June Bugs and Beauty: Highland Backpacking Trail – Big Loop

My first time backcountry camping was on the Highland Trail’s first loop. Once I completed it, challenging myself to complete the full trail seemed like a natural must-do, but I didn’t want to do it alone.

In late May, Tina (who I’d met through Instagram after my first hike) posted that she was planning to do Highland’s big loop with her friend Kelly. I knew going that early in the season would make us easy pickings for bugs but it was the perfect opportunity to enjoy the hike with like-minded and adventurous friends.

Given a section of the trail is famously named “Mosquito Creek”, the week prior I canvassed the Algonquin Park Facebook group for insights into how bad the bugs already were. Notifications instantly pinged my phone with responses like “FIERCE”, “VICIOUS”, “STARVING”, and “AGGRESSIVE”.

Oh man…what were we getting ourselves into? Time would tell!

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All smiles at the trailhead.

We headed up to Algonquin Park late on the Thursday evening, amid torrential downpours, hoping to get on the trail first thing.  Thankfully the rain quit as we arrived; cooling everything off and providing us with a refreshing start on the trail in the morning.

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Doesn’t feel real until you see the sign!

Tina had booked us into sites at Head Lake, Harness Lake and Provoking West. Our schedule spanned 4 days. It was respectful for an average pace. I’d recommend it for anyone who is new to the trail and looking to have at least one break day to fully relax.

Day One: Trailhead to Head Lake (12km/5 hours)
Day Two: Head Lake to Harness Lake (5km/2  hours)
Day Three: Harness Lake to Provoking West (8km/4.5 hours)
Day Four: Provoking West to Trailhead (4km/ 2.5 hours)

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Highland Backpacking Trail Map – courtesy of Jeff’s Maps (They’re the best!)

Having already hiked the first loop, I was familiar with the section leading to Provoking Lake. Aside from a few hilly sections, you can enjoy the flats, the famous rapids/falls, Starling Lake and meander into Provoking Lake in a fairly quick time.

It took us just under 2 hours and we were feeling fairly high energy upon arrival.

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Savour the flat sections because they are limited!

Provoking Lake is one of my favourite lakes to camp on. We were happily surprised at how quickly we’d arrived and, knowing we’d be back in a couple of days, decided not to take a break and push on towards Head Lake.

Tip: Between Provoking Lake and Head Lake there are very little water access points, so this is the ideal spot to load up water reserves. You’ll regret it if you don’t.

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Looking out at Provoking Lake from the trail.

Tina, Kelly and I were in chipper spirits past the split of the loops. The temperature was still fairly cool and there was an amazing breeze through the trees, but the terrain did start to noticeably change.

We agreed that we’d take our lunch break at a lookout half way up the trail to Head Lake, but I couldn’t make it there without grabbing snacks out of my pack.  I’d taken a bag full of cut up veggies and fruit, which we all were thankful for during the Head Lake stretch.

It’s about 4.5km to the Lookout and it’s a long 4.5km.

Had I been hiking it alone, I’d likely have taken a break at a side trail that led down to Faya Lake, but it didn’t feel worth it at the time. The lookout would come up fast enough – or that’s what I kept telling myself.

By the time we reached the Lookout, our chipper spirits had grown quiet, bugs had gotten worse and our stomachs were growling. You know you’re with a good group of people when you can push through those painful, agonizing, ‘hangry’ times and still come out smiling. We had a really good dynamic having never hiked together before.

Normally a photo junkie, I could only muster a photo of the sky; clearly the vantage point of me sprawled out on the rocks barely able to move. Being able to set down our bags, breathe and have something substantial to eat, was a much-needed reprieve. We were all tired and eager for a break that, for at least a kilometre, never seemed to appear around the corner.

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View from the Lookout! Ha!

From the Lookout to Head Lake, it’s a whole lot of pain and agony if you’re not mentally prepared for it. I don’t think we were, but we powered through.

We’d gone without using bug nets until shortly after this point, but they became a saving grace for the rest of the day. We used both deet-based spray and natural brands, but they only lasted 30-40 minutes before re-applying was necessary.

Between the bugs and the hills, I have to laugh thinking of the amount of swearing that occurred over those 4.5km. If trees could talk they’d tell a fine tale, though I’m sure they’ve heard worse over the years.

There was no time or energy to take photos during that stretch. We were too busy cursing the trail, taking breaks to catch our breath, spraying each other down with bug spray, sweating our asses off and generally trying to keep our wits together enough not to kill each other. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but the rest was real; painstakingly accurate.

