"Almost every waterfall on the trail is within five minutes of a latte," jests fellow hiker Marsha as we marvel at the beauty of the woodland setting on the outskirts of Hamilton. This is hiking for those of uswho prefer to enjoy the scenery without the hardship of camping—or even carrying our own lunches. Our two-day a guided tour called Bruce Trail Waterfall Walks offered by local outfitter Grand Experiences is being joined by Marsha Russell, the Marketing and Communications Director for the Bruce Trail Conservancy. We are eager to catch sight of 19 waterfalls in two days as we walk tranquil paths leading into Carolinian forests, admire panoramic views and indulge in culinary treats along the way.
To make our 25-kilometre hiking trip even easier, support vans will drop us at the trailhead and pick us up at designated meeting places. Too tired to go on? No problem. With two vans, a driver is always available to pick up and ferry you to a spot down the trail so you can meet up with the rest of the group for lunch. And what very nice lunches. At Ancaster Mill, for example, we admire the waterfall at the old millpond, before tucking into Caesar salad with double smoked bacon, roast chicken and more. The waiters pretend not to notice the mud on our hiking boots. The following day, a buffet-style picnic awaits at Dyment's Market & Bakery.
Our first day takes us along the Chedoke Radial Trail, a former rail line that today is a paved cinder path through fields and woodlands where forget-me-nots, buttercups and pale pink phlox bloom. We peek into tree-shaded backyards and past a golf course as we make the easy walk to Lower Chedoke Falls. With multiple guides leading the way, everyone walks at their own pace. So I'm allowed to dawdle behind, photographing the tiny strawberries that grow on the cliff face and chatting with Jamie Kent our lead guide and owner of Grand River Experiences. He knows the trail well, having hiked here since 1982. "We are at the northern border of the Carolinian forest," Kent explains, "a habitat that covers only one percent of Canada, but is extraordinarily diverse. It's by far the most bio-diverse region in Canada. Besides containing over 2,200 plant species the Carolinian forest accounts for 80% of Canada's rare & endangered species."
Deer may be difficult to spot, but this red eft stands out on the forest trail.
Everywhere we turn there's something remarkable to be seen and heard: dozens of different ferns, twittering birds and unusual fungi. Even the rocks fascinate with rivulets of water trickling down the cliff and roots hanging out of the stone. At one cliff face along the path Beth Gilhespy, the Bruce Trail Conservancy's Executive Director, stops to point out chert formations. "Chert," Gilhespy explains, "is silicone dioxide formed from sponges and condensed over 420 million years." She relates how First Nations people used chert to make arrowheads because the rock fractures easily into shape. Who knew?
Her passion for geology is contagious and it's easy to be fascinated by explanations of how rocks camber away from the cliff face when frost expands in fissures. "The talus slope environment is not common in Ontario," says our knowledgeable naturalist, but this mass of shattered rocks lying at the foot of the cliffs "creates nooks and crannies where ferns and orchids thrive in a cool habitat." Mosses, ferns and leaves all seems to merge into a landscape of infinitely varied greens.
Our group is talkative so it's not surprising that we don't see any of deer that frequent the area. But just when someone mentions the lack of wildlife, a red eft—a striking orange juvenile newt—appears on the trail. Cameras whirr and click and, with everyone's wildlife-spotting needs met, we continue toward the haunting ruins of the Hermitage, the remains of George Leith's 1855 estate, and eventually the Dundas Valley Trail Centre. The lush Dundas Valley is a haven for breeding birds, among them Carolina wrens, orchard orioles and yellow-breasted chats.
Having covered just over 12 kilometres in one day, our hike was not gruelling, but for the first time since breakfast everyone is peaceful in exhaustion and silently anticipating the jet tubs where a good muscle-softening soak awaits at the luxurious Best Western Premier C Hotel in Hamilton. Although the pillow looks tempting, there's no time to nap before dinner at Sarcoa Restaurant and Bar, where their magnificent outdoor patio, Pier, overlooks a scenic section of Burlington Bay. Here, the strip loin steaks and potato gnocchi are eaten with the relish that only a day of hiking in the outdoors can bring to an appetite.
When, on day two, our shuttle van delivers us to a nondescript suburban playground in Stoney Creek, it feels like there has been a mistake. But, no. Following the narrow path, past the caution sign depicting a man falling off a steep cliff, we arrive at Felker's Falls,a 22-metre-high ribbon style waterfall, and hike down a narrow path to admire the magnificent green view. Then it's back to the shuttle to visit the Devil's Punchbowl where we can look down a long, green stretch of the Niagara Escarpment, past the city, all the way to Hamilton's harbour. There's another 4.5 kilometres to walk until lunch so our gang of hungry hikers loads up on gooey Muskoka bars, lemon squares and snickerdoodle cookies at the farm market where our van is parked.
Our last hike of the morning is steeper so while the rest of the group continues on to the Sydenham Lookout Side Trail, I decide to linger at Webster's Falls under the shade of towering oak trees overlooking the valley. Small songbirds dart in and out of the mist at the base of the canyon.
It's remarkable to discover so many waterfalls and such scenic hiking so close to home. With the knowledge I have now, it will be easy to explore more hikes on my own.
In addition to this two-day tour, Grand River Experiences also offers a five-day, four-night tour that leads hikers past an astounding 28 waterfalls in 45 km. Definitely, a great excuse to lace up the hiking boots and set out onto the Trail once again.