There are places where all of the wildlife that's supposed to be there, is still there. Where doses of moose, beavers, loons, and even wolf howls are daily possibilities. Where you can camp beside a lake, look north, and know that the forest extends uninterrupted for hundreds of miles. Algonquin Provincial Park is such a place, and it's only a 3-hour drive from Toronto, Ontario, and 6 hours from Detroit, Michigan.
Algonquin has three primary backpacking trails, each made up of a series of loops ranging from 4 miles to 43 miles in length. The Highland Trail is the flattest and least rugged of the bunch, with loops of 11 and 20 miles. The Western Uplands Trail is longer and slightly more rugged with loops of 19, 33, and 43 miles. The third is the newly completed Eastern Pines Trail, located in a more remote section of the park. It has loops that range from under 4 miles to 9 miles. Of course, this being Canada, all of those mileages will appear in kilometers on trail maps.
Hiking through Algonquin offers remoteness and wilderness without the heart-pounding elevation changes that come with most of the truly wild places in the United States. Trails are rugged enough to keep things interesting without becoming too exhausting.
The main attraction at Algonquin is wildlife. You have a good chance of seeing animals anywhere and anytime, but to increase the odds, find a pond, lake, or marsh at dawn or dusk. Then just pick a comfortable spot, and let the show begin. Soon a ripple in the smooth water might turn out to be a beaver or otter. The wind may carry the laugh of a loon. The crashing and splashing you hear might be a moose.
Algonquin Provincial Park is a window to the past, when the entire Northeast was an endless, unbroken forest. It's a place where paw prints in the mud belong to a wolf, not someone's dog. It's a place where your howl into the pitch-black night might be answered.
QUICK TAKE: Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario
DRIVE TIME: Located in southcentral Ontario about 125 miles (3 hours) north of Toronto, Ontario, and 325 miles (6 hours) northeast of Detroit, Michigan. Don't forget your passport or birth certificate. The way: From Toronto, take ON 11 north to Huntsville. From there take ON 60 east into the park. From Detroit, take ON 401 to Toronto and follow the directions above.
TRAILS: There are three trails: the Western Uplands, Highland, and Eastern Pines trails. The 20-mile Highland can be done in a couple days. The first loop of the Uplands is 19 miles and makes a great weekend trip.
ELEVATION: Ranges from 1,300 feet to 1,750 feet.
CAN'T MISS: Faya and Head lakes beside the Highland Trail are standouts in a region of beautiful lakes.
CROWD CONTROL: The most popular month for backpacking is August. Blackflies in the spring and mosquitoes in July keep the crowds down. The Highland Trail sees the most use, so try the Uplands or Eastern Pines instead.
MAPS AND GUIDEBOOKS: Friends of Algonquin Park sells the Backpacking Trails Map ($3.65, includes shipping; make check payable to "Friends of Algonquin Park") and a variety of booklets on the flora and fauna of the park. To order, contact: Friends of Algonquin Park, Box 248, Whitney, ON, Canada K0J 2M0; (613) 637-2828.
PIT STOP: Huntsville on the west side of the park and Whitney on the south side have places to binge.
WALK SOFTLY: Don't chase, harass, or feed wildlife.
MORE INFORMATION: Superintendent, Algonquin Provincial Park, P.O. Box 219, Whitney, ON, Canada K0J 2M0; (705) 633-5572. Ad-vance reservations aren't required but they are a good idea. You can make them by phone (705-633-5538); fax (705-633-5581); or in writing at the address above.