Hiking the Boreal Trail

posted in: ADVICE & TIPS, TRAILS & TRAVEL | 2

Hi everyone, Mac here!

First, I would like to give a big thanks to everyone who tuned into our live presentation on our Facebook page last week! The feedback was extremely generous and positive. The Boreal Trail presentation is still available for viewing on our Facebook page here: link.

This post is similarly in-depth and will cover the following topics:

  • Characteristics and attractions of the Boreal Trail
  • My favourite places to visit on-trail
  • My favourite backcountry campsites
  • Tips and challenges to consider when planning a trip here
  • Route suggestions for both day hikes and backpacking trips
  • Tips on navigation in the park
  • Some gear recommendations

I’m sure we all like to find new adventures in our own backyard, and this summer will be a particularly good one to focus on trip ideas closer to home. What if I told you that you could find abundant wildlife, varied car camping and day hiking options, AND over 150 kilometers of backcountry trail, all within a four-hour drive of Saskatoon? Interested? Have I got the place for you!

Meadow Lake Provincial Park has been one of my top locations for hiking in Saskatchewan since I first went there to hike the Boreal Trail in 2014. I had put together a team with three of my most outdoorsy friends, and set out to hike over 100 kilometers from Cold Lake to Kimball Lake in four days. It was the week of Canada Day. The days were hot, long, and buggy, which made the end-of-day swims so much sweeter. We also debated and despaired over navigating confusing trail junctions, getting lost at least once each day. It was tough, but it remains one of my favourite stories to tell.

Six years and a couple more hikes on the Boreal Trail have shown me the great successes of the trail crews working within the park. The same wilderness is there, but the multitude of backcountry campsites and new sections of trail being added each year have made it one of our province’s premier hiking destinations.

Maps, a trail guide, and all necessary information for planning a trip to Meadow Lake Provincial Park can be found at tourismsaskatchewan.com

Meadow Lake Provincial Park is located 50km north of Meadow Lake, and is near the towns of Pierceland, Goodsoil, and Dorintosh. The park and its trails stretch through the boreal forest from east to west. There are 11 backcountry sites with bear-proof food lockers, privies, and barbecues. There are also several frontcountry (car camping) campsites if you prefer the comfort of bringing a camper trailer, or just tenting close to your vehicle. The park is great for trips of any length and any type of hiking style. My style of hiking would be considered “fast and light”, where I try to simplify what I pack and hike as far as 40 km in a day. To see how I fit my gear into a 22L pack, keep an eye out for a future blog post!

NOTE: Frontcountry sites are currently operating at 50% capacity. Showers, public beaches, and concessions are currently closed due to COVID-19. For the most up-to-date information on park amenities, go to tourismsaskatchewan.com or phone the park office at 306-236-7680.

BACKOUNTRY USERS: Book permits at least ONE WEEK in advance, so the park staff can reduce potential overlap of groups staying at the same site.

I go on just about all of my trips with Megan. Bring someone to share the memories!

Wildlife and wildflowers abound in this park! During my 2.5 days in the park in early June, I saw black bears, herons, deer, beaver lodges, muskrats, pelicans, woodpeckers and various other birds I couldn’t name.

With the amount of bear tracks and scat we saw, it was only a matter of time before we saw a bear. It had no interest in us and ran off before I could take a picture.

The Boreal Trail also passes through a multi-use region. Some areas are used by cattle grazers, while other parts have trappers’ cabins and trap lines. A significant portion of the trail also overlaps with the Trans-Canada Snowmobile Trail, which lends to the wide-cut tread of the path. The trail is open to mountain bikers as well, so if you prefer to pedal rather than walk, get on out there!

Here are a few of my favourite spots along the trail:

Humphrey Tower: Located just 2.5km from Sandy Beach frontcountry campground, Humphrey tower offers an expansive overlook of the surrounding forest. Catching the sunset here is highly recommended.

Burn Section around BT 3: A forest fire scorched the region around backcountry site BT3 some years ago. The regrowth has been beautiful to track over multiple trips, and has a character that is unlike anywhere else in the park. I find this section particularly vibrant on rainy days.

Waterhen River: The trail parallels different waterways, and the western portion around BT6 overlooks the Waterhen River. I always keep an eye out for good swimming spots, and this stretch has several.

Snowmobile Chalet: About 11km from Kimball lake, there is a warm-up chalet for snowmobile users in the winter. Various old snowmobile posters line the walls. Summer trail users might take advantage of the chalet to take refuge from a thunderstorm booming overhead.

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Challenges of hiking on the Boreal Trail: Bugs, Sun, Shuttles.

As summer gets into full swing, so do the bugs and the heat. Bug pressure is already climbing, so I recommend bringing long-sleeved shirts, pants, and bug repellent. A headnet is also a worthy addition. The previously mentioned layers can also reduce UV exposure to your skin. Pack sunscreen, and look for clothing with a UPF 50+ rating.

The biggest hurdle for people planning longer trips up to a thru-hike of the entire trail (besides walking the distance of course) is arranging transportation between trailheads. There is currently no outfitter or business operating within the park to provide a shuttle service. My best recommendation is to bring two vehicles to self-shuttle with your group. Otherwise, planning an out-and-back or lollipop route is advisable. I was lucky enough to know someone in Goodsoil who could give us a ride.

Trail markers let you know that you’re still on track.

DAY HIKES: Many day options pass by backcountry sites, and are viable options for shorter overnight hikes with your group.

Humphrey Lake Trail (~5km): This trail loops from Sandy Beach campsite, around Humphrey Lake, and passes by the Humphrey Tower.

Wold Bay Trail (3km): Wolf Bay features a stunning cliffside overlook to a lake along this short loop. For overnight users, the trail to the north of Wolf Bay offers a nice day hike of its own.

