A magical lookout high above the largest freshwater lake on the planet. A beautiful and easy hike along quiet, rocky beaches that reveals crystal clear water and a stunning rock arch jutting out into Lake Superior. Bountiful and beautiful white-tailed deer grazing in deep green forests.
If Sleeping Giant Provincial Park was a few degrees south of latitude it might be the most visited park in Ontario. Instead, it’s something of a well, sleeping giant, an amazing and powerful and evocative and beautiful headland that stretches out into the majesty that is Lake Superior.
I arrive on a perfect, 20 degree day in June, with a high overhead cloud and an incredible stillness in the air and on a body of water not exactly known for its pacific nature. I drive along the quiet, two-lane road that passes through a large part of the park, then turned onto the dirt road that leads to the Thunder Bay lookout.
It’s only about 9 km to the top on a road that rises and falls through a thick forest. I spot several white-tailed deer and a small black bear in the area.
But it’s the lookout that grabs you. Some brave person has built a platform that juts out several meters from the rock face, leaving viewers (if they choose to go out that far) suspended some 100 meters above the Lake Superior shoreline, which stretches off to both sides. Off to the northwest (the lookout is on the north side of the peninsula, roughly halfway down its sizeable length) you can see Thunder Bay. To the northeast lies Caribou Island and the village of Amethyst Harbour.
You can gaze down at water hundreds of meters away and practically count the fish swimming near shore. But it’s the flat, still water and the distant highlands of the north shore of Superior that have me mesmerized.
A few minutes drive back down the hill and a few more bashful deer later, I pull into a small parking area for something called Plantain Lane. It’s maybe 100 meters down a dirt path to a pretty wooden bridge. If you clamber down the bank a bit you’ll be rewarded with the pure, melodic and ancient sound of crystal clear water tumbling over rocks worn smooth with eons of time. Moss grows thick and heavy on exposed tree branches and rocks on this late spring day, and I spend 10 minutes utterly entranced.
From there I head down to check out Silver Islet, a former silver mining community. On the way I pass through a series of cottages that were here before the park existed. Families use them still, and they’re utterly charming. Not fancy. Not in the least. But looking very much well-loved and appreciated, with a small beach at one end and lovely views of distant islets.
I stop to admire the names of some of them, including Green Gables and Happy Go Lucky. I imagine myself camped out on the front porch as the sun settles in and the mist rises off the lake, a cup of coffee in hand and a full summer’s day ahead of me.
I’d been told by a local to check out the Sea Lion trail, so I park my car in a nearby lot and head down a wide, dirt road that passes through shady forests. I spot more white-tailed deer, including a doe and her fawn that dash away into the brush before I can get my camera powered up.
The road leads to a small, pretty bay with large, black-grey-brown rocks lining the lake shore. Off in the distance, on the other side, I see the lower half of the Sleeping Giant, so named because the peninsula from a distance looks very much like a large fellow lying on his back.
The trail isn’t so well marked at first, but after a few metres I find myself on a pretty beach lined with pale and dark grey rocks; worn smooth from endless rain and ice and snow and perfect for skipping across the water on a calm day like this. Lovers have scratched their names onto rocks and placed them in a sort of shrine at one end of the beach. Further down I spot pretty pieces of spiky, bleached driftwood and a large rock embedded in the ground that looks very much like our fanciful design for a human heart.
A couple and their German Shepherd appear out of nowhere, and the dog makes a mad dash into the cool, clear water, slurping up a tiny section of Lake Superior before bounding back to the beach.
I hike on a bit further, up a small incline, and spot a dark green metal railing. Off to one side is the Sea Lion itself, a remarkable arch of rock that pokes out into the lake and has a hollow middle you could swim or paddle through.
It’s a beautiful sight, a narrow band of rock that towers over the water and looks a bit like a sea lion (the resemblance was stronger a few years ago, until the “head” of the animal tumbled off into the lake.) The rock is covered with bright orange bands of what appear to be iron or perhaps plant life, as well as soft green lichen or moss.
As pretty as the arch is, the shoreline to the east is almost as beguiling; with huge dark cliffs that plunge into the lake and see-through water in shades of blue and green that feel more like the Caribbean than Canada.
