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 3 – Up the Don

After my long trek to the Rouge the day before, I was pleasantly surprised to wake up feeling pretty good for Stage 3 of my journey. My feet had been tired at the end of the day, but apart from stiffness in my knees, a good night’s sleep had set me up for the final leg of Crossing Toronto. I would hike from the southern boundary of the City at the lake northwards following the Don River as much as I could all the way the northern boundary at Steeles Avenue.

Since the Don forks in mid-Toronto, I had to choose which branch to follow and I’d decided on both – the way the river flows meant that I could climb the West Don for part of the way (since I could go through several parks that way) and then cut across city suburbs to pick up the East Don and follow that up to Steeles.

After the climbs and challenges of stage 2 between the Don and the Rouge, I reckoned that this final stage would be both easier and harder. Easier because it was a bit shorter than the 2nd stage and because much of it I’d walked before, and harder because after 2 long days of walking I was beginning to feel some of the stresses in my feet and knees.

The good thing about my route was that, like Stage 2, I could take the subway to King and walk past St. Lawrence Market, stopping to have breakfast at Paddington’s Pump once again. I had the same eggs, the same server, and the same warm happy glow of a full tummy when I set off at 8:30.

Since I was doing this final stage on a Saturday, there were many more people about at the Market. That’s their busiest day of the week, and I was tempted to hang about to sample the food, but of course I knew I had to get going. Just like the day before, I followed the Esplanade east through the Distillery District and crossed through Corktown Commons to pick up the Lower Don Trail.

Turning north, I was on a familiar path. I’ve walked this in both directions a number of times in various seasons, but on this day it had been several months since I’d followed the river north. The first thing I noticed was how much the shrubs, bushes, and trees along the trail had filled in and now sheltered the trail. It made for a welcome green tunnel of shade on a sunny summer morning.

Early on a Saturday morning, the trail is used more by cyclists than walkers or runners. You have to be on your toes, listening for bikes coming up behind you while watching for bikes coming towards you, since the trail is only about 2 meters wide. The bikes presume they have right of way since they’re faster, even though the trail etiquette is supposed to be that the pedestrians have priority. Why do cyclists think that if they ring their bell, you’ll just jump out of the way?

As I walked, my curiosity was piqued in noticing the difference between walkers and cyclists when travelling in pairs. A pair of walkers, especially couples, will often walk side by side even on a busy trail. A pair of cyclists, even if a couple, will usually ride in tandem. Why is that? The trail rang with bike bells as the cyclists wove amongst the walkers.

Continuing north, I found myself walking in “the zone”, spaced out and unaware of time passing. I knew the trail well so I didn’t pay much attention to the landmarks. Still, I was pleased to pop out of my walker’s trance when I came to the Prince Edward Viaduct, carrying the Bloor Street roadway as well as Line 2 of the subway over the Don Valley, in less than an hour after leaving St. Lawrence Market.

Past this, as you head north towards Pottery Road, there’s a little sculpture installation by artist Duane Linklater featuring some pieces meant to evoke old castles and crumbled monuments. I always tell myself I should stop and explore, and yet again this day my focus on walking meant that I paused just long enough to snap a picture, and then kept on walking.

Continuing past the sculptures, you soon come to Pottery Road. There’s a crossing island here and there was a queue of bikes in both directions waiting to cross. I had to fight to protect my pedestrian rights amongst them, as they surged forward in a break in the traffic.

From this point, about 5 km from Corktown, there’s a stretch of several km along the river that takes you to the forks of the Don near the Taylor Creek confluence. It’s a bipolar bit of trail – on the one hand the shimmering rapids, green shuffles of leaves, and meadows of nodding flowers, and on the other hand the steady intrusive hum and mumble of traffic on the Don Valley Expressway just to the east of the trail. It looks rustic but it sounds urban. The constant stream of cyclists didn’t help.

Another thing that I kept noticing was that stinging nettles were overgrowing onto the edge of the trail, so that you wanted to walk in the centre, but the bikes kept pushing you back to the edge where you risked brushing up against the nettles. Having grown up in the country and been stung by nettles in the past, I was in no mood for that, so I had to listen for approaching bikes whenever I skirted the nettles, making for an uncomfortable walk.

Watch out for nettles!

