Algonquin Park Fall Colours - Camping on Head Lake

Trip Info

Date: September 29th – October 1st, 2021

ROUTE Cache > Head Head > Cache
Travel (Single)
1.5 hrs
1.5 hrs
Travel (Double)
2.5 hrs
2.5 hrs
Portage #1
1,640m
1,640m
SINGLE CARRY
1,640m
1,640m
DOUBLE CARRY
4,920m
4,920m
DIFFICULTY Travel (Single) Travel (Double) Portages Single Carry Double Carry
Total
3 hrs
5 hrs
2 portages
3,280m
9,840m
Per Travel Day
1.5 hrs
2.5 hrs
1 portages
1,640m
4,920m
Trip Reports Fall Colours Algonquin Base Camp Head Lake Map and Details
Credit goes to Algonquin Map v4.0 from Jeff’s Map at algonquinmap.com, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License. All derivatives or copies must use the same license and note the original author.

Trip Video Coming Soon!

Background

Fall colours. What a glorious time to be in Algonquin Park. My first time doing a canoe trip in the fall was in 2016 and I did a very similar trip. In 2016, instead of camping on Head Lake, I camped on Harness Lake. But I made a comment in that trip report that I had actually considered camping on Head Lake because the colours were prettier on the Head Lake shorelines.

When it came time to plan this year’s fall colours trip, I knew I wanted the trip to start from Highway 60 (because that drive down the highway is just breathtaking), and I knew that I wanted to do at least one hike during the trip. I was talking with one of my friends and he was going to join me midway through the trip. He had never been to Algonquin in the fall. I wanted to give him the best experience and I loved the Skymount lookout when I did it in 2016, so we planned the trip around that. I was going to “head” up on Wednesday (no pun intended) and my friend was set to arrive on Saturday, for just one night.

Day 1 – Cache Lake to Head Lake

The sun rises a little bit later at this time of year. I was also the only permit issued for Head Lake. Combine those two things together and what do you get? A late sleep in! And by “late sleep in” of course I mean a ridiculously early wakeup… just late compared to my other trips. I was up at 4:30 AM and on the road by 5:00 AM.

The sun started filling the sky with light just before I got onto Highway 60… and what an amazing experience that was, watching the sun slowly illuminate the colourful trees on either side of the road while driving down the highway. I’ve always loved driving down Highway 60 in the fall, but I forgot just how much I loved it until I was in that moment again. If you’re like me and love the Highway 60 drive in the fall, maybe you’ll like this “60 Minutes of Driving on Highway 60” video I made. It’s literally just me driving for 60 minutes. No commentary. No shenanigans. Just driving, and beautiful fall colours. (Plus there’s a moose sighting at one point). 

Equally as beautiful is portaging in the fall. It makes double carrying way more tolerable since you get to spend the walk back admiring the beautiful colours along the trail. It especially made the 1.6km portage from Cache Lake to Head Lake more tolerable since that’s a pretty long portage to double carry. But it’s an easy portage, and I was lucky to have decent weather during my travels; a bit of sunshine, some light winds, and the crisp smell of fall in the air.

The night before my arrival there was only one permit issued for Head Lake, and on my first night, I was the only permit. When I finished my first carry I was able to see Campsite #5, at the point, already occupied. It was only 9:30 AM so my assumption was that it was occupied with the group from the previous night, and they would probably be heading out soon. On my second carry I ran into a group of two men and confirmed that it was indeed them camping at that site. They told me that there was plenty of firewood left over – that’s always a huge plus!

Even still, I wasn’t 100% set on taking Campsite #5. I’ve camped there before, but I also know that there are some other nice sites on the lake. There’s the waterfall site which is pretty awesome because it’s literally right beside a waterfall, so you have the soothing sound of flowing water at all times (and it’s a pretty nice site in general). There’s another site that I like on the east shore as well, which gets a sunset view, and that’s always a major consideration for me.