This section was mean and nasty and relentlessly up. If it was August, the bugs might not have been as bad, but there’s no stopping in June. In the time it took to stop, grab our water bottles and lift our bug nets to grab a drink, we were getting swarmed. We learned our only option was to suck it up and keep moving forward, pretty quickly.

That said, the forest was gorgeous and everything was well maintained. It’s pretty hard to get lost with the incredible work that’s been done to establish the trails.

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Head Lake bound!

Hiking into Head Lake, we passed a beautiful waterfall where other hikers were resting leisurely soaking their feet. I never did go back there, which I kind of regret, but another time perhaps!

We were reaching our breaking points, so claiming a camp site and taking our packs off was far more important to our survival and sanity.

To add insult to injury, unless you take the first campsite (which is horrible), you’re faced with another extremely hilly stretch of hiking to sites that are a long way from each other, and down side trails that add another 50m to your hike.

You almost pray they’re not occupied so you don’t have to hike back up to the main trail to search again. But, when you do find an empty one, they’re all beautiful!

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A perfect spot to soak our feet after a long hike.

It’s hard to explain the feeling of relief hikers have when they can take their packs off after a grueling hike. It’s surreal for the first 10 minutes or so. Your body and mind is in denial, then you relax a bit, your mood changes and you kind of forget how much pain you were in. You take your boots come off, the flip-flops come out and you stumble down to the lake to soak your feet.

Tina, Kelly and I sat doing just that, even with the surprise of small bass minnows trying to nip at our toes. I nearly jumped of my seat when it happened the first time. They’re quick little guys!

It didn’t take long for the sun to start to set. We lit a fire to chase away the mosquitoes, made our food, set up our tents and enjoyed some much-deserved drinks at the shore, while laughing at the crazy thing we just accomplished.

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Beautiful Head Lake. So quiet!

I’m an early riser in general, but especially early when I’m camping. One of my favourite views in the world is a misty lake. Add the call of a loon and I’m in heaven.

I set up right by the lake for this very reason and unzipped in the morning to see nothing but a dense fog enveloping Head Lake. As the sun began to rise, everything came alive. Colours shifted from grey to a glorious gold; the mist danced above the water.

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Sunrise on Head Lake.

It was one of the most stunning mornings I’ve ever encountered. I’m happy I captured it on video so I can go back there any time I want! Have a watch, you won’t regret it!


We took our time in the morning, knowing that the hike to Harness Lake was only 5km and not a super challenging terrain. There were lots of flat, wet, boggy sections which only meant one thing – mosquitoes! LOTS of mosquitoes.

Over the course of the hike, we almost went through 4 bottles/cans of bug spray and I think two of them may have been used on this section alone. We were grateful the misery was short-lived.

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Beautiful marsh en route to Harness Lake campground.

I think we were in disbelief when we arrived so quickly at Harness Lake. After the trek to Head Lake, it felt like we barely hiked at all. We skipped a few campsites because we had the energy and finally decided on a side trail that led down to a beautiful site atop a huge rock face overlooking the lake.

A lovely couple from Michigan was closing up their site and told us not to go, let alone go further, as it was the last site on the trail! Good to know – we were completely unaware and grateful for the tip!

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One of my favourite camp sites in Algonquin —- so far!

The most eastern campsite on Harness Lake is a total score if you can nab it. Some people might not like it because of the height but we loved it. Our second day was all about relaxing and having a day to ourselves.

Bringing my hammock was probably my best idea, even with the added weight. I napped and read in the sunshine overlooking the bay. It couldn’t  have been a better set up in the back country  – hardly roughing it!

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Tina, Kelly and I sat out in the sun, swam and enjoyed watching paddlers arriving  from other parts into the bay. It doesn’t get much more quintessentially Canadian to see that happening right before your eyes!

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A true Canadian moment! Ahoy there!

I highly suggest taking an extra day on this trail to soak in the environment and gift yourself with the luxury of doing nothing. I loved having this second day of leisure and it provided a wonderful break before striking out on another hard 8.5km section to Provoking Lake.

I personally loved the sunset that night. The clouds and silhouetted trees were so striking. I took loads of photos and it was a joy to sit down by the water, capture the moments and absorb the beauty of Algonquin at its best.

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One of many sunset photos from the second night at Harness Lake.

We got off to a slower start on the third day. I think it was half not wanting to leave our awesome site and also wanting to put off the pending misery of our hike back to Provoking West. We knew it wouldn’t be a piece of cake, but I don’t think we knew it would be as hard as it was.

