Fall Camping in Algonquin Park: Rock Lake with My Dog Elo (Part 1)
Date: September 30th – October 2nd, 2022
After my weeklong solo trip “7 Days in North Algonquin” I had three consecutive weekend trips planned with my dog Elo. Unfortunately, Elo got sick and we had to cancel the first two of those trips. After plenty of vet visits and countless medications, we were given the green light to go camping just before the last of the three planned trips.
Elo was still going to be on a few medications, along with a special diet, so the vet told me if she started to show any symptoms, to give them a call. I decided backcountry camping wasn’t a smart choice given the situation. Luckily, someone posted on the Algonquin Park Facebook group that they were cancelling their reservation at Rock Lake Campground, so I messaged them.
The trip was going to be shorter than initially planned, and it was going to be my first time ever car camping in Algonquin Park. I knew it would be a completely different experience than the backcountry, but at least I would always be near cell service and have a quick exit in case there were any issues with Elo.
On Thursday evening I packed my car and had the reservation transferred into my name. The next morning we set off for Algonquin.
Day 1 – Lake Opeongo, Lookout Trail, and Rock Lake Campground
We got on the road at around 7:30 AM. There was no immediate rush, but I wanted to spend the day paddling and hiking so I still wanted to arrive relatively early. The drive up to Algonquin was smooth and Elo slept silently most of the way. On Highway 11 I saw a dead coyote at the side of the road; I had never seen an animal as large as a coyote as road kill before.
I stopped at the West Gate to change the license plate on the reservation to my plate number, since the original permit holder wasn’t able to change it online. The lineup at the office was out the door, which should have been expected, so I drove to the Rock Lake office instead. In stark contrast, there were zero people at the Rock Lake office and I had the license plate info updated within a few minutes. I did a quick drive through the campground to see where my site was located, and then drove back to Highway 60 and a bit further east towards Lake Opeongo.
We arrived at Lake Opeongo around noon. We spent a few hours paddling on Lake Opeongo while checking out a handful of campsites in the South Arm of the lake. It was a beautiful warm sunny day with absolutely zero wind. To see Lake Opeongo this calm, especially in late September, was a real treat. Elo was getting more comfortable being in the canoe, hopping in and out on command, and was having fun exploring the campsites with me.
We stopped at a total of 11 campsites, saw one otter in the water, and then headed back towards the launch point. By the time we finished it was around 3:00 PM. It was still warm, sunny, and relatively windless.
We stopped at the Lookout Trail before heading back to the Rock Lake campground. The Lookout Trail was a short trail and even though I was tired from the few hours spent on Lake Opeongo, I knew I wanted to take Elo on a hike before settling down for the evening. The walk up towards the lookout wasn’t too busy, but once we got to the top there were plenty of groups enjoying the view. It was a very pretty view from the top of the lookout, though not my favourite for early fall colours specifically. But Elo was having a blast, and I was still in awe at how beautiful the park is.
At the top of the lookout someone’s phone started ringing, and a fellow photographer beside me said something to his children in a sarcastic way about it being a ‘hiking sin’ for a phone to ring at a lookout. A few minutes later his plastic water bottle slipped out of his hands and fell over the edge of the lookout and into the forest. Oh, the irony.
We stayed at the top of the lookout for around 30 minutes before heading back down to the car. Elo plopped right into her corner of the backseat and right as I started driving, her eyes began to close. We had a busy day and I could tell she was pooped.
When we got to our Campsite #86 at Rock Lake Campground, the first thing I did was set up my tethering system for Elo. I brought a 50ft rope to tie between two trees, with a swivel carabiner to attach onto the rope. Her regular 6ft leash would attach to the swivel carabiner. The 50ft rope was just barely too short so I had to extend it by attaching a second rope to it. But once I had it set up, it was perfect. She had full range of our entire campsite but was cut off just barely before reaching the adjacent sites. If I was in the backcountry I would have used a leash longer than 6ft to give her a wider radius, but for the size of this campsite, the 6ft leash was perfect.
My campsite was right in the middle of Campground B and it was a very small site. The adjacent sites in all directions were just a few feet away and there was absolutely zero privacy from the close proximity and lack of tree coverage surrounding the campsite. But I didn’t mind. I knew that by going car camping I was making sacrifices compared to what I normally enjoy in the backcountry, but I was doing it for Elo and I was perfectly happy just being in Algonquin Park for the weekend.
