TO Places – Roncesvalles and High Park

Part of a series on my favourite places to go for a walk in Toronto

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And now on to the regular post …..

Ronscesvalles is both a neighbourhood and a street, and its location next to High Park makes it a perfect area to explore, shop, and eat either before or after wandering the park.

Grenadier Pond in High Park

Location: The neighbourhood of Roncesvalles parallels the avenue of the same name for a few blocks to the east and west of the street. Roncesvalles Avenue starts a couple of blocks south of Bloor Street West, and runs south to end at Queen Street West. It’s bounded to the east by the train tracks that curve up from near Queen at about Landsdowne Street, and on the west by High Park, although many people would consider the streets immediately adjacent to the park to be the neighbourhood of High Park. Anyway, just aim for Roncesvalles Avenue and you know you are in Roncy the neighbourhood.

Art in the Park

Public Transit: Take Line 2 west to Keele Station, and walk south on Dundas a couple of blocks until the road forks – follow the right hand fork and you are on Roncesvalles Avenue. Or, take the 501 Queen streetcar from either Queen Station or Osgood Station on Line 1, and get off at the south end of Roncesvalles Avenue.

Why I like it:

Roncy the neighbourhood for me is really about the shops and restaurants along Roncesvalles Avenue. Years ago, when I first moved to Toronto, my brother had a tiny studio apartment at the corner of Dundas and Bloor. I used to visit and we’d walk down Roncy Avenue, which back then reflected the eastern European wave of immigration that had settled in the area in the 1920’s and 1930’s. You could get a decent schnitzel and a beer (but not much else) at a half-dozen places back then.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, the area started changing. The older generation started to sell off to a younger, and as we moved into the 2000’s, these younger folks had a different food and shopping sense. The older eastern European places started to change hands and gradually, as part of restaurant trends throughout the city, new flavours and cultures started to settle. Today, it’s 2 km of funky restaurants mixed with old favourites, where you can get a great BBQ, quality seafood, Asian fusion, and much more. You can also shop for locally grown organic produce, cheeses, books, clothes, or antiques, stop for a local not-another-coffee-chain coffee, or indulge in a drink at one of several bars.

Plus, you are just a couple of blocks from High Park. It’s easy to start on Roncy for breakfast or lunch, then go for nice stroll around the Park and end up back on Roncy to pick up fruit and veg for dinner before heading home. Of course, you can do the opposite and start in the Park for a brisk, appetite-building walk before satisfying that hunger in one of Roncy’s many restaurants.

Sights:

To be honest, if your idea of sights includes tall buildings and high culture, then this may not your place. On the other hand, if your idea of sights includes some funky fresh menu options and window-shopping in a real neighbourhood filled with the diversity of Toronto, then you are in the right place. Combine that with the natural beauty of High Park and you’re set.

Even then, there is culture in the hood. Just east of Roncy there is the new Museum of Contemporary Art on Sterling Road. Since that opened, a number of gallery spaces have started up in the area, creating a new cluster of art buzz that takes you outside the cloister that used to be centred near the AGO in downtown Toronto. It’s definitely worth a visit.

Another cool option is the Dream in High Park, when the Canadian Stage Company puts on a full length play by Shakespeare during the summer. I remember going 30 years ago (Midsummer’s Night Dream?), and it’s still a tradition. [Sad note: COVID-19 has cancelled this for 2020, alas! Cross your fingers for 2021]

The Dream stage area looking very COVID neglected in the summer of 2020

Of course, walking in the park is its own type of culture. I like coming in any season. Autumn of course is a natural, with the turning leaves. Spring is also great, especially in May when the cherry blossoms bloom in High Park (beware the crowds though, weekends can be brutal). A summer day is great, and so is a winter’s afternoon. Oh, let’s be honest, it’s always good. Just come.

Food & Refreshment:

As I’ve said, there are many restaurant, food shop, and bar options up and down Roncesvalles Avenue. There are also many more along Bloor West which forms the northern border of High Park, especially to the west of the park. These days as well, if you walk the length of Roncy down to Queen West and then turn left (east), you’ll go through Parkdale and several other changing/renewing neighbourhoods. It can be a great walk that way too.

In High Park itself, there’s a couple of places to eat including the famous Grenadier Restaurant, and often ice cream or food truck vendors in summer. There are washrooms throughout the park and lots of water fountains [but COVID-19 has many water fountains shut off in 2020 so bring your own water], though these are open only in the warm months between May and October. In the cool months, there are lots of coffee shops back on Bloor or Roncy where you can have a quick pit stop.

