Dennis Gallant's water bottle is down to drips on a sunny Saturday afternoon north of Georgetown. He's swinging a mattock, levelling part of the two-kilometre stretch of Bruce Trail that falls under his jurisdiction as "trail captain." The fifty-year-old electrical engineer hasn't let the title go to his head. He says he loves working and being outdoors – "it must be how I was raised" – so he gladly volunteers 20 to 30 days a year to keep the trail in good shape for fellow hikers.
To the south of him is Niagara Falls. To the north, Tobermory. In between are more than 1,300 kilometres of marked, public-access trails running along the Niagara Escarpment, a geological curiosity that has been named a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. This year, Canada's oldest and longest foot trail is celebrating 50 years of giving people a reason to walk somewhere.
It's only because of Mr. Gallant – and 1,249 other volunteers – that Toronto has a nearly endless supply of easily accessible day-trip outings.
The Bruce Trail Conservancy gets the equivalent of $3-million a year in volunteer labour. Government funding makes up about one per cent of its budget. It's a trail run by the people, for the people. The only areas that charge a fee are conservation areas or provincial parks.
Whether or not you buy the $50 annual membership, you'll want to get a copy of the Bruce Trail Reference, or download individual maps from brucetrail.org. Add a road map, a water bottle and sturdy shoes and adventure is yours. Or, if you'd like to go with a group, check out the local club at torontobrucetrailclub.org for a list of guided group hikes leaving by bus from Toronto (three next weekend).
Late summer and fall are arguably the best times to be on the trail, so whether you want to burn calories, explore caves, feast your eyes or teach kids how to walk off pavement, here are the Top 10 spots you won't want to miss (in no specific order). Think of it as a starter course in nearby adventure.
Webster's and Tews falls, Dundas
Bruce Trail Reference Guide: Map 8
Start: Spencer Gorge Wilderness Area on Harvest Road
On the western leg of this hike you'll pass 21-metre Webster's Falls and a lookout over Hamilton. Doubling back and heading east, follow the rim of the gorge to find Tews Falls (at 41 metres, it's ten metres off the height of Niagara Falls). Detour down the Dundas Lookout Side Trail for a panorama of Dundas Valley cutting into the escarpment.
Mount Nemo Conservation Area, north of Burlington
Bruce Trail Reference Guide: Map 10
Start: Mount Nemo Conservation Area parking is on Colling Road, just northeast of Guelph Line (Regional Road 1).
Park atop Mount Nemo and stroll over to the escarpment edge for a series of lookouts that span 180 degrees. Look east to see the CN Tower, down to see turkey vultures catching updrafts from the 100-metre elevation gain or northwest to follow the escarpment as it snakes toward the Bruce Peninsula.
TAKE THE KIDS
Crawford Lake Conservation Area, southwest of Milton
Bruce Trail Reference Guide: Map 11
Start: Find the conservation area parking lot at a dead-ending Conservation Road (formerly Steeles Ave.) just northeast of Guelph Line (Regional Road 1).
The area features three kilometres of stroller-friendly trails, including a boardwalk around Crawford Lake. It's a rare meromictic lake, meaning the cold bottom layer never turns over and mixes with surface water. Sampling the sediment, scientists discovered the area was widely farmed 600 years ago. Bringing that pre-contact history to life, the conservation authority has reconstructed a long-lost Iroquois village on its original site. Poke around two longhouses, one interpretive and one set up as a traditional residence.
Speyside Sanctuary, between Milton and Acton
Bruce Trail Reference Guide: Map 12
Start: Highway 25 and Sideroad 15, northwest of Milton.
About 300 metres west of the intersection there's a parking area and trailhead leading south. This takes you into the Speyside Nature Preserve. The combination of wetland and forest terrain make it home to a range of species like the endangered Canada warbler and the less endangered but equally patriotic beaver. A keen eye will reveal a carpet of medicinal herbs along the forest floor. Another trailhead half a kilometre east of the intersection (with parking just beyond) leads north where four side trails (blue blazes) create many loop options.