The rest of the evening wasn’t too exciting. I pitched my tent, made myself dinner, chatted with one of my neighbours at the campsite beside mine, and walked around the campground with Elo. It was funny comparing my setup to other peoples. Other groups had large electric grills and a literal buffet of food. I still made myself a dehydrated AlpineAire dinner. Other groups had massive 10 person tents that probably weighed 50 pounds, while I brought my tiny 5 pound two-person tent. One group brought a large metal ladder to hang rope for their setup high in the trees. Another group brought a large white cloth and hung it between trees and projected a movie onto it. My campsite was extremely minimalist compared to those surrounding me, to say the least. I thought it was funny that my idea of luxury for this trip was the fact that I got to pre-fill my 8L collapsible jug of water!
I also brought some of my interlocking gym foam flooring that I have throughout my condo. I use it at home to prevent Elo from slipping on the hardwood, but I realized it would make the perfect insulator for the bottom of the tent. I brought just enough squares to cover the bottom of the tent, threw an open sleeping bag on top of it as a ground sheet, and then put my sleeping pad and Elo’s sleeping bag on top of that. It was a much more elaborate setup than what I can afford to bring in the backcountry, but it made a massive difference with the freezing cold overnight temperatures.
By the time I finished setting up camp, eating dinner, and walking Elo, it was quite dark outside. I watched the sunset through the trees from my campsite, but I didn’t get a chance to go for a paddle or do any photography.
Once the sun had fully set, the crescent moon was hanging low above the shoreline, on its final minutes. I brought my camera and tripod and set up for some astrophotography. I took a few single shots, then let the camera run for a timelapse. I should have set up at a more isolated location; since I set up in a busy area and there were so many people around, the timelapse didn’t turn out quite as I had hoped. Not only were people constantly walking into the frame of the shot, but the flashlights and vehicle lights kept illuminating the surrounding trees.
Oh well, the timelapse may not have been perfect, but the night sky sure was. It was a completely clear evening with an impressive display of stars. The milky way was clearly visible and directly in view from where I was looking out onto the water.
Overnight temperatures were supposed to be around 0 degrees and I was definitely starting to feel cold by the time I finished doing astrophotography at around 9:30 PM. I put Elo into the car so I could take a quick visit to the bathroom before retiring into the tent overnight. As a solo traveller, I figured the car was the smartest and safest spot to keep Elo while I used the bathroom.
We went into the tent and Elo wasn’t exactly aware of how her sleeping bag worked, so instead I just wrapped a separate blanket around her back. I got cozied up in my sleeping bag, and we both fell asleep very quickly despite the audible noises coming from the neighbouring campsites.
Day 2 – Booth’s Rock Trail and White Fish Lake
I woke up to find Elo curled up on top of her sleeping bag, but the blanket was no longer on her. It was a freezing cold morning, to me at least, but she didn’t seem bothered at all. We got out of the tent around 7:00 AM and I took Elo for a short walk around the campground. I had some breakfast, made myself a coffee, and got some stuff organized for the day. I chatted a little bit more with the same neighbours that I met the day prior. By 9:30 AM I was ready to set out for Booth’s Rock Trail.
There were only a few cars parked at the start of the trail, and on the whole walk up I only saw one group. It was a husband and wife and the husband asked me “you’re not canoeing?” I was a bit confused by the question but I told him I did actually have my canoe with me back at the campsite. It turns out he knew who I was from watching my videos, which sparked the question. We spoke for a bit while hiking but Elo and I were moving at a quicker pace so eventually we kept going ahead of them.
The view from the top of the lookout was breathtaking. I’ve been to the lookout a handful of times before, but never when fall colours were as prominent as they were. It was really a spectacular experience and I spent a long time relaxing at the various rock ledges with Elo. The lookout is split into a handful of different chunks of rock, so we hopped from one to another, stopping for some pictures and just to relax. The day was still early and I was in no rush, so we took our time enjoying the beautiful views.
We did the loop clockwise, so the second half of the hike after the lookout took us along the shoreline of Rock Lake. I personally enjoyed the second half a lot more, not only because it was much flatter (after the initial hundreds of stairs down), but because there are openings in the trees with stunning views out onto Rock Lake and the opposing shoreline. There are also a few sections of rock and beach that you can explore just a few feet off of the trail. The whole hike was very picturesque and I thoroughly enjoyed both the lookout, and the walk back to the campground.
