way provide the lowdown on everything from geology to history and wildlife. One display describes Lake Superior as the world’s largest air conditioner, since the immense volume of water acts like a refrigerator on a warm summer day. We feel that effect often as we experience short-sleeve shirt weather along forest paths away from the lake, then have to don sweaters as soon as we reach the shoreline.
Other short trails take us over rocky ravines to cliff tops with gorgeous views, and along a series of beaches scattered with driftwood. Since most of the trails are interconnected, there’s the option of doing one at a time or linking a few together for a half-day excursion.
The top day hike, however, is to the White River Suspension Bridge and Chigamiwinigum Falls, along the first part of the Coastal Hiking Trail. Allow at least eight hours to do the 18-kilometre (11-mile) return route, since it covers rugged terrain in places. Beautifully situated Playter Harbour, about halfway along, makes the ideal spot for a picnic lunch.
MORE ABOUT PUKASKWA NATIONAL PARK
Where to Stay: Hattie Cove Campground is the only place to stay in the park, other than at remote backcountry campsites. An excellent option for those without camping gear is to stay in an oTENTik, a cross between a frame tent and a small cabin. The nearby town of Marathon also has a variety of accommodations.
Like other national parks, Pukaskwa reopened gradually in light of Covid-19. Now almost all services are up and running again with a few exceptions. Still closed are the canoe rental shop, the resource reading area in the visitor centre, inside areas of the cultural camp, and campground showers.
For more details, visit the Parks Canada website.