Joe Lake is one of the busiest and most accessible lakes in the Park. Separated from the Canoe Lake access point by 4 kilometers of paddling and a 300 meter stroll of a portage, Joe is an ideal spot for first timers, young families and people who want a backcountry canoe trip without really leaving the front country.
Depending on the conditions on Canoe Lake, it’s about an hour paddle from the access point to the Joe Lake portage. Once you’re over the portage (which is effectively a short, flat road through the trees), Joe Lake offers plenty of campsite options (provided you get there early enough to beat the crowd).
Joe is a big lake. It’s broken into two segments for reservation purposes: the western narrows and the eastern arm. It’s about four kilometers of paddling to get from the end of the Joe Lake portage to the end of the eastern arm, but it’s not a straight shot. The western half of the lake is dominated by a large island that’s home to a couple of cottage leases, a couple of campsites and one of my favourite spots the in the Park, the Joe Lake jumping cliffs. The eastern half doglegs away from the western basin and gradually narrows as you approach the next lake to the east, Little Joe Lake.
Joe has plenty of campsites to choose from. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll have much of a choice when you arrive there, particularly if your visit is in July and August or on a long weekend. Joe is consistently booked through the summer months, meaning that you likely have to arrive mid-week (or get really lucky) to snag one of the better sites. The good news is that there are very few sites on Joe that would really disappoint, so even if you don’t grab a top tier spot (looking at you Western Arm sites 2 and 4), you will probably end up with something workable.
I’ve visited most of the sites on Joe, and those I haven’t actually set foot on I’ve been able to check out multiple times as I paddled past. As a result, I’ve got a pretty clear hierarchy in my head of sites I’d want to stay on (and sites I’d want to avoid) if I somehow managed to get my pick of the lake.
My favorite site is site 2 on Joe’s western arm. It’s a massive rock face of a site sitting on Joe’s north shore. It’s got tons of space to spread out and really nice views in every direction (except north, unless your idea of a nice view is the forest directly behind your site). It’s also nice and close to Joe Island and those jumping cliffs I mentioned. You could easily paddle over for an hour of cliff jumping and be back on site well before lunch. The only downside to this site is that it is probably the most visible spot on the lake. If you’re a fan of wandering around your site naked, this is probably not the one to do it on as anyone paddling past, or staying on a nearby site, will have a front row seat to the show.
Site 4 in the western arm is also a great spot to spend a night or two. It’s not as open as site 2, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s still big enough for a large group and it’s got a nice fire pit and swimming area. A particular highlight for me is a west facing rock ledge that makes for a great spot to sit and watch the sunset or use as a spot to slip in for a swim. As an added bonus, the area directly behind the fire pit area has quite a few nicely spaced trees, which make for a good spot to hang a tarp in the event that you stay on this site during an apparent monsoon (if there’s any downfall to the site it’s that I couldn’t figure out how to turn off the rain while we were staying there).
Rounding out my top three is site 12, also on the western arm. I’ll be honest, I don’t even know if this should properly count as a Joe Lake site or a Tepee Lake site (Tepee is the lake that’s just north of Joe Lake and connects by a short narrows). The majority of the site looks out onto Tepee Lake from the south, but my understanding is that the sites that qualify as Tepee Lake sites are the ones at the north end along what is actually the Little Oxtongue River (so, to recap: this Joe Lake site is on Tepee Lake and every Tepee Lake site is on the Little Oxtongue River and up is down). So, assuming site 12 is actually a Joe Lake site, it’s worth checking out. It’s another larger site, with plenty of flat ground and a really nice view across Tepee. The swimming area is shallow and sandy to start, making for a great spot to wade into the water. The only downside would be that it’s in full view, and earshot, of Camp Arowhon, which sits on Tepee’s western shore, so this wouldn’t be an ideal spot from a peace and quiet standpoint (although, really, you can say the same about any campsite on Joe. Joe Lake is busy).
Sites to Avoid
Like I said off the top, there aren’t that many sites on Joe Lake that I’d actively avoid. That said, the three sites that line the western shore and look across to the Joe Lake cliffs (sites 9, 10 and 11) would be my last picks for an overnight. There’s nothing wrong with these sites, per se. They’ve accessible, flat and don’t have any swinging log traps or hidden spear pits. But they’re not very inspiring, either. They’re all pretty small, without a ton of room to spread out. The shoreline here is kind of mucky, which makes the swimming kind of mucky as well. On the plus side, they’ve each got great proximity to the cliffs, but that’s about all they have going for them.
The other site I wasn’t blown away by, but for different reasons, is the western arm, site 6. On the surface, this is a decent spot. It’s on the east side of the western basin and is somewhat removed from the rest of the campsites. This, plus a well treed shoreline, provides a bit of privacy. It’s got a good amount of flat space for tents, and a nice fire pit area (complete with some cool relics of the Park’s past in the form of some old concrete foundations). However, what it also has is a ton of grass. And that grass, at least in June and July, is home to a ton of mosquitoes. This would be a great spot later in the year, but I would avoid it like the plague before mid-August. I made the mistake of visiting it in late June and lasted about three minutes before the swarms drove me off.
You’ll have noticed that all the sites I’ve talked about in depth are on the western half of Joe Lake. I’ve found the sites along the eastern arm to all be variations on the theme of “this is a decent to good spot to stay for a night”. There aren’t any that I’d actively avoid, and there aren’t any that I’d really try and target. In general, I’d be happy to stay on each of them.
Things to Do
One of the nice things about Joe Lake is that it’s not short of things to do. The Joe Lake cliffs on the western island are my favourite feature. The cliffs face west, and offer multiple levels for cliff jumping that range from a kid friendly 5/6 foot ledge to a definitely not kid friendly 40 foot jump from the top (Please please please double and trip check your landing area before jumping from any ledge at all. Please.).
If hurling yourself into thin air isn’t your speed, there’s plenty of paddling and exploring to do in the area. Joe Lake is a bit of a nexus in that you can get to quite a few other lakes in the area without having to do a single portage. Little Joe and Joe Creek are to the east and Tepee, Fawn, Little Doe, Tom Thomson and Bartlett are all accessible to the north by paddling only. If you’re feeling really adventurous, and don’t mind a few portages, you can do a day trip loop up through Tepee, Fawn and Little Doe, then cross a P1140 to Baby Joe and head back to Joe Lake through Lost Joe and Little Joe.
If you’d rather take it easy, there’s lots to explore along Joe’s shoreline, including some historic sites and a couple of quieter feeling bays off the eastern arm. On top of that, Arowhon Pines is just around the corner on Little Joe Lake, and they take dinner reservations (in case you get sick of charred hot dogs).
And that’s about it for Joe Lake. But don’t take my word for it, go check it out yourself. You won’t regret it.
Spotlight lakes are featured in each issue of The Thunderbox. If you want to get each month’s lake hot off the presses, feel free to add your email in the box below. You’ll receive the monthly Thunderbox update and trip reports as they are published.