Our Travels: All Aboard!
Fond memories of a spectacular fall foliage train tour
What better way to see the amazing fall colours in Agawa Canyon in northern Ontario than aboard a train?
In October 2012, to mark our 33rd anniversary, my wife Doreen and I fulfilled a long-anticipated dream by taking the Agawa Canyon Fall Colours Train Tour, run by the Algoma Central Railway. We’d previously taken Via Rail’s “The Canadian“from Toronto to Vancouver and back, and we were looking forward to this shorter but highly scenic trip as part of a longer vacation coming up through Michigan. We were both recently retired and enjoying the fruits of extended leisure time!
We arrived in Sault Ste. Marie, known to most as “The Soo,” late on October 2 and boarded the train the next morning for the 8 a.m. departure. It was almost the last train of the season, which runs from about mid-june to mid-october. The day before had been very wet, but our travel day dawned sunny and mild with brilliant blue skies—ideal for photography, my passion.
Soon, the two engines began chugging, pulling the carriages out of The Soo and north towards the canyon, 185 kilometres away. An onboard narration system controlled through the magic of GPS provided ongoing commentary as we entered the wild country along the tracks.
It was spectacular, to say the least. As civilization quickly melted out of sight behind us, the Canadian Shield opened in front. Forests of mixed hardwoods, evergreens and shrubbery provided immense splashes of fall colours, with birches, maples, aspens, firs, pines and cedars competing to outdo one another. The blue of passing lakes reflected the multi-hued forests and the brilliant sky above. Early-morning fog provided some wonderful photo ops but soon gave way to sparkling, clear views.
Although reservations are recommended, the cars on our trip were not overly crowded, allowing us to pingpong across the aisle to take in different views of the passing countryside. A camera mounted on the front engine was displayed on monitors inside each car.
We passed numerous cottages along the line, which provides the only land access to the camps. The Agawa Canyon train doesn’t pick up passengers at track-side, but other Algoma trains provide whistle-stop service for campers, hunters and cottagers.
While most views are of the interior countryside, there are some of Lake Superior along Agawa Bay. All along the route the track twists around bends, sometimes allowing you to photograph the long curving line of cars and engines ahead of and behind you. One spectacular point comes as the train crosses a large hydroelectric dam and trestle at Montreal Falls. There
are lakes and rivers everywhere, all providing incredibly scenic views for the camera enthusiast, or just for gazing at.
About halfway to the canyon, we noticed a helicopter flying parallel to the train, which followed us all the way to the end with a film crew hanging out the open door. We subsequently saw some of this footage on TV in tourism commercials.
Just after noon, after a long gradual descent, the train pulled into the Agawa Canyon Wilderness Park. We were now in a crack in the Earth formed 1.2 billion years ago, and shaped and smoothed during the last ice age “only” 10,000 years ago! The tour gives you 90 minutes to visit three waterfalls and a viewing platform 76 metres and more than 300 steps atop a nearby canyon outcrop. Although the organizers advise that you might not be able to visit all scenic points, we were determined to see everything.
The climb to the lookout was challenging. While Doreen waited halfway up at an intermediate lookout, I managed to get to the top in good time to take in the incredible panoramic view of the train, the Agawa River and the valley below. It was hard to stop taking photos and make the descent.
From there, we travelled a smooth, goldenleaved trail to visit the 53-metre-high north and south Black Beaver Falls along the canyon’s west side. It is an easy trail to walk, and very calming as you pass an old wooden root cellar partially buried in the hillside, a newer park cabin and small rills providing a musical note to your walk. We prevailed on a fellow passenger to take a snap of the two of us at the north falls and then headed on to the much larger, 68-metre Bridal Veil Falls across the river. A convenient boardwalk and viewing platform are situated to provide an excellent vista.
From there, you take a lovely riverside walk back to the train platform, where an old railcar has been converted into a souvenir store, and picnic benches allow you to catch your breath and have a bite to eat before boarding for the return journey. We even saw a couple canoeing down the river, adding a nice touch to the scene.
The climb to the lookout on the cliff was strenuous, but it was not that hard to take in all the sights during the 90-minute stop without feeling overly rushed. If you have mobility issues, you won’t be able to see everything, but the whole experience is rejuvenating. You should also check the forecast for the day of your visit and dress comfortably for the weather—and for some moderate hiking.
While we were making our trek, the train crew turned the seats around and the engines reversed positions, hooking on to what was the rear of the train. This ensured a continuing first-class view on the trip back to The Soo.
The train comes with dining facilities and even a bar, but we opted to bring our own lunch to eat in the park, so we could spend our time sightseeing along the full route. Including the hour and a half stop, it’s a ten-hour day. While most of it is aboard the train, you can move around somewhat and the vistas along the line are anything but boring! Small children may find it quite a long day, so it would be wise to bring distractions for them.
The trip is not inexpensive when you factor in travel and hotel costs, but to us, it was well worth it to visit this remote corner of Canada and see its diverse beauty in all its fall splendour. Travelling by train is hassle-free, comfortable and very convenient, offering plenty of viewing opportunities that would be almost impossible to get any other way. n
Clockwise from top: an incredible view of Agawa Canyon from the high observation lookout more than 75 metres above the park; the hydro dam over the Montreal River provides an amazing view of the trestle, dam and the train you’re riding in; the Agawa Canyon train readying for departure!
Doreen and Tim, shown here with Black Beaver Falls (north) behind them.