Trans-Canada Road-Trip: Sault Ste Marie to Thunder Bay

Lake Superior shores and parks

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It’s some 706km (439 miles) between Sault Ste Marie and Thunder Bay, the next major settlement north-west along Hwy-17, and it’ll take you at least eight hours to drive it. But instead of just clipping along your way… it’s well worth stopping for a photo op at Wawa and a break at either Marathon or Terrace Bay and if you have the time then break up your journey with a stop at Rainbow Falls Provincial Park. A good place for some camping planning is the website Ontario Provincial Parks.

Sights below are organised by their distance from Sault Ste. Marie:

Chippewa Falls (55km/34 miles)

Chippewa Falls is considered the mid-point of the Trans-Canada Highway, which is the longest highway in the world.

Batchawana Bay Provincial Park (66km/41 miles)

Batchawana Bay Provincial Park is a day use park with beautiful scenery – ideal for a swim or a paddle (with your own canoe.)

Pancake Bay Provincial Park (77km/48 miles)

Pancake Bay Provincial Park is reckoned by many campers to be the loveliest campsite on Lake Superior with more than 2 mi (3 km) of beautiful sandy beach and clear blue water. It is located along the historic paddling route of the Voyageurs and offers a panoramic view of Lake Superior from the Edmund Fitzgerald Lookout hiking trail. Open May to October–reservations recommended.

Lake Superior Provincial Park (135km/84 miles)

Lake Superior Provincial Park is the largest Provincial Park on Lake Superior covering 397,370  acres (160,810 hectares). It offers a wide variety of outdoor activities with beaches, cliffs, waterfalls, river valleys, inland lakes and great hiking, paddling and fishing. Both serviced and back-country camping sites can be booked. It is also site of the Agawa Bay Pictographs. These 35 ochre- coloured rock drawings are a sacred site to the Ojibway but only accessible to the adventurous when Lake Superior is calm by climbing along a ledge above the water.

Wawa (227km/141 miles)

Wawa contains perhaps the most recognized symbol of Northern Ontario, a giant 28-ft (8.5 metre) metal statue of a Canada goose overlooking highway 17. The town of Wawa takes its name from the Ojibway word for “wild goose.” Wawa’s history is rich in mining and forestry and played a vital role in the fur trade when Fort Michipicoten was an important link in the East-West route. But today it is mainly a convenient stop on the long drive across Northern Ontario.

Marathon (410km/255 miles)

Marathon –although located two miles off the highway it is often an important wayside stop for drivers. It is on the railway and once had an important pulp mill and three gold mines. However, today it is best known for having a Canadian Tire store and the largest indoor shopping mall between Sault Saint Marie and Thunder Bay.

But, Marathon is also the closest town to the entrance to Pukaskwa National Park, (pronounced “puckasaw”) a huge wilderness park covering 464,064 acres, or 1878 square kilometres. While there is some camping and hiking just 15 km off Highway #17, the main features of the park are a Coastal Paddling Route and a rugged Coastal Hiking Trail -for experienced hikers and paddlers only. The Trail is 60 km long and takes slightly more than 28 hours carrying a heavy backpack. Parks Canada offers downloadable guides for planning purposes. Oh, and they remind us that this is Black Bear country and offer some suggestions on what to do should you encounter one on the trail. To register and sign-up for the orientation phone 807-229-0801.

Terrace Bay (481km/299 miles)

Former pulp and paper mill, Terrace Bay (139 mi (224 km) from Thunder Bay] has re-invented itself as a tourist area and offers lots of outdoor recreation in and around Slate Islands Provincial Park. But it’s not just hikers, campers and fishermen that are attracted by the summer sun: the sandy beaches also attract swimmers and surfers. In August Dragfest is a big deal in these parts.

Just after Terrace Bay and before Rossport there are two sites for Rainbow Falls Provincial Park. Campers can choose a site along the calm shoreline of Whitesand Lake, or on the rough and rocky shoreline of Lake Superior. The Whitesand Lake campground offers trails to the falls on the Hewitson River and/or to a panoramic view of Lake Superior. A camp site can be reserved online.

Nipigon (587km/365 miles)

Nipigon (120km/74 miles from Thunder Bay] Although forestry provides many local jobs the town is best known as a base for fishing excursions onto Lake Superior, the Nipigon River and Lake Nipigon where anglers can fish for eight species of fish. In winter the  frozen waterfalls at Orient Bay attract ice climbing enthusiasts from across North America.

NEWS ITEM: On January 10, 2016 Nipigon hit international news. Previously few realized the bridge at the east end of town spanning the Nipigon River was such an important east-west land link in Canada’s transportation route. Just east of the bridge, highways 17 and 11 come together and run west into Thunder Bay as one. So when sudden cold temperatures caused the new bridge spanning the Nipigon River to heave apart traffic was completely stopped. There was no option but retrace the miles and reroute through the United States. Truckers were not amused. 

Ouimet Canyon Provincial Park (641km/399 miles)

Ouimet Canyon Provincial Park [off highway 11/17] Follow the winding road to the parking lot and walk to the lookout where you can gaze into a spectacular gorge 150 metres wide and 100 metres deep which  stretches seemingly on forever. The gorge is so deep parts of it never see the sun so Arctic plants, generally only found 1,000 km to the north, grow on the canyon floor.

Amethyst Mine Panorama (656km/408 miles)

Amethyst Mine Panorama [left off highway 11/17 onto East Loon Road and follow it to the mine.] Amethyst is the February birthstone and the official gemstone of Ontario. For a fee you can follow a guide right into the open pit operation to see the seams being mined. Huge clusters of Amethyst ranging in size from a coffee-can-sized to shoulder height can be bought and trucked home. Of course there is also delicate jewellery for sale at this largest amethyst mine in North America.

Thunder Bay (706km/439 miles)

Thunder Bay is the biggest town for 550 km in any direction and a good place to break your journey because it offers something for every age group and every interest.

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