Favourite Toronto Walks – Tommy Thompson Trail

Part of a series on my favourite walking trails in Toronto.

Hey Toronto, remember to Practice Physical Distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic! That means that, unfortunately, Tommy Thompson Park is closed right now, until restrictions are lifted. Read on to dream about walks when we’re all released from our cages.

And on to the regular post …..

For the past 150 years, Toronto has been growing and building at a furious rate – the skyline has evolved with every decade, as new towers join and dwarf older ones. In recent years, there have been more than 100 high rise buildings under construction at any one time.

All of that development, including the roads that connect it, has resulted in massive amounts of demolition and of excavation, which has created hundreds of thousands of tons of construction debris. It all has to go somewhere, and for 50+ years that somewhere was Lake Ontario.

And thus, from debris was a park born. Today, through a lot of effort from a lot of people and groups, especially the Toronto Regional Conservation Authority, the Leslie Street Spit has become Tommy Thompson Park, and the Trail within the park has become one of the most popular in the city. While many bike out to the tip of the park, I like to walk it in a loop. It’s a great way to escape the city – it can be so quiet that, on a winter’s day, you can hear the ice groaning along the water’s edge. And yet, only a couple of km away, that ever-changing Toronto skyline is in full view – the park is one of the best places for taking selfies of the city. And it’s also one of the best places to view wildlife in Toronto, home to many species of birds and waterfowl, as well as squirrels, raccoons, coyotes, beaver, and more. It’s a favourite year-round, and a must for any visitor to Toronto.

Length: about 12 km if you do the full loop around the tip

Surface: gravel and pavement, about 50% each though you can use the paved road the whole way if you’d like

Public Transit: take the #83 Jones bus south to Commissioners Road, either from Donlands station on Subway Line 2 or from the 501 Queen East streetcar.

Route: Starting from the parking lot at #1 Leslie Street, follow the trail signs into the park. The walking trail proceeds south and west from the car park just to the south (left-hand) side of roadway. If the trail is too muddy, you can just walk the road. Follow the trail/road about 1 km into the park, until you come to a gate on the south side (left-hand) side. Turn left and follow the trail/road along the south side of the ponds. Where the road turns right (north), on the lake side of the road, there is a gravel/dirt path. Follow that along the shore to the tip of the point, by the lighthouse. Loop around the lighthouse and follow the trail back to the roadway. Follow the roadway straight east all the way back to the the car park, where you started.

Sights: For me, there are several key sights along the way. First and foremost, there’s that stunning view of the Toronto skyline.

Then of course there is the wildlife, especially waterfowl. In spring and autumn, there are many migratory species coming through – I’ve seen clouds of raptors like hawks, eagles, and vultures, as well as swans, geese, ducks, gulls, and many other species.

I’ve also seen a lot of evidence of coyotes, though I’ve never actually seen one in the park. Similarly, there are often trees downed by beavers, though again the actual animals keep hidden during the day. Both of these species are nocturnal, so one of these days I’m planning to visit late in the evening, just at sundown, to catch some of the night critters.

In summer, there are also many species of butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, beetles, and other insects, plus snakes, turtles, toads, frogs, and fish in the ponds. You can spend hours just exploring the ponds and observing in the smaller creatures.

As well as the city and the wildlife, there’s also the lake itself. In any season, sitting by the water and listening to the lap of the waves is deeply relaxing. I’m sure it’s also pretty dramatic during a storm, though also pretty exposed.

And finally, there’s an interesting free-form artistic side to the park. Over the years, many people have built sculptures out of the construction debris – wires, bricks, concrete and rebar are combined with driftwood to create some fantastic pieces.

Food & Refreshment: This is a bring your own picnic spot, because there no restaurants or refreshments in the park. At the intersection of Leslie and Lakeshore, just outside the park, there are several coffee shops as well as a grocery store, so you can pick up snacks there. Bring lots of water, especially in the summer, because there are no fountains anywhere. There are also few washrooms – just a couple of portapotties along the way.

Diversions: I’ve drawn the full loop trail on the map, but you can also make a shorter walk by cutting across the park about a third of the way along.

