Many years ago, during my first time trekking Killarney‘s La Cloche Silhouette loop trail, I met another backpacker who claimed he preferred walking the trails at Frontenac Park. He told me that it was beautiful backpacking out there, so ever since then, I’ve been curious to check it out. Last long weekend, we finally got the chance!
Actually, to be honest, I’d forgotten about these trails for a little while. But two years ago, after perusing Hiking in Ontario by Ulysses (Affiliate Disclosure) for new ideas, Frontenac Park made it back onto my bucket list.
Located about forty minutes north of Kingston, Frontenac Park is quite the drive out from French River. Since we wanted to visit a friend in Kingston, and since we were detouring into Toronto to pick up Marc’s cousin Chris, our backpacking partner for the weekend, our road trip started a little earlier than usual.
A trek report such as this one generally revolves around tales from the trail, but it’s hard to focus on the backcountry when driving on the 401 was the biggest adventure of the weekend. Oh, Traffic, we love not having to deal with you up here in the north!!
We eventually made it to Kingston — a few hours behind schedule, but still early enough to have a beer with our friend before hitting the sack. Saturday morning dawned, and we made it to Frontenac Park in good time. Once I’d picked up our permits and bought a park map, it didn’t take long before we were ready to hit the trail.
We began from the Arab Lake parking lot. Our first day’s route involved hiking beyond Doe Lake to tackle part of the Slide Lake Loop, ending at our campsite on North Bay at Buck Lake. We were told that this was the most difficult trail at Frontenac Park, but we weren’t particularly concerned. After roughing it on Temagami‘s Ottawa-Temiskaming Highland Trail during our last backcountry trip, we reasoned that difficulty ratings are all relative.
It turns out we were both right and wrong. Marc and I found the trail easy, with perhaps a few hills here and there that made our breath come quicker, but nothing to complain about. Chris, on the other hand, found the hilly sections of terrain more challenging. Still, we all agreed that our first day at Frontenac Park yielded some lovely scenery, and an interesting variety of landscape.
When we got to our campsite cluster, tired and hungry, we knew not to expect any privacy, but we weren’t expecting to have to deal with screaming babies all evening. We were definitely not impressed. We thought we’d be camping next to other backpackers and paddlers, not a group of families who’d come in together on motor boats. I always think it’s great when people bring their kids into the backcountry, but it seems to me that parents need to choose private sites in order to be respectful of others who are there to enjoy peace and quiet.
Chris arrived less than an hour later than us. Exchanging stories as we got ready for the evening, we learned that Chris had seen a porcupine while alone on the trail.
I woke up early the next morning to the sound of screaming babies, so needless to say, we didn’t linger at camp longer than necessary. The dogs were happy to be back on the trail, anyway…
We finished our section of the Slide Lake Loop that day, and joined up with the Big Salmon Lake Loop once we’d passed the Mink Lake Lookout. Within seconds of beginning the new trail, Marc and I both noticed a big difference — this trail was visibly easier! We thought that Chris, who’d fallen behind us, would be much happier once he reached this point.
Marc and I approached our next campsite on Big Clear Lake with some trepidation — would we be able to relax at all during this trip? As we neared, we ran into a pair of park rangers. Whoa!! We’d heard that they patrol the provincial parks, but we’d never actually seen any out on the backcountry trails. Thankfully, since Frontenac Park is so busy, the dogs were already leashed. We exchanged a few jokes with the rangers before moving on.
A few moments later, relief flooded over us. We saw a group of adult paddlers set up at the site next to ours, and the only other site in our cluster was further away down a side trail. I couldn’t help but notice throughout the evening that the group’s habits were similar to ours, so I was encouraged.
Around suppertime, Marc received a text message from Chris, who’d decided to take a shorter route. He assured us that he was safe and would meet us at the car the next day. Chris has an excellent sense of direction and plenty of backcountry experience, so we didn’t worry.
That night, we crept into our sleeping bags a mere fifteen minutes after our neighbours had put their lights out. I can’t speak for Marc, but for my part, I revelled in the sounds of chirping frogs and hooting owls until I dozed off.
I’m always up before Marc when we’re out camping (it’s the opposite at home). I quietly unzipped the tent and crawled out. I found some small twigs and dry pine needles lying about and got a tiny little fire going, just enough to warm my hands. Then I heard a tent zipper and, glancing behind me, saw that one of our neighbours was getting up. By the time Marc got up, half the other group was already out fishing from their canoes.
It didn’t take us very long to get our gear ready for the day, but we were still thankful for the interruption when one of our neighbours offered us grilled bass freshly caught that morning, along with bannock bread. No way could we resist such a tempting breakfast!! We were by far happier with our neighbours at this campsite cluster (winky face).
Our hike began slowly that day. I wanted to stop for our stretches before we reached the main trail, and I wanted to take pictures of Big Clear Lake, which was simply stunning. The man who’d brought us breakfast told us that the water’s as clear in the middle as it is around the shoreline. Wow!
Now on the main trail, our plan was to complete the Big Salmon Lake Loop to return to our car. We were coming down the north side of the lake, while Chris would be following the trail on the southern side.
Soon, we reached a junction and veered onto what can only be described as a bush road. This was no quad trail — we assumed it must be used as an access route by park officials. As the road stretched on, I couldn’t help but express my disappointment — the hiking had been much better on the Slide Lake Loop.
Just as I was saying this, we were surprised by a middle-aged couple who quietly appeared behind us. They passed us easily on the wide road, and went on quickly, the woman carrying nothing and the man carrying nothing but a light day bag.
That had happened too many times over the weekend for us to wonder at it. The Frontenac Challenge had begun, and all we’d seen out on the trails so far were day hikers.
But it wasn’t long before we reached a junction where we’d be turning back onto a hiking trail, and there stood a group of backpackers, wondering which direction to take. We showed them our map and continued on.
The rest of the day was spent on what was obviously a well-used day hiking trail, and we ran into many more people over the next few hours. Although we dawdled as much as we could, wishing to spend as much time in the backcountry as possible before hitting the road, we completed this easy trail much faster than we’d anticipated, so we were over an hour early getting to the car.
After changing our clothes and eating some snacks, we brought the dogs for a swim in nearby Arab Lake. As I walked along the shore, many frogs leaped out of the mud, over my feet and into the water. I even noticed a snake slither out of the sun into the water, but I’d regrettably forgotten my camera in the car. Still, based on the article “A Special Place for Snakes” in Frontenac Park’s 2016 Information Guide, it must have been a northern water snake.
The dogs refreshed, we considered walking up the southern trail to meet with Chris, but we’d been sitting around in the hot sun and had started to feel lazy, so we lounged contentedly until his arrival.
We made a quick pit stop for some cold drinks, then navigated back to the 401, where traffic wasn’t quite so crazy on the way back to Toronto. It’s strange, leaving the relatively empty backcountry for the crowds of the city. That’s not normally part of the experience for us, so I think we’ve gained a better understanding of what the backcountry means for city dwellers!
Info on Backpacking at Frontenac Park
- Backpackers often arrive at a park the day before their trip, using the campground as a jumping off site. Perhaps not unfortunately, there’s no campground at Frontenac Park, so plan accordingly! There are other provincial parks in the nearby area, as well as privately-operated campgrounds.
- There are eleven main trails to hike at Frontenac Park, nine of which are stacked loops, within which there are also four smaller side loops. So, it’s possible to plan multiple trips of varying lengths. In total, there are approximately 160 kilometres of trails in the park.
- Because the Rideau Trail passes through Frontenac Park, there are even more backpacking opportunities to explore in the area.