Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Algonquin Park

Well, summer is almost here which means that camping season is also almost upon us.  One of the most popular spots for family camping in Ontario is Algonquin Park.  For those of you who are not familiar with Algonquin Park, let me give you a heads up, "park" in this case is a bit of a misnomer as it covers 7,630 km² (or about 2,946 square miles) which makes it bigger than PEI.  The park's size is its best feature since it allows for a diversity of wildlife that is hard to match in a smaller park and allows you to feel like you have some privacy while still having access to lots of services.
The closest we got to a bear but I hear there are several of
them in the park.
Some people think camping at Algonquin Park means being alone in the wilderness with only the supplies you can carry on your back while walking great distances with a canoe over your head which doesn't sound like a ton of fun (to me) to do with kids.  UPDATE! We actually did a one night portage trip to the interior with the kids this summer (2015) and it was great.

Not me.
Well, Algonquin Park does offer backcountry camping which does involve portaging but there are also plenty of regular family friendly campsites too.  We stayed at Lake of Two Rivers which is pretty much right in the middle of the park.  The campsites are bigger than at many other Provincial parks which is nice too. 

Lake of Two Rivers at sunrise.
The park has lots of things you can do on your own like swimming in one of the many beautiful, albeit slightly chilly, lakes and streams or hiking any of the many trails that are well marked on the maps and well signed along the road.  The trails range in distance and difficulty so you should be able to find something to suit any group.
Lake of Two Rivers again.
They also have lots of organized events too though which can be a lot of fun when you have kids.  My kids particularly liked the guided hikes since they meant that they got to see lots of things that they might have otherwise missed.  The two guided ones that we went on were to the Beaver Pond Trail and a tree identifying hike where we found a rare salamander which was the highlight of the trip for my daughter.

Catching frogs at the Beaver Pond
Can I just say that if I ever find myself running a large corporation and need a head of human resources, I will poach the person who does the hiring at Algonquin Park because they do a great job of picking the young people who work there. They are all gung ho and knowledgeable and helpful etc.  Brian, the young man who led the tree identification hike says things like "Trees are a symbol of hope!" and "The yellow birch is my favourite tree because it is so full of life, all the time, you can just see the life in it" and really mean it, bless him. The girl giving the talk about moose was even enthusiastic about their different kinds of poo and it was oddly endearing rather than off putting. Seriously, I tip my hat to the person who does the hiring and the kids who work there.  I also encourage any interested and enthusiastic young people to apply for the Summer Employment Opportunities Program which is how these kids get hired. 
She doesn't look thrilled here but she was, trust me!
In addition to the guided hikes they also have a Junior Ranger program that allows the kids to earn pins for carrying out various conservation activities like helping with the recycling and cleaning up the beach.
Beach cleanup.
My kids will do anything for a badge so they were right into the Junior Ranger program.  Never have I seen children so happy to pick up garbage, they actually fought over a piece of garbage at one point.

The park has a great Visitor's Centre where they hold talks and workshops throughout the day.  We attended one about predators in the forests and one about the moose in the park.  There is also a great gift shop and some art installations in the centre as well as the wildlife siting board which is a big hit with the kids who liked to know what animals had been spotted in the park.  If it rains you could easily spend most of the day in the Visitor's Centre and not get bored. 

Adding our wildlife siting to the board.
Lest you think we didn't actually see a moose.
The Park even has an art gallery which is not that surprising given its history with the Group of Seven and other artists. 

The Algonquin Park Art Centre.  They offer classes and shows as well as a
fancy schmancy gift shop
You can rent canoes by the hour, day or week in the park along with life jackets and safety kits.
Taking a break on Popcorn Island in Canoe Lake
Surprisingly, there is only one really good bike trail that is suitable for kids but it is centrally located and a nice leisurely ride.
The bike trail that runs through the middle of the park.
There are several stores throughout the park where you can pick up anything that your forgot, along with moose cookie cutters and ice cream cones.
Ice cream (including non dairy flavours!) at Lake Opeongo.
The park also offers plenty of opportunities for photography since there is so much to see.
Junior nature photographer at work.
Algonquin Park is the perfect place for a longer camping trip.  If you go for a weekend you would miss out on so much that you might feel shortchanged.  We went for a week and we could easily have spent another week there and not run out of things to do.  I highly recommend the park to anyone looking for a good place to camp with kids.  You should book early especially if you have a large group or a particular campground in mind.  The park is so big though that there are tons of spots so it isn't actually as hard to get a spot in Algonquin as it is at Kilarney or some of the other smaller parks. 

Update!  We went back for a Fall camping trip to see the autumn colours.  I knew it would be a fairly popular place but I had no idea the last weekend in September is actually the busiest time of the year in Algonquin park.  The place was completely full and all of the hotels and lodges around the park were also full.  They even had bus trips into the park from places like Toronto so the trails were packed!
The crowd at Lookout Trail
If you want to hit any of the hiking trails with good views of the leaves (Lookout Trail, Hardwood Trail, Peck Lake etc.) I highly recommend going earlier in the morning.  When we came out of the Lookout Trail at about 11:00 there were cars parked for about half a mile along the road in both directions because the parking lot was so full and it only got worse as the day went on.
The crowds are worth it though, the leaves are truly beautiful.
I had no idea checking out the fall colours was such a popular attraction with Japanese tourists but apparently it is because there were thousands of them all enjoying the beauty of our wonderful country.  It really makes you appreciate the colours all the more to know that people have traveled thousands of miles to see them.

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