Eventually, however, I came to the forks of the Don. This is where the Lower Don Trail connects with both the Taylor Creek Trail (which initially follows the East Don River) and the West Don Trail. You hard to see the actual confluence of the two branches of the river, at least in summer with full greenery about, but again I was kind of head-down and focused and not paying too much attention. I just followed familiar trails and started heading west, crossing under Don Mills Road to enter E.T. Seton Park.

I took a break here, refilling my water bottles – I had 2 because I knew there were no water refills on the trail north of Lawrence – and sitting for a bit in some shade. There were still lots of cyclists and they often roved in packs of 3-5 riders. I made the assumption that they were all weekend warriors, and smugly sniggered at their Tour de Something wannabe jerseys and fancy kit.

As you continue north through E.T. Seaton Park you pass through one of Toronto’s only disk golf courses. The “holes” are on both sides of the trail and there were a few disk golfers out enjoying the sun.

Fore!

On weekends in good weather, E.T. Seaton Park fills up with families enjoying communal picnics and cookouts. The air is scented with tantalizing aromas, and the many cultures living in nearby Thorncliffe Park (one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in the country) gather to take advantage of the green space. I was a bit early for that, plowing through there well before noon, so I missed having my appetite stirred early. I resolved to keep walking in order to try to get north of Sheppard before stopping for lunch.

The Trail keeps going through E.T. Seton, and eventually you pass under Eglinton Avenue and into Serena Gundy Park. There is a lot of construction going on in this section, part of the Eglinton Crosstown rail project, and it’s muddy and busy with trucks. There are also lots of cars on a weekend, because the car parks are the base for the cyclists. It made me want to walk through as fast as I could so I continued through the east end of Serena Gundy Park to arrive at Wilket Creek and the entrance to the trail along that watercourse that would take me through Wilket Creek Park and on to Edwards Gardens.

Wilket Creek Park on a summer’s day – imagine this decked in full autumn colours

I kept chugging, with a clock in my head that wanted to get to Edwards Gardens well before noon. The trail through Wilket Creek is quite lovely, and having been through here previously in late September, I know it’s even prettier in autumn. I wasn’t thinking about that, however, I just wanted to get to Edwards Gardens for a rest break and a water refill.

I made it there before 11:30, 3 hours and around 13km out from St. Lawrence Market, and was a bit surprised to see that there was a sculpture market in full swing, with pieces set throughout the gardens. It was tempting, but how would I carry a $5000 piece of marble out on my back?

After a short break, I crossed out of the Gardens to the east side of Leslie Street, where there is the entrance to the Don Mills Trail. This follows a rail line north between Lawrence and York Mills. I set off up the trail with my inner clock still ticking, aiming to get to the East Don Trail at Sheppard by 12:30 so that I could find a quiet spot to rest.

The Don Mills Trail is fairly new, yet it’s matured quickly. There were lots of trees shading the trail, and there weren’t too many fellow walkers or bikers this day, so it was relatively peaceful. Nevertheless, it was also relatively boring – there’s no river, just the trail plowing strait and narrow through suburban backyards. I walked at a steady pace and chewed up the kms, to find myself at the north end. Unfortunately, the peacefulness of the Trail is undone by its finish under a road overpass. You have to climb up onto York Mills Road, and follow it east for a few hundred meters. At Lesmill Drive, you turn north again and follow the streets along the Valleybrook and Lesmill Bike Path.

Eventually, you come to Duncan Mills Road, where you can then connect with the Betty Sutherland Trail and rejoin the East Don River as you head north. This trail continues for about 3 km, and while it’s a lovely bit of woods, it’s hard to love the trail itself. I could hear the roar of traffic along the 12 lanes of the 401 expressway when I joined the trail and it just kept getting louder and louder as I approached. The trail actually goes under the 401, and it’s an unsettling experience to pass through a space where the slanted light reminded me of the columns of a cathedral and yet the traffic noise blocked any thoughts of tranquility.

When you come out the other side of the roadway, you find the trail continuing north for another half a km or so, soon depositing you at the exit of the trail upon Sheppard Avenue. There you have to cross from the south-east corner of Leslie & Sheppard to the north-west corner where you can drop down onto the East Don Trail.