Gold Creek Trail (various distances): Rides along a tall, meandering esker (a ridge of till deposited from a glacier). Passes an access point for BT5, which features a beach and a pleasant sandy-bottomed stretch of lake. Great swimming spot!

Sunset views at BT5. About 2 km from Gold Creek Trailhead.


Trip 1: Kimball Lake à Greig Lake à BT9 (27 km Lollipop)

Starting and ending at Kimball Lake, this loop and spur out to BT9 would make for a good overnight hiking trip! It’s also one of the few sections of the Boreal Trail that I haven’t hiked myself, so I’m interested to see or hear what it’s li

Trip 2: Sandy Beach à Wolf Bay (25 km one-way)

Starting from the Sandy Beach campground, you can see the Humphrey tower, dense forest, and the burn/regrowth section in just 25 km. This also features two of my preferred campsites (BT3 and Wolf Bay), depending on what pace you choose to hike. Camping may also be available at Howe Bay.

WHICH SITE SHOULD I CHOOSE? Here are some of my preferred backcountry sites.

BT3: Great river for swimming and filtering. No shade here, though. Don’t tent beside dead trees!

Wolf Bay: Dramatic views, water is okay for filtering, but not my top choice for swimming. Very short hike from trailhead. Being up and away from the water helps reduce bugs.

BT5: Nice beach, best swimming, lake views. Very close to trailhead. It looks like the trail crews have been clearing trees to develop this site, so you may need to clear deadfall before you pitch your tent.

BT6: River views, good swimming.

Honourable mention: Based on the trail guide, River Bend should be nice, and is just below a tall hill. Big views should be accessible. Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the site for myself.

Big views at the Wolf Bay campsite. A fighter jet from Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake flew overhead during lunch.

What about navigation?

When I first came out to the Boreal Trail, my navigation skills were not great. That’s why I got lost. Nowadays, the trail signage and trail markings are very clear. I would compare it to navigating major backcountry trails in Banff or Jasper National Park (Mt. Assiniboine, Skyline Trail, etc.). HOWEVER, it is the responsibility of the trail user to bring the appropriate skills and equipment to navigate under their own power. I recommend that anyone planning a trip out here has a clear understanding of their route, can read their maps, and brings those maps, a compass, and GPS (if you have one).

The park website has Google Earth printouts (see any of the trail map photos above) available for free download.

Topographical maps are available for purchase at GoTrekkers.com

You can also email MeadowLake@gov.sk.ca for a Google Earth KMZ file, which you can then import into your GPS or GPS mapping software.

What if I can’t afford a GPS?

I use the free phone app, Gaia GPS. It is available for both iPhone and Android. I can import the KMZ map file from the park service, download a section of the topographical map for offline use, and use that for backcountry navigation. The GPS function in your phone can work just fine, even when not in range of cell service. This has been helpful while canoeing up north or on more complex trail systems as well. THIS IS NOT A REPLACEMENT FOR PHYSICAL MAPS! Sometimes it is easier to do a quick location check on my phone, and this is great for that use.

Quick Gear Recommendations:

  • Long sleeves and pants for bug and sun protection
  • Head net
  • Bear spray
  • Warm summer nights mean that we can often take less insulation and still be warm.
  • A standard backpacking kit will work out here.

Day dreaming of swimming in the Cold River. The warmth of wearing longer layers was well worth the bug protection and putting on less sunscreen.

Some questions from the live presentation:

How warm of a sleeping bag should I take? I took a quilt suitable for -7oC, but my girlfriend was completely comfortable in her 0oC sleeping bag. Many people buy one 3-Season bag for

Should I take shoes or boots? Take what you normally would wear when hiking! Much of the trail is very gentle and easy on the feet. If you would be comfortable taking trail runners or other sneakers on most of your hikes, go for it. My friends wore anything from trail runners and hiking shoes to full boots. The terrain is similar to the Grey Owl’s Cabin hike or to Eb’s Trails near Duck lake. Soft, forest floor is the norm here.

Can I store food and gear in a bear locker, drive to a different spot, and hike TO that food/gear? Out of respect for the park staff and anyone else needing to use the bear lockers, please do not store food and gear to be picked up partway through your trip.

What is my gearlist for this trip? That’s coming up next on the blog!

If you have other questions, comment down below!

Thanks for reading!


2 Responses

  1. Rebecca

    Hey! Thanks for the info. Unfortunately I missed the live presentation. I was wondering if there is a handy map that shows the distance between each camp site and which camp sites offer front country services. We are hoping to squeeze in this weekend to do a full through hike in five-ish days but am having a difficult time finding all the information I need to plan it out. Is the full trail 120km or 150km? Is the trail an out and back trail or would we need a ride back from one end to the other?
    Thank you!!

    • kelsey

      Hey Rebecca,

      https://www.tourismsaskatchewan.com/tsfiledload/Boreal_Trail_Guide_2017.pdf (satellite map)
      https://irp-cdn.multiscreensite.com/d85061fb/files/uploaded/Boreal%20Trail%20Guide.pdf (topo map)
      this link has a decent map with information on each section. Any of the sites labeled “BT#” are the boreal trail back country sites then the front country sites are just called their name example- sandy beach is a front country spot. There will be a price difference between front country spots and back country spots so beware of that. The trail is one way and you would need to arrange some sort of shuttle (either taking two cars and parking them at the start and finish or if you happen to know someone in the area, at this time we are unaware of anyone who is operating a shuttle.) If you wanted to do a there and back the length would be double, which makes for a pretty long trip but not completely undoable. The trail is 120km but there is always options to add extra dat hikes onto especially near the kimball lake side to increase the distance. I hope this helps some and answers a few of your questions.