The Barron Canyon, Grand Lake and Vicinity

The Barron Canyon offers an exception to the rule that Algonquin's beauty is subtle. For a brief period after the end of the last ice age the Barron River carried the entire outflow from Lake Aggasiz (the precursor of today's Great Lakes), and a spectacular 100 m deep canyon was cut by this enormous flow of water. The Canyon is the highlight of any trip to this area, but many of the surrounding lakes are beautiful, and well worth a visit on their own merits.

Compared to the crowded access points along Highway 60, the Barron Canyon and the adjacent area around Achray Station at Grand Lake can seem almost deserted. The relative lack of crowds combined with beautiful- and in places stunning- scenery make this area one of the most delightful in the park.

The east side of Algonquin Park is quite different in appearance to the west. While the west side is dominated by hardwood forests and thick vegetation, conifers predominate to the east and the forests have a more open feel. The rugged pine-and-granite scenery of the east side resembles regions of the Canadian shield north of the park.

Getting There

Although it is in principle possible to reach the Barron Canyon by canoe from the west side of the park, the portaging required is so daunting that most trippers drive in via the Sand Lake access point. This is reached from Highway 17 just north of Pembroke. Here Regional Road 28 intersects the highway, leading to the Petawawa business district to the east, and Algonquin Park to the west. The exit is well marked. Approximately 100 m after the turn off Highway 17, Achray Road branches to the west. After about 10 km the surface changes from pavement to gravel, but the road is in good condition all the way to its end at the radio telescope on Lac Traverse 50 km to the northwest, and can be navigated by any conventional car. The Sand Lake gate is reached about 30 km (approximately 30 minutes) from Highway 17. Permits for the Achray, Sand Lake, and Lac Traverse access points are all available here. A parking lot providing access to the Barron River at Squirrel Rapids lies 500 m past the gate, at the bottom of a steep hill. This lot can become quite crowded on summer weekends. The turn-off to McManus Lake, the pick-up spot for white-water canoeists running the Pettawawa River, is reached 5 km further on. Another well-marked turn-off 15 km from the gate leads west to Achray Station.

Most canoeists take two or three days to complete a trip through the Barron Canyon, starting at Achray Station, camping somewhere between Stratton Lake and Opalescent Lake en route, and then continuing on down the canyon to Squirrel Rapids. A car shuttle is then used to complete the trip back to Achray. It is important to remember that the distance along the dusty gravel road from Squirrel Rapids to Achray is 20 km, and would make a decidedly unpleasant walk. It may be possible to arrange a shuttle with the Algonquin Portage Store . On a summer weekend there is a good chance of begging a ride back to Achray from the Squirrel Rapids parking lot, but it is not advisable to rely on this. The only other reasonable possibility for completing this trip with one vehicle is to leave a mountain bike at Squirrel Rapids, and then bicycle back to Achray.

Since many of the portages above the Barron canyon are steep and rock-strewn, portaging a full set of camping gear from Grand Lake to the bottom of Brigham Chute can be an exhausting undertaking. An alternative approach is to paddle up the canyon from Squirrel Rapids. This can be done as a long day trip from the Ottawa area, or by camping overnight in the Achray area, and then driving to Squirrel Rapids in the morning. It is also possible to camp at one of several wilderness sites between Squirrel Rapids and the canyon, all of which are reached with a minimum of portaging. Strong canoeists can complete the route from Achray to Squirrel Rapids as a long day trip, avoiding the need to portage camping gear.

Grand Lake

Grand Lake itself is a superb stop for a lazy, no-portage "destination camping" trip. There is a small car campground at Achray Station, but far more attractive campsites can be reached on the extreme south shore of the lake for the price of a 1 km paddle. Three huge, level sites here are found under a grove of tall pines above a long, clean sandy beach. The beach shelves gently into the lake, and offers excellent swimming. Swimmers should be careful not to cut their feet on the abundant freshwater mussels on the beach.

Monarch butterfly seen at Achray

Until 1994 the CN main line ran along the shores of Stratton and Grand Lakes. The line has now been abandonned, and the tracks and ties removed. There is a chance the right-of-way will eventually be converted into a trail for hiking and cross-country skiing. In some ways I miss the CN freights rumbling through this area. They could hardly be considered part of a wilderness experience, but they were a reminder of the importance of the rail line across the Shield in Canadian history. I won't regret never again being awakended by the whistle and lights of a freight train at 4AM, as we were one night when camped very close to the tracks in the overflow campground at Achray!

The north end of Grand Lake is relatively uninteresting, and has few campsites. A high-voltage Ontario Hydro transmission line which cuts a swath across the portage trail leading to Clemow Lake does little to increase the attractiveness of this area.

Caracajou Bay

Carcajou Bay at the west side of Grand Lake is well worth a visit. Much of the shoreline of this long, twisting inlet is walled with huge slabs of granite. Some very faint petroglyphs can just be discerned on the granite wall at the north side of the entrance to the bay. There are several good campsites on the points along the inlet, but the real highlight is Carcajou Falls at its head. To reach the falls it is necessary to navigate a narrow slot in the rock walls, which may carry a fairly strong current. A carry-over around the slot is possible if the current proves too fast for upstream paddling. A beautiful pool surrounded by more granite outcrops lies just below the falls.
Pool below Carcajou falls

Carcajou Falls

A walk up the 90 m portage trail to the west of the falls leads to another small basin formed in a huge granite slab worn perfectly smooth by the water.

Basin above Carcajou Falls
A narrow passageway to Lower Spectacle Lake intersects this basin from the northwest. To the south another short portage leads to marshy Carcajou Creek. Although effectively a dead end as a canoe route, this area offers good prospects for sighting moose, and is popular for fishing.

