Long before the world’s largest freshwater lake was known as Lake Superior, it was called gichi-gami. From Ojibwe, this translates to “great sea.” It’s a perfect name. If someone dropped you into a Lake Superior road trip without context, you could easily mistake it for an ocean. From its shores, the only hint that the sea is thousands of kilometres away is the lack of salt in the air.
The north shore of Superior is expansive, spectacular, unspoiled, and untamed. The 700 kilometres of roads between its bookend cities of Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay are devoid of luxury resorts and golf courses. Instead, this region beckons us with breathtaking landscapes, family-owned accommodations and artisan markets, awe-inspiring nature experiences, and opportunities to learn from the Anishinaabe people who for centuries have called Superior’s shores home.
Curious about camping on Lake Superior? Check out our camping-based Lake Superior itinerary >
2019 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 and 2017 Airstream Flying Cloud CB19
A new generation of Chevrolet Colorado launched for 2023, but this is one of several extended road trips we took with the second-generation version. Here, we used it to tow a 19-foot trailer, the 2017 Airstream Flying Cloud CB19.
In ZR2 guise, the 2019 Colorado was up for just about anything we could throw at it. The truck is rated to tow up to 10,300 pounds in this configuration, which is more than enough for this 4,500 lb Airstream trailer on paper. In practice, the 3.6-litre normally aspirated V6 and its 308 hp and 275 lb-ft of torque handled the trailer just fine.
It was helped by the eight-speed transmission, which keeps the engine rotating comfortably in the 2,500 to 3,000 rpm range in tow-haul mode. A little more power would have been nice, but it wasn’t strictly necessary. And those magical Multimatic dampers that come with the ZR2 trim somehow keep the cabin comfortable and stable in just about every situation.
There are a couple of minor downsides of towing a trailer this size with a smaller truck. The trailer is the wider of the two, so we needed mirror extenders to get a good view down the sides and they tended to vibrate at highway speed. And our fuel economy was pretty horrific at an average of 19.7 L/100 km over 4,000 km of driving.
I’ve done significantly better in larger V8-powered trucks, so it’s clear this V6 was being taxed at times. But for the Colorado ZR2’s lower up-front price of $55,760 new and the all-around capability it boasts the rest of the time, it’s a fair trade if towing is not your top priority.
The trailer is sold today under Airstream’s Caravel line. It was provided for evaluation by Canada’s top Airstream dealer, Can-AM RV in London, Ontario. To this day, my daughter and I still recall it as one of our all-time best camping experiences. This trailer’s layout is extremely roomy for two and could easily accommodate a young family of four. And for drivers who want to maneuver without intricate advance planning, 19 feet is exactly the right length for getting in and out of tight spots. In short, the Airstream dream is well-founded.
Don’t have an RV? Here’s how to convert your SUV into a camper for two >
Beginning your Superior drive
If you live in any of the closest major Canadian cities to Lake Superior, you’ll need a full day to reach its shores. From Toronto, it will take you 7.5 hours to reach Sault Ste. Marie, while driving from Ottawa will take roughly 8 hours. From Winnipeg, it will take 8 hours to arrive in Thunder Bay.
This drive is presented in order from east to west, as most road trippers would when approaching from Southern Ontario. If you’re arriving from the west (as we did when we passed through here on our way back from Manitoba), you’ll encounter these sites in reverse order.
Sault Ste. Marie: A Superior Gateway
At the point where Lake Superior narrows and eventually empties into Lake Huron, you’ll find the city of Sault Ste. Marie. The Soo has long been a critically important shipping thoroughfare, a heritage that’s open to be explored at the Sault Ste. Marie Canal National Historic Site.
If you have time on your way into town, Fort St. Joseph National Historic Site sits at the southernmost point of St. Joseph Island just outside the city. The pastoral drive across the island, the ruins of Upper Canada’s most westerly fort, and the chance to hike to where there two Great Lakes meet make for an educational day-long side trip.
If you want to see Lake Superior at the earliest opportunity, take Highway 550 west out of town to see Whitefish Bay from the Gros Cap Bluffs. But this isn’t strictly necessary: head north on the Trans-Canada Highway, and it won’t be long before gichi-gami dominates your roadside views.
Pancake Bay Provincial Park
Located roughly an hour north of Sault Ste. Marie, Pancake Bay Provincial Park has hundreds of campsites and is wildly popular for its three-kilometre-long beach. Were it not for the pine trees, you might be convinced you’d been transported directly to the Caribbean.
Recently, though, the park has become home to a new legacy. Two kilometres down the highway from the main entrance, you’ll find the trailhead for the Edmund Fitzgerald Lookout Trail. This trail now not only offers a chance to honour one of Superior’s most infamous shipwrecks, but also the Canadian bard who shared its story with the world through song.