But when I arrived at Campsite #5 there was zero doubt in my mind about camping there. The view onto the east shoreline was absolutely stunning and based on the surrounding shorelines on the lake, the other campsites wouldn’t have nearly as nice of a view. It was settled, Campsite #5 would be my home for the next few nights.

The campsite was very clean considering it’s a popular site on a busy lake. Other than the several chopped down trees from heavy abuse over the years, there were only a couple very small pieces of garbage. I also noticed a small hole in one of the tree trunks beside the fire pit, which was home to two squirrels that would run in and out of it repeatedly.

I spent the next few hours setting up camp and processing a ton of firewood. The wood was quite wet and saturated so I used the baton method to split it into thin pieces that would burn more easily. Afterwards, I spent some time sitting at the rocky point at the front of the site just admiring the opposing shoreline. I couldn’t get over how pretty it was.

I may have been the only permit on the lake for my first night, but the lake was fully reserved for the following nights so I took the opportunity to paddle around the lake and check out every other campsite. Of the 7 sites on Head Lake I had camped on 2 previously, and I had seen another 1… so there were still 4 sites I had never seen.

The day trip throughout the lake took a lot longer than planned because I spent some time enjoying some of the nicer sites. I spent a good amount of time at the waterfalls as well, which were gushing way stronger than I had ever seen! The high water levels meant a much stronger flow down the falls. When I was there in October, 2016 they were almost literally bone dry. It’s crazy how different they were October, 2021.

Head Lake waterfalls in Algonquin Park, September 2021
Head Falls water levels October 2016Head Falls water levels September 2021

When I was exploring one of the campsites on the east shore, something very, very bad happened. The worst thing imagineable. Absolutely terrible. One of the legs of my GoPro tripod broke. Ok maybe I was exaggerating a little bit, but I was really upset. I was always so damn happy with the purchase of that specific tripod, and ironically earlier that day I was actually thinking how long it had lasted me. So unfortunately, only handheld GoPro footage would be an option for the rest of the trip. Thankfully my bigger tripod for my DSLR was still in tact.

*Post trip update: The specific tripod is no longer available!!! I’m now searching for one that has the same features that I loved, most notably the three feet had little extenders to provide a wider centre of gravity, and also helped with levelling on uneven surfaces.

I continued onwards to check out the last two sites at the northeast of the lake. These are definitely the least desirable on the lake, in my opinion. One site is uninviting and set back into the bush, and the other site is very small with the thunderbox literally 10 metres behind the site and completely in view from the water.

I had made “dinner” before I left for the day trip. It was a Backpacker’s Pantry dehydrated meal and I decided to make it early in the day, around lunch time, and for dinner I would just have some snacks, which is what I usually would have done for lunch. So when I got back to camp, I just had some snacks for dinner.

There was a little bit of sun earlier in the morning while I was portaging, but for the rest of the day it was all overcast and clouds. The forecast called for a sunny day, but when are fall forecasts ever accurate!? Luckily I had my new UNIQLO Ultra Light Down jacket to keep me warm that I had purchased just a few days prior.

It was a cold evening with no visible sunset, so I got my fire started around 6:30 PM or so. There was a brief 5 minute period where the sunset colours appeared and were pretty insane, but they disappeared before I was even able to switch from my telephoto lens to my landscape lens.

There was basically no sun during the day. No nice sunset. No evening paddle. And no starry skies. But none of that mattered because the fall colours were near peak and provided all the beauty I could ever ask for.

I put out the fire and got into my tent at around 8:30 PM and was asleep probably 30 minutes later.

Day 2 – Rest Day on Head Lake

Before I left for the trip the forecast called for a nighttime low of 6 degrees. I checked before I went to bed, and it ended up changing to 3 degrees. Not too far off, but it was definitely cold enough that I stubbornly didn’t want to get out of my warm sleeping bag when I woke up at 6:30 AM. 

But I mustered up the courage and got out of my sleeping bag, and out of my tent. The sunrise was completely blocked by clouds, so I took a pee, made sure everything looked good around camp, and then went back into my tent, and back into my warm sleeping bag. I fell back asleep until 8:00 AM.

