Amanda Crowley

Worth the Wait

Beach-Hopping on Superior’s Northern Coast: Head north for your next great vacation

Sure, you could spend August fighting the crowds in Miami or Hilton Head. But if your ideal vacation features solitude and outdoor adventures rather than rented cabanas and piña coladas, you can’t beat the beaches of northern Ontario. Remote and sparsely populated, Lake Superior’s northern coast is the perfect place to catch the end of summer.

Start your journey in Sault Ste. Marie (“the Soo”), an industry town on the US border. Spend a day or two in town strolling the revitalized downtown and visiting local sites like the Bushplane Heritage Centre, where you can take a spin in the flight simulator and learn all about the tiny planes that keep northern Canada running. Don’t miss the easy hike up to Crystal Falls on the northern edge of the city.

Great eats abound. The Soo is best known for its Italian food, but other highlights include Georgie’s, a new falafel and shawarma spot downtown, and “bennies” at The Breakfast Pig for brunch. To cool off on a warm August day, take a towering cone from Elliott’s Ice Cream across the street to the Hub Trail, a popular multi-use trail that includes 2.5 km of waterfront. Walk along the river or find a spot to sit and watch the boats go by.

1. Pancake Bay

Just 45 minutes north of Sault Ste. Marie, the shoreline of this sheltered bay is ringed by evergreen trees, giving the beach a distinctly northern vibe — and you’ll have most of it to yourself. Locals set up beach chairs in the shallows and chat for hours with a beer cooler tethered to their chairs. Kayakers pass by, the ripples from their paddles the only disturbance in the calm water.

Relax on the shore or head across the street to take the 7-kilometer Lookout Trail to a wooden platform that gives you epic views over Lake Superior. The 220m freighter Edmund Fitzgerald met its gloomy end here 45 years ago, as immortalized by the Gordon Lightfoot song, though on a calm summer day it’s hard to remember how dangerous Lake Superior can be. On your way back, listen for warblers and keep an eye out for moose.

2. Old Woman Bay

Hit the Trans-Canada for another 125 km, following the route that Lonely Planet declared one of the best drives in Canada, with the world’s largest lake on one side and the Canadian Shield’s dense forests and hidden canyons on the other. You’ll pass tiny hamlets and roadside stands where you can grab a quick lunch of fish and chips or poutine, and there’s no shortage of scenic turn-offs where you can pose for the ‘gram. 

Once you hit Lake Superior Provincial Park, pull off at Agawa Bay to buy your park pass. Then continue north to Old Woman Bay, where you’ll start out on the Nokomis Trail. This popular trail climbs 200m to a sweeping view of the bay. After you’ve worked up a sweat, you’ll be ready to brave the water at the beach across the street. By late August, the water’s as warm as it’s going to get — a bracing 16°C (61°F) — but even neck-deep you’ll have a perfectly clear view all the way to the bottom. Enjoy the views — Old Woman Bay is named for a rock formation that looms over the beach, keeping an eye on the swimmers.

3. Sandy Beach

Our last stop takes us to Wawa, population 2,900 people and a lot of bears, the only town of any size between the Soo and Thunder Bay. Stop for dinner at Kinniwabi Pines for the best Trinidadian-German food this side of the 45th parallel. Their lunch-only curry wraps are a perfect grab-and-go picnic lunch, or enjoy a relaxed dinner on the patio. Waterfall-hunting is a favorite pastime here — you can drive right up to Scenic High Falls and eat at one of the picnic tables at the bottom.

Make your way toward the aptly named Sandy Beach, hidden down a series of back roads. An installation featuring an artist’s easel and chair tells you all about the area’s history as an inspiration to the Canadian landscape artists known as the Group of Seven. Take a seat and compare this 21st-century vista to the one painted by A.Y. Jackson in the 1950s.

Once you’ve finished your art lesson, lay out your beach towel and watch the water pummel the shore: Lake Superior is famous for its churning currents, and waves can reach over seven meters high. The sun sets late here, but on this windswept stretch of sand, with herons soaring overhead and the long grass whistling behind you, it’s well worth the wait.

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