Gordon Lightfoot, the folk singer who famously penned the song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, passed away in May 2023 at the age of 84. By following the trail to the lookout, you can look across Whitefish Bay to a spot north-northwest of Michigan’s Whitefish Point. There, the American freighter the SS Edmund Fitzgerald went down on November 10, 1975. The incident took her crew of 29 and inspired the iconic song that became part of Lightfoot’s legacy.
The entire trail is 14 kilometres long and can take up to seven hours to complete. However, if you hike directly to see the panoramic views from the lookout platforms, the return trip covers a seven-kilometre loop. This takes two to three hours depending on your pace. It’s an intermediate-to-difficult trail, rough and soggy in sections but well-marked. (Expect plenty of mosquitoes, and bring more bug spray than you think you’ll need.)
Lake Superior Provincial Park
A drive on Highway 17 will inevitably take you through Lake Superior Provincial Park. Plan to take your time for this portion of the drive: it’s just as picturesque as Canada’s famous coastal roads.
When you’re heading northbound, the first major sector of the park you’ll encounter is Agawa Bay. Stop in at the visitor centre to pay for your entrance permit and, if you’re a collector, pick up your park crest. (If you’re approaching the park from the north, bring cash: you’ll need to buy a permit at one of the self-serve kiosks.)
Agawa Bay is best known for the Agawa Rock Pictographs. A short but demanding hike takes you to a granite cliff face. The Ojibwe have been visiting this place for centuries, leaving evidence in the form of paintings. If the water level is low, you may be able to walk out and see several paintings from the shore. If it’s higher, you may need to get wet and use the chains provided to climb across the rocks. Either way, it’s important to be respectful. The Ojibwe consider this a sacred place.
Another popular stop within the park is Old Woman Bay. It’s named after the profile of a face in a distant cliff at the edge of the bay. It’s a beautiful place to stop for a peaceful walk along a tree-lined beach.
Wawa and White River
Just after you leave Lake Superior Provincial Park to the north, the Trans-Canada Highway veers inland. It stays there for nearly 200 kilometres, offering several interesting stops along the way.
The town of Wawa’s name translates to “wild goose” in Ojibwe. This explains the iconic statue of a Canada goose that welcomes visitors at the junction of the Trans-Canada Highway and Highway 101. Another famous Canadian folk singer, Stompin’ Tom Connors, sang about her in a song called Little Wawa. She watches over the section of the Trans-Canada that completed the route around Lake Superior when it opened in 1960.
Before then, people had to pass through the area by train. This brings us to another famous location, roughly an hour up the road in White River. An orphaned black bear cub was purchased on the town’s train station platform for $20 in 1914 by a British veterinarian named Lt. Harry Colebourn. He named her Winnie and took her back to England, where she became a favourite exhibit at the London Zoo.
One young boy, Christopher Robin Milne, took a particular liking to Winnie. Their relationship inspired his father, A.A. Milne, to write the book Winnie-the-Pooh. Thus, one of the world’s most beloved children’s characters was born. Did you know Winnie-the-Pooh was Canadian?
Pukaskwa National Park
As you drive through Wawa and White River, you’re passing to the east of Pukaskwa National Park. To reach the park by road, you’ll approach it from the north. When the Trans-Canada meets the lake again just east of Marathon, you’ll turn south onto Highway 627. After driving through Pic River First Nation, you’ll reach the main gate and Hattie Cove Campground.
Pukaskwa National Park, pronounced “PUCK-uh-saw,” is one of the most underappreciated gems of Canada’s national park system. Fewer than 20,000 people visit annually on average. Demand is low enough that traditional campsites in Hattie Cove Campground are first come, first stay. (If you’d like to have a secure booking before arriving, Hattie Cove has five oTENTik sites available.)
Hikers and paddlers of all ages will consider Pukaskwa to be paradise. Several one to three-hour hikes start from the Hattie Cove campground. We chose two short hikes.
The Fire Trail starts near the visitor centre and is dotted with interpretive panels that explain how a deliberate lit forest fire is helping conservation experts learn about natural renewal processes.
The Manito Miikana trail is an intermediate one to two-hour hike to a pair of observation decks over Lake Superior. On the way, you’ll see the signature rocky outcroppings and windswept pines of the Canadian Shield.
Paddlers can put into Hattie Cove from the base of the south campground. This is a serene portion of Lake Superior that’s protected from its harsher elements. The Boardwalk Beach trail leads to Horseshoe Beach, where the sheltered waters are warm enough for swimming later in the summer.
Those with more time to invest can try the White River Suspension Bridge trail. It takes a full day to complete the eight- to nine-hour, 18 km hike. At the end, you’ll reach a suspension bridge that hangs 23 metres above the Chigamiwinigum Falls!
