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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Lake Superior Provincial Park Coastal Trail

July 2-4, 2016

63 km trail, 2 km roundtrip to Warp Bay, 10 km backtracking from Chalfant Cove
14 km remote road walk
35 km biking

Located about 1.5 hours north of Sault Ste. Marie, the Coastal Trail in Lake Superior Provincial Park is one of the most spectacular and challenging hikes in the greater Michigan region.  I had previously hiked almost the entire trail on two separate hikes: Gargantua to Orphan Lake (didn't take any pictures) and Agawa Bay to Orphan Lake.

The Coastal Trail stays close to the rocky coast of Lake Superior from Agawa Bay to Chalfant Cove north of Gargantua Bay.  It provides some of the finest hiking near Lake Superior.

Here is a general overview map of the trail with many of the major coves and rivers labeled.

I have found limited info about the trail on the Lake Superior Provincial Park Website.  There are also other helpful blogs and also youtube videos that can be found searching online. Ideally this report will provide some clarity to this spectacular trail. The link to the park provides info regarding shuttle options.

While maintained by the provincial park, the Coastal Trail is actually a part of the Voyageur Trail, a 700 km trail along the northern shores of Lakes Huron and Superior.  While the Voyageur Trail is not continuous and has many gaps, many of the completed sections are excellent hikes.  I purchased the Voyageur Hiking Trail Guidebook Edition 4.1 from the Voyageur Trail Association (see here).  There is a great route description and maps of the the completed sections including the Coastal Trail. Lake Superior Provincial Park also sells a detailed map for much cheaper, but it's hard to resist the scenery of the Pukaskwa National Park Coastal Trail, the Casque Isles Trail, many nice sections near Sault Ste. Marie, and much more.

My pace on this trail was faster than ideal.  I had a three-day weekend and pushed through to finish it all in time.  Don't count on finishing this hike in the same amount of time as I did. Several factors allowed me to complete this hike in the 2.5 days: perfect weather, long summer days, and past experience on the trail. Check the weather and plan accordingly.  Per the Voyageur Trail Guidebook, "Hiking pace may be halved on rocky shoreline sections, and halved again in wet conditions."

On Friday evening after work, I drove up to Gargantua Road off the Trans Canada Highway. It took additional time due to the holiday weekend/border crossing. I arrived at nearly midnight at the self-permit station.  I filled out a permit and paid the camping fee which also includes a vehicle park pass.  I didn't have exact Canadian cash so I paid a little extra. I slept in my vehicle.

I decided that I would hike out on the remote Gargantua Road after completing the Coastal Trail northbound from Agawa Bay.  I hid my bike near the permit station the next morning and drove south to the Agawa Bay Visitor Center.
Parking near Agawa Bay

Agawa Bay Visitor Center

I packed up my gear and headed out to the trail on Agawa Bay. It was 6:30 am.

It was a beautiful morning.

I could see out to Montreal Island.

The beginning of the hike includes some of the easiest hiking on the trail.

The trail was in the forest parallel to the highway. It was a pleasant morning.

There were lots of flowers near the trail.

Views across Agawa Bay

There was a scenic boardwalk.

I reached the Agawa River and the trail followed it back to the highway to use the bridge.

Agawa River

Bridge over the Agawa River

Agawa River

The trail passed an abandoned cabin in the woods.

I passed the first of many campsites along the trail.  Campsites on the Coastal Trail do not need to be reserved and are first-come, first-serve. Also, camping at a campsite is not required if stuck between campsites and out of time. Finding a suitable dispersed campsite can be quite challenging due to the thick forest and rocky nature of many of the beaches.

The trail was rugged but well-marked, notice the blue marker in the upper center below.

The spectacular scenery was just beginning.

 Some scrambling was required, even in the forest.

I went past some towering cliffs.

I reached a nice campsite at Agawa Point.

Agawa Island


I came to a nice cove with a view of the islands.

Then some rocky coastal hiking.

Back in the forest, the trail remained quite rugged.

There was a steep climb up to a dramatic view.

Agawa Island

The trail went beside some dramatic cliffs and even had a slot canyon-like feel in places.

Ganley Island had some buildings on it. There is some discrepancy with the Voyageur Trail Association map here as Ganley and Rock Islands are actually right next to each. The larger island marked as Ganley Island on the VTA maps is actually Agawa Island.

