For many campers, their first experience in Algonquin will be staying in one of the organized campgrounds along Highway 60. There are six to choose from, and all of them have their own reasons to recommend them (or not.)
In the last two years, I've stayed at most of them, and it's always struck me how the camping experience can be so different when in the same park. So I started to wonder, what attracts different people to the different campgrounds? What things do the twenty-somethings look for on a boys weekend? What about families? Obviously a retired couple will be after something very different as well.
I'll start with Tea Lake, though it is the only one I haven't gone to yet. From my research on the Ontario Parks reservations website, I know all of the sites are fairly small and only accommodate one tent. The average size of the sites is about 6 meters by 6 meters. Also, the smaller number of sites (there are only 43) would lead me to believe this campground is likely to appeal more to couples looking for quiet. Also, since there is no comfort station, and no electrical sites, it is more likely to appeal to the type of camper who more use to rustic conditions, possibly even those who are heading up for an interior trip and plan to spend the first or last night at a campground so as to get an early start the next morning. I don't know for sure, as I said, I've not stayed at Tea Lake, so if anyone has any input on this, I'd love to hear it.
Travelling from West to East, the next campground you come to is Canisbay Lake. This one was a little harder to categorize for me. There was a good mix of families, retirees and partiers here when we stayed, so maybe this is one of the campgrounds that just has a broader appeal. The sites are pretty private and of good quality (less so in the radio-free area, and there is a nice beach.
When I drive along Highway 60, and pass Mew Lake I often wonder why anyone would want to camp so close to the highway. You'd hear traffic noises all night. Actually, the electrical sites, and those at the bottom of the radio-free area are really nice, and with it's close proximity to the Two River's Store, The Old Railway Bike Trail, and the side trail for the Track and Tower Interpretive Trail, this campground has a lot to offer someone who wants to park once and not have to move their car again. Also, a short walk down the highway gets you to the Two River's Trail, as well as the Bat Lake Trail, so really, you have several activities within walking distance, as well as easy access to supplies or a meal if you don't feel like cooking. We've stayed here three times now, twice in the spring and once in late August. On our spring trips, we stayed in the electrical area, and during the summer, at a non-electric site right on the water, fairly close to the highway. The highway noise wasn't as annoying as I'd thought it would be, though when a big truck is coming you can hear it from a long ways off. As to what kind of camper this campground would appeal to, I'd say it would be pretty broad, from the quiet zen type to the college kids out for some fun.
Next door at Lake of Two Rivers Campground, we certainly got a lot of the latter. Mind you, we were starting our trip at the tail end of the August Long weekend, so there were more of the partying sort about than normal. Two Rivers is perfect for lazy campers, or for someone who is on their first trip and isn't confident that they've packed everything. You have a store and restaurant right at hand, so if you've forgotten a can opener, or dish towels, you can easily get what you need. Dying for a coffee you don't have to make? Or ice cream on a hot day? Two Rivers offers these luxuries as well as one of the nicest beaches in the park. Also, you have access to the Old Railway Bike Trail, which is perfect for those who want a fairly flat trail. What Two River's doesn't offer is much in the way of privacy. The sites are pretty open, and really aren't that appealing...mind you it's sometimes hard to judge when they are full of other camper's gear. That's not to say Two Rivers doesn't have some nice sites, because they do. The sites lying on the North Madawaska River are pretty nice. Maybe another aspect of this campground that appeals to more energetic type, is the fact that you can have motor boats on Lake of Two Rivers (up to 20hp) so anyone who likes to fish from a boat would find Two Rivers a good choice.
Next up is Pog Lake. I've stayed here twice and what I remember most is that the women's room at the comfort station was always full of teenage girls doing their makeup. I kid you not, I saw girls with huge bags full of facial cleanser, creams, and more makeup than I've owned in my lifetime, blow dryers, curling irons and there are always lineups for showers in the morning. It's like Pog Lake attracts a more upscale kind of camper or something. And there's me, waiting 20 minutes to clean the worm dirt from under my finger nails after I took the kids fishing, not a spot of makeup on me, and possibly smelling a little ripe unless I'd been swimming earlier in the day. Pog's sites are beautiful, set under tall pines but they don't offer much privacy for the most part. There are two nice beaches though, and easy access to the middle of the Old Railway Bike Trail. It's also the biggest of Algonquin's organized campgrounds, and therefore, you're more likely to have someone close by who is up late being loud, or accidentally turning on their car alarm at 5am.
Kearney Lake has the same feel as Pog Lake (They are right across the highway from each other) but Kearney has no electrical sites and the sites are generally smaller and most of them are only able to accommodate a single tent. We only did a drive through of this campground and it was hard to judge the quality of the beach, but for the most part, we decided it would be a nice place to stay. You do have to watch though...some of the sites were down a hill, and you could tell heavy rains had dug channels in the ground as the rain water ran down into the campsites. Watch where you set up your tent, or you could get washed away in a good rain storm.
I won't get into Whitefish Lake because it's designated as a group campground, so unless you are a scout leader or something, you probably aren't looking for that kind of site anyway. It is possible to reserve a site here for a family reunion, but youth groups and special groups take priority.
The last organized campgrounds along the corridor are Rock Lake and Coon Lake. Both are approximately 8km down a dirt road, giving you a much quieter camping experience as far as highway traffic is concerned. Coon Lake's sites are small and not too private, and are the only ones I'd class as meadow sites. Rock Lake doesn't offer much privacy either, with a few exceptions, but I really enjoyed camping there. There are several sites right on the lake, Booth's Rock hiking trail is a short walk away, and you can access the Old Railway Bike trail and bike the 10km to Mew Lake if you wanted to. The comfort station is pretty far away from the non-electric sites, but there are 4 bathrooms in the area with flush toilets and sinks. Also, the Visitor's Centre is only 3km down the highway from the entrance to the Rock Lake road. The beach at Rock Lake wasn't great when we were there at the end of august. Water levels were really low, but the kids waded a bit and said it wasn't mushy or gross, so I imagine when water levels are normal, it would be good swimming. The lake is also nice for canoeing, with some scenic bluffs and a water fall at the far end where it flows into Pen Lake.
Hopefully this helps a few people choose which of Algonquin's campgrounds they'd like to stay at. With so many options, it's hard to decide. Our first time, we stayed at Two Rivers because it was the only one with a site available the two nights we were planning to go. We loved being close enough to the store to walk for coffee in the morning and pick up things we didn't bring (a dish pan and tin foil) but weren't too thrilled with the guys a few sites down playing horseshoes until midnight while blaring country music....the weepy depressing kind, not the more pop-country type. We still had a lot of fun, and would go back to Two Rivers again without hesitation. You can't control what your fellow campers do, so remember to pack a sense of humor. You'll probably need it for other things anyway, like raccoons eating your marshmallows or burning half your dinner.