Outdoor adventurer Bill Farnsworth heads to the Almaguin Highlands of Ontario to discover new-to-him epic trails.
Having spent considerable time hiking in Muskoka, I was in search of new adventures that felt more off the beaten path. When I came across a brochure from the Forgotten Trails Association, I was thrilled to learn about these great scenic routes not far from home.
Managed by volunteers, ‘The Forgotten Trails Association’ in the Almaguin Highlands are a collection of four-season back-country pathways. The Association has done a fantastic job with their mission to create, maintain and promote safe and ecologically sustainable trails of natural or historical significance.
After checking out the map online, I quickly settled on two trails I wanted to explore, both of them promising inspiring terrain and spectacular views. The Laurier Fire Tower Trail and the Moose Mountain Trail are located in a vast wilderness area between the Village of South River and Algonquin Provincial Park. South River is the perfect starting point for adventuring. A quaint, rural community, it has many recreational facilities including Mikisew Provincial Park and access to Algonquin. In fact, Tom Thomson himself visited South River as a staging point for numerous trips into Algonquin Park. (Learn more about the area by visiting ExploreSouthRiver.ca)
So-named because hikers are led to the base of an MNR fire tower that was decommissioned in the 1960s. Parking is available on Chemical Road, which widens just East of Forestry Road to make room for several cars. From here an access road suitable for off-road vehicles leads to the trailhead. This section is a nice addition to the trail, so I opted to park on Chemical Road and walk the kilometer to the official trailhead.
The Fire Tower Trail is clearly marked with a large interpretive sign and map. After a sneak peek at the route, I headed into the forest. The first half of the trail meanders gently through the trees on a well worn surface. Soon the only sounds were the wind rustling the leaves and a symphony of bird calls. After the halfway point of the trail you begin climbing up. The path is still easily passable, but there are some steeper, rocky sections that truly make the route feel like an adventure.
As you circle the ridge you are enveloped in an expansive hardwood forest of soaring maple, birch and white pines. At last, as the trees began to thin I reached the summit and surveyed the tranquil view of rolling hills as far as the eye can see. There is a small meadow where you can rest and take it all in, surrounded by wildflowers. Before heading back down, be sure to look for the worn concrete footings and small staircase. These are all that remain of the trail’s namesake fire tower. Imagine what it would have been like to make the trek to this site and climb the tower to scan for smoke. What a view that would have been!
There is definitely something exciting about hiking up a challenging hill or ridge when you know a scenic vista awaits. A lookout trail demands that you work for the reward! With this in mind, I decided to tackle my second trail of the day.
The Moose Mountain Trail:
This is much more like the trails I have been accustomed to exploring in provincial parks. A short drive from the Tower Trail, this trail is accessed from Forestry Road. Although it is known locally as “Moose Mountain,” it’s not a mountain in the true sense of the word. Hikers should still be prepared for a moderate climb with some rugged terrain and sheer drops. Look for the trailhead map and follow the path into the forest from the edge of the road.
After an overcast morning the sun was just peeking through the clouds, creating a dappled pattern of light and shadows on the trail and amidst the trees. Before you start the ascent up the mountain watch for a group of glacial erratics, which are rocks deposited there by the force of the last ice age. I was in awe of one huge boulder that towered over me. The trail is well signed with frequent markers ensuring you never have to guess about the direction to travel.
Similar to my experience on the first trail, I was the only hiker. The forest was alive with the scurrying of squirrels and chipmunks and the songs of small woodland birds. Even though the car was less than ten minutes away, I felt a great solitude as I took in the sights and sounds of this beautiful place. As the trail gently spirals up and around Moose Mountain, there are several great vantage points along the way. The most spectacular location gives you glimpses of Loxton Lake from atop a steep bluff. Definitely worth the climb!
If you are looking to create your own adventure in South River, the new Explore South River app is for you. Available for iOS and Android, the app is broken down by activity, allowing you to tailor your experience and create a custom itinerary. Choose ‘play’ for outdoor adventure suggestions, ‘savour’ to learn about local culinary treasures, or discover the arts, places to stay and more. The app provides lots of suggestions with excellent photography and Google mapping. Be sure to download the free app before heading north.
My visit to South River fulfilled my quest for something new and off the beaten path. The drive was traffic-free and the trails were easily accessible and clearly marked, but also offered a memorable wilderness experience. So if you are looking for a scenic hike, head to South River. The Forgotten Trails Association volunteers maintain many trails with routes of varying length and difficulty. Whether you prefer to explore at a gentle stroll or get your heart pumping on a challenging hike to a scenic lookout, you will find your perfect adventure in the Great Canadian Wilderness just north of Toronto.
For information on more things to do in the region, visit Explore South River.
Guest Blogger: Bill Farnsworth is a freelance writer who has lived in Muskoka for more than 30 years. When not writing, Bill can be found cycling, running, paddling and trying to keep up with his two adventurous boys.