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.

Crossing Toronto Stage 1 – Etobicoke to the Don

Storm clouds over the lake

Once you’ve made a plan, the next step is to execute it. Stage 1 of my Crossing Toronto plan was to walk from Etobicoke Creek to Corktown Common, beside the Don River. It meant starting at the western edge of the city, and since the Long Branch GO train station is only a few hundred meters from Etobicoke Creek, that was the perfect jumping off point. I had to hustle to catch my train that morning but I could relax and conserve energy on the way there.

From the train station, I walked west along Lakeshore Blvd West over Etobicoke Creek, leaving Toronto and entering Mississauga, where I could pick up a trail down the west side of the creek through Marie Curtis Park.

Etobicoke Creek at Marie Curtis Park

In Marie Curtis park, I turned east to re-enter Toronto by crossing the creek on the Waterfront Trail, part of the Great Lakes Waterfront Trail system. Within Toronto, the Waterfront Trail joins together multiple shorter Trails like the Martin Goodman Trail, the Beaches Boardwalk, and the trail through Port Union Waterfront Park. It’s well signed the whole way, and I would realize over the course of my journey that following its markers made navigation easy.

MapsDonate Now

Great Lakes Waterfront Trail

Given the transit time to get to Long Branch, it was already 9:00 a.m. by the time I got going, with grey skies and forecasts for some rain, and sure enough within 20 minutes some sprinkles forced me to drag out the rain gear, before a light rain took me into a Tim’s for a coffee. That unplanned early stop was welcome nevertheless, because in dashing for my train I hadn’t had a chance to buy a coffee and I was feeling caffeine-starved.

While sitting there drinking my coffee, my mind wandered onto Tim Horton, the hockey player. The current president of the Toronto Maple Leafs is Brendan Shanahan, who was born and raised in Mimico. Tim Horton was a star defenceman who anchored the championship Leafs teams in the 1960’s, including the 1967 team that last claimed the Stanley Cup for Toronto. He was also a canny businessman whose investment in a donut shop grew into a food empire spanning the country, so that today you can order a double-double from St. John’s to Victoria to Iqaliut. For those, unfamiliar with Tim’s, a double-double is a coffee with 2 creams or milks and 2 sugars, and if you say you’re doing a Tim’s run in any workplace in Canada, a chorus of heads will pop up to place their orders.

After that little break, I listened to my inner Gandalf and resolved to follow the Trail. Since much of this area is private property, it can’t always follow the shoreline of the lake so in many places it winds through the back streets of New Toronto and into Mimico, for the most part along Lakeshore Drive (not to be confused with the larger, busier Lakeshore Boulevard which runs parallel but north of Lakeshore Drive). These neighbourhoods have welcomed many new Canadians for decades, arriving from many countries including Poland, and that’s why the Polish Consulate in Toronto is located on Lakeshore Blvd at Royal York in Mimico.

And speaking of immigrants, I also noticed many hints of Newfoundlanders in the area, from bumper stickers to ironic boat names like Chateau Newf. There are many in St. John’s who would view a move to Toronto as move to a foreign country so I guess that’s in keeping with the neighbourhood.

It was a quiet morning, a Thursday in mid summer, and the sky was glowering. There was a bit of humidity though the temperatures weren’t that high, so it felt very close and you knew rain was in the air. There wasn’t that much breeze, nor much traffic, and it felt like I was out on my own – there were few fellow walkers about.

Along the way, I passed through Colonel Samuel Smith Park, which contains some great walking trails (and a really cool ice trail for winter skating). The early part of my walk was quiet and serene – birds everywhere, wildflowers in bloom, bees and butterflies, and even a turtle plopping back into the water. Something about the looming clouds made it even more intimate, like a darkened room.

Col Sam Smith park, in addition to wonderful trails, is also home to the Lakeshore Yacht Club. I spent many a night there with my friend Paul throwing darts, as he was a member. Walking past the boats brought back some warm memories.

Lakeshore Yacht Club – it was actually about 10:00 a.m. but the rain clouds made it look like sunset

Continuing on, I passed through a series of parks that have been created around the mouth of the Humber River – Humber Bay West, Humber Bay East, Humber Bay Shores – where the famous white-painted arched foot bridge welcomed me into the old city of Toronto. Prior the 1990’s, Etobicoke was a separate City in its own right, and walking through the area it still has a distinct feel to it.

The Humber River foot bridge

Once you cross the bridge, you’re in Sunnyside Park, where a boardwalk starts and continues on for several km. The boardwalk makes for great people watching as well as bird-spotting. There were Canada geese everywhere and their poo grenades made the boardwalk slippery. There were also mallard ducks, wood ducks, cormorants, herring gulls, swans, and even a great blue heron. I’m not a bird watcher, but it was funny seeing a flotilla of geese gliding majestically along the shore while in the distance a smaller and more ragged flotilla of sail boats competed in a race.

Along the waterfront, the City has installed hundreds of Adirondack-style chairs, dotted along the path all the way to Queens Quay. I chose one that gave a great view and enjoyed a bit of lunch. I was at about 12 km, so just over half-way, and ready for a rest.

