The Best Hike in the Agawa Canyon

Hike the Towab trail, often called the Agawa Falls trail, to get up close with this natural wonder of Lake Superior Provincial Park.

Despite the Group of Seven's documented explorations of the Agawa Canyon, I can’t help but think Canada’s greatest landscape painters overlooked one of Northern Ontario’s singular highlights: The 25-metre-tall plume of Agawa Falls. This secretive treasure is my objective on an overnight hike on Lake Superior Provincial Park’s Towab Trail, commonly known as the Agawa Falls trail.

Find Your Way - Towab Trail Map

Towab Trailhead sign with map and trail information
It's one of the best fall hikes in Ontario.

I set off early. It’s a 12-km hike to the falls on a footpath that’s often steep and rocky—rated as one of the park’s toughest trails. The first hour on the Towab trail to Agawa Falls, however, belies what’s to come, as it wanders through gently rolling terrain and a forest of massive yellow birch and white pine to the Agawa River’s swirling Burnt Rock Pool.

Arriving at the river, I get my first glimpse of the Agawa Canyon, a 150-metre-deep cleft carved out of the surrounding terrain. On this autumn morning, the hardwoods on the walls of the gorge are flaming red and orange, interspersed with the drab grey of stalwart granite. It’s no wonder the fall colours of the Agawa canyon are one of Northern Ontario’s most popular tourist attractions.

The Group of Seven Painted Here

Decades before the popular tour train began whisking thousands of people per year into the depths of one Ontario’s greatest natural wonders, some of Canada’s most famous landscape painters rode the rails deep into the Ontario wilderness and defined a new style of art. Between 1918 and 1922, Lawren Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer and Frank Johnston—members of the legendary Group of Seven—travelled on the Algoma Central Railway and drew the rugged hillsides, waterfalls, and autumn colours of Algoma. They spent their days sketching from canoes and hiking to elevated viewpoints. MacDonald’s Solemn Land, Lismer’s Somber Hill, Algoma, Harris’ Algoma Waterfall, and Jackson’s First Snow, Algoma are the notable results of this definitive era of painting.

River meanders in front of a steep rock wall
The fall colours in Agawa canyon inspired The Group of Seven

The artists’ journals documented their travels and sense of awe for a landscape that remains unchanged and can still be seen today. MacDonald called the Agawa Canyon “the original site of the Garden of Eden.” The painters repurposed a red boxcar as a mobile studio and bunkhouse and used a hand-pump railcar for sketching missions. Many of the paintings displayed in the Group of Seven’s breakout exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto in 1920 were inspired by their “boxcar trips.”

Highlights Along the Towab Trail to Agawa Falls

Reflection of yellow leaves in water
Reflections of gold on blue waters are beautiful

Heading upriver from Burnt Rock Pool, the trail turns rugged and I wonder if the artists could have lugged their pallets, easels, and sketching equipment had they tried. There’s a distinct feeling of yo-yoing up and down as I tiptoe across slippery rocks and step over swift-flowing tributaries, trying to focus on my footing and not the spectacular scenery just visible through the fall colours. I’m travelling as light as possible with minimal gear—a tarp for sleeping and a small pot to cook over the fire—and I’m thrilled to come across an open gravel bar with copious driftwood to set up camp. The river flows swiftly beneath tall pines clinging to the steep west bank.

Two hikers carrying  small backpacks looking into forest
Stop and enjoy the fall colours in the Agawa canyon

After a snack I drop my backpack and walk the final kilometre of Towab trail to Agawa Falls. I hear the booming thunder of the falls long before I see it, and my pace quickens involuntarily. For all the noise and falling mist, the cascade takes a long time to appear. Finally, I’m overwhelmed by a sense of discovery when I round a bend in the trail and take in a clear view of Agawa Falls. I’m mesmerized as I watch the water fall over the edge and plummet deep into a rockbound and perpetually misty gorge.

Large waterfalls
Feel the power of the falls.

That evening, lounging by my campfire, I wonder how the Group of Seven overlooked the sublime sight of Agawa Falls. Their canvases capture the calm waters of the upper river, the same area that’s visited by the tour train. It’s a worthy destination, to be sure, but nothing like what I witnessed travelling under my own power today.

Pot hanging over campfire
Enjoy backcountry camping in Lake Superior Provincial Park

As if cheery flames, a chattering river, sore muscles and the prospect of a night under the stars isn’t enough, I’m overjoyed by the sensation of uncovering the Agawa Canyon’s deepest secret.

How to experience the Towab Trail to Agawa Falls

The closest large city is Sault Ste. Marie. From Sault Ste. Marie, travel north on Hwy 17 for about an hour and a half until you hit Lake Superior Provincial Park. After stopping at the Agawa Bay Visitor Centre, travel a few kilometers north and take the well-signed Frater Road. Here you will find the trailhead and Towab Trail Map.

FInd places to stay, eat and shop in Sault Ste. Marie and Algoma Country

About Conor Mihell

Conor Mihell is an award-winning environmental and adventure travel writer based in Sault Ste. Marie. Read his work in the Globe and Mail, Explore, Cottage Life, Canoe & Kayak, ON Nature, and other magazines and newspapers. He's been a sea kayak guide on Lake Superior for close to 20 years, and has paddled from Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay. 

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