You can also just go straight along the north road to the tip, and back the same way – it’s a bit more sheltered/shaded if the weather is blustery or sunny, and it’s a bit shorter that way as well.

One other alternative is to start at Cherry Beach

and follow the Waterfront Trail to the entrance to Tommy Thompson Park – that adds about 1.5 km, and is a nice walk in its own right.

Finally, the TRCA hosts various events in the park, so check out the park website to see what’s happening.

Walks Past – Gaff Point Trail, Nova Scotia

Hey Toronto, remember to Practice Physical Distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic!

And now on to the regular post …..

Every few years, our family packs up the car and heads east to Nova Scotia. We’ve come to love the South Shore, basing ourselves around Mahone Bay or Lunenburg for a few weeks in late summer to soak up sun, swim, gorge on seafood, and soak into the village feel. It feels like a second home for us, and we can’t wait to get there as often as we can.

On our first family trip there, in 2008, we were chatting with some locals who told us about a great beach called Hirtles. It’s a badly-kept secret at this point, but we can always get away from the crowds by walking the nearby Gaff Point Trail.

We’ve done this walk many times now, and it’s become a ritual on every visit. To get to the Trail, you have to drive to Hirtles, about 20km outside of Lunenburg. From the parking lot, you follow the boardwalk over the dunes to the beach, and then turn right to walk south along the beach for about 2 km to get to Gaff Point itself.

When you get to Gaff Point itself, there’s a well marked trail that loops around the point and returns you to the beach. It’s only about 3 km long, but it winds through little meadows, moss-treed forest, and rocky shore, packing a little taste of Nova Scotia geography into its short length.

One of our favourite parts of the walk is actually after we’re done the trail at itself. By then we’re always a bit hot and tired, so it’s wonderfully soothing to wandering back towards the car park, trailing tired feet in the water, and then rewarding ourselves with a swim at the end. That’s easier if the tide is out, because there are some rocky stretches of the beach that are tough. I’ve walked it in sandals a few times and now usually wear hiking boots, which I carry for the last km as I splash in the water.

We have so many memories of the walk. One year when our son was about 6, we noticed that someone had made little inukshuks from the rocks along the shore,

Another year, someone had put a solitary lawn chair up on a small cliff overlooking the water, to sit and contemplate the vastness of nature.

We often take a picnic lunch with us, to enjoy sitting on the rocks in the sun. One year it included a thermos of homemade seafood chowder that I’d made the night before,

and enjoyed it sitting on the rocks listening to the jug and gurgle of the water.

Later this year, we’re planning to return to Nova Scotia in September, this time to drop off our now 18-year old son at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Afterwards we’ll spend a few weeks in old favourite haunts on the South Shore, and I am sure we’ll make time for Gaff Point, to say hello to an old friend as we enter our new chapter as empty-nesters. The sea is always there.

Favourite Toronto Walks – Cedarvale-Nordheimer Ravines

Part of a series on my favourite walking trails in Toronto.

Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Toronto was growing and like many North American cities at that time, was investing in transportation infrastructure, and in particular in roads, which led to a plan to create the Spadina Expressway. Thankfully, that wasn’t fully built (other than a short section now known as the Allen Expressway), and instead we have the park and ravine trail system that I think of as Cedarvale. It’s a great walk, and I like to extend it a bit and include Ramsden Park as well so that I end on Yonge.

Length: about 5.5 km, around 1.5 hours

Surface: about 50/50 paved and gravel

Public Transit: To start, take Subway Line 1 to Eglinton West-Allen Station and walk south a few hundred meters to the entrance to Cedarvale Park. Finish and the exit from Ramsden Park at Yonge street, opposite Subway Line 1 Rosedale Station.

Route: From the entrance to Cedarvale Park, off Ava Road, walk south following the paved trail. Continue past the Off Leash Dog Walk area and down into Cedarvale Ravine. Follow the gravel trail through the Ravine and exit at Heath Street. Cross the street and cut through the St. Michael’s College grounds past the Loblaws grocery store to St. Clair Avenue. Cross the street and enter Nordheimer Ravine. Follow the gravel trail down through the ravine to exit at Poplar Plains Road. Cross the road, follow Poplar Plains Crescent to Rathnelly Avenue, then turn south and follow it to MacPherson Avenue. Turn east and walk to Avenue Road, then turn south, crossing Avenue at the traffic lights at Dupont, then keep going south on Avenue to Pears Avenue. Turn east and enter Ramsden Park. Follow the paved trail through the park to finish at the park exit at Yonge Street.

