The Stepping Stones Trails


hiking and Exploring a new trail on my birthday!



Every year for my birthday, I like to do something fun with my family and friends. In recent years I’ve tried to do some sort of outdoor activity. So when my birthday was coming up in December 2020, I decided it might be nice to spend a good part of the day hiking!

I wanted to hike somewhere different if I could, and try a new trail. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I couldn’t travel too far, but there were still quite a few trails not far from home that I actually haven’t explored yet!

One trail that came to mind was the Stepping Stones Trails. I had first heard about this trail network a couple years ago. A photographer had posted a few photos taken along the trails in one of the local photography Facebook groups that I’m a part of. Over the next couple years every so often something would pop up online about the trails.

So I decided that we would go hiking along the Stepping Stones Trails on my birthday and see what they were all about! I had to do a little research online first to find out exactly where the trailhead was and how to access it. There didn’t seem to be too much information online about it.

I learned that the Stepping Stones Trails were located east of North Bay, Ontario, near the far west end of the Mattawa River. People could access the main trailhead by taking Centennial Crescent north from the Highway 17 intersection, turn right on MacPherson Drive, and follow that road to the end to the boat launch parking lot. They could then park there and walk the short distance down Stepping Stones Lane where they would find the trailhead at the dead end of the road.

Once we had figured out exactly where to go, we headed off after lunch on my birthday to the Stepping Stones Trails. We parked in the boat launch parking lot and then walked up the road to the dead end. A small flock of Evening Grosbeaks greeted us as we followed a path through the snowbank at the end of the road down into the trees.

I had not been able to find a map of the trail network online so I was happy to see that there was a map and sign posted on a tree right at the start of the trail.

After looking at the map, the Stepping Stones Trails network was a lot more extensive than I ordinally guessed. There was several different trails that looped around through the forest, along the Mattawa River, and around small lakes and marshy areas. The trails were located on both the Mattawa River Provincial Park and some crown land, but are not official trails in the Ontario Parks system. The majority of the trails were only accessible to hikers and snowshoers, but a few sections of the trail further south and east were accessible to ATVer’s as well.

I took a photo of the map with my phone and then noticed that the map had a QR code on it, so I was able to download a better quaility copy of the map directly to my phone. There was also an email address on the map for if you wanted to contact the people who maintain the trail for more information or to request a GPS data version of the map.

I had not had the chance to see much of the western end of the Mattawa River before, so we decided to follow a section of trail down along the river for a while and then loop up around across another trail through the forest and back to the trailhead. This loop would be about 2.8km long.

We would be hiking just a short loop today, but given the amount of trail throughout the entire Stepping Stones Trails network, you could easily spend the entire day hiking there!

We started off down the trail and quicky noticed how well packed it was. This must be a popular hiking spot for locals and the trail must see regular use everyday. It was packed hard enough that you could walk with just boots with ease, which was good to know since we didn’t have snowshoes.

We passed the first fork in the trail which headed off to the right, we stayed left. The sections of the trail where another trail would branch off of were marked very well. They either had a colour or number, the name of that section of trail, or even had a copy of the map posted so you could see where you were.

There was lots of activity in the forest on this day. Lots of birds, a woodpecker, squirrels, deer tracks across the trail. It was quiet through the trees, a fluffy fresh blanket of snow muffling out sound. We saw no other people during the entire hike.

The trail wound it’s way down towards the Mattawa River. The river was frozen over with just a light dusting of snow on top.

The land along the river here was fairly low compared to what I have seen down river from here, where towering cliffs rise from the river. Tall pines stood on top of snow covered rocky shorelines, and a Bald Eagle flew high above the north shoreline.

From this section of the trail we could now see where the trail had got it’s name from, the Stepping Stones. The Stepping Stones are a band of large boulders stretching most of the way across a narrow section of the Mattawa River, just down stream from the MacPherson Drive boat launch, where the river begins, flowing out of Trout Lake. The smaller stones and sand of a glacial moraine had been washed away over the years, leaving the larger stones behind. Even though the river was frozen over, you could still see the rocks, the Stepping Stones, sticking up out across the river.

