Over the years, my dogs and I have driven all over Canada and the United States, visited both oceans, and several mountain ranges. In spite of all the amazing places we have been privileged to explore, my favourite part of Canada is still the Trans-Canada Highway, or Highway 17, between Sault Ste. Marie (affectionately called “the Soo”) and Thunder Bay (or T-Bay).
With so many things to do and places to see around massive Lake Superior, the best way to see it all is to do the Lake Superior Circle Tour, which takes place in both Canada and the USA and makes for a wonderful Lake Superior vacation. However, for this article, we’re going to focus on the Canada-side of the tour. Maybe we can call it the Lake Superior Half Circle Tour?
Things To Do in Sault Ste. Marie Ontario
Before leaving Sault Ste. Marie, take a day and hop on the Agawa Canyon Tour Train from Sault Ste. Marie. This out-and-back rail line winds through the forests of the Canadian Shield for 182 km (114 miles), ending at Agawa Canyon Park where guests have the opportunity to explore before returning. The park is only accessible by rail or trail meaning it will not have the hordes of visitors that other parks experience.
Other things to do in Sault Ste. Marie includes:
- Ermatinger-Clergue National Historic Site: This site tells the story of Charles Oakes Ermatinger and others that were lucky enough to call this beautiful house home between 1808 and 1870.
- Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre: Located right next to the Ermatinger-Clergue National Historic Site, this site explores the history and adventure of flight and forest fire protection. This is a great place to get up close and personal with aircraft and even take the seat in one!
- Art Gallery of Algoma: Located a nice short stroll from the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre, this gallery is home to a permanent collection of the Group of Seven. It’s also located at the waterfront, which makes it a great venue for a relaxing afternoon.
- Sault Ste Marie Canal National Historic Site: At the end of the boardwalk is this beautiful national historic site, which houses historical locks of which are still in use by people entering Lake Superior. You can even cross the locks and check out the St. Mary’s River rapids.
Even though the Trans-Canada is the main road west and roughly follows the shore of Lake Superior Ontario, it still feels like you’re on the edge of a wild frontier once you leave Sault Ste. Marie. Small towns barely clinging to existence pop up and then fade from view, enveloped by forests as the highway clings to the constantly rolling cliffs. Thick fog often rolls off the nearby lake in the middle of the day and the weather can change in the blink of an eye. There is also no artificial lights outside of the towns and deer and moose are a very real danger once the sun goes down.
The cold waters of the largest of the Great Lakes beckon the traveller to stop at one of the many rest stops and unofficial parking areas, inviting you to take a few moments to splash in the waves as you crunch over rocky beaches to see what lies around the next rock face. A moment can stretch to an hour as humans, and dogs, poke around the trees and rocks to find the secrets hidden there before continuing on.
For those looking to rest their head, there is no shortage of Sault Ste Marie hotels. Examples include Quattro hotel, Holiday Inn, Days Inn, The Water Tower Inn, Best Western, and more. There aren’t really any Lake Superior resorts on the Canada-side of the Circle Tour. However, one option might be the Voyageur’s Lodge and Cookhouse.
Provincial and National Parks Along the Way
With several provincial parks including Lake Superior, Sleeping Giant, Ruby Lake, and Pukaskwa National Park, there are many places to either car-camp or load up a backpack or canoe and spend time in the backcountry. Hiking trails are found in all of the parks and can be used by persons of all abilities. If you do decide to hike, make sure you are equipped with sturdy footwear, proper clothing, and a snack. The weather can be extremely unpredictable and with no cell service, it is easy to get into trouble.
Lake Superior Provincial Park
As you make your way from Sault Ste. Marie, the first provincial park you’ll pass through is Lake Superior. Lake Superior Provincial Park holds a special place in my heart as this was the place where I had the best campsite ever; it was literally on the beach and so close to the water, I could have almost skipped stones from my tent.
Lake Superior Provincial Park is one of the largest provincial parks in Ontario, covering roughly 1,550 square kilometres.
Why people love it?
- Has easy access and remote sections along the Lake Superior shoreline.
- Incredibly beautiful and diverse scenery including cliffs, river valleys, waterfalls, Lake Superior beaches, and inland lakes.
- World-class hiking and paddling.
- Agawa Rock Pictographs, which is one of the few pictograph sites in Ontario accessible by foot.
- Cultural history, natural features, and an array of recreational opportunities such as trout fishing.
- Diverse Lake Superior provincial park camping options for RV’s, tents, and backcountry hiking.
In addition to the park and Lake Superior camping, for those that have to see larger-than-life statues, a stop in Wawa is a must to see the largest Canada Goose you will ever lay eyes upon. The Goose was built to commemorate the completion of the last section of the Trans-Canada Highway on Lake Superior.
Pukaskwa National Park
Next along the journey is Pukaskwa National Park. Established in 1978, Pukaskwa is known for its vistas of Lake Superior and Boreal forests. The park covers more than 1,800 square kilometres and protects one of the longest undeveloped shorelines anywhere on the Great Lakes.
Pukaskwa is truly a sight to behold. It consists of spruce and pine forests, towering cliffs, and secluded sandy beaches. You may see black bears feasting on blueberry bushes or loons singing their song amidst a beautiful sunset. Then there’s the Anishinaabe First Nations and their ancient human story.
Why people love it?
- Combines authentic boreal wilderness with ancient Anishinaabe culture.
- Treasure hunting and geocaching adventures on rocky shorelines.
- Views from White River Suspension Bridge.
- Sandy beaches to relax on.
- World-class hiking trails, including the long-distance Voyageur Hiking Trail.
- Incredible paddling opportunities.
- Variety of Pukaskwa National Park camping options, including backcountry campsites.
