To get from Thunder Bay to Niagara Falls there are two choices staying within Canada. One can either follow the #17 Highway which hugs the lakes and eventually come out near Sault Ste Marie (1132 km/703m) or one can take #11 which goes north through the Pijitawabik Palisades for about 60 km and then head in an arc to the east and then south east (1101km/684m). Both highways meet at North Bay, north of Toronto. There are advantages and disadvantages to each route and the difference in distance is insignificant.
The advantage of the northern route is that it is generally flat and level and doesn’t have a lot of traffic. What little traffic we saw was semi trucks. Once you are on the North Bay half of the route there are many small communities. The northernmost section goes through some empty wild lands where there are very few services, some fishing lodges, lumber camps and mining areas. This includes one 200km stretch with no place to get gas. The route goes through the stunningly beautiful Pijitawabik Palisades. All along the route are picnic/rest stops, most of which are fine for boon docking. There are a few campgrounds but all of them are closed by October. Plan on boon docking. This is also far enough north that it is possible to get a wicked early fall blizzard and some really nasty cold weather so be prepared for that as well. Also both routes hug lakes and so you can expect patches of fog, sometimes very thick.
The Lakes route has the advantage of many small towns, long stretches of gorgeous views out onto the lake as you go up and down along the coast. The drive is much more challenging but there are many more places to stop for gas and lots of charming small towns with places to spend money in. Again the campgrounds are all closed by October. We have driven both routes many times over the years. The American route which goes around via Duluth and the northern area above Lake Michigan and Lake Huron is longer by about 200 km (124m) and somewhat in between the two routes for the challenge of the drive, and the scenery. The American route has some campground open late to accommodate hunters. When pulling a trailer I prefer the #11 northern route. Except for the stretch through the Pijitawabik palisades and another stretch over some glacial ridges north of North Bay, there is very little up or down shifting.
Having been through the Rockies, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Grand Canyon and some of the other fancier spots in the USA I have to say this rugged northern route has some scenes as lovely as any of them. Apparently, no famous country music or folk singer ever drove the route, nor have any movies been made here, and so there is no mystique or familiarity. Most people have never heard of such natural wonders as the Pijitawabik Palisades or Ouimet Canyon. The area was created by a combination of rift valley, volcanic activity, and glacial action so if you are a geology buff this place is a wonder and a joy. You can rock climb here and there are trails in the palisades.
Most people have no idea you can go to an amethyst mine here and pick whatever amethyst you can carry for a modest fee. A chance to see the stunning carved amethyst figures in the gift shop is worth the trip all by itself. The same folks that carve jade also carve amethyst and the deep rich purple in jewelry and figurines is beyond beautiful. Most roadside shops also sell amethyst.
Our trip was uneventful. We boondocked one night at a combination of gas station/campground/general store/restaurant known as Opaz Gas & Outdoor Store in the tiny town of Opasatika. Because the hook ups (including electric) were shut off for the season the owner let us stay for free and use the WIFI. The route has a lot of wildlife and many Moose Crossing signs. We did not see any moose but they are a real hazard after dark. We then drove to Temagami where an incoming storm with heavy rain and high winds forced us to stop. After a couple of hours, the giant low pressure system developed an open central eye that was relatively calm with wind advisories for the entire next day. So we decided to drive flat out until the weather stopped us or we finally got to a full service campground. We made it to Campark in Niagara falls at about 1:30am. Today we’re sitting in the relative shelter under a wind warning with running water, electricity and a sewer hook up. Nothing like five days of boon docking to make you appreciate the amenities of a full service campground.
One fun note, if you are a fan of the great Canadian children’s poet and author of Jelly Belly Dennis Lee you’ll get to recite the list of Ontario place names he uses in his poems because you are driving through a lot of them.
Some pictures from our trip, starting with the Pijitawabik Palisades:
And yes we saw snow.
A typical picnic spot. Only a few of these are marked no overnight camping. You can boondock in many good spots along this route.
Typical small business on the more remote section of the trip. This one is a combination of general store, hunting and fishing outfitters, and a place to get propane and gas. There was a 200 km stretch of no gas just past this place.
A very typical small town statue lending a little whimsy to life.