Sights: I love this walk any time of the year. In summer, you might be able to watch a bit of cricket at the pitch in Cedarvale Park, or perhaps some baseball in Ramsden. There are often lots of other walkers, joggers, and strollers of all ages, so people watching is fun too. And there are some wild stretches along the ravine trails where marshy ground combines with bushes and trees to create wetland ecosystems full of wildlife in the heart of the city.

Nordheimer Ravine from the Spadina Bridge

It’s also fun to take your time and stroll on this route, because the many park benches provide opportunities to chill out in the shade or bask in the sun and just sit, soaking up the birds and crickets. It’s usually pretty quiet, especially Monday-Friday, so there’s often times when there’s no one in sight as you’re walking the trail.

Finally, there’s history here as well. For example, cutting through the Rathnelly neighbourhood takes you what is known as The Republic of Rathnelly. It got its name in 1967, when a group of residents decided to form an independent republic, as a bit of joke that turned into a semi-serious movement that was instrumental in fighting the Spadina Expressway.

Between late autumn and early spring, the ravines can be pretty muddy, slushy, or icy, and that just adds to the fun. I’ve done this route in all seasons and the changing scenery keeps it interesting.

Food & Refreshment: On Eglinton near the start, there are several restaurants and coffee shops where you can grab a bite before you start. At the finish on Yonge, there are several places as well, so it’s easy to eat and then walk, or walk and then eat. I’ve also stopped at the Loblaws on St. Clair and grabbed a sandwich. Plus, there are several water fountains in the parks, though they are turned off between November – April.

There are public washrooms at the community arena in Cedarvale Park, and in Ramsden Park. You can also use the washroom at the Loblaws.

Diversions: If you’re feeling in the mood for a longer walk, you can keep going past Ramsden Park, crossing Yonge and entering the Rosedale Valley behind Rosedale Station. Follow Rosedale Valley Road down to Bayview Avenue and cross to join the Lower Don Trail. You can then turn north and follow that trail up to the Evergreen Brickworks. If you are feeling especially frisky, you can keep following the Beltline Trail from the Brickworks up through Moore Ravine, through Mount Pleasant Cemetery, and finish at Yonge near Davisville Station.

I’ve also done all this in reverse, starting at Mount Pleasant Cemetery and following the Beltline to the Brickworks, then going up Rosedale Valley Road to Ramsden, and on continuing up through the ravines to end back at Eglinton. It’s mostly uphill in that direction so it’s a tougher walk.

Finally, since I live close to Yonge & Eg, you can start there at Eglinton Station, and either walk along Eg to Cedarvale, or better yet, go south to Davisville to pick up the Kay Gardiner Beltline Trail and follow that all the way to the Allen, where it ends. Then just cut south a few blocks through the back streets and you end up next to Eg West station, where you can start the route described above. Doing it that way adds another 45 minutes or so to the route.

Favourite Toronto Walks – Mid-town Cemeteries

Part of a series on my favourite walking trails in Toronto.

Toronto, as you probably know, is blessed by geography in the form of the many ravines that cross the city. Over the years, some of these have been woven into the fabric of Toronto as cemeteries.

As I’ve mentioned before, there is something very calming about walking through graveyards. Since Mount Hope, Mount Pleasant, and Prospect cemeteries are all within a few km of my home in mid-town, I’ve worked out a walking route that takes these in and ties them together with some interesting neighbourhoods and paths. The route is lovely any time of the year, but if I had to pick early autumn is my favourite, when the trees are just turning colour.

Length: about 16-17 km, probably between 3.5 and 4.5 hours duration depending on your pace and exact route meandering through the cemeteries

Surface: about 80% paved; only the Kay Gardiner Beltline is gravel

Public Transit: take Subway Line 1 to Eglinton Station to the start; take the eastbound 512 St. Clair Streetcar at the exit of Prospect Cemetery, to get back to the Subway Line 1 at St. Clair Station

Route: Starting at Eglinton Station, walk north on Yonge Street to Erskine Avenue. Go east on Erskine to Mount Hope Cemetery entrance. Walk through cemetery (I like to bear left – to the north – and walk next to the Blythwood ravine) to the exit gate on Bayview Avenue.