- Scores of wildlife, including black bears, moose, peregrine falcons, wolves, and more.
For fans of Winnie the Pooh, you may want to drive North of the park to stop in White River, which was the home of the bear that served as inspiration for the beloved children’s character. White River also holds a festival the third weekend in August. The visitor centre has a statue and display of the cartoon bear and a large collection of Winnie memorabilia is maintained at the White River Heritage Museum.
White Lake Provincial Park
Located just North of Pukaskwa National Park, White Lake Provincial Park includes White Lake, sandy beaches, and marshes. Once a rich source of furs and lumber, now it offers natural treasures such as orchids and bogs with insect-eating plants.
Why people love it?
- 6,5000 hectare White Lake is one of the largest lakes on the Lake Superior Circle Route.
- Great fishing for Walleye and Northern Pike.
- Wonderful swimming opportunities and sandy beaches for relaxing.
- Three nature trails for exploring the boreal forest.
- Close to the Winnie the Pooh Hometown Festival.
For those looking for White River accommodation, there are a few options including the White River Motel, Continental Motel, and the White Lake Lodge, which some call the White River Lodge.
Ruby Lake Provincial Park
Blink and you might miss it. Next up is Ruby Lake Provincial Park. This small provincial park, which is located at the mouth of the Nipigon River, incorporates three small lakes, wetlands, and a mesa-cuesta with cliffs and ravines. Ruby Lake Provincial Park is classified as a natural environment park and is located adjacent to Parks Canada’s National Marine Conservation Area. It’s also a great place to spot bald eagles and peregrine falcons, both of which are a species at risk in the province but find refuge around Doghead Mountain.
Why people love it?
- Rugged terrain and extensive trail system for hiking.
- Park can be accessed by Lake Superior by boaters and paddlers.
- Scenic beauty and wildlife viewing.
- Park is home to winter activities as well, including cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Outside of the park, As you pass through Nipigon, you’ll also find the Paddle to the Sea Park, which is dedicated to the iconic Canadian book by Holling C. Holling that tells of an adventure through the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. The park consists of twelve playground stations that start in the centre of Nipigon and leads to the waterfront. This is a great place to bring the family.
Sleeping Giant Provincial Park
Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, a 244-square-kilometer park, is a short drive to Thunder Bay and is the last park (or the first depending on where you start) on your Canadian Lake Superior Circle Tour. The first time I camped there, I watched a deer walk through the campground next to a young child. For a split second, I thought the child was walking the deer. It’s truly a beautiful place.
The Eastern portion of the park is lowlands, while the Western portion consists of cliffs, valleys, and mesa-cuestas, which help give the park its name. The Eastern portion also touches the soon-to-be Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area.
Why people love it?
- Stunning views of Lake Superior and the surrounding area.
- More than 100 kilometres of hiking trails with an array of geological features.
- A wide variety of wildlife, including deer, wolf, fox, lynx, and hundreds of bird species.
- A wide variety of camping options, including backcountry campgrounds and full-service cabins.
- The natural and cultural history of the Sibley Peninsula is featured at the Visitor Centre.
- Mountain biking trails.
Amethyst is the official stone of Ontario and outside of the park, there are several mines that are open during the summer months with the largest amethyst mine in Canada located at Amethyst Mine Panorama, 60 km east of Thunder Bay. Kids young and old can get their hands dirty finding their own piece of amethyst.
Things To Do in Thunder Bay Ontario
Thunder Bay is the biggest city along Lake Superior and one of the best places to visit in Ontario along the big lake. It is the most populated municipality in Northwestern Ontario with a population of roughly 120,000. Once known for forestry and manufacturing, it is now becoming a knowledge economy and is home to the Thunder Bay Regional Health Research Institute. It’s also home to a variety of things to do, which we’ll discuss below.
Before reaching Thunder Bay, however, the Terry Fox Memorial and Outlook provides a welcome place to take a break from the road as well as honouring this remarkable young man who’s Marathon of Hope was tragically cut short in 1980 yet continues to inspire millions of people to this day. For those who may not know of Terry Fox, he is one of Canada’s most iconic figures.
Once in the city, there are a number of things to do in Thunder Bay Canada, including:
- Outdoor adventures such as climbing to one of the highest points in the province and sailing in the world’s largest freshwater lake.
- Exploring historical sites such as Fort Williams Historical Park.
- Indulge a variety of restaurants to cure your culinary needs.
- Smell the flowers at the Centennial Botanical Conservatory.
- Get educated at the Thunder Bay Museum.
Things To Do in North Shore Ontario
As you can see, the whole area around Lake Superior is filled with adventure, nature, and camping opportunities. There’s just so much to do and so much to see, including hiking, paddling, fishing, and being spellbound by the beauty of the area.
Aside from a couple of fancy restaurants in Thunder Bay, don’t expect to find posh restaurants through this part of Ontario; small family businesses and familiar fast-food chains are the most common places to eat. A healthy fishing industry on Lake Superior means a meal of fresh fish can be found in almost every town. If you happen to have a fishing rod, throw out a line for whitefish, lake trout, walleye, or some of the many other species that can be found in the lakes and rivers.
Winter doesn’t stop the adventure either. Once the snow arrives, the trails become home to snowmobiles, snowshoers, and cross country skiers while ice fishing huts spring up to dot the frozen lakes. This far north, the winter lasts longer meaning there is more time to play in the snow.
Camping is wildly popular in these parts but if camping holds no appeal, there are some smaller motels along Highway 17 and larger chains in Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay. If you have no desire to make the drive, both cities have international airports so you can get to your exploring that much faster. After spending time in the wilderness, a cold beer from a local craft brewery or fresh coffee from a small cafe may encourage you to explore the city.