The park also offers several ways to learn about Indigenous culture. The Bimose Kinoomagewnan trail is a two-hour hike around Halfway Lake. Bimose Kinoomagewnan means “Walk of Teachings” in Ojibwe. Along this hike you’ll learn about the Seven Grandfather Teachings and read stories from elders about love, honesty, respect, wisdom, truth, humility, and bravery in local culture.
The Anishinaabe camp, located near the visitor centre, hosts weekly interpretive events. These offer a chance to hear from local residents about their culture and traditional practices. An Anishinaabe drum circle, led by a Pic River First Nation resident, took place during our visit.
She started with a smudging ceremony and then invited us to drum along as she sang traditional music about Seven Grandfather Teachings. She ended by serving a healing cedar tea made from boughs plucked with offering and gratitude from a tree nearby. It’s a precious opportunity to learn and engage in the important process of reconciliation.
Pukaskwa National Park’s season runs from mid-May to October. An August visit provides a better chance for warmer waters and relief from mosquitoes. But whenever you visit, you’ll find it’s a jewel more of us should take the time to appreciate.
Neys Provincial Park
Once you leave Pukaskwa National Park and rejoin the Trans-Canada, you’ve traveled roughly half the distance between Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay. From here, much of Superior’s shoreline is protected by either federal or provincial parks.
The first such space you’ll encounter heading west is Neys Provincial Park, just west of Marathon. Prisoner Cove offers another beautiful swimming beach. Its name comes from a fascinating history. Between 1941 and 1946, this land was a World War II prisoner-of-war camp. A few small remnants of the camp remain in the campground today.
Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area
Just over half an hour to the west of Neys is the next-closest major settlement, Terrace Bay. The shoreline here marks the start of the waters protected by Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area. This area extends from here to the end of the Sibley Peninsula near Thunder Bay and south to the U.S. border. Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area is one of the largest federally protected sections of fresh water on the planet. It protects hundreds of species and the area’s water quality, which is critical to the health of all of the Great Lakes.
Start your visit to the NMCA by dropping in at the visitor centre at Terrace Bay. If you’ve got kids along, have them pick up the Parks Canada Xplorers booklet. This will offer some great suggestions for places to visit along the way to make the most of the area’s offerings. You can also pick up maps for the extensive network of hiking trails available along the coastline.
One of the Xplorers activities suggests visiting the beach in the village of Schreiber. It’s a beautiful pebbled beach with accessibility paths. In Rossport you can walk a portion of the coastal trail, see the colourful B&Bs, and take a sea kayaking excursion. (Note this is sea kayaking as the waters can be quite rough, and foul weather can cause departures to be cancelled. Unfortunately, this happened to us during our stay.)
Your Xplorers will want to stop in Nipigon to climb the observation tower and pick up their reward medallions from the visitor centre. Nearby, a 12-station playground takes young visitors through the adventures of Paddle-to-the-Sea. Don’t miss the Red Rock Marina Interpretive Centre, where kids can go critter dipping and check out a submarine simulation.
Sleeping Giant and Terry Fox: Canadian Giants
A giant sleeps on the Sibley Peninsula. This is the view from the west in the city of Thunder Bay, where the source of the name Sleeping Giant Provincial Park comes into focus. In Ojibwe legend, this giant is the spirit of the deep-sea water named Nanabijou. He turned to stone after white men learned the location of the rich silver mine that lays at his feet. That mine at Silver Islet operated for 16 years and was flooded by Lake Superior in 1884. Sleeping Giant is renowned among hikers for its variety of hiking opportunities, from simple forest dog runs to strenuous treks to the tops of the cliffsides.
Between the park and the city of Thunder Bay, amid the area’s abundant amethyst mines, you’ll find the Terry Fox memorial. A likeness of Terry Fox, running as he did during his Marathon of Hope to raise funds for cancer research, looks over Superior from a hillside just off the Trans-Canada Highway. This memorial sits less than two kilometres from where the Marathon of Hope ended abruptly on September 1, 1980, at milepost 3,339. It’s a fitting honour for a man who inspired all of Canada with his courage in the face of the cancer that ultimately took his life.
Less than an hour south of Thunder Bay, Highway 61 guides travelers to the Minnesota border. This crossing marks the westernmost Canadian point of the Lake Superior coast.
While in Thunder Bay, head a half hour west to Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park. This park is often dubbed the Niagara of the North, but its spectacular waterfall is much more pristine and unspoiled. An overnight camping trip offers ample opportunity to explore the falls and the surrounding boardwalks.
From here, you can continue into Minnesota or west into Manitoba. If you’ll be returning to the east, this is one drive you won’t mind seeing twice on one trip. You also have the option to return via Highway 11 for a different perspective. We drove the full length of Highway 11 in July 2019. Click here to read more about our Highway 11 road trip.
Our visit to the Lake Superior north shore originally took place in July 2019 (read the original story at autoTRADER.ca).