Stratton Lake

A 30 m portage leads from Grand Lake to Stratton Lake. Immediately after the portage the lake bottom is strewn with boulders, so a close lookout should be kept through this section. The canoe route passes under a low railway bridge, and then enters the main body of the lake.

Stratton Lake resident

Stratton Lake is long and relatively uninteresting, but has several superb campsites at the south end of its eastern shore.

Campsite at south end of Stratton Lake
The forest on the western shore of the lake is largely deciduous, in contrast to the pine forests which predominate in eastern Algonquin.

The Barron River exits Stratton Lake via a long inlet branching to the east. The river plunges through a drop of over 50 m in a sweeping curve of rapids and low waterfalls interspersed with small pools. The pools make popular swimming holes in the summer. A superb view of this intricate set of falls is available by paddling to the head of the inlet and scrambling up the granite outcrop that borders the lake. This viewpoint can also be reached by a 10 km long hiking trail starting at Achray Station.

Rapids at top of High Falls, Barron River

The "Jacuzzi", High Falls area, Baron River

Taking the plunge at the Jacuzzi

It is not possible to portage around the falls, so the canoe route to the Barron Canyon passes through St. Andrew's Lake to the south. The 45 m portage to St. Andrew's Lake is reached via a shallow, meandering stream, in which care must be taken to avoid submerged rocks and logs. During spring runoff it may be possible to bypass the portage and run the short, straight rapid connecting the two lakes.

St. Andrews Lake

There are several good campsites on the western shore of St. Andrew's Lake adjacent to the portage from Stratton Lake. A long, high cliff forms the bulk of the eastern shore.

Paralleling the Barron River, the route to the Barron Canyon exits St. Andrew's Lake at the north end. The 550 m portage trail leads past an extended falls and rapids down to Highfalls Lake.

Highfalls Lake

The portage trail from St. Andrew's Lake ends in a steep, tortuous landing at Highfalls Lake. Threading a canoe through the maze of trees above this landing can be trying. Highfalls Lake itself is shallow for most of its length, requiring care in picking a route. The lake is dotted with small granite islands that make good stopovers for swimming.

High Falls Lake
It is possible to hike from the western shore of Highfalls Lake back along the Barron River to Stratton Lake. There is a spectacular view of the highest section of the extended falls from near the bottom of the trail.

At the north end of the lake the route to the Barron Canyon splits into two branches. The shorter route takes a 300 m portage to Ooze Lake. The alternative route follows the Barron River as it arches north and east. This second route requires six short portages at typical summer water levels. In the spring it may be possible for experienced whitewater canoeists to run a few of these rapids, but the Ooze Lake route is still the recommended choice.

Ooze Lake

Ooze Lake is really a short section of bog interrupting the portage trail between Highfalls Lake and Opalescent Lake. The lake is remarkable for its enormous amount of decaying organic debris. Huge mats of vegetation float on its surface, suspended by gas bubbles produced in the anaerobic decay below.

Opalescent Lake

A level 700 m portage leads from Ooze Lake to Opalescent Lake. The two lakes could hardly be more different. Opalescent's water is clear and clean, and the rocky point at the center of the western shore of the lake makes a good spot for swimming.

Brigham Lake and Brigham Chute

From Opalescent Lake a flat 700 m portage leads to Brigham Lake. This lake is also accessible by car from the Achray Road, providing an alternative means of reaching the canyon as a day trip. The rapids at the east end of the lake are relatively easy to run when water levels are high, or can be bypassed via a 100 m portage. The following 440 m portage leads past Brigham Chute, one of the most magnificent waterfalls in the park.

Brigham Chute
A thick iron ring set in the granite bluff just above the falls that was once used to help guide logs during lumber drives lies beside the portage trail. Poison ivy is very common on the trail, and it is important to take extreme care when dropping packs or other gear at the trailside.

Late summer cardinal flower, Brigham chute

The Barron Canyon

The 400 m portage trail bypassing Brigham Chute ends in a steep, awkward landing at a quiet pool above the Barron Canyon. On summer weekends the landing is frequently clogged with canoes and gear of overnight campers arriving at the canyon from the lakes to the west, and day trippers hiking to the falls. Out of courtesy to others, gear should be cached well off the trail if you are stopping at the portage.

A short distance below the landing the walls of the canyon start to rise on both sides of the river. The banks here are lined with a jumble of truck-sized boulders, some of which are level enough to make good lunch stopovers. The 2 km long canyon itself is awe-inspiring. In sections the 100 m high walls rise vertically from the dark, peaty water, and one can see places where the hiking trail skirting the cliff edge is severely undercut. Swallows nest under the overhangs in the spring, and until mid-summer are seen darting about the canyon. This is an ideal place to simply lie back and let the canoe drift with the gentle current while watching the vista above.

Entering the Barron Canyon

Towering walls of the Barron Canyon
The short hiking trail which runs along the edge of the cliffs at the top of the canyon is easily accessed from the Achray Road. It's also possible to reach the trail by scrambling up a scree slope just to the east of the highest walls in the canyon, then bushwacking through the forest for a very short distance to the west. The view from the trail is spectacular.

Barron Canyon as seen from the hiking trail

Below the canyon the river's shores open into marshland. Blue heron are very common in this area. After about a 2 km paddle from the canyon a 400 m portage around an unnamed but unrunnable rapid is reached. Once again poison ivy is prevalent along the portage trail. The parking lot at the Squirrel Rapids bridge is reached just below the portage.

Back to Virtual Algonquin main page Last revision August 2004

Copyright 2004 Garry Tarr and Jo-Ann Holden