Lime kiln ruins and mill ruins at Limehouse Conservation Area, west of Georgetown
Bruce Trail Reference Guide: Map 12
Start: Park between the baseball diamonds south of the (only) curve on Fifth Line.
Though the Black Creek Side Trail affords a handy loop of the area, the historic goods are in the northeast corner. It's a quick walk from the trailhead (slow down while descending the ladder through Hole in the Wall). Past the millpond and its stone ruins, you'll climb gently to a collection of 10 kilns, furnaces that used to bake lime out of the rocks for use in cement and paint starting in the mid-1800s. The ruins range from 16-metre-tall vertical kilns to the bunker-like powder magazine where the gunpowder for blasting rocks was stored.
Devil's Pulpit, east of Erin
Bruce Trail Reference Guide: Map 14
Start: Park on Regional Road 11 along the Credit River and head south up Chisholm Street.
The most intense quadricep workout on the Bruce Trail starts where Chisholm Street becomes a footpath. Dozens of stairs pounded into the slope help climbers up the Devil's Pulpit as the trail rises more than 110 metres in less than half a kilometre. Halfway up, the Ring Kiln side trail offers a welcome diversion. The 600-metre trail leads to the ruins of a 19th-century lime kiln, where limestone blocks the size of refrigerators are piled four metres high to either side of the trail. Views into Forks of the Credit Provincial Park await those who gain the Pulpit and are still seeing straight.
Hockley Valley Provincial Nature Reserve, northeast of Orangeville
Bruce Trail Reference Guide: Map 18
Start: Park on the 3rd Line East, a kilometre north of Hockley Road (Regional Road 7)
The Glen Cross Side Trail forms a loop to take you into and out of this hilly, but not particularly steep, section of the trail. The escarpment here is subdued, leaving the terrain underfoot smooth and fast. The Snell Loop Trail and Tom East Side Trail form two more circuits off the main trail, providing three loops of three to five kilometres in length for many route options in this picturesque but not crowded area.
GASTRONOMIC PIT STOP
Mono Cliffs Inn, north of Orangeville
Bruce Trail Reference Guide: Map 19
Start: Park on 3rd Line, just south of Mono Centre Road (Regional Road 8).
It's all of a kilometre east from the trailhead through Mono Cliffs Provincial Park to the pond where you can see across to Mono Cliffs Inn, so best stay on the trail and head north, deeper into the park, to work up an appetite. The great views and many sidetrails along the top of the escarpment make the park a popular spot , which means Mono Centre Inn is usually pretty busy serving its renowned and diverse fare. It's a good idea to call ahead to reserve a table on your way back from the edge (519-941-5109).
Standing Rock Caves Side Trail, Nottawasaga Lookout Preserve, west of Stayner
Bruce Trail Reference Guide: Map 23
Start: Park where the Osprey-Clearview Townline turns west to become Eagle Crescent.
Take the Standing Rock Side Trail to drop off the ridge rim into an exotic landscape where dolomite slabs have cleaved off the escarpment, creating slot canyons and even some free-standing pillars. Climb back out of the depths and head east and south on the main trail through the Nottawasaga Lookout Provincial Nature Reserve for wide open views of Pretty River Valley below and Georgian Bay beyond.
Metcalfe Rock and Duncan Crevice Caves, Beaver Valley.
Bruce Trail Reference Guide: Map 25
Start: Park off 10th Line, about half a kilometre north of 6th Sideroad.
The Chuck Grant Side Trail (blue blazes) leaves the main trail atop Metcalfe Rock and re-joins it in the Duncan Crevice Caves Nature Reserve. It makes possible an eight-kilometre loop through the best collection of caves on the trail. Airy vistas of the Beaver Valley give way to cool underground chambers as you slip below the surface. Below ground, the escarpment offers another attraction to add to those found along its cliffs, wetlands, forests and fields. With all of them just a day trip away, the only question is, where to start?