Diversions:

  1. Starting just east of Roncesvalle Avenue, at Lansdowne and Queen, is the newish West Toronto Railpath. It runs sort of north-south, and takes you up north of Bloor to near Davenport Road. It’s being expanded and in a few years will be connected into the city’s wider bike plan.
  2. Within High Park itself there are many trails and roads, some paved and some not. On a quiet weekday, it’s easy to get lost in what can feel like a giant forest in the middle of Toronto. You can spend a couple of hours covering many km of trails.
  3. High Park is also home to the High Park Zoo, a small but fun place for kids. We took our son there many times when he was a wee lad.
  4. At the bottom of Roncesvalles Avenue, where it crosses Queen West, there is a bridge and connector trail that crosses the train tracks, the busy Gardiner Expressway, and Lakeshore Boulevard. This lets you jump onto the Martin Goodman Trail along the shore of Lake Ontario, at Sunnyside Park. Either direction, east or west, is fun. I like to go west and cross back over Lakeshore at about Ellis Avenue in order to walk north just to the west of High Park, through the neighbourhood of Swansea, and end up back on Bloor West. From there I can turn right (east) and finish back at Roncesvalles.

Walk Journal – Labour Day Weekend

Where: Sunday Sep 1, north Toronto exploring the West Don River valley. On Monday Sep. 2, south Toronto along the lake while watching part of the CNE Air Show.

Duration: Sunday Sep 1 – about 4 hours covering around 18 km; on Monday Sep 2, about 2 hours covering about 8 km.

Weather: Grey and rainy on Sunday, mostly sunny on Monday – around 18-22 C

This past weekend was the unofficial end of summer, marked by Labour Day weekend. Toronto always has an end of season feel to it the first weekend in September, even if the calendar says the official end of summer is still a few weeks off. With most kids going back to school the Tuesday after Labour Day, it means the summer holidays are over so everyone wants to cram in one last weekend of activity before buckling down.

It’s also true that the weather usually starts to change a bit in late August – we usually get a bit of a cooler spell after the heat of July and early August, and the humidity levels drop. That’s what we had this year as well, along with some rain.

All that added up to an excuse to do some walking over the long weekend. I decided to break it up into 2 days. On the Sunday, I did a long walk on my own, and on the Monday, my wife and I did a shorter one by the lake. Each was interesting in its own way, and showed off some of the things I like best about Toronto, as well as some of the things that are annoying.

For my Sunday walk, I set off up Avenue Road, all the way to Armour Heights just north of the 401. From here, I followed Westgate Blvd down down into the West Don River valley to enter Earl Bales Park and from there followed the trails along the river to the Hinder Property on the north side of Sheppard Avenue. At that point, I had to leave the parks to cross Bathurst St. and cut through the Bathurst Manor neighbourhood to reach the Forest Valley Outdoor Education Centre and then the West Don Parkland trails to continue north and west through to Finch Avenue. Finally, I crossed into G. Ross Lord Park to reach the Finch Hydro Corridor Park and followed that back east to Yonge Street, where I took the subway back home.

I’ve done this walk before, but in reverse from the north to south, when I walked the East and West Don River over a two day span in May 2018. That time, I started at Finch subway and walked west through the Hydro Corridor to G. Ross Lord Park and then worked my way south. On this day, going north from the Earl Bales Park, in late summer, made for a very different feel. For one thing, there were just a few hints of the cooler autumn weather to come, with a few trees just starting to turn colour, the rustle of dried leaves, and the skitter of squirrels gathering winter food.

Hints of autumn colours on September 1 in Earl Bales Park

There was also a reminder in Earl Bales Park – the ski lifts. This is one of the only places within the city where you can learn to ski and snowboard. Walking past them on a late summer day, you can’t help but think that within about 10 weeks, these could be in use.

It was a quiet day for walking. There were a few people out on the trails, but for the most part the city was chilling out – even the ever-present background traffic hum was dimmer than usual. I had to cross out of the parks and walk through some neighbourhood streets between the Hinder Property and the West Don Parklands, and there was little activity to be seen. The air was heavy and there were a few drops of rain sneaking about, and other than a bit of yard work going on, there was a sense of restfulness combined with anticipation – chill now, school soon.