Turn right and go south on Bayview to entrance to Mount Pleasant cemetery (about 2 km). Walk through Mount Pleasant (lots of options for meandering) and pick up the Beltline path markers at the west end of the eastern section of the cemetery. Follow the Beltline markers through the underpass beneath Mount Pleasant Road, and then more meandering options through the cemetery to get to the exit at the north-west corner of the cemetery.

Join the Kay Gardiner Beltline and head west all the way to its end at the Allen Expressway. Turn right and go north slightly, to Elmridge Drive and cross the Allen, continuing across Marlee Avenue. On the south-west corner of Marlee and Roselawn (note Elmridge turns into Roselawn when it crosses Marlee), turn left and go south a few meters to the start of the York Beltline trail. Follow this west all the way to the finish at Bowie Avenue.

Exit the trail and walk east along Bowie to Caledonia Road, then south on Caledonia to Eglinton. Go east a couple of blocks to the northern entrance to Prospect Cemetery.

Meander south through Prospect Cemetery to the south entrance on St. Clair. Turn left (east) and cross the street to catch the streetcar back to Line 1 St. Clair station.

Sights: The best part about this route is the variety of sights and sounds, terrain and trails. There’s the calm orderliness of rows of headstones; the subtle geometry of hills and grassland and trees and gardens; the colours in any season; the scents of new cut grass and flowers, and the food smells amongst the shops along Bayview; the sounds of kids playing, dogs barking, birds singing; the crunch of gravel underfoot.

In themselves, these cemeteries are fascinating time-capsules. The history of Toronto is written in the names on the headstones, and you can piece together the waves of immigration by the names and dates. There are the graves of the famous (former Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in Mount Pleasant cemetery) and the humble (the graves of the several different orders of nuns in Mount Hope cemetery).

Tying them together are the trails and streets of mid-Toronto. The Kay Gardiner Beltline Trail and the York Beltline Trail follow the route of the Beltline Railway, which carried goods from mid-town to the terminal stations further south. Bayview is a major road and is the main street of Leaside, one of Toronto’s early planned neighbourhoods that dates back to the 1920s. And of course starting on Yonge and ending on St. Clair puts you into some of the most vibrant areas of Toronto.

Food & Refreshment: There are lots of options at the start and end of the route. I suggest fuelling up with a good breakfast or early lunch in the Yonge and Eg area, where there are many options, ranging from organic juice bars to old school diners to grocery stores. At the finish on St. Clair, a short walk east from Prospect Cemetery takes you into the Corso Italia, where you can reward yourself with a gelato, an espresso, or a beer.

Along the way, the stretch along Bayview between Soudan Avenue and Davisville Avenue is packed with shops, restaurants, coffee stops, and bars, so there’s lots to choose from. The Beltline trails don’t have anything directly on them, but you can duck out at say Oriole Park, or near Castlefield Road, where there are a few coffee shops.

Toilet facilities can be a challenge between November and April. In warm months, there are public washrooms in some of the parks along the way, but these close in the cold months. There is one year-round toilet in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, near the office in the middle, but otherwise you’ll have to leave the route to hit a coffee shop.

Diversions: There are several ways to add some variety to the route.

  1. Walk it in reverse – it’s uphill this way, and it’s fun to end at Yonge & Eg and the shops/bars/restaurants.
  2. Split it up – a good mid-way point is to bail out as you leave Mount Pleasant Cemetery, near Oriole Park. That puts you at Davisville Station on Line 1, an easy way to jump back on.
  3. Exit Mount Pleasant Cemetery through the main entrance in the south-west corner and walk down Yonge to St. Clair. This way you skip the Beltline and instead walk along St. Clair to Prospect Cemetery, passing through the Wychwood, Hillcrest, and Corso Italia neighbourhoods with their shops, restaurants and bars . This lets you finish on Eg, and you can take the bus back to Eglinton Station on Line 1. In winter this can be a better route, especially if it’s muddy on the Beltline.
  4. There are several other cemeteries in mid-town that you can incorporate into the route. There is St. Michael’s Cemetery, tucked behind a gate off Yonge just south of St. Clair. There are also the series of small Hebrew cemeteries along Roselawn Avenue between Avenue Road and Bathurst, just north of the Beltline Trail. Each of these are interesting in their own way, expanding on the story of Toronto as they illustrate the waves of immigration that have made up the city over the past 150 years.

