Algonquin & Beyond

Pen Lake Map & Overview

Pen Lake is arguably my most recommended lake in Algonquin Park for new campers. It’s located just one short portage south of Rock Lake Access Point (#9) and can be reached in less than 2 hours of travel time. Pen Lake is a long, narrow lake that runs north-south, and has 18 backcountry canoeing campsites to choose from. It’s often used as a family-friendly basecamp destination for a weekend getaway, or as the first night of a longer loop in the southern region of Algonquin Park.

Pen Lake has lots of enticing things nearby, including Pen Falls, plenty of adjacent lakes to explore, and good wildlife viewing opportunities. There are no shortage of nice campsites to choose from, many of which are situated on rocky elevated shorelines. The landscape views are beautiful along the lake and there’s good protection from the westerly winds. It’s easy to see why it’s an attractive destination.

Pen Lake is located in the backcountry of Algonquin Park, but it’s one of the more accessible backcountry lakes. Due to this, it’s a very popular and very busy lake, often being reserved to its full capacity. If you plan on spending some time on Pen Lake, it’s best to book your trip as early as possible.

Map of campsites on Pen Lake in Algonquin Park, updated for 2024
To purchase your own copy (physical & digital formats), visit Maps By Jeff

Campsites on Pen Lake

As I mentioned in the Overview section above, there are no shortage of nice campsites on Pen Lake. In the north end of the lake, which is where most groups will enter, there are a few island campsites. These island campsites are very nice, however, there will be lots of canoeists passing very close by since the campsites are located in a narrow stretch along the main canoe route.

Further south, there’s the popular beach campsite on the eastern shore, Campsite #8. In stark contrast to the beach campsite are plenty of rocky elevated campsites along the same eastern shoreline. Water access isn’t the easiest from some of these sites due to their elevation, but they provide beautiful views onto the western half of Pen Lake.

The campsites on the western shoreline are my least favourite on the lake. They tend to be smaller and more enclosed. Plus, they will lose sun early in the day since they face east (I’m a sucker for a good sunset viewing campsite).

An underrated campsite on Pen Lake is Campsite #14. It’s all the way in the south of the lake, nearby the portage leading into Clydegale Lake. The reason I say it’s underrated is because most people don’t want to paddle that far to find a campsite, but it has a nice rocky shoreline with a spacious interior. It’s also one of the most secluded campsites on Pen Lake.

For detailed written descriptions and photos for campsites on Pen Lake, you can view my Campsite Reports 👇

Paddling On Pen Lake

One of the best parts about camping on Pen Lake is that it’s a safe, easy paddle. Let me explain. Pen Lake is long and narrow, meaning there are no large openings that need to be crossed, and paddlers can hug the shoreline the entire time. This is a huge safety consideration (in a good way), especially during early spring and late fall trips when water temperatures can be fatal. Being able to stay close to shore at all times means you’ll always have a quick exit, and in the worst-case scenario of flipping the canoe, you’ll be able to get to shore ASAP. Pen Lake also runs north-south, meaning it’s relatively well-sheltered from the predominant westerly winds. This ties in to the last point, making it a ‘safe’ lake to paddle on, relatively speaking.

In addition to being a safe, easy paddle, Pen Lake is also visually beautiful. Coming from Rock Lake in the north, most people will know about Pen Falls along the portage trail, and will stop midway along the portage to check them out. But once you arrive on Pen Lake, you can also paddle to the top of the falls and walk along some of the rocks to get a different vantage point.

As you continue south down the lake you’ll pass by the small islands that are home to a few of the campsites on the lake. Make sure you choose the correct channel to pass through; the one furthest west will likely not be passable. The main body of Pen Lake south of the islands is an open stretch of water that has lots of grassy shorelines—a prime spot to look for moose!

Portaging To Pen Lake

There are four portage leading into Pen Lake, and five portages leading out of Pen Lake. Wait a second, how does that make sense? Well, the 500m portage in the northeast corner leads to Gem Lake, which is a dead-end lake. Unless you’re returning back to Pen Lake, you won’t be entering Pen Lake from that direction.

Of the four main portages, by far the most commonly travelled is the northern 380m portage. This portage leads in from Rock Lake, which is the access point where most people that visit Pen Lake will start from. The portage is relatively flat and very well-maintained. The highlight of the portage is Pen Falls, which can be accessed through a short side-trail from the main portage, about 1/3 of the way through when starting from Rock Lake.

The 1,690m on the eastern shoreline is the most challenging of the portages. There isn’t a major elevation change between Pen Lake and Night Lake, but it has some rolling terrain and it’s by far the longest portage attached to Pen Lake. Although, the 280m in the southwest of Pen Lake is almost directly connected to a 2,240m, so when you combine the 280m and 2,240m together, that would take the title for the longest and most challenging. 

The last portage is the 270m in the very south of Pen Lake, leading into Clydegale Lake. This is also a relatively flat, easy, and well-maintained trail. There are Medium Falls labelled on the map, however they are nowhere near the size or power of Pen Falls in the north of the lake. This 270m is the main entrance into Clydegale Lake, so it’s taken by the vast majority of people camping on the lake. It’s also often travelled by people who visit Clydegale Lake as a day trip excursion.

Pen Lake Trip Reports

To my own surprise, I am still yet to actually camp on Pen Lake. I’ve paddled through Pen Lake on numerous occasions, but it has always been part of my journey to a different destination lake. When starting from the Rock Lake Access Point (#9), which is the most common entrance, there are two primary trips that incorporate Pen Lake into the route. 

First, is the popular loop that starts from Rock Lake and travels through Pen Lake, Welcome Lake, Louisa Lake, and back to Rock Lake. This is one of my favourite short routes (2-5 days) because it has beautiful campsites, varied scenery and paddling, and short travel days with a few long portages. The short travel days means you’ll have plenty of free time, while the long portages will still make you feel like you’ve earned your dinner.

The second popular option is a there-and-back either to Pen Lake, or to Clydegale Lake just south of Pen Lake. This is a trip I recommend very frequently as a first-trip for new campers. The portages are short, the paddling is easy, and the campsites are nice. It’s a great route for a quick weekend getaway.

I’ve done both of those trip options a handful of times each. Pen Lake is a very busy lake in Algonquin Park, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth visiting. I’ve really enjoyed every trip that has taken me through Pen Lake. Plus, I’ve had really good luck with wildlife sightings on the lake!

The Verdict... Camp or Skip?

Am I allowed to give Pen Lake a “camp” verdict if I’ve never actually camped on Pen Lake myself!? It’s a weird situation, I know. Even though I can’t speak from personal experience, I would still recommend Pen Lake as a destination.

I’ve mentioned throughout this report that I often recommend Pen Lake to other people, and there are a handful of reasons why. It’s a short distance away from the Rock Lake Access Point (#9). There is only one short, easy portage to get into Pen Lake. There’s Pen Falls along that one short portage, which makes for a great day trip and place to stop for lunch and take some photographs. There’s Clydegale Lake in the south, which makes for another great day trip. There’s good wildlife viewing opportunities, and beautiful scenery to admire throughout the lake. And lastly, there’s Booth’s Rock Trail at Rock Lake that can be done on the first or last day of the trip, for those up for the extra hike. 

With so many attractions directly on Pen Lake, or nearby, it’s easy to see why I recommend it so frequently. Even though I haven’t camped on Pen Lake yet, I’ve still spent plenty of time on the lake and have passed through the lake many times. One of these days I’ll actually camp on Pen Lake, but until then, I’m still giving it the “camp” verdict!

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