I think it’s fair to say that Saskatchewan is best known for prairie landscape and open skies. But did you know the boreal forest in the north offers a completely different experience? This fall, I travelled to Prince Albert National Park to hike the iconic Grey Owl Trail with some outdoorsy friends. Honestly, it’s gotta be one of the best hikes near Saskatoon. I haven’t stopped talking about it since!
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About Grey Owl Trail
Location: Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan
Distance: 42 km out and back
Difficulty: Moderate to difficult
Elevation: 260 metre gain
Time: 2 days
Dog-friendly: Yes, but dogs must be kept on a leash.
Features: Grey Owl Trail is an iconic multi-day hike with several campground options along Kingsmere Lake. You’ll find multiple lookouts and beach access points to get close to Kingsmere. However, this trail’s popularity largely comes from Grey Owl’s Cabin at the end. Ajawaan Lake offers a scenic view as well, especially in the evening light. Grey Owl’s Trail is easily one of the top hikes in Saskatchewan.
Finding the Trailhead
Locating the trailhead for Grey Owl Trail is quite straightforward. If you’re coming from Saskatoon, drive north on Highway 11 until Prince Albert and then continue north on Highway 2. About 75 km after Prince Albert, head west on Highway 264 until reaching Waskesui Lake (both the name of the town and the large lake in Prince Albert National Park). Highway 264 turns into Kingsmere Road, which stretches about 33 km to the Kingsmere parking lot. If you need it, there’s an outhouse next to the parking area. This is also the boat launch for Kingsmere Lake.
Booking Backcountry Campsites
Unlike other Parks Canada campsites, Prince Albert National Park’s backcountry sites can only be reserved in-person. Further, all backcountry campgrounds require same-day bookings. So planning a PANP backcountry trip is somewhat risky, as you might not gain access to the sites you want. That’s why I recommend coming prepared with a plan B (and even C), especially during peak season. Thankfully, Labour Day weekend wasn’t too busy and campsites were available.
At the visitor centre in Waskesui, book your campsites and get your backcountry permit. You’ll also need a Parks Canada Discovery Pass or a day pass for park use. This pass can be purchased online or at the visitor centre.
Pro Tip: Call the Parks Canada Visitor Centre in Waskesui at (306) 663-4522 the day before your trip to find out what sites are available. That might help you determine the likelihood of booking your desired campsite.
2-Day Grey Owl Trail Itinerary
Our Grey Owl backpacking trip was just two days. If you can swing it, consider planning a longer trip to enjoy the dense forest and easy lake access. But if you’re strapped for time, a two-day trip can be just as rejuvinating.
This was our 2-day itinerary on the Grey Owl Trail:
Day 1: Trailhead to Northend Campground (18 KM) and roundtrip to Grey Owl’s Cabin (6 KM)
Day 2: Northend Campground to Trailhead (18 KM)
While we only stayed at Northend, there are a few other campground options as well. Therefore, this could easily become a three to four-day backpacking trip.
|0||Grey Owl Trailhead|
|3.3||Westwind Group Campground|
|6.7||Chipewyan Portage Campground|
|12.8||Sandy Beach Campground|
|19.8||Grey Owl’s Cabin|
Day 1: Trailhead to Northend Campground (18 KM)
After reserving our campsites, we started hiking on Saturday around 10:30am. Not a bad start to the Labour Day weekend, with crisp fall air and leaves beginning to turn. We hiked from the trailhead to Northend Campground in about 6 hours, including a lunch break and plenty of photos. By the time we arrived at camp, there wasn’t too much daylight to waste. We quickly set up tents, stored our food in the cache, ditched our weighty packs (I brought this one), and hastily left for Grey Owl’s Cabin.
Northend to Grey Owl’s Cabin (6 KM)
It’s about 3 km one way from Northend Campground to Grey Owl’s Cabin. If you go all the way to Northend, you gotta keep going to the cabin. This slice of history attracts plenty of attention, but you have to work to get here. As Grey Owl writes, “Far enough away to gain seclusion, yet within reach of those whose genuine interest prompts them to make the trip, Beaver Lodge extends a welcome to you if your heart is right.”
So who was Grey Owl? Well, for starters, Archibald Stansfeld Belaney (or Grey Owl) is often called Canada’s first naturalist, a trailblazing conservationist, and… an imposter. For much of his life, Archibald portrayed himself as Indigenous, which is more than a little controversial. Born in England in 1888, he moved to Canada at age 17, married an Ojibwa woman, and pursued the life he’d seemingly always wanted. Hunting, trapping, and canoeing his days away in northern Ontario. He later moved to Ajawaan Lake in Saskatchewan. Despite the controversy, Grey Owl is credited with saving the Canadian beaver from extinction.
Grey Owl’s Cabin certainly makes a picturesque destination. When you walk inside, you’ll see the spot where two beavers, Jelly Roll and Rawhide, stayed with Grey Owl and his wife, Anahareo. There’s a second cabin up on the hill, where Anahareo lived when she was tired of living with beavers.
Tenting at Northend Campground
I’d highly recommend staying at Northend Campground. You’ll be able to book exact campsites but it’s difficult to tell which campsites are which with unclear signage. Even so, we found a place to sleep. There are four individual campsites (two single, two double) and a group camping area as well. Northend is by far the largest and most well-equipped campground on the trail, with two outhouses, fire pits and firewood, a food storage platform, and a rain shelter. But most impressive were the stars over Kingsmere Lake; best and brightest I’ve seen in years!
If you can’t book Northend, Sandy Beach isn’t a bad option. You could set up camp and do the roundtrip to Grey Owl’s Cabin in a day. Then hike out the next day or enjoy more time on the trail.
Day 2: Northend Campground to Trailhead (18 KM)
After a good rest at Northend, we packed our gear and started the 18 km journey back to the trailhead. I planned to paddle the Bagwa Canoe Route later that day, so I was glad for the early start. The three of us left around 9:30am and arrived in the parking lot before 3:00pm. Give yourself 5 to 6 hours to complete this stretch.
Know Before You Go
Bugs: Several sources have confirmed that autumn may be preferable to summer in Prince Albert National Park. Why’s that? One word. Mosquitoes…. If you decide to visit in the summer months, bring a bug jacket and mosquito repellent along. We saw very few bugs during our September visit. The weather was perfect and the bugs were few!
Paddling: While Grey Owl makes a great backpacking trail, it’s also possible to reach these campsites from the water. If you’re a paddler, pack your canoe or kayak and head up the east side of Kingsmere lake for some great camping. Parks Canada recommends 3 hours (on a calm day) to paddle to Northend Campground. You could even portage 600 metres to Ajawaan Lake to complete the journey to Grey Owl’s Cabin.
Leave No Trace: Remember to pack out all your garbage and leave no trace on the trail. Outhouses can be used for gray water disposal. And please, always pick up after your pet. I recommend bringing a smell-proof bag to pack out the poo.
Safety: As always, it’s important to come prepared with the right gear. In the shoulder season, bring multiple layers, including an insulated jacket for the cooler evenings (I use this one). Also, black bears frequent the trail; we saw a big pile of fresh scat. Bring bear spray and know how to use it.
Map of Grey Owl Trail
Have you hiked Grey Owl Trail in Prince Albert National Park? What was your experience like? Leave a comment below!
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