The full loop took us about 3 hours with our various stops, and we got back to the campsite at around 12:30 PM. I relaxed for a few minutes, had a snack to get some energy, then drove over to the canoeing access point. I wanted to paddle White Fish Lake and check out some of the campsites if they were vacant. The first few minutes of paddling on the river was calm, but the winds started to pick up once we entered the main body of White Fish Lake. The winds weren’t overwhelming, but they were powerful enough that it took us probably 1.5x as long as it should have to cross the lake.
Midway through the lake Elo looked noticeably uncomfortable and started whimpering a few times while looking at me. Uh oh. From the second we left the city I was concerned about whether she would have any tummy issues, and now we were in the middle of the lake with a strong headwind and she was starting to show discomfort. I noticed the island campsite in the distance was occupied so I paddled as hard as I could around the east side of the island towards the site on the north shore.
I couldn’t find the orange campsite marker but the canoe landing was an obvious rocky shoreline located on the point. I pulled up and brought Elo on shore, but to my surprise she was perfectly fine. Happy, tail wagging, exploring the area. No tummy issues. Heck, she didn’t even need to go pee. She even managed to catch a toad between her paws but I noticed in time to stop her from killing and eating it (which I’m guessing was her plan).
Maybe she was whimpering in the canoe because she was cold. Or maybe because the wind was bothering her. I’m not sure what was making her uncomfortable, but it was the first time she whimpered while being in the canoe so it immediately had me concerned. Well, it looked like we were in the clear for now.
After exploring the campsite it was obvious that it had been decommissioned. The fire pit was covered and the thunder box was filled with dirt. Normally when a thunder box hole is filled, the box itself is removed, but for some reason this one still remained. There was a cottage extremely nearby the campsite and I had stumbled onto its grounds while looking for the thunder box. I wondered if the cottage owners had requested the site be decommissioned due to the extremely close proximity.
After spending long enough at the decommissioned site to alleviate my concerns with Elo, we got back into the canoe. This time we circled the west side of the island, and I noticed there were two campsites on the island despite my map only showing one campsite. The map I’m using is the most recent version of Jeff’s Map, which is from 2015. At some point between then and now, the park must have closed the northern campsite and added a second campsite to the island. Both of the campsites were occupied so I didn’t get a chance to check them out on shore.
We had a tailwind for the paddle down White Fish Lake back towards the car, however the tail wind was actually a bit of a challenge. I didn’t have any gear in the boat with me, and Elo was sitting in the front of the canoe, meaning the canoe was very front heavy. Naturally, the wind wants the heaviest part of the boat at the back, so every time there was a gust it would try to spin the canoe around and I had to paddle with all my strength to keep us pointing forward. But eventually we made it back to the launch and after strapping the canoe on top of my car, we drove over back to the campground.
By the time we finished the White Fish Lake day trip it was around 3:00 PM and I decided to make myself an early dinner. I didn’t want to have any chores or responsibilities during sunset hours this time. My dinner was a Spicy Peanut Curry from Backpackers Pantry, but the instructions required way too much water and I basically had a soup for dinner.
I spent a little bit more time chatting with my neighbours, who were about to go for an evening hike up through Booth’s Rock Trail. They invited me to join them by the fire later in the evening when they got back.
Heavy overcast filled the sky so unfortunately my plan to be chore-less for the sunset was a wasted effort since there was no pretty sunset to view. With the combination of wind and no sunshine, it became very cold. It was supposed to get down to -3 degrees overnight and by 5:00 PM it was already quite freezing.
I spent some time writing campsite reports on my phone from the previous day at Lake Opeongo. Then I took Elo for a walk around the campground and hopped in my car to go for a short drive. I visited the garbage dump and then drove along the road towards Highway 60. I figured the drive would provide heat, give my phone a quick charge, and maybe I would get lucky and see some wildlife. Midway through the drive I did see a fox very quickly run off the road and into the forest.
I drove all the way to Highway 60 and then turned around and drove back. By the time I got back to my campsite it was past 7:00 PM and it was completely dark outside. My neighbours still hadn’t returned from their Booth’s Rock hike and I was actually starting to get nervous. Did they forget to bring headlamps? Did they get lost in the dark? I decided I would wait for an hour or two, and if they still hadn’t arrived, I would mention something to the park staff. Thankfully they returned shortly after and there was nothing to be worried about.
They invited me again to join them by the fire and I took them up on the offer. I brought Elo over and tethered her to the metal frame of the nearby picnic bench so she could sit beside us at the fire pit. I set up my camera over at my campsite for another astrophotography timelapse, then joined Dave and Kristen by their fire. We shared some stories and good conversation over the fire while enjoying a few s’mores. I decided to leave my whiskey at home this trip, which is usually a staple for me and would have been perfect for the fireside. But if Elo had any issues and I needed a quick exit, I needed to make sure I was completely sober the whole time.