My plan for Day 2 was either i) portage back to Cache Lake and hike the Track and Tower Trail to the Skymount lookout, or ii) day trip into Harness Lake and Kenneth Lake. I was going to do the first option with my friend when he arrived, but I didn’t want to risk poor weather so I figured if Day 2 had nice weather, I would do the hike, then do it again with my friend. But it was looking like I was going to get another day of cloudy overcast, so I opted for the second option.

I had been to both Harness Lake and Kenneth Lake before, but it had been several years and I hadn’t documented the campsites like I enjoy doing now for my campsite reports. But I made a last minute decision to drop Harness Lake from the plan and only day trip into Kenneth Lake. I wanted to take my time, move slowly, and explore Kenneth Lake without feeling rushed.

I took my time getting ready and left camp at around 11:00 AM. The portage to Kenneth was rocky and muddy, but thankfully it’s a short portage so it wasn’t very difficult. Kenneth Lake itself is quiet and peaceful, but not particularly memorable. It has a flat shoreline that isn’t the most picturesque, especially for fall colours. The north shore has some maples, but none of the campsites face the north shore.

I paddled around the lake to check out all three campsites, which were all vacant. The first campsite is directly at the portage landing – it’s literally a 5 metre path from the portage into the campsite, with the fire pit visible from the portage landing. Still, it would be my second choice if I were camping on the lake; the western site would be my first choice, and the easternmost site would be my last choice.

I took a long snack break at the western site and then paddled into the bay at the end of the lake to look for moose. I didn’t have any luck, but I did call to a loon and it called back to me, so that’s always exciting!

I made my way over to the east end of the lake in hopes of accessing the top of the waterfalls. I think I had just assumed that I would be able to paddle right up to the falls, but there’s a good amount of rock, flowing water, and downed trees that make it completely not feasible. Luckily, I spotted a small opening on the shoreline which presumably was meant to access the falls. So I pulled up, and went exploring.

It was a short 2-3min walk through the forest to get from the landing to the waterfalls and I’m very happy that I ended up doing it. Standing at the top of the falls was very peaceful and very enjoyable. I admired the different viewpoint than the one I had on Day 1, while watching a couple canoes enter Head Lake in search of the campsite that would be their home for the night.

After a long time relaxing at the falls, I paddled back through Kenneth Lake, portaged back into Head Lake, and went back to my campsite. It was approximately 3:00 PM when I got back so I made an early AlpineAire dinner and processed more firewood. I wanted to make sure I had enough firewood to have a long fire in the evening, plus some leftover wood for a fire in the morning. It’s really not ideal processing that much firewood with my small folding saw and tiny survival knife, but oh well, that’s all I brought with me.

I spoke to my friend that was going to join me and we discussed the forecast. It was calling for straight rain all day Saturday and Sunday. Not a small amount of rain, and not isolated to certain times of the day. All day, lots of rain, and literally 0hrs of sun predicted for both days. He decided it wasn’t worth coming for one night with a forecast like that, and I decided I would cut the trip short and leave on Day 3. I don’t mind toughing it out through bad weather, but when it’s October, and I’m solo, and the rain is at the end of the trip, and I’m only 2hrs from my car…. yeah, I’d rather enjoy the decent weather and then pack it in.

Well, it looked like I would be hiking to Skymount on Day 3 on my way out. At least this meant I would walk the 1.6km only six times on this trip instead of eight.

I got my fire started early on Day 2, around 4:30 PM, while watching the same two squirrels run around the campsite and play hide and seek with each other in their tree. I saw a mouse as well a little bit later in the evening. I kept the fire going until 8:00 PM. There was literally zero sun all day, and once again there was no sunset, no evening paddle, and no starry skies. But also once again, none of that mattered because I had such an amazing day regardless and the beauty of fall camping in Algonquin isn’t defined by sunsets and star gazing.