Leaving the campsite, we completely missed seeing the junction to the main trail and continued on for 40 minutes debating on whether we were going the right way or not. This is when the dynamic of personalities came back into play.

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Heading out on another gruelling day! Next stop Provoking Lake!

One of us was certain we’d gapped at the junction and were en route to Provoking Lake, another was adamant we were going the wrong way and wanted to consider turning around and the other was trying to support both her friends by towing the neutral line one step in front of the other. Those moments can get tense!

It wasn’t until we started getting swarmed by armies of mosquitoes and noticed a sign for Mosquito Creek that we knew we were officially going in the right direction. I’d heard of this section in other blogs and had cursed in my head minutes before at the density of bugs. It all made sense. A place I’d dreaded since I read about it suddenly became a place of joy and validation. We were half way to the First Loop junction!

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Bob Lake viewpoint on Highland Trail – the breeze through here was divine!

I’m breezing over a lot of the trail details, but trust me when I tell you that Harness Lake to Provoking Lake is no easy feat. One expects a lot of downs after climbing up to Head Lake, but this section has a tonne of ups – far more than I anticipated and they sucked the life out of all of us. We also went through almost 4 litres of water, so load up beforehand!

There’s a lot to like about this section though. The terrain varies quite a bit. Tree types change, there’s up and downs, bridges and marshes. It’s a far more interesting trail (to me) than the west side. But, regardless of how interesting it is, after 4 hours of hiking it feels long and drawn out.

The whole Highland Trail is mentally and physically challenging.

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Shout out to the trail maintenance angels who keep us dancing in the forest!

Reaching the First Loop junction was exciting. We knew we had another hour ahead of us, but there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Everything looked familiar to me again and that set my mind at ease. I was stoked to get to Provoking Lake!

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Jamie Fraser, are you there?

Tina and Kelly were in pretty good spirits too, even cracking Outlander jokes and tempting fate against large rocks trail side. Outlander fans will understand completely – you just never know! 🙂

The final stretch to Provoking took its toll. We were all struggling in one way or another. Much to the girls’ dismay, I pushed us to go further than they would have liked, knowing that we’d have a guest joining us and we’d need extra space.

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Provoking Lake and that tree! Loved that tree!

It’s hard seeing people you care about in that much pain, but it paid off in the end. We were able to set up on a stunning, albeit rather open, site with a beautiful expansive view of the lake.

This site (3rd in from the west side) was amazing for swimming and relaxing in the sun, which is what we did for the better part of the afternoon. The water was so warm and soothing after all our hiking.

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Here fishy fishy!

I spent a bit of the early evening trying out my fly rod, which only proved how rusty my casting skills have become over the spring. I’d carried it with me the entire trip, so I had to use it. Much to my delight, and surprise to the girls, I did catch a fish – though it was pretty much a minnow! But…a fish is a fish! Mission accomplished!

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Nothing beats a summer night by a campfire.

The rest of the evening was spent by the campfire and watching day turn into night. Cathy, another lady we met through the Female Backcountry Campers Ontario group, hiked in to meet us, which was lovely!

At one point campers on the lake broke out in song, singing the national anthem, which was quite funny and poetic. You just never know what will happen when you get into the back country!

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Sunrise on Provoking Lake.

I awoke super early, once again, to catch the sunrise. I fell in love with sunrises on Provoking lake during my first trip and was so happy to be back again. It didn’t disappoint at all.

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Eager to get back to the trailhead and on the road, we packed up and were on the trail by 7am. We breezed through the final section, fighting off what seemed to be far more bugs, and landed at the glorious Highland Backpacking Trail sign by 9:30.  We did it!! Woot!

If you’re reading this and want more detail on the technical aspects of the trail, by all means shoot me a message! You can also join the Female Backcountry Campers Ontario to obtain awesome advice and female perspectives!

Here are a few extra tips from Tina and Kelly:

1. Always carry plenty of water. You don’t know how long you’ll go without it!
2. Trekking poles are a lifesaver. Don’t do this trail without them.
3. Give yourself lots of time. You don’t know how fatigued you’ll get.
4. Allow yourself some rest.  Leave refreshed for the next stretch.
5. Bring a healthy dose of humour. It’ll get your through the roughest points.
6. Pack as light as you can. Your sack gets real heavy after 5 hours!
7. Prepare for bugs. Full body bug suits aren’t a bad idea! 🙂
8. Mind over everything. Your body can do more than you think it can.
9. Bring pain relief. Advil, Wine, Vodka, and organic stuff, worked for our group.
10. Music or singing? Bring music in case you need to ‘check out’ on the trail.

Wild and Found.

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