Sudbury·Backroads Bill

Agawa Canyon train takes visitors through brilliant fall foliage

CBC Sudbury's outdoor columnist Backroads Bill has a few ideas for seeing the fall colours in northeastern Ontario.

The Algoma Highlands in the fall was the backdrop for many of the Group of Seven paintings

The Agawa Canyon Tour Train is a one-day wilderness excursion north of Sault Ste. Marie that flourishes during the fall colours. (supplied)

If you are looking for an accessible fall colours wilderness experience the Agawa Canyon Tour Train is at the top of world's list of unique excursions.

The one-day excursion takes you 114 miles (railways use Imperial units) north of Sault Ste. Marie, over towering trestles, alongside picturesque northern lakes and rivers and through the rugged granite formations and the mixed forests of the Canadian Shield.

It was what the Group of Seven used as a backdrop for their panoramic masterpieces featuring the brilliant fall colours of the Algoma Highlands. 

Backroads Bill Steer (Supplied by Bill Steer)

You have an hour and a half at the destination park to visit the three waterfalls and climb 300 steps to a lookout to admire the rock walls of the Agawa Canyon. 

Algoma Country is now ablaze with colour and the train has been a favourite way for "leaf peepers" to experience some of the most spectacular fall colours anywhere.

Kevin Lucas has helped a good portion of the more than three million riders get off and back on the train. He has worked at the Agawa Canyon Park for 29 years as a park technician. 

He has seen the heyday of the train where 1500 visitors would arrive; now it is approximately 700. 

"It is the busiest 90 minutes in a wilderness setting you would ever want to see and be a part of. At one time there were 12 employees stationed in the Park, working shifts, now there are five."

The Camp Car was an option to stay in the Park but it has been cancelled; the operating schedule has also been reduced. 

You could also visit the canyon by another train. There is the regular passenger train service that links Hearst to Sault Ste. Marie 296 miles (476 km) to the north, operating three times per week, north and south.

Unlike the one-day Agawa Canyon Tour Train, which travels non-stop to the canyon, you will be travelling on a unique service "milk run" or "flag line" that picks up and drops off passengers at any mile point.

The fall colours in Agawa Canyon north of Sault Ste Marie. (supplied/Bill Steer)

This year the line celebrated a century of operations. But changes are in the offing.

The winter Agawa Canyon Snow Train was cancelled last year. At the same time, CN announced the last run of the passenger train for April 30.

The line would no longer qualify for the federal "Remote Passenger Rail Program." It was a $2.2 million investment.

Ridership from 2005 to 2013 has ranged from a low of 5,166 passengers in 2013 to a high of 12,640 passengers in 2005.

In the interim, a comprehensive economic impact assessment was undertaken by a regional working group of stakeholders, including the Sault Ste. Marie Economic Development Corporation.

The report points out, "...the potential loss of the passenger rail service...may contribute to the eventual termination of the Agawa Canyon Tour Train."

Currently, stakeholders are looking for a "third party" interested in operating the passenger service.

CN issued a separate Expression of Interest to run the regional tourist attraction.

Linda Savory-Gordon is a member the Coalition for Algoma Passenger Train, part of the regional working group.

"The line is underutilized, she said. "There are many ecotourism opportunities and the line needs proper promotion."

 As an example, she cited the canyon park where there is extensive space and facilities for camping, which is not encouraged. The Park is a surveyed parcel of land and is also owned by CN. Currently there are two campsites at each end of the property.

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      Passenger trains cost more to operate than freight trains that generate revenue. At the same time, the study concluded the "benefits of the investments outweigh the costs."

      A one-year extension of the subsidy has been granted and the search for new operators continues.

      Another way into the canyon

      Ninety minutes is not a lot of time to see the beauty that awaits you in the canyon.

      You can also hike in. Not many undertake this option. Along the way you can then see Agawa Falls, the second highest waterfall, next to Niagara Falls. It has a straight drop and is truly magnificent, one of the best in Northern Ontario. 

      You can then walk into the canyon to camp and take the needed time to enjoy the setting. Stay off the tracks!

      The hike in has two options. Board the passenger train in Sault Ste. Marie and ask for a ticket to Mileage 107 this will get you within approximately 600 metres of Agawa Falls, not seen from the train.

      Check the winter and summer schedules for the train going north one day and then returning, the next. 

      See www.agawacanyontourtrain.com for the seasonal train schedules .

      Look for the blue hiking symbol or the flagging tape on the north or left side of the track, among the balsam fir trees. The descending trail to the falls is very visible (This is WGS 84 16T E685723 and N5250044 or N47° 22.647' W84° 32.379'). 

      Bridal Veil Falls in Agawa Canyon. (supplied/Bill Steer)

      Alternatively you can drive into Mileage 103 on the line via the Frater Road, opposite the Agawa Bay Campground within Lake Superior Provincial Park. Walk north to Mileage 107 and access the falls and then another five miles to the Canyon. Again, stay off the tracks!

      Yes, you can also take your canoe on the passenger train, disembark at the Canyon or Sand Lake (Mileage 136) and make your way down stream to Lake Superior Provincial Park to the campground (56 km – 35 miles; 4-5 days).

      It is time to ride the trains or walk in and camp before the autumn season ends or circumstances change. The colours are worth it — the Group of Seven thought so.

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