The Wild West vs. the Reserved North

I’ve been a keen observer of discussions about the increasing levels of use in the Adirondack backcountry over the last few years. Back in the early 1970s, when I started my love affair with the Adirondacks, we would frequently see one or two other parties over a whole weekend. But by the end of the 1980s I had pretty much sworn off hiking in the High Peaks, because of the lack of solitude and the difficulty finding good campsites. For me, sharing the summit with one hundred other people wasn’t my idea of a desired experience.

Now, after a seven-day backcountry canoe trip in Algonquin Park in Ontario, I gained a few experiences I would like to share with you. In particular, the reservation system used there is quite a contrast to the “wild west” system used in the Adirondack Park. Both systems have pros and cons, but as someone accustomed to the “wild west” way of doing things, I thought it was interesting to experience a different system.

I visited Algonquin Park many years ago as a teenager, and it’s been a long term goal to get back there again. So a while back, I bought a guidebook and started planning… but we all know what happened to our plans back in 2020.

Once the border reopened I renewed my planning in earnest, and quickly found out that one couldn’t simply arrive, put your boat in the water, and venture out into the wilderness like we do in New York — where even signing the trailhead register is optional.

Almost any kind of backcountry experience in Algonquin requires some kind of permit. You need to reserve campsites and parking spots. In addition, since Algonquin is such a popular destination, you need to make plans well in advance.

End of a Good Day

Paddle Planning

I should clarify: you don’t actually reserve specific campsites in advance, but you do need to choose a pond or lake — and then camp on any available site on that waterbody. For multi-day backcountry trips, this means you need to figure out your route before making your reservations, and then commit to a day-by-day plan. Once you pull the trigger, your plan can be changed, but it costs money to do so. And once you are on the trip itself you are very unlikely to have a cell phone signal, so there is really no chance to alter your reservations once you start.

On the other hand, you do know that a campsite is waiting for you once you reach your destination. The trick is figuring out how far you can get every day. For this, I used a great website called, which lets you pick a route on their online map and then estimate the time you will spend paddling and portaging. (You can enter your estimated paddling speed to customize the calculation.) I decided I wanted to spend about four hours a day traveling, leaving the rest of the time for unexpected things: exploring, fishing, and reading.

I also knew I wanted an itinerary that spanned seven days and six nights. After a few fun hours on Paddle Planner, I had a route that seemed to work out, so the next step was to make my reservations. The Ontario Parks reservation system makes that part fairly simple, but you quickly learn that some of the places you thought were the best stopping points are already filled up. This was generally true of the smaller ponds which had only 2-3 campsites. So I changed my plans a little, making some days a little longer and some shorter.

Now all I had to do was wait a few months and see how it would all work out.

Calm Waters

Calm Water and Dry Portages

My week in Algonquin turned out to be perhaps the nicest seven days in a row I’ve ever had outdoors. The wind was light and the waves were minimal; the days were warm, but not hot; and there was zero rain until the last two hours of the trip. I was able to make great time on the water and on the nice, dry portage trails. In general, I didn’t mind having most of the afternoon and evening to relax and explore around my campsite.

The only problem with my plan was that the second-to-last day was just too short. I was at my campsite by 10 am and there were not a lot of interesting places to explore nearby. Since I was limited to camping at that pond — and couldn’t paddle for a couple more hours and pick a campsite at another location — I decided to simply paddle all the way out. This was a little disappointing, but a good lesson learned for the next trip.

The trip ended up being the best-case scenario for making progress along my route. When I planned it, I had no idea if there would be winds, waves, or heavy rain. When I set my paddling goals for a day, I deliberately left lots of time to take longer routes to avoid dangerous conditions, or to simply wait out bad weather. None of this proved necessary, and as I mentioned above I had lots of extra time for exploring, reading or just enjoying some downtime.

To summarize the pros and cons of each system:

Algonquin Reservation System1 – Guaranteed camping spot
2 – Campsites are very well spaced out and on excellent spots
3 – Very good tools for planning and reserving
4 – Fees help fund campsite maintenance
1 – Must plan far in advance
2 – Must stick to a set itinerary
3 – Costs a little money
4 – No guarantee the dates you picked in advance will be during good weather
5 – Visitor use planners get lots of data about how the park is used
ADK Peaks1 – Just show up and go where you like
2 – Change your plans with no consequences
3 – Free
1 – The place you want to camp might be full, requiring last-minute re-plans
2 – Parking lots can be full, requiring last minute re-plans
3 – Some places can get very crowded even if you get a campsite
4 – Park planners have very little data about usage
Algonquin Sunset

Looking back on this experience compared to outings in high-demand places in the Adirondacks, I think I prefer the Algonquin system. It certainly imposes some constraints on you, but all-in-all it seems to do a good job of preventing lakes from getting overcrowded and guaranteeing that you will get a prime camping spot. There are fees, but they are fairly reasonable, and seem like a good way to fund the reservation system and perhaps some of the maintenance of campsites and privies.

I know not everyone will agree with this approach. Hopefully this short summary of one experience is useful as we explore ways to deal with the ever-increasing popularity of backcountry travel. What do you think? Feel free to comment or tweet at me @craigmcg.

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