Favourite Toronto Walks – Don Valley Trails

Part of a series on my favourite walking trails in Toronto.

A great walk in any season, following the Don River north from the lake takes you through some of the best parks in Toronto.

Length: about 13.5 km

Surface: 90% paved with a bit of packed gravel

Public Transit options to get to Corktown include the street car from King Station on subway Line 1, along King to Cherry Street and then a short walk to Corktown. I like to subway to King Station and walk from there to Corktown, about 2 km. At the other end, there’s the Leslie 51 or the Lawrence East 54 bus from Edwards Gardens, which both take you back to Eglinton Station on subway Line 1.

From the south end at Corktown Common, the Lower Don Trail takes you up past several points where you can jump on or off – at Queen Street, Riverdale Park, Pottery Road, Crothers Woods, Don Mills, Thorncliffe, or Eglinton. You can take public transit to or from all of these, or you can find parking in many of the parks. Also the Toronto cycle path network intersects with the Trail at multiple points, so you can jump on/off that way as well.

In addition to starting at a Park at Corktown and ending in one at the Toronto Botanical Gardens, you’ll also travel through or past multiple parks along the way, including Riverdale Park, Riverdale Farm, the Evergreen Brickworks, Crother’s Woods, E.T. Seton Park, Serena Gundy Park, and Wilket Creek Park. Any of these offer shade, benches, and picnic tables, and water fountains and toilets are available from May through October. If you’re walking November through April, there are washrooms and water fountains at the Brickworks and at Riverdale Farm, as well as Edwards Gardens.

I like to start at Corktown Common and go north. Years ago, this area was industrial, rundown, and polluted – I can remember travelling through here at the bottom of the Bayview Extension. Starting in the early 2000’s, the City of Toronto has led a transformation, so that today the new residential buildings are anchored by the green space of the park.

I’ve walked these trails in both directions multiple times, in all seasons. There’s always wildlife – ducks and geese, salmon spawning in the autumn, chipmunks and squirrels, coyotes, deer, raccoons, robins, redwing blackbirds, jays, crows, hawks, and falcons. There’s also the wildflowers, the autumn colours, the spring blooms, and the cool shaded groves, the willowy grasses and the whispering reeds. And of course the burble of the river, especially north of the Bloor Viaduct, is a constant.

There is a downside in the traffic on the Don Valley Expressway, which the trail abuts along the lower stretch, but you leave that behind once you get to E.T. Seton Park. When you walk north, you’re walking from the urban to the suburban, from the industrial to the pastoral.

Also, when you walk north you realize that there is a significant elevation gradient to Toronto. The Lake is at roughly 90 m above mean sea level, so at Corktown you’re just above that. Travelling north you are climbing, and by the time you get to the Botanical Gardens, you’ll have gained almost 100m to about 180m or so above MSL. That, plus the humps over the bridges, will easily get your stair count up.

That said, since the trail is mostly paved and you are climbing gently over a 13 km length, it’s an easy walk. You can stroll it or jog it, and it’s suitable for mobility devices like walkers and wheel chairs, as well as for baby carriages, strollers, and wagons. Just keep in mind that it is a shared path for bikes, so you have to keep an eye out for them.

Finally, there are lots of options for food and refreshment along the way. Near Corktown is the Distillery District, where there are several restaurants and bars. A bit further west from there is St. Lawrence Market, with even more choice. As you head north, there is a good restaurant at the Don Valley Brickworks, and there’s a cafe at the Botanical Gardens at the end of your hike. Or you can do what I like to do, and take a picnic lunch with you and find a spot to enjoy it – a favourite is the fish ladder about 1 km north of Pottery Road where you can sit by the river in the shade.