Sunday, August 2
We got up bright and early on Sunday morning and headed north out of Sault Ste Marie along the Trans-Canada (Ontario Highway 17). The nicely wide and paved highway soon started to give us grand views of the world's largest lake, and scenery only got nicer the further we drove north: higher hills, bigger cliffs, wider vistas. I took us about two hours of leisurely driving (including scenic stops and a bit of photography) to get to the park visitor center at Agawa Bay. We stopped in to get our backpack and car parking permits printed off (I had purchased both permits online, but I didn't really have slips that I could put on the dash of all of our vehicles, and we also needed to change the listed license plate for one of the cars).
North along the Lakeshore
Hillier as we approach park
Lake Superior Provincial Park
As a note of reference for those seeking to understand the backcountry permit procedure at Lake Superior PP: Backcountry permits are available for purchase online 2 weeks before your itinerary start date. You choose one of the park's backcountry zones and attempt a purchase. Assuming there are free slots available for you, you get assigned a permit that is valid for any backcountry campsite in your specified zone for the length of time of your permit. For us, that was a 6-day window starting on August 2 for the "Coastal Zone". That meant that we were authorized to stay in any backcountry campsite along the entire coastal trail for any of the next 6 days, on a first-come, first-serve basis. Quite a relaxed system, really, although as you'll see while reading the report, sometimes that can turn out to be a determent. Generally, though, it's a big positive, in my opinion.
Next, time to set up our start and end points. We had decided to run the Coastal Trail from north to south. Given our 7-person / 3-car configuration, this was easily handled. We parked a car at the Awausee Parking area (not far north of the visitor center), then the seven of us all squeezed into the two remaining (two Honda CR-V) vehicles - with masks on, in case anyone was wondering. We drove north along the trans-canada until we came to Gargantua Road (one of the park's backcountry roads). We turned west onto this road and followed it for about 14km to the coastline at Gargantua Bay. There had been some.... descriptive words on some web trip reports about how this road was tricky or hair-raising, but it was in fact just another fairly nondescript backcountry ontario gravel road. Apart from a bit of dust and coarse gravel, it was actually fairly smooth and offered no real difficulties. It is easily travellable in a 2wd normal ground clearance vehicle.
Gargantua Bay Interpretive Sign
The Gargantua Parking area was quite busy and full of vehicles. There's an upper and a lower section to the parking area, and both were nearly full. There were probably 25 or so cars in total, and there was space for maybe 2 or 3 more - just enough to for us. Being the first time I've ever visited Lake Superior Provincial Park, I had no idea if this was normal for a weekend in the summer, or if the constraining effects of Covid-19 had increased park visitation. In any case, there was room for us, and that's all that mattered.
It was only yet late morning, but that was good, because we were a big group and we were a bit concerned about finding a suitable campsite in this first-come/first-serve campsite system. As part of my desire not to rush or hurry, we weren't intending to actually start southward on the Coastal Trail just yet. Today was a day for finding a campsite, maybe doing a bit of day-hiking, and in general, comfortably sliding into the next few days of backcountry living.
We topped off our packs and headed right out onto the beach (Gargantua Bay's beach is only a short couple of yards from the parking lot). We could see on our backcountry map that there were a few groups of backcountry campsites right along the shore, not far from us. The salient question, though: had they already been taken for the day?
Ready to head out
Off we went, headed north along Gargantua Bay's sand-and-pebble beach. Within five minutes, we came to the first of the backcountry sites and... lordy-lord, it was empty. Furthermore, it was spacious - easily able to take all of our tents. Sold! I don't think I've ever had such a short hike to find a campsite. Was this a sign of good fortune to come?
One does not look a gift horse in the mouth. It was very convenient to have snagged this campsite. It meant that we had lots of time left in the day to explore, maybe even go for a day hike. It also meant we were within pretty easy walking distance back to the parking lot and the cars, meaning we could easily go and store things in the car overnight, like for example our food. All in all, quite convenient.
Beginning Campsite Search
A little recreational boating
Dead Body Simulation
Chris had somehow tweaked his back getting packs out of the car back at the parking lot, and the pain was really starting to build up for him. He took to various positions on the beach near our campsite, stretching, bending, arching, lying down, trying to work whatever it was out of his system. We could tell from the grimacing on his face that it was fairly intense.
By 1pm were fully set up, had had a bit of relaxation at the beach (the campsite came with two nice picnic tables, a big plus), and we were ready to do something. Way back during our initial planning, I had contemplated going for a day hike all the way up to the northern tip of the Coastal Trail (which is another ten-ish kilometres further north, one-way), but my sense of the group was that they wouldn't really be up for it. As a shorter alternative, I had in mind a hike to a lookout on a small peninsula at the far end of Gargantua Bay. I was pretty sure we could bag it in a couple of hours. Everyone seemed up for it, and by 2pm, we had our packs loaded with a bit of day gear and we were off hiking up north along the beach.
Gargantua Harbour Camping
We soon transitioned off the beach and onto the Coastal Trail itself, which along Gargantua Bay follows the track of an old decomissioned stretch of the Gargantua Road. It was wide and pretty flat, and in no time we had emerged into some small meadows near the harbour at the northern end of Gargantua Bay. There's a complex of backcountry sites here - sites that I had considered as a backup for us in case the sites nearer the parking lot hadn't panned out.
Instead of continuing on the Coastal Trail north to its end at Chalfant Cove, we turned west, hiking between the backcountry sites until we reached a sign pointing the way to the lookout. Along the way we encountered a camping group that had actually driven in to this point in a white pickup. There had been a sign clearly visible back at the parking lot saying motorized travel beyond the parking lot was prohibited, yet clearly here this truck was. I couldn't discern any markings on the truck, so it didn't seem like a park ranger vehicle - but I suppose it could have been. A little suspicious, and a bit disappointing if someone really was ignoring the rules this much.
Continuing on towards the lookout, the trail immediately started climbing moderately steeply uphill, winding along a twisty little path through moss-covered ground and boulders. It didn't last long, perhaps gaining us a hundred feet in elevation at most, before levelling off and giving us our first partial lookout - a nice view towards the gaggle of islands near Gargantua Head.
Initial Gargantua Lookout
At first we thought this was *the* lookout, but I noticed a faint path continuing on, and sure enough a few metres beyond was the true lookout. It wasn't really all that much better than the initial lookout, but it did give more views in all directions, including back in the direction of our campsite. It wasn't a truly unimpeded view, with some medium height trees blocking some directions. All in all, the hike to here was nice enough, and was a good introduction to the backcountry of the park; an initial introduction to Lake Superior, and a way for us to get a few kilometres under our belt before the more serious undertaking of a full day of backpacking the following day.
After a short break and a bit of informal chatter, we headed back the way we came. Soon we were back at Gargantua Harbour and this time we chose to take a little shortcut right along the shore. There's a nice bit of finer, purer sand beach at the harbour, something to keep in mind if one wants a backcountry site in this area with the best possible beach. After the beach, it was a short walk along the old Gargantua Road / Coastal Trail to the turnoff into our campsite. Total time there-and-back: 2 hours. A fine little outing, and not the least bit difficult.
Interactive trackmap with photo points - Backpack Day 1 - click map to view
Gargantua Bay to Gargantua Lookout - Hike Data
* : +/- 75 feet
Total Elevation Gain:
Total Elevation Loss:
* : +/- 75 feet