I don’t have time for much more exploration of the giant, but there are tons of great trails to be found. There also are a number of campsites, although the best ones fill up fast with visitors from southern Ontario or locals from the Thunder Bay area. Americans in nearby Duluth, Minnesota also make a beeline for Sleeping Giant in summer.
There are several other wondrous parks and natural sites in and around Thunder Bay. Just a few minutes from where the road to Sleeping Giant turns off from the Trans Canada Highway is Ouimet Canyon, another area that not enough folks in Toronto or the GTA hear enough about. It’s a gorgeous, wide canyon that sweeps its way from near the shores of Lake Superior and far up into the hills. The silence is all-enveloping and wonderful from the main viewing area, about a 20-minute walk from the parking lot.
The bottom of the canyon is a micro-climate of its own; cold and forbidding and more like the Arctic than this part of northern Ontario.
If you’re more into action sports than sweeping vistas, the folks at Eagle Canyon Adventures (http://www.eaglecanyonadventures.ca/) have a zipline and a suspension bridge, both said to be the longest in Canada.
On the other side of Thunder Bay is the roaring Kakabeka Falls, sometimes called the Niagara of the North. It’s not nearly as high as Niagara, but it’s a tremendously powerful and beautiful waterfall that roars its way south through a canyon on its way to Lake Superior. There are lovely and relatively easy walks all around, and a visitors centre that explains the topography.
Thunder Bay has had some hard times, but folks up here are tough, and the downtown is definitely on the upswing.
Tomlin is a relatively new restaurant on Red River Road, near the waterfront and the venerable Prince Arthur Hotel. It’s a lovely space with an urban Toronto feel. They make their own charcuterie in house, but I was probably even more impressed with the cavatelli pasta, served with luscious, shredded lamb, mint, toasted sunflower seeds and small green peas. The fried chicken was moist and tender, accompanied by roasted corn slathered with a spicy aioli, coriander and lime.
They serve mostly Ontario wines and beers, including locally made Sleeping Giant Brewery products. They make a wonderful IPA that’s just short of being too hoppy.
Bight, a successful and bright spot on the sparkling new waterfront, makes very good curry but also an excellent pizza with spicy meats and roasted kale and broccoli. For lunch, Sweet North makes a variety of great sandwiches on pretzel-bread. One local I know swears by the prosciutto and gouda pretzel for breakfast, along with a cup of their strong coffee.
Hoito is a legendary restaurant started by Finnish-Canadians, who have a strong presence in this part of Ontario. The pancakes are made in a crepe style and fill you up perfectly. The décor is simple and homespun, but that’s part of the charm.
One fun stop if the weather isn’t cooperating is the Thunder Bay Museum, with wonderful exhibits on First Nations people and European settlers. There’s a great video that recounts the days during World War II when women were hired on to make war planes at the Canadian Car and Foundry Company.
The chief engineer was a woman, too, Elsie MacGill, sometimes called the Queen of the Hurricanes (the planes they built). Not only did she have to overcome sexism, she overcame a bout with polio early in her life, and still rose to a position of enormous importance. There was even a comic book made in her image.
You’ll hear interesting testimony during the video about the hardships the women endured from a traditionally male work force. But there also are some fun bits, including a part where one of the women workers confesses to taking her tools and welding one troublemaking fellow’s lunch pail to a steel post.
The Valhalla Inn makes a fine stop for a few nights in Thunder Bay, with a couple restaurants featuring friendly service and an indoor pool and sauna. At breakfast, The Northerner features two large eggs, home fries, toast, bacon or sausage and two giant blueberry pancakes. For $10.50! It’s also literally around the corner from the Thunder Bay Airport, making your arrival or departure from town a real snap.
The aforementioned Prince Arthur Hotel isn’t fancy, but it’s clean, it’s got a great location near the water and the lobby has old-time style to spare.
One remarkable option is to stay the night at Porphyry Island Lighthouse. You have to get there by boat or plane, but you get to stay in a beautiful lighthouse on the shores of one of the greatest lakes on the planet.
Locals are hoping to make a similar option soon for the Thunder Bay Lighthouse, which sits on the edge of the city’s massive harbour.
And don’t forget the wonderful Terry Fox monument east of Thunder Bay, a testimony to a remarkable Canadian.
This post was originally filed for Ontario Tourism, which paid for my trip, meals and accommodations.