As the trail continued on I was really impressed with what I had seen so far! Not only was the trail marked and packed really well, it closely followed the river offering beautiful views!

I find that some trails that follow waterways do not always stick closely to the shoreline and you only get maybe a few views here and there. This trail rarely veered away from the river into the forest.

Not knowing hardly anything about the Stepping Stones Trails network prior to hiking it, I had wondered if it might be a fairly easy and level trail. From what I seen on the map it looks like some sections may be a lot more level and easier to hike, but this section of the trail along the river offered some steeper climbs and descents, and crossed over rocky outcrops. It reminded me very much of the Etienne Trail System in Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park, which also follows along the Mattawa River. I enjoy hiking any type of trail, but I especially enjoy trails that are a little more challenging, so this was fun!

As we hiked along I could just imagine how nice this trail would be during summer and fall. It was beautiful enough during winter, but when the river was thawed and the forest green, the rocks along the shoreline fully visible, it must really be a special place! Along with the pines there was also lots of deciduous trees as well, and it must be quite colourful once the leaves begin to change during fall.

Looking back up river there was some interesting looking dark clouds and blue sky which reflected on the frozen river below. It had been a mostly sunny day with some odd clouds here and there.

We had reached the next fork in the trail and would now have to leave the Mattawa River views to follow the trail up through the forest and around.

This new section of trail brought us away from the river and up into a very snowy forest! The trees were weighted down with a heavy blanket of snow. It was a real winter wonderland!

The trail continued up and up and was quite steep through one section. We arrived at another fork and took the trail to the right which would take us back to the trailhead. This section was a lot more level.

The trail continued to wind it’s way around the snow covered trees and the forest was much more dense.

We crossed a few small creeks that bubbled across the trail. During the first section of trail, lower down along the river, we had crossed over these creeks as well.

The late afternoon sun lowering in the sky was casting a golden glow through the trees, and the sky was very blue. We found our way back to the first fork in the trail we had passed, and were now hiking back out along the way we came in.

We made one last stop along the trail to look at some beautiful hoar frost forming on the side of a small boardwalk over a creek, before arriving back out at the trailhead and making our way back to the parking lot.

It had been a very enjoyable hike! The perfect way to spend my birthday outdoors!

A couple days after hiking the Stepping Stones Trails I decided to send an email to the email address on the trail map to let them know how much I enjoyed the trail network. I was also curious to learn more about the history of the trails.

Chris Holmes sent me an email back shortly after. In 1990 Chris, who lives in the area, started this trail network project along with a few neighbours who also enjoyed a nice walk in the woods. Since there were a number of pre existing portage trails, hunters trails, and old logging trails, they set out to clear a simple pathway between some of these trails in order to avoid bushwhacking their way around.

As the years progressed and more people found the trails enjoyable, they started to envision more of a loop type of trail network. After years of volunteer work, the trails are now in great shape, are well marked, and have their own map. Chris frequently guides trail hikes for individuals and organizations to encourage public access and appreciation of this pristine natural environment. He can be contacted by email at mattawarivertrails@gmail.com.

Just as I was publishing this blog post I learned that the Stepping Stones Trails does have a website now! Chris and the other volunteers recently set up a website for visitors to get maps, apps, and trail info. They are encouraging visitors to sign the log book and add their comments.  You can visit the website at https://sites.google.com/view/steppingstonestrails .

I want to thank Chris and the others who have helped to develop and maintain this great set of trails! They have done an awesome job and have created something really special for all to enjoy!

I really enjoyed hiking the Steeping Stones Trails and am looking forward to return there to hike again, especially during the summer and fall to experience the trail network in other seasons! What an amazing new place to explore!


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