The trail went under some giant rocks.

I reached the junction with the trail to the Agawa Rock Pictographs.

The Agawa Rock Pictographs are out on the ledge.

I decided to get a view of the impressive cliff that the pictographs are located on.

I walked out on the ledge as the water from the lake wasn't too high.

There was another view point nearby.

I continued my hike to Sinclair Cove.

I climbed a side trail to a spectacular view of Sinclair Cove, Barrett Island, and Sinclair Island.

Sinclair Cove

Looking out to Lake Superior

Sinclair and Barrett Islands

I descended down to Sinclair Cove and there were some vehicles parked along the gravel road.

Sinclair Cove

Looking back to the cliff above the spectacular overlook I was just upon.

I continued around Sinclair Cove.

Then I climbed up to an expansive view.

Back on the coast for some rugged boulder hopping.

Possibly Sinclair Island

Looking back to Sinclair Cove

Coming to another cove

The trail frequently goes into the forest to avoid steep headlands. If I found a large cliff in front of me or a potential hazard, I looked inland and a trail marker was typically there. Here is evidence of some recent trail work.

Barrett Island

Looking back

The trail climbed up to a rocky overlook of Lake Superior.

Barrett Island

I went around a headland and discovered an expansive view to the north.

I believe the trail went inland to avoid this cliff.

I had a lot of fun hopping along the large boulders.

A cobble beach

I then climbed up to another view.

I came to a large boulder on a beach.

Looking back (notice the blue marker on the tree)

There was some easy hiking on my way to the Barrett River.

I opted to jump across the mouth of the river vs hiking out to the bridge on the road.

Barrett River

The beach was sandy and I saw a couple other backpackers nearby.

I stopped at a campsite for a break.  It even had a picnic table.

Then it was back to more rocky shoreline.

There were unique colored boulders.

Another inland section of trail

I came to another Sandy Beach near the Sand River.

Bridge over the Sand River

Mouth of the Sand River

While crossing the Sand River on the highway bridge, I enjoyed the view of some small waterfalls.

Mouth of the Sand River

There was a tent and some people camped nearby even though I don't believe it is allowed on the dunes.

I continued my way toward Katherine Cove.  I passed a small island and there were lots of people on the beach in this area.

As I went around a headland, Katherine Cove became visible.  I could see a canoe on Lake Superior in the distance.

Katherine Cove is located right on the highway and there is a day-use area.

Soon I left the sandy beach.

I enjoyed pleasant hiking over some bedrock.

There were also boulders to scramble over.

I could see my first view of Bald Head, one of the highest points on the trail.

I could also see Robertson Cove and some orange tents.

I camped at Robertson Cove previously. It's a great spot to camp, as it's nearly an island.

Looking north to Bald Head

Looking back on some boulder hopping fun.

Tents on Robertson Cove still visible

More interesting coastal colors

Another cliff to go around

Maybe Rowe Island

Back in the forest to skirt a headland.

I came to another beautiful campsite.  This one had fire wood already prepared.

I could see where the highway turns away from the coastline. The trail north of there to Gargantua is the most remote rugged section of trail.

Bald Head getting closer

I could see the bridge over the Coldwater River.

The view south was quite impressive, maybe even past Agawa Bay.

There were some steep cliffs visible.

I found some flowers on the beach near the Coldwater River.

I followed the trail out to the road to cross the river.

Coldwater River

Some inland boardwalks

Maybe Rowe Island in the distance

I reached the base of Bald Head and turned inland to climb up for several impressive views.

After a steep climb, there was a majestic view of the southern coast from a 50 meter lookout.

I climbed up higher for a great view over Lake Superior.

This view is 90 meters above the lake.

There was a great view from Bald Head to the north of exciting scenery to come.

I could see the beach down below.

The rock in this area was interesting.

I reached the beginning of the beach.  I remembered camping here previously on a rainy and cold fall night years before.

There was a small waterfall nearby and I refilled my water bottle.

I went past the Orphan Lake Trail and continued to the Baldhead River.

Baldhead River

I did some exploring and found a few waterfalls nearby.

Bridge over the Baldhead River

Bald Head from mouth of the Baldhead River

There were some interesting boulder fields in the middle of the forest.

It was getting late in the evening and I started to plan where I would camp.

