North of Superior
From Marathon to Thunder Bay, route 17 runs generally along the north shore of Lake Superior. There are plenty of impressive overlooks of the lake, the surrounding forest and the Casque Islands. There is also a provincial park roughly every half-hour or so across the entire section. If you visited all of them it could easily take three or four days to get to Thunder Bay. The good news is that a pass at any of them is good for the entire day in all of them.
Up first is Aguasabon Falls which isn't really a park, it's just an overlook and the falls themselves. Located just at the west end of the town of Terrace Bay this is one of the bigger volume falls around Lake Superior although at this time, this is as close as you can get to it. It appeared there either once was or will be a trail down closer to the falls from this platform.
A bit further west from Terrace Bay is Rainbow Falls Provincial Park. The park centers around an inland lake although the namesake series of falls are found on the outlet river. The 'trail' here is actually a cross between a boardwalk and a staircase. There are several river access points though where you can fall into the river and injure yourself should you be so inclined.
To be honest, we have no idea which of these might be Rainbow Falls itself. There isn't really one standout waterfall, or maybe we somehow failed to find it. Either way it's an easy short hike. The Voyageur Trail, which is anything but an easy short hike connects to the Rainbow Falls Trail here and runs along Lake Superior opposite the Casque Isles. Ultimately the Voyageur Trail is intended to run from Manitoulin Island to Thunder Bay.
This is the sort of thing you pass along the roadside and then stop and turn around and come back to so that you can take a picture like this. We didn't spend much time in Nipigon proper which is sandwiched between highway 17 and the lake, so this is our token Nipigon picture.
A few miles north of 17 en route to Ouimet Canyon we came across several black bear cubs. As far as we can tell this is not a bear-free zone (see Pukaskwa page) so they're perfectly welcome to be here.
Ouimet Canyon is probably not among the top sites in Ontario for most people but it absolutely should be. Most of the park itself protects this enormous canyon which is off limits without special permission. The geography here allows arctic plants to survive at this latitude so the canyon floor is particularly sensitive. From the parking lot, a series of loop trails cross another smaller but still impressive canyon before approaching the observation decks. The decks, as you can see here, project out into the canyon rather alarmingly. The two decks are the only viewpoints into the canyon.
We would've like to spend more time here and read some of the exhibits in detail. However while we were standing out on this promontory a fast moving thunderstorm came along. This is clearly an extremely bad place to be during a thunderstorm with frequent lightning. If you run, you can get back to the car in about 10 minutes from here but it will seem like much longer with all the lightning. The good news is that it counted as the first shower we'd had in a couple days.
Next park for us was Sleeping Giant which occupies most of a large peninsula that juts into Lake Superior and forms the eastern side of Thunder Bay. There are dozens of trails in Sleeping Giant covering a variety of terrains. We focused on those that offered good moose viewing in an attempt to finally find a moose. We found quite a lot of deer but not a single moose.
This is moose-free Gardner Lake. A rather unusual thing about Sleeping Giant is that all the park services are at the south end of the peninsula. By the time you've reached anything where you might obtain information about the park or the hiking trails, you've passed most of them.
From Thunder Bay (the city), looking across Thunder Bay (the water) it doesn't take too much imagination to see why Sleeping Giant has the name it does. That would be the head on the left. We spent an evening in Thunder Bay which is more like a collection of small towns than one large centralized city. There are however all the services you could possibly want if you've been camping your way across western Ontario.
Just west of Thunder Bay is Kakabeka Falls. It's practically visible from the highway after passing through the little tourist village of Kakabeka. In late June when we visited, it was not yet the high season so most shops and restaurants were still closed including those within the park. There's a campground upstream of the falls but it's so close to the highway that we were a little hesitant about staying there. What really convinced us not to stay there was the fact that it cost nearly as much for a primitive campsite (no hookups, pit toilets only, no showers) as it did to stay in a motel in Thunder Bay.
If you're heading around Lake Superior counter-clockwise, you'll be off to Minnesota from Kakabeka. We highly recommend the back roads if you're not pressed for time. There are several roads from Kakabeka that go south to the little crossroads of Gillies, or to the Finnish immigrant founded town of Nolalu. From there, it's pretty much unpaved, unsigned roads but the terrain pretty much forces everything back to the coast, so as long as you keep going south and east you'll hit route 61 somewhere north of the national border. We only had to give up and backtrack twice. The border crossing at Grand Portage is not a very large one. There were no other cars in sight when we crossed, which was a nice change from Sault Sainte Marie.