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Top 5 Tips for Visiting Algonquin Provincial Park During Peak Leaf Season

Making the best of an Algonquin Day Trip 

A camping trip in Algonquin Park during the fall has become a tradition for us, and one of my favourite trips each year. We're getting ready for our fourth annual trip as I write this. Over the years, the one thing we notice is that this is a peak time  for more than just the leaves changing colour. It is also the time when visitors come to the park by the thousands – all at the same time – to experience the glorious show of colour in Ontario’s most famous provincial park. 

Yes. I said thousands.

Visiting Algonquin in the last week of September and first two weeks of October can be a wonderful experience. But it can also be challenging when it seems as though everyone and their mother/brother/sister/father/friend/dog shows up at the park the same time as you.  So, based on a few years of visiting Algonquin at the height of leaf AND tourist season I’d like to give you a few tips to save your sanity and make your (and everyone else’s) visit the best it can be.

Tip #1: Plan ahead

If you plan on camping in a campground, book a site BEFORE you show up at the park.  I know. You don’t know what the weather will be like that weekend. It might be cold. Or raining. Or snowing.  But if you are serious about camping at a campground, you need to book in advance. If the weather stinks and you change your mind you can always cancel your site. But believe me; if the weather is awesome you have a very, very limited chance of getting a site when you show up at the park office on Saturday afternoon. 

Tent Trailer during fall camping
We booked this site months in advance. In fact, when we booked this site for our September trip there probably weren't any leaves on the trees!
If you are going for a day trip, take a look at the park maps on-line and decide which trails you'd like to visit in advance. Then, make sure you read trail description to learn how difficult the hike will be. We've seen people hit the trails in the most inappropriate clothing and footwear so many times. I don't know how they could comfortably walk along the trails! To truly enjoy Algonquin, you need to be be prepared.

Trailhead sign at Mizzy Lake Trail

Tip #2: Visit during off-peak times

Consider visiting the park on a weekday. We noticed a significant difference between the weekends and weekdays in the volume of traffic going through the park and hitting the trails. On Saturday and Sunday, the line to enter the West Gate of the park was kilometers long.  On a weekday, there wasn’t a line to be found anywhere in the park.  This leads to my next tip…

Tip #3: Prepare to wait in lines

If you are going to Algonquin on a weekend during peak leaf season be prepared for line-ups.  Everywhere. On both Saturday and Sunday this past weekend ALL traffic going West through the park was funneled through the West Gate to pick up day permits. There is no way around it, even if you don’t need to purchase a day pass.  This means that even if you are simply planning on driving along the Hwy 60 corridor or are heading to a specific campground where you have booked a campsite (see point #1) you still have to wait in line and drive to the general park office.  This results in incredible line-ups on the highway, just to get in the park. 

We noted a three kilometer line-up going into the West Gate at about 1:30 on Sunday afternoon.  According to other campers and general park visitors we talked to, Saturday was much worse.  

Cars lined up to enter Algonquin Park's West Gate
The line along Highway 60, waiting to get to the West Gate of Algonquin Provincial Park. At least the view is nice!
If a line to get your day permit isn't enough to deal with, there will also be lines to purchase food from the restaurants or make purchases in the shops along Highway 60. The park has a number of restaurants and stores. But those restaurants and stores are equipped to handle regular park traffic in the summer – not the droves of people who arrive during leaf season. This means more lines.  The wait for a burger at the Algonquin Outfitters Store restaurant at the Lake of Two Rivers was 40 minutes after the order was placed. 

Tip #4 - Pack a Lunch!

Did you read tip three? You CAN avoid restaurant line-ups by bringing your own food. There is nothing better than munching on a picnic lunch at the top of a lookout or at the side of a lake in Algonquin Park.  There aren’t any picnic tables and there aren’t benches to sit on at most trails, but parking yourself on a rock or a log and taking in the natural beauty around you is what a visit to Algonquin is all about.  Just remember to pack-out what you packed-in and leave your picnic spot cleaner than the way you found it.  That means take ALL of your garbage back out to the trailhead with you. 

Makeing lunch beside Mizzy Lake.
Taking a break to dry out feet and have some lunch on the Mizzy Lake Trail.  Don't let the boardwalk and bench in this picture fool you. Most of this trail is mud, mud and more mud.
If you bring a cooler to store food in your car, cover it with a blanket or jacket if it is visible through a window. Bears DO recognize coolers as super-awesome-boxes-of-easy-to-get-yummies and have been known to break into cars to get them. The chances of a bear wandering through a parking lot in the middle of the day when there are a lot of people around are pretty slim, but you can never be too careful.

Tip #5 - Park Properly and Be Careful!

Parking areas for the most popular trails are located right along Highway 60. This is great for access, but not so great when there are more cars than parking spots. There are always more cars than parking spots during this time of year on a weekend.  Cars are allowed to park along the shoulder of the Highway. DO NOT block another car in the parking lot. If it’s a tight squeeze in there, don’t make it worse. Especially if you see larger vehicles like trucks or even campers parked.    Take a look around you and be courteous of the other drivers, making sure there is room for all to get out of their spots.

All vehicles parked at the trails or along the shoulder of the highway require a park permit. The rangers check. And they ticket cars without permits.  I have seen this in person. 

And for the love of all that is good, remember that HIGHWAY 60 is an actual HIGHWAY.  The speed limit is 80 km an hour. Vehicles travelling this highway have the right of way just like they do on any other highway. Be careful when you slow down to see that incredible view, or pull away from the shoulder, or get out of your car to go see the beautiful view or hit the trail.  We had a few close calls as we travelled the highway with both pedestrians and inattentive drivers being in the absolutely wrong place on the road.  Thankfully, we didn’t have any accidents, but we did see one fender-bender and I’m sure it wasn’t the only one last weekend.

Algonquin Provincial Park really is a beautiful place that needs to be experienced in person during the early autumn days.  By packing a lot of patience, common sense and respect for other park visitors everyone can enjoy the incredible display of colour and feel the benefits of getting outside.  Do you have any more tips for daytrippers to Algonquin? Share them with us here!


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