At around 10:30 PM I decided to say goodnight and head back to my campsite. First, I went to the beach to look at the stars for a few minutes. I brought my camera with the intention of taking some photos, but it was so freakin cold outside and it was already late, I didn’t want to get started with more astrophotography.
After a few minutes enjoying another ridiculously clear and dazzling night sky, we went into the tent. Once again, I wrapped Elo in a blanket and she was absolutely adorable all curled up on her sleeping bag. She was extremely tired from the long day and fell asleep right away. It didn’t take me too long to join her.
Day 3 – Leaving Rock Lake Campground
The morning of Day 3 was a real struggle with how cold it was. I didn’t have a fire to keep me warm and it was below zero degrees. I used my car to heat us up for a bit and then started to clean up my campsite and pack up.
The plan initially was to hike the Track and Tower Trail, then paddle around Canisbay Lake afterwards. While I was packing up camp, Elo gave me the telltale signs of nausea; viciously licking her lips while gulping and flinching her neck. Alright, so the 3 hour commitment to the Track and Tower Trail was no longer an option. I decided that we would still paddle Canisbay Lake since there were plenty of campsites to stop at if needed. Plus, I would always be within an hour max from my car.
By the time I finished packing up camp (which basically meant just throwing everything into my car in one big mess), I spent a few more minutes talking with my neighbours before heading out. It was around 9:30 AM at that point. I drove over to the Canisbay Lake canoe launch point and after opening my car door I was greeted with strong winds.
I walked down to the beach, took one look at the water, and immediately said “nope”. It was crazy windy and there were significant white caps on the water. It was also a direct headwind. It was way too much unnecessary risk with an improperly weight-balanced canoe, Elo always moving from side to side, and the potentially fatally cold water temperatures.
I guess both the Track and Tower Trail hike and the Canisbay Lake paddling were going to be cancelled for Day 3. Honestly, I didn’t mind. The first few days were full of adventures, spectacular views, and amazing memories together. Having another day exploring the park would have been nice, but I still felt completely satisfied with the trip ending right then and there.
I got back into the car ready to start the drive. Elo curled up into her favourite corner in the backseat, and we headed home while admiring the breathtaking fall colours along Highway 60.
The two weeks prior to this trip were extremely stressful for me. Elo was sick and I was constantly taking her to the vet and following a strict medication routine while being extremely concerned and nervous for her. Plus, I had cleaned up more poop and vomit than I ever thought I would in my lifetime. To say I was looking forward to this trip would be an understatement. I was so incredibly happy that she was feeling great during the trip and enjoying herself. She loved the hiking and the paddling. She loved when a group of five children asked if they could pet her at the top of the Booth’s Rock Trail lookout. She loved running up and down the beach with me. And of course, she loved chasing the chipmunks.
And for me, I loved the fall colours. I loved the clear night skies and prominent milky way. I loved being on the water and checking out campsites. I loved cuddling up with Elo in the tent during the freezing cold nights. And I loved the fact that I was able to bring Elo on another canoe trip this season, especially after the rough two weeks she had just had.
Fall colours weren’t at their peak, but they were around 60-70% based on the Ontario Parks and Algonquin Park reports. They were still breathtakingly beautiful. The view onto the opposing shoreline from the waters edge at Rock Lake Campground B was particularly special and was an amazing view every time I walked around the campground.
Camping at a campground is obviously very different than the backcountry. There are people everywhere. It is constantly noisy with laughing, car alarms going off, and everything else you can imagine. The toilets are quite dirty and I actually strongly prefer a thunder box to the campground toilets (I never thought I’d write about enjoying using a thunder box). Plus, I had no idea that fires could only be made with purchased firewood and that I couldn’t collect wood for a fire, because it would be considered ‘foraging’. Yeah, I prefer the backcountry, but there’s no denying the comforts of car camping. Getting to bring way more gear than is needed. Getting to check in with cell service and use the car for heat when needed. And most importantly for this trip, the safety of knowing that I could have a quick exit if Elo started showing any bad symptoms.
Despite preferring backcountry camping, I still thoroughly enjoyed my car camping experience and wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. The nice thing about car camping is the amount of time it frees up, allowing more time for hiking, paddling, etc. For shoulder season trips like this one, it was actually quite enjoyable.