I didn't think I had time to reach Beatty Cove, but there were a couple campsites before it on my map.

The evening light was just beginning.

I had some fun rocky scrambling.

Looking back to Baldhead

Beautiful Coastal Scenery

Back in the forest

I began to look for a small sandy beach that was supposed to have a campsite.

I came to the sandy beach but noticed some food and gear on it.  The campsite was already occupied. I talked to the guy camping there a little and continued on.

It was getting late, nearly 9:30 pm and still quite light out, but I needed to find a place to camp and didn't have time to reach the next campsite at Beatty Cove.

The beach was far to rocky to camp on and the forest nearby quite thick.

I eventually found a reasonably level spot that had barely enough room to fit my tent.

I could still see and hear Lake Superior through the trees. It had been a long day with ~15 hours of hiking.  I had covered ~38 km/~24 miles. For perspective, I probably would have hiked 30+ miles on the NCT in the same amount of time.

I woke up early the next morning and continued north.

Another scenic cove.

The trail went inland on its way to Beatty Cove.

Beatty Cove was quite large.

Near the campsites, it had a beautiful sandy beach.

Beatty Cove

There was a small stream entering the lake.


Sandy beach at Beatty Cove

One of the campsites at Beatty Cove

I could see some birds out on a small island.

From Beatty Cove there was some rugged hiking on the way to Rhyolite Cove.

I came to a stream.

Back inland to skirt another headland

I came to another scenic campsite.

I reached Buckskin Creek.

Buckskin Creek

There was a bridge over the creek.

One the other side was one of the first significant blowdowns on the trail.

I climbed up to an impressive view of the coastline.

I descended and found a campsite nearby.

I had a steep climb up Bear Mountain but I missed a side trail that was supposed to have a great view.

Back by the lake, there was one of the most challenging sections of trail.

I had to be careful to make sure I was following the correct route.  Notice the blue marker on the tree below.

I climb up on a headland and took a break for a snack, enjoying a great view of the greatest of lakes.

The trail went by many different coves, with the views changing every few minutes.

As I neared Rhyolite Cove, I started to notice some rhyolite.

There was a nice pool nearby.

Rhyolite shoreline

There was a couple backpacking the other direction.

I reached Rhyolite Cove.

The rock on this beach was interesting.

View from the campsite at Rhyolite Cove

From Rhyolite Cove, I started the journey to Gargantua Road. This is one of the most dramatic sections of trail with lots of elevation change.

There was a short side trail to a great view and some interesting rocks.

Later I came out to some rugged overlooking views of Lake Superior.

Much of this section is steep and rocky.  Careful route finding is necessary.

Notice the blue marker below.  It indicates a sharp turn to the right around the cliff.

Back inland to avoid a headland

There was a steep gully called Fatman's Alley.

I rounded a corner and could see the surrounding Gargantua area, including many islands in the distance.

I could see Harper's Hill to my right.

I enjoyed many views from Harper's Hill.

I could see Devil's Warehouse Island,  Dixon Island and  to Warp Bay.

I came to a cliff top view.

I could see the sandy beach along Gargantua Bay.

I descended steeply down some switchbacks and met a family out for a day-hike.

There were some beautiful campsites nearby.

Looking across Gargantua Bay.

Gargantua Island

Before I reached Gargantua Road, I crossed a small bridge.

I reached the parking lot and headed out to the beach.

From the parking lot the trail continues north to where it dead ends at Chalfant Cove.  There was a great informative kiosk nearby.

The trail on the way to Gargantua Harbour was a wide old road.  Motorized vehicles are not allowed. There were several scenic campsites on the way.

I reached where the trail used to go to Gargantua Harbour but the route was inaccessible due to beaver activity.  I planned to explored Gargantua Harbour on my way back to Gargantua Road.

The trail has been rerouted around the beaver activity.

Soon I was back on the trail.

I met some people heading the other way who stated they had heard there was a bear and cubs at Warp Bay.

I came to the Gargantua River and an impressive bridge.

I went on a side trail to see a waterfall.

I returned to the trail and found some fresh signs of bear activity on the trail.

I decided to take the short trail to Warp Bay. Maybe I would see the bear.

On the way there was an impressive view of the Gargantua River.

I reached Warp Bay and it was empty: no people or bears.