By the time I reached this, just after 12:30, I was feeling quite hungry and ready for a rest, so I quickly rambled off looking for a nice quiet spot to have lunch. Unfortunately, while the trail is in the ravine of the river, it’s still just meters from Leslie Street and there seemed to be a stream of fire trucks and ambulances shrieking past. I had to walk for 5 minutes to get far enough along the trail to find a little clearing with a bench in the sun that was the perfect spot for lunch.

I had been prudent enough to use my breakfast stop at St. Lawrence Market to also visit Churrasco St. Lawrence and pick up one of their classic chicken sandwiches. It’s made with Portuguese-style rotisserie chicken on a soft bun, with piri piri sauce, mayo, lettuce, and tomato, and it’s been a favourite of mine since Churrasco St. Lawrence opened in the late 1980’s. Sitting in the sun, resting tired feet, savouring a sandwich, and listening to the birds was a perfect way to relax.

By this point, I’d covered about 18 km, and looking at the map I realized that I probably only needed about another hour to finish my journey. I had been so focused on my inner clock, passing through familiar trails, that I had lost track of time and distance. I was a bit disappointed, coming to that realization.

The point of my Crossing Toronto journey was to discover more about the city, and yet I’d managed to climb most of the way through the city and hadn’t really noticed anything. Upon reflection, it occurred to me that my Big Walks were going to be quite different in character from my regular walks, because the rhythm of steady day-in, day-out walking imposes a different kind of observation. On a more conventional 1 or 2 hour walk, I might zone out a for a bit, but for the most part I would notice my surroundings. On a Big Walk after a couple of days already spent “observing”, I was starting to feel both jaded in my attention-span and locked into the routine of walking. Big Walks take on a life of their own, and are about the quest, it seems, as much as they are about the journey.

On that somewhat depressing note, I resigned myself to “notice” something, and yet while the scenery on this part of the trail is perfectly fine, I had a hard time loving it. There’s only so much green-lined trail next to a burbling river that you can walk along.

The only observation of note that I could come up with was the predictable fact that as I had climbed north from the lake, the river had narrowed and diminished. It was interesting, however, to see that as the river’s flow grew smaller, the landscape dried out so that the upper reaches of the river now featured more meadow areas, and dryer ground trees like cedars and ash. The birds shifted from marsh species to meadow species, including a chorus of kill-deers that squawked noisily as I passed.

Those kill-deers did make me realize that the traffic noise had finally faded a bit, though even here traffic sounds were still noticeable. The soundscape of the Don Valley, unfortunately, is dominated by cars, trucks, motorcycles, and noise. You can mostly tune it out as you walk but it’s only when it diminishes to a background hum that you realize how loud it has been.

Soon I came to the Finch Hydro Corridor, a public space that traces the path of the high voltage electricity transmission lines across the top of the city. In the past, I’ve done part of this and it’s actually a great walk in its own right – one of these days I’ll see how far I can go across the top of the city following this path.

Finch Hydro Corridor Trail looking west from the East Don Trail

North of the Finch Hydro Corridor, the river forks again, somewhat confusingly, into a western arm and an eastern arm. The western arm is actually the East Don River and the eastern arm is German Mills Creek, but the western arm flows through private property so that you can’t actually follow it to Steeles. Instead I was forced to follow the eastern arm where a trail brings you to the south side of Steeles and the northern boundary of the City of Toronto.

By now, I wasn’t that interested in the niceties of hydrology and names, I just wanted to finish my journey. The river/creek was narrowing, and there weren’t many people about. I kept climbing, following the trail north-east towards Leslie. It continued to be green and lovely and boring, so it was anticlimactic to cross Leslie just south of Steeles and reach my finishing point, a pedestrian bridge crossing the creek adjacent to Steeles. I had climbed the Don (more or less) from the lake to leave the city, and yet it didn’t feel particularly memorable.

The eastern arm of the East Don River (aka German Mills Creek) crossing under Steeles Avenue

Toronto is a huge city in terms of land area. It stretches roughly 50 km east to west, and 20 km north to south – more than 1000 square km. It contains dozens of fascinating neighbourhoods, 100’s of parks, and many kilometres worth of trails. I had hoped that Crossing Toronto would teach me something the city, and it did in many ways.