From Sunnyside, the Waterfront Trail follows the shoreline east through a series of parks, and past landmarks like the Argonaut Rowing Club, the Palais Royale, and the Boulevard Club. The Trail is also adjacent to the Gardiner Expressway, and as I was walking along I noticed a large semi truck and trailer passing by. It caught my eye because the sides of the trailer were brightly painted with faces of some of the performers in Wrestlemania. And then I spotted another vehicle in the Wrestlemania caravan, and another, and another, till I lost count at around 15. How much stuff does it take to mount this particular circus? Does the world need 15 trucks worth of loud, spandexed athlete entertainers to consider itself amused? It put my walking into perspective – I amuse myself differently I guess.

At around the 15 km mark I passed Exhibition Place, and there noticed one of the 3 sure signs of the end of summer – I spotted a truck turning into the Exhibition grounds loaded with rides to set up for the Canadian National Exhibition aka the CNE or just the Ex (the other 2 signs being the calls of bluejays (the bird, not the baseball team), and the calls of commentators on the state of the Maple Leafs).

I have to say, this stretch of the Trail is a slog, exposed to the sun, greenery-free, and sandwiched between a busy Lakeshore Blvd/Gardiner Expressway and acres of car parks. But finally you come to Coronation Park. It’s a welcome stretch of greenery and is usually quiet, but on this day I came across a fundraising group that was having a softball home run derby – some of those folks could really put a charge into a ball, and the PA announcer was providing a running commentary.

East of Coronation Park, the trail passes through the Little Norway neighbourhood and then along Queens Quay, past the Toronto Music Garden. This is an interesting idea – the plantings are arranged to illustrate different styles of music. It’s lost on me, tone-deaf as I am, but worth a visit all the same.

I had just reached the shelter of the trees there when the rains returned in buckets, and I had to make a dash for another Tim Hortons along Queens Quay, where I sheltered alongside tourists from many places, judging by the snatches of Spanish, Italian, German, and American that I overheard. They struggled with the concept of a small double-double – that’s not how one orders coffee in Rome.

After a short wait, the rain cleared and I set my sights on the Don. I was about 18 km into the walk, and it was time to push on to the finish. There is an incredible amount of construction happening near the lake, from Yonge east to the river. Condos and office towers are going up left and right, and despite the marked Waterfront Trail, you have to dodge dump trucks and skip over muddy puddles trying to follow it. After the peaceful quiet of the morning’s walk, this was a loud reminder of Toronto’s constant growth. It shouldn’t have been a surprise – Col Sam Smith Park is just one of many built in part on landfill excavated during earlier waves of building, and Toronto is no mood to slow down.

That industrial character is also evident in landmarks like the Redpath Sugar Mills and the grain elevators. As you go east towards the Don, you lose sight of the lake amidst the new construction as well as the docks, wharves, and shipping warehouses that still dominate the area. It’s hard to follow the Waterfront Trail through this mess, but if you want to pass the mouth of the Don and get to Corktown Commons, you have to put up with the noise of traffic and construction.

Keating Channel, where the Don River meets Lake Ontario
The mouth of the Don

When you do get to the river, it’s sadness that overwhelms you. Once this was marsh and wetlands alive with wildlife. Today it’s brown lifeless water and rusty bridges, with traffic roars drowning out any hint of birdsong or frog croak.

And then you follow the path a few more meters and there under the Gardiner Expressway, a bright soul has created a series of fantastic murals that add colour and life to the grey concreted mess.

That little artistic interlude takes you past the worst of the construction and then you finally arrive at Corktown Common. It’s a wonderful park, and the warm wet summer we’ve been having has brought wildflowers and greenery exploding onto the paths. 30 years ago, the area that is now the park was a wasteland of old industrial buildings, car parks, and rusty containers. Today, this green oasis served to remind me that the shocking state of the mouth of the Don can be reversed, a fitting thought to finish the first stage of my journey.

Walk Journal – Dec. 30, 2018

Location: Toronto – Corktown to the Beaches and back

Weather: 1C, grey skies, snow on the ground

Duration: about 2:45 hours, 14.5k

Today my wife and I decided to walk through the Beaches neighbourhood, so to make it longer we drove to Corktown Common and parked there. Then we walked along Eastern Ave to Broadview and then up to Queen and from there walked east through Riverside and Leslieville to the Beaches. After a nice brunch pitstop at the Sunset Grill, we kept going east on Queen to Silver Birch Ave to get down to Balmy Beach. From there, turned back west and walked along the boardwalk and the Waterfront Trail to Ashbridge’s Bay, then back up to Queen to keep going west all the way back to the Lower Don River Trail, and so back to Corktown.

If you know Toronto, you’ll recognize those neighbourhoods. For those out of town, this combined revitalized ex-industrial lands (Corktown Common), gentrified, already-past-hipster-and-on-to-Starbucks blocks (Riverside and Leslieville) and 1-kid-2-dogs ex-hippy Beaches. We’ve been going for walks in the Beaches for years – in fact the day before she went into labour, my wife and I went for a walk there after eating some spicy food in order to get things going.

It’s changed and yet it’s the same – the houses, the vibe, the people. The sound of the day for me was the rattle of sticks and pucks from the outdoor ice rink at Beaches Park, closely followed by the crunch of wet snow underfoot and the churn of small waves on gravelly shores. It was grey but it was lovely, calm, and a reminder of one of the things I love about Toronto, it’s park and trail system.

For a few years in a row when our son was younger, we’d go out to the Beaches and walk the boardwalk on New Year’s Day. This year we went a bit earlier, and now that he’s older he didn’t come with us. But watching the other young parents with kids brought back memories. Walks are often contemplative, and that was today.