Day 3 – Head Lake Back to Cache Lake

Remember how I said my first night initially called for nighttime lows of 6 degrees, but it ended up being 3 degrees? Want to guess what happened on my second night? It started at 5 degrees and ended up being -1 degree. Honestly though, I didn’t mind. I brought the proper clothing and gear to keep myself warm; I was wearing wool socks, long underwear, cotton sweatpants, a merino wool long sleeve shirt, and a cotton sweatshirt with a hood. All of which was surrounded by my hand-me-down sleeping bag from my father; the tags are long faded so I don’t know its actual weather rating, but I’ve used it as low as -5 degrees during my 2020 Thanksgiving trip and it has always kept me warm. 

The only hard part about cold nights is finding the willpower to get out of the tent in the morning. I finally made it out at 7:00 AM and was treated to a very pretty sunrise. Wait, hold on? The sun? It actually exists? My first two days were 99% overcast so I was very pleased to have a lovely sunrise on my last day.

The plan was to pack up quickly so I could get to the Skymount lookout before the swarms of people would arrive. The colours were at their peak, it was a Friday, and the rest of the weekend called for rain… I was expecting it to be busy. Very busy. I wanted to be on the water at 8:30 AM and at the lookout by 10:30 AM.

But as I was watching the sunrise, I had a change of heart. Why rush through my last day just to avoid people at the lookout? I’d rather spend more time enjoying the solitude on Head Lake, enjoying the beautiful view from my campsite, and enjoying the beautiful portage trail. And if it meant I’d get to the lookout later when more people would be there, so be it.

So that’s what I did. I spent my morning slowly packing up camp. I took plenty of pictures of the sunrise and shorelines, and got a fire going to keep myself warm. I toasted a bagel over the open fire, and took my time gathering all my gear. I took down my tarp, took down my tent, and packed everything up. I left my campsite at 9:30 AM, about an hour behind schedule.

When I finished my first carry of the portage I decided to bring my DSLR with me on my walk back. I stopped at a few points on the trail to take some pictures and videos. I was even more behind schedule now.

When I finished the portage there were two people that had just finished their first of a double carry. I spent 20-30min speaking to one of them who used to be a warden and park ranger in Temagami, and also happened to do a lot of photography. It’s always nice meeting interesting people in the backcountry and spending time to chat with them. 

I was even more behind schedule now. 

All of these things kept putting me behind schedule, but all of these things were absolutely worth it. I was much happier that I spent time enjoying my morning at the campsite, that I took my time walking back along the portage trail, and that I stopped to chat with my fellow backcountry campers at the end of the portage.

When I launched onto Cache Lake, the sun was high in the sky. It was hot out. Finally. There was a very gentle breeze. It was such a perfect day. I took my time paddling slowly to where I would start the hike. At this point I almost intentionally wanted to put myself even more behind schedule, because I didn’t want the day to end!

While paddling I was able to see some people at the top of the lookout, and more people along the trail walking towards the lookout. It was going to be busy, but that wasn’t unexpected, and I was totally ok with it.

When I made it to the top of the lookout it was indeed swarmed with people, but everyone was friendly and respectful and took turns at the nicer spots. Everyone got their chance to take pictures from where they wanted.

I stayed at the top of the lookout for probably an hour or so and then returned to my canoe. While paddling back on Cache there was another canoe across from me watching a loon. I did a loon call and the loon called back, and from the distance I was able to see the people in the other boat smiling and laughing.

By the time I got back to my car it was 4:00 PM – way later than I had initially planned. But where else did I have to be? That was a rhetorical question by the way… I had nowhere else I would rather have been!

While loading my car I saw a few people standing at the small body of water that separated Cache Lake and Highway 60. There were moose! There was a bull, a cow, and a calf.

I loaded my car as quickly as humanly possible and then changed from my landscape lens to my telephoto lens at lightning speed. There was maybe 30-40 people in total watching the moose, some of which were WAY too close. Like, literally within 10ft from the moose. When you consider how big moose are, and just how close 10ft actually is… yeah, it’s crazy close. You should normally keep a much larger distance from them, but especially during rutting season a bull moose can be very aggressive and very dangerous, and you should be keeping much more distance than normal. I can’t say I was surprised that people were as close as they were, but I was definitely surprised that the moose didn’t seem to mind. It was still scary thinking that at any second if the bull decided to charge, someone could have ended up very injured.

