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August 2007

Perfect Substitutes: Crowd-Free Destinations

You know that the big-name parks draw big-time crowds. But each of those outdoor icons has a lesser-known replacement that offers some of the same classic features and epic scenery–and you get it all to yourself.

Swap out: Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, MN
Swap in: Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario

When canoeists dream, they conjure a North Woods tableau dotted with pristine lakes conveniently interconnected by navigable streams. The fishing is fine, the campsites waterside, and the sun-warmed granite slabs slope, as though by design, into clear, warm lakes. In other words, they dream of the Boundary Waters.

Therein lies the problem. So many people paddle this legendary Minnesota network–more than 220,000 last year–that scoring permits can be a nightmare. It’s one of the busiest wildernesses in the entire federal system. For a less hectic alternative, head over the border to Algonquin. The scenery is similar–lots of exposed Canadian Shield bedrock and a mix of hardwood and boreal forests–but the scale is larger by a factor of two. Algonquin covers 1.9 million acres with 2,000 lakes and 1,302 miles of canoe routes.

Busy by Canadian standards, Algonquin gets crowds on Victoria Day and Canada Day–holidays that are off the radar in the United States. Another selling point: "The fun of going to a foreign country full of all those nice Canadians," says Gordon Baker of Algonquin Outfitters. And don’t forget the favorable exchange rate.

3 Days
Two rules for slipping under Algonquin’s ropes: avoid late July to late August, the busiest time, and learn to love portages. "Portages definitely weed out the riffraff," Baker says. For a long weekend, he favors the 25-mile Lake Louisa Loop, departing from Rock Lake Access. "Lake Louisa is the archetypal Algonquin lake, with a rocky shore, pine trees, and good sunset views down a long, narrow lake," he says. "For how accessible it is, it’s lightly traveled." You’ll reach Louisa on day two, and also visit Pen, Welcome, and Harry Lakes. Make the portages easier by renting ultralight carbon-Kevlar canoes ($43 CDN/day average;

5 Days
Tap the wilderness core of Algonquin with a motorized assist. The 20-minute water taxi to the north end of Lake Opeongo spares you more than half a day of paddling ($54 CDN per person round-trip), and drops you at the threshold of a 35-mile loop that hits island-dotted lakes and moose-filled marshes. First up is Big Crow Lake, that rare Algonquin body of water with beaches. Dayhike to a nearby stand of 300-year-old white pines and an abandoned clifftop fire tower. Proceed on to Hogan, La Muir, Big Trout, Merchant, and Happy Isle Lakes, linked by gentle rivers and several mile-long portages. Meet a prearranged taxi for the return ride down Opeongo.

Plan It Combine Canoe Routes of Algonquin Provincial Park map ($5 CDN, with A Paddler’s Guide to Algonquin Park, by Kevin Callan ($20).

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