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.

Walks in Autumn

Autumn has always been my favourite season. In Toronto, there are phases to it. Coming out of September and through early October, we usually keep our late summer warmth with the bonus of dryer, clearer weather with lots of bright blue skies. Then as you drift through the rest of October and into early November, the nights get cooler and the autumn colours take over the parks and neighbourhoods. Around then, usually by early or mid- November, we’ll get our first frost overnight and our first snowflakes. Our autumn usually turns into winter temps and weather well before the winter solstice and turn of the season on Dec 21, so when you think about it, between the late summer bit and the early winter bit, a Toronto autumn is really the 4 weeks or so between about early October and early November.

And while it’s a short stretch of the calendar, it’s made for walking. We’ll get lots of dry days, not too cold, and with scenery that never gets old no matter how many times you’ve seen autumn colours transform a park. When we lived in England back in the 1990’s, I missed that turn of the season more than anything else.

This year, autumn arrived right on cue. Late September and early October were glorious – blue-sky autumn days that demanded to be used because you knew that in just a few weeks, those gentle blues would turn to steely greys and the autumn rains would turn to frosts and snow.

So I did – I headed out for several longish walks through favourite parks and soaked up the sun for as long as I could. One favourite hike in early October was through Mount Pleasant Cemetery and down the Moore Park Ravine to the Brickworks. The autumn colours were starting to develop and on a mid-week afternoon, there were only a few people about so I could savour the quiet. I love this place.

Wandering the paths through the park, it’s easy to forget that you’re in the middle of the city. The park is only about 15 years old, and is the result of natural regeneration nudged by careful planning, turning the clay quarry that provided many of the bricks that built Toronto landmarks like Old City Hall and Massey Hall into an urban oasis. It’s wonderful any time of the year, and at its best in the autumn.

Later, in mid-October, I did a hike through Highland Creek Park, Morningside Park, and the Gatineau Corridor as part of my completion of the Great Trail sections that are in Toronto. The weather had cooled just a bit, especially overnight, and the foliage in the parks was perfect.

As the month of October wore on, we started to get some grey skies and gusty rains, stripping those gorgeous colours off the trees and turning the trails to pointillist visions.

Every year, around mid October, there will be newspaper articles and social media posts about where to go to see the perfect fall colours. I ignore these. The perfect fall colours are right outside, in my favourite parks along my favourite trails. Toronto is awesome pretty much all of the time, and autumn is when it’s awesomeness on display, the more so because it’s natural and unforced. We take it for granted at lot of the time, so it’s worth reminding ourselves that we live, as the Parks Department motto says, in a city within a park.

And then in early November, other walks became reminders that winter is around the corner. I went up the East Don Trail on a blustery chilly day, maybe 4-5 C at best with an actual wind-chill under a grey forbidding sky, and was teased by a few snow flakes.

Then a few days later, we had actual snow, only a cm or 2 but enough to leave a trace on the ground. It feels like our 4 weeks of autumn have come and gone for this year. The forecast going forward is early winter – snow showers and low single digits as day time highs, with negative temps overnight.

That’s ok. The cycle of seasons means change, which means variety. Were the weather constant year-round, it would get tedious I think. So walking in wet leaves under blustery skies, now, is the path that leads to walking under soft spring breezes amongst new growth, in a few months. There’s greenery coming – you just have to be patient.

Walk Journal – July 27

Where: Parks (Cedarvale, Ramsden, Chorley, Oriole), ravines (Cedervale, Nordheimer, Moore), neighbourhoods (Forest Hill, Rosedale, Bennington Heights, Moore Park, Chaplin Estates), and trails (Beltline, Lower Don) in mid-town Toronto

Duration: about 4 hours, around 18.5 km

Weather: Summery hot, about 28 C with a lot of humidity that made it feel like the mid-30’s, and a mix of sun and rain showers

I hadn’t done a long walk in a couple of weeks, so it was time to stretch out a hike. While it was warm, it wasn’t crazy hot and there was a nice breeze at times that helped to cool things. I decided to make a big loop heading west along the Beltline to the Allen Expressway (why does everyone lean over and touch the wall when the reach it?) and then south through the parks and ravines to get to Ramsden Park.

Crossing Yonge, I headed down into the Rosedale Valley and followed that it to Bayview to pick up the Lower Don Trail, and then turned north up to the Brickworks. I was going to take a break there before continuing up the Don Valley to come home through Sunnybrook Park, but there were threatening skies looming so I decided to come home.

That meant a detour up through Chorley Park in Rosedale, where I took a wrong turn, forgetting that you can’t cross the train tracks north of the park, and ended up heading walking back east along Douglas and over Governor’s Bridge into the Nesbitt Park neighbourhood.

That detour took me back to Bayview south of Moore Avenue, so I had to climb up to cut through Bennington Heights to Heath St. East, and then across the pedestrian bridge over the Moore Ravine and into the Moore Park neighbourhood. From there I went west to Mount Pleasant Road, north to Mount Pleasant Cemetery, then northwest through the Cemetery to connect with the Belt Line near Yonge. I was almost home by then, and just had to follow the Belt Line to Oriole Park and turn north Lacelles Boulevard through the Chaplin Estates neighbourhood to Eglinton, and on to home.

The threat of rain, which never did turn into more than light showers, kept me walking without a break, so by the time I got home I was tired and hungry. It had been a deceptively warm day, with the humidex over 30 C but with enough clouds and breeze that it didn’t feel that bad while walking, and yet those kinds of days are draining – I was dripping by the time I got home. I’m enjoying the summer, but I’ll be glad to get a nice autumn day with blue skies and about 15 C.

On a walk like this, my focus is on the workout, keeping a steady pace up and down the hills while remembering to hydrate. I’m wasn’t really paying too much attention to my surroundings, but nevertheless I did notice a few vignettes that stuck with me: the cricket match underway in Cedervale Park (a bowler with a funky herky-jerky run-up, the “well run” shouts for a stolen single on a dribbler to 3rd slip). Or the way the light rain brought out the colours of the flowers along the trail. And then there was the discovery of what is probably a namesake distant relative, Jimmie Bradt, buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

There were lots of people out, walking or biking, and it’s always fun to listen in to parents coaching their young children on their bikes, or to eavesdrop on conversations as you pass someone. I heard the cry of a hawk a couple of times, in the Don Valley and in Mount Pleasant, and followed a trio of birders who were in turn following the sounds of the hawks (“did you see the other one?” “they are nesting over there”).

These walks also offer a chance to choose a street or a path that you’ve never followed, even if you’re in a familiar neighbourhood. Today it was Standish, north of Chorley Park. It’s a quiet little street that is in a cul de sac neighbourhood, because of the train tracks to the north that can’t be crossed. Traffic is minimal so there are lots of kids out playing, and there’s lots of trees to shade the sidewalks. It looks like a great place for families.

It was a fun walk, and a good cap to the week. I’m thinking of doing my Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake trip in late September or early October, and I need more walks like today to stay in shape and be ready. I felt pretty good today, covering more than half the 30 km I plan to cover each day on that journey and doing it in under 4 hours. I need to keep that up to be ready, and I’m looking forward to it. Till then, I’ll enjoy the weather and the walks.