The view was nice and there were several excellent campsites nearby, some with picnic tables.

There was a great campsite near the mouth of the Gargantua River.

Mouth of the Gargantua River

I returned to the Coastal Trail and once again enjoyed the view of the Gargantua River below.

It didn't take me long to reach Indian Harbour. Supposedly there are campsites nearby, but I didn't see them.

There was a great cliff top view of Chalfant Island.

Soon I reached Chalfant Cove and decided to look for a campsite. I searched around and found at least four campsites: two off a side trail to a private southern part of the cove, one at the end of the trail, and another on the other side of the stream right off the beach.

I decided to stay at the one at the end of the trail. It was a beautiful evening. 

There were some bugs flying around, but they didn't seem to bite too much.

Looking back to my campsite from the beach

I slept well that night and woke up early to begin my hike back to my bike at Gargantua Road near the highway.

I passed a pleasant wetland and searched for wildlife.

Soon I was up on the cliffs with some great morning views.

As I neared Indian Harbour, I heard a loud noise across a stream.  I looked up and discovered a large bull moose was running away up the stream.  I didn't have time to take a picture, but it was an exciting experience.

Soon I was back at the Gargantua River.

Gargantua River

I decided to go look at the waterfalls again.

I discovered that the trail went to the top of the falls.

Then I went back to forested trail on my way to Gargantua Harbour.

I went past the beaver activity.

Then out to Gargantua Harbour.

There was a great view. I decided not to cross the stream to see the campsites.

I returned to the trail.

I saw a fox pouncing on something and then it looked up and stared at me.

 I went to the beach through a pleasant campsite.

I followed the beach to Gargantua Road.

Gargantua Island

I enjoyed one last view of Lake Superior.

I went to the parking lot and started walking the remote road.

 The road was actually quite scenic. A few vehicles passed as I walked.

I bushwhacked over to some scenic lakes.

I met a couple guys out getting ready to go fishing.

Another scenic lake

There was a trail to Belanger Lake, but I didn't have time to try it.

I came to a bridge and decided to get some water.

Soon I was back at the permit station and retrieved my bike.

I rode out to the Highway 17 and saw a long distance biker heading the other direction. The road went between some scenic lakes.

The road was reasonably busy with a lot of large trucks, but there was generally a good shoulder. It was windy which slowed my progress.  I reached the point where the road descends to Lake Superior.

I enjoyed speeding down but don't know how fast I went as my speedometer had stopped working.

I stopped at Katherine Cove to take a picture.

The road had some steep climbs.

There some nice views overlooking Lake Superior.

I stopped at a scenic viewpoint.

It didn't take long and I was back at Agawa Bay.

I enjoyed one final view of Lake Superior, then returned to my vehicle and headed back to Michigan.

The Coastal Trail in Lake Superior Provincial Park is certainly one of the finest hikes on Lake Superior.  It brings the hiker right beside the dramatic power of Lake Superior almost the entire way.  From rocky scrambles to impressive overlooking views, this trail is a very rewarding yet challenging hike.  Caution is especially necessary when the trail is wet, making slipping a quite likely.  Even with perfect weather, I managed to fall a couple times.

I hiked the trail on probably one of the busiest times of the year and there were relatively few people on the trail.  The magnificence of the scenery is on a level comparable to Pictured Rocks, but the camping situation is much better.  There are many individual sites spread out along the trail.  Nearly all of them are right on the beach or at a beautiful cove.  There are typically one to four of them grouped every few kilometers vs the designated/typically forested campgrounds at Pictured Rocks.  Plus reservations are not necessary and you can hike at your own pace and modify as you go. Also, it was helpful to me that dispersed camping, while not ideal, is allowed if necessary.

Overall, this hike needs to be on every hikers' bucket list. Even if you can't backpack this trail, there are still opportunities for day hikes on the southern portion.  The park also has many other day-hiking opportunities. Please let me know if you have any questions about this amazing trail.

About Me

I've been born and raised in the great state of Michigan. I recently graduated from physical therapy school. I enjoy being active, playing sports, and running. Backpacking has become a great interest as it is a physical challenge that provides many rewarding views and experiences. I strive to make a difference in the lives of those encounter in every day life, on the trail, or even just on this blog. May God bless each of you. Now go find an adventure! It's only a few feet away!