Yet, more importantly, it taught me something about myself and the nature of a Big Walk. Big Walks are their own reward, they are the meal, and the observations along the way are the spices that make it interesting.

Walk Journal – Jan 13, 2019

Location: Toronto – from Sherwood Park to Allan Gardens via the Don Valley trail system

Duration: 3 hours, about 15 km

Weather: Sunshine and blue skies, but crisp at -7C with a -12C wind chill

Today’s walk was about exercise and stretching out on a fine winter day. I wanted to get at least 3 hours or so, and needed to end up at my nephew’s place downtown near Allan Gardens.

I decided to get there via the Don Valley trail system, so from our home in the Avenue Road & Eglinton area I went east on Briar Hill Avenue to Yonge Street, then kept going east on Sherwood Road to Sherwood Park. In the park I took the Burke’s Brook trail east to Bayview Avenue.

Burke’s Brook Ravine trail – doesn’t look like January!

From there it’s safest to cross Bayview at the crosswalk at Kilgour Road, and then I could continue east on Kilgour all the way to its end, where I connected with the access road down into Sunnybrook Park. I walked through the west end of the park past the dog run area to the bridge across the West Don River.

Sunnybrook Park entrance – bridge across the West Don

Then it was east through Sunnybrook Park into Wilket Creek Park, almost to Leslie street, crossing the creek itself at the bridge where it joins the West Don River, and then turned south to follow the trail parallel to the river.

West Don River at Wilket Creek Park

The trail goes under Eglinton Avenue into E.T. Seton Park to become the West Don Trail. At the north end of this park is a disc golf course, and there were a few players out today since there was no snow.

The 1st tee at Toronto’s only disc golf course at the north end of E.T. Seton Park

I kept going south to the trail junction to the Taylor Creek Trail under Don Mills Road and through to the Lower Don Trail, which is where the East and West Don rivers join into the Don River.

Confluence of the West and East Don Rivers
Confluence of the West and East Don Rivers on the Lower Don Trail

The Lower Don Trail continues south along the east side of the river to Pottery Road, and you can either stay on the east bank and follow the main trail, or cross to the west bank and take the side trail along Bayview Ave, which is what I did in order to go to the Don Valley Brickworks for a quick pit stop.

Entrance to the Don Valley Brickworks

I left the Brickworks along the lower Beltline Trail to turn west and north a bit into the Yellow Creek Ravine system, where I connected with the Milkman’s Lane trail up into Rosedale.

Milkman’s Lane climbing up into Rosedale – trust me it’s steeper than it looks

Once up that hill (stiff climb), I connected with Glen Road and went south across the Rosedale Valley on the Glen Road pedestrian bridge and under Bloor street to the south end of Glen Road to connect with Howard Street and over to the west to Sherborne Street, then south on Sherborne to Carlton Street to end at Allan Gardens.

All of that made for a long walk. My pace was pretty good, and I had worked up quite a sweat even though it was a cold day. That’s actually one of the harder things to manage when it’s cold – if you start sweating then you’ll get chilled as soon as you stop walking, so you’re better to wear layers and remove them as needed to stay warm but not sweating. I didn’t do that so by the time I got to my nephew’s I was actually over-heated for this weather.

The great thing about the walk was the weather. I’ve done more or less that same route in summer, and the walk through E.T. Seton Park, in particular, can be brutal when the sun is blazing down. Today, though it was cold it was good walking weather and the trails were dry and free of ice. Walking the Don River trail system covers several of my favourite routes and if I hadn’t had a destination today I would have kept going all the way to Corktown Common.

The history along the way is wonderful. You pass through former country estates (Sunnybrook), former mills and farms (Todmorden), former brick foundries (the Brickworks), and very different neighbourhoods ranging from Rosedale (one of Toronto’s richest) to St. James Town (not one of Toronto’s richest).

As I’ve said before, Toronto’s park and trail systems are amongst my favourite jewels of the city. Do this walk any time of the year, and you might see deer, coyotes, hawks, falcons, ducks, geese, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, skunk, turtles, frogs, and fish. Were it not for the traffic noise from the nearby roads, you could be fooled into thinking you’re out on a country walk. And yet, you can get into any part of this system via public transit. I love it. Walk the Don and find out for yourself.