I was also surprised by the changes in the trail. When I walked it from the north in the spring of 2018, there was an actual trail to follow from Finch down through the West Don Parkland. At that time, I had eventually come out of the trail near the Prosserman Community Centre on the west side of Bathurst, where I’d climbed out of the valley to the west and cut through side streets to cross Bathurst and enter the Hinder Property. But on this day, standing at the bottom of the same river valley, opposite the Community Centre, I couldn’t find the northward trail at all.

Where’s the trail? Google Maps says it’s somewhere under those power lines.

There was a dense growth of wild flowers and tall grasses, and while Google Maps insisted that there was a trail somewhere amidst the growth, I couldn’t find it. After chasing dragonflies and swatting mosquitoes for a few minutes squelching through the marshy ground, I gave up. I had to climb back out of the valley and cut through side streets before I could descend again towards the river, at the Toronto District School Board’s Forest Valley Outdoor Education centre, and even there I had to jump a fence to pick up the trail again. I assume that since there is a lot of construction going on around the Prosserman Community Centre, there’s no way to get out of the valley past it to cross Bathurst and get to the Hinder Property, plus I don’t think this is official City of Toronto Parks property, hence there’s no trail maintenance. I’ll have to see if I can walk this again in winter, when the trail may be more obvious.

Since it was raining lightly at this point, I kept going into G. Ross Lord Park, and crossed the dam over the West Don River to reach the Finch Hydro Corridor.

The reservoir was low, and with the grasses and bushes looking dry, it had a melancholy feel, as if it had been abandoned. The river is tamed here, not that it needs another barrier on top of the concrete channels and golf courses that already bind its flow. The line of pylons carrying electrical transmission wires stretched off to the east and the west, spreading out from the valley and taking your eyes with them away from the trees below and towards the ever-marching forest of apartment and condo towers.

I had intended to keep going north and west, following the river north past Steeles and then heading home along Black Creek, but that sense of the city hemming me in, and the threatening skies, made me turn back east and head towards Yonge.

As I walked, it started to rain, properly now, so that I had to get out my rain gear, and that lowered my mood even more. But as I walked, I started to hear music. It took a few minutes to realize that it was coming from a festival at Esther Shiner Stadium. As I got closer, I could make out words, though not in English. I didn’t recognize the language, but I did pick up some tantalizing aromas coming from food tents, and I quickened my steps. But when I got the stadium, alas, the festival was ending – I must have been hearing the closing ceremonies, because there was a mass of people leaving as I came up. It was great to see a community event, but don’t tempt me with food and then close up when I get there!

So, trudging on in the rain I eventually came to Hendon Park, where there are several baseball diamonds. There were a couple of young guys throwing a ball around but otherwise it was deserted, as I sat down for a breather. Just then my son texted me from the Blue Jays game he was at, to tell me that the opposing pitcher, Justin Verlander, was in the midst of throwing a no-hitter – great, I thought, why am I sitting here in an empty baseball park in the rain when something historic like that is going on? And on that note, I lumbered off to the subway and home.

The next day, the weather had cleared and it was a lovely 22 C blue-sky morning. My wife and I decided to drive down towards High Park and walk down to the lakeshore to watch some of the air show.

We arrived just as Canada’s RCAF Snowbirds aerial display team has started their performance. Walking down a side street towards King, jets were roaring overhead and we kept catching glimpses through the trees, and them coming out into the open at King, the whole squadron came into view, doing a loop over the lake.

We stood with many others, all craning their necks as they watched the sky, and when the Snowbirds had finished with a roar and a flypast, we crossed the train tracks and the highway to get to Sunnyside Park, near the Palais Royale ballroom. We found a little open space by the water and sat on some rocks to watch a bit more of the show. I’ve always been a plane geek, and it was tremendous fun to spot the planes and identify them. This year there was a fly past of a Mig-15 Korean War-era fighter jet, and I’d never seen one before. It took me back 25 years, to when my friend Paul and I would play a flight simulator game flying against each other, taking turns with the Mig-15 against the F-86 Sabre.

After that break, we meandered west along the Sunnyside boardwalk, stopping to get a hot dog along the way. It was crowded with families, couples, kids, dogs, prams, and scooters. There were volleyball games going on, and kids splashing in the water. The planes kept zooming overhead – “hey look, that’s a Yak-50” “that’s nice” – and the sun was gentling baking with a lovely cool breeze to keep things bearable. It was a perfect way to end the summer.

I love Toronto on days like that – people from all over, diverse, mingling, and happy, taking advantage of the parks and the waterfront, and enjoying a long-standing summer-end tradition with the airshow. It was everything that makes Toronto my home. And I got to hold hands with my darling on the boardwalk. Take that winter!