The moose were slowly exploring the water, moving closer to the parking lot shoreline. I was ecstatic and snapping away with countless photos and videos. After 20-30min they actually came out of the water and went directly into the middle of the parking lot. The cow and the calf walked directly between my car and the car parked beside mine. The bull lost sight of them and started charging. It charged straight towards my car and then turned at the last second to detour around it. I honestly thought my car was about to get destroyed.

When the moose were finally off into the forest I went to check my car for damage. I already had some damage at the side of my car, but luckily the moose didn’t make things worse. The people parked beside me were checking their car for damage as well. They were in the clear. I turned to them and said “yeah, but look what the moose did to my car!” while pointing to the existing damage. The mother was shocked and gasped loudly. The husband started laughing. She thought I was serious, but he knew I was just joking.

All of my decisions and delays throughout the day that continued to put me behind schedule were all for the better. They all brought me to the right place, at the right time. That moose encounter was a once in a lifetime experience and I couldn’t have been happier that I got to experience it.

It was also kind of funny because while I was paddling on Cache Lake I was thinking that the only moose I had seen all year was on the very first day of my first trip of the season. It was very fitting that I finally saw them again on the very last day of my last trip of the season.

It was now 4:30 PM and I was dead tired. I woke up early, I double carried the 1.6km, I paddled under the hot sun, and I hiked up to Skymount. I needed to go west on Highway 60 to get back home, but I had wanted to detour and drive east for a bit first to enjoy the fall colours along the road, and then turn around. I ended up driving maybe 30-40min in the opposite direction before turning around. The total drive went from 2hrs 45min to about 4hrs, but it was worth it. I even saw one more moose at the side of the highway during the drive!

What an incredible last day and amazing way to end my 2021 tripping season.

The Aftermath

Let’s start with the colours. Can we talk about the colours please? I’ve been dying to talk about the colours! (It’s Always Sunny reference anyone?)

Anyways, yeah, the colours were amazing. The official reports showed that they were at 60% before I left for my trip, and when I arrived back home, they were at 90%. The trip was perfect timing and I got to enjoy the start of peak fall colours, which is always the goal. The view of the opposing shoreline from my campsite on Head Lake was absolutely incredible.

The water levels were crazy high. I’ve never seen the waterfalls on Head Lake so powerful. The portage landings were flooded compared to what they’re normally like. The water had actually dropped by a few inches over the few days that I was there – I’ve seen them rise very quickly, but I’ve never seen them drop that quickly before.

Cache Lake to Head Lake portage canoe landing water levels October 2016Cache Lake to Head Lake portage canoe landing water levels September 2021

Before the trip it called for sun every day with temperatures ranging between 16 degrees to 18 degrees, and the lowest nighttime temperature of 5 degrees. Well, we know that didn’t happen. It was very cold, but not in an uncomfortable way; having a fire is essential and my new ultra light down jacket from UNIQLO was a really great purchase. Fall weather is unpredictable and always changing. But at least it’s nice having zero bugs!

I love my sunsets, sunrises, and stargazing, but I didn’t really get much of that on this trip. It was a very different experience than my other trips of the season where I was treated to beautiful moonsets, tons of starry nights, and plenty of picturesque sunsets. But it was ok because the fall colours more than made up for all of that. 

Day 3 was one for the records. From the beautiful sunrise in the morning, the spectacular fall colours, the perfect hot sunny weather, the breathtaking views from the Skymount lookout, the unrushed travel, meeting interesting people, and the once in a lifetime moose experience. On one hand I’m upset that it didn’t work out with my friend and that a 5 day trip turned into 3 days for me, but on the other hand, that moose encounter was the type of thing you’d happily sacrifice a few days of trip to get to experience. It was a very special day and the perfect end to the season.