Heaven’s Gate Trail – One of Ontario’s Best Kept Secrets
I always forget how much I value the wide open space of Northeastern Ontario until I’m no longer in it. Cities—particularly the ones in different parts of the world—can make me claustrophobic and anxious. I realize then how much I long for the ample trees, lakes, and rocks of my childhood home.
Leaving for another continent in a few short weeks, I felt a greedy sense of urgency to get as much Northeastern Ontario outdoor time as possible.
One hastily planned RideShare later and I was enroute from Ottawa to my hometown of Sudbury. That’s where I’d meet my friend Geoff, and we’d head off to hike one of Northeastern Ontario’s best kept secrets: the Heaven’s Gate Trail.
The Heaven’s Gate Trail runs along the ridge of the La Cloche Mountains, the white quartzite hills that jut out of the Canadian Shield just west of Espanola. While the mountain range is most commonly explored by hikers walking The Crack or La Cloche Silhouette Trail in Killarney Provincial Park, the Heaven’s Gate Trail offers the same stunning views with a few key perks: it’s free, it’s closer to Sudbury, and it’s much less travelled.
It was Thanksgiving weekend and the fall colours were already spectacular as we wound down Highway 6 and off along Bay of Islands Drive. I couldn’t wait to hit the trail—a restlessness that could be blamed on either the copious gummy candy we ate that morning or, more likely, that multi-day hikes are my kryptonite. Autumn is the best time of year to hike in Northern Ontario: not too hot, not too cold. But most importantly, the black flies and mosquitos have retired for the season.
The entire Heaven’s Gate Trail stretches from Sagamok First Nation to just outside Willisville, an estimated 40km with a different start and finish point. We didn’t have two cars so Geoff and I chose an in-and-out route: 40km over three days that would take us as far as Wright’s Lake and back out again.
One of the loveliest parts of the Heaven’s Gate Trail is its biodiversity. The trail weaves you through the heart of the hills—into maple groves, birch forests, and up to Group of Seven-worthy vistas. Eating lunch at the top of one of many quartzite scrambles, I had the happy task of choosing my view: the North Channel of Lake Huron or the brightly-coloured cauliflower tops of the deciduous trees that spilled into the valley below.
We reached our first night’s campsite just as the day was turning golden.
Wright’s Lake is small compared to some of the other bodies of water that render this part of the Canadian Shield into a wedge of swiss cheese. While you can see the edge of the lake in its entirety from the shore, the best way to explore is in a canoe. Luckily there just happened to be a few of them untied and begging to be taken out onto the water.
Apparently my temporary farewell to Northern Ontario would be met by the most generic of Canadian stereotypes.
The canoes were summer season hangovers from Camp Manitou, a kids summer camp just a short portage from our evening camping spot. Paddling to the middle of the lake, we could see the route we took to get there, and the trail we would have taken had we started at the original trailhead.
That night we ate dinner next to the campfire and stared up at the Milky Way, shooting stars, and satellites speckling the night sky. You can’t see this in the city.
The rest of the hiking trip articulated those exact thoughts—moments of seclusion, beauty, and the vastness of the bush around me.
After sleeping the second night in the shell of a cabin along Florence Lake, we spent the first few hours of the day summiting Northern Ontario’s very own Mount Ararat. It was a circuitous route that spiralled up the peak via young maple trees, blown down forests, and superfluously placed cairns.
The scene from the top of Mount Ararat was one of Northern Ontario splendour. Down below was Florence and Alexander lakes and a split in the bush where Lake of Bays Drive ran thin through the trees. It was a perfectly clear day and in the distance was the North Channel, Manitoulin Island, and the faint outline of the Niagara escarpment. It was an ombre of geographic diversity.
This is what I miss when I leave Northern Ontario: the accessibility with which you can feel tiny while standing amidst nature. It’s a feeling I’ll yearn for until I can return home again and venture back to the Heaven’s Gate Trail and beyond.