Duration – about 25 hours of walking over 3 days
Length – about 98 km total, including about 93 km on the trail itself and another 5 km or so getting to/from the trail when I left it each day and rejoined it the next.
Height – according to my fitness tracker, I climbed the equivalent of about 550 flights of stairs over the 3 days – that’s probably around 2000 m of climbing so hey guess what, I did over 20% of Mount Everest!
Weather – first full week of autumn, cloudy with rain on Day 1, then sunny and breezy on Days 2-3; warm temps for early autumn – mid-20’s mostly
Route: About 35k on Day 1, from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Queenston Heights via the Niagara River Recreational Trail. Then along the Niagara Section of the Bruce Trail, starting from the famous cairn marking the start of the trail at Queenston Heights, and continuing along it to Glendale Avenue in Thorold to complete Day 1. About 33k on Day 2, rejoining the trail at Glendale and following it through Short Hills Provincial Park, Rockaway Conservation Area, and Louth Conservation Area to exit the trail on Glen Road near Jordan. Finally, about 24.5k on Day 3, rejoining the trail and following it through Balls Falls Conservation Area, Cave Springs Conservation Area, Mountainview Conservation Area, and 30 Mile Creek Conservation Area to exit the trail at Ridge Road near Grimsby.
In earlier posts, I’ve talked about my bucket list of walks, which includes the walk between Toronto and Niagara-on-the-Lake. I wanted to do this because I reckoned it was a good intro to long distance walking – it’s in my own backyard, I could cover part of the Bruce Trail, and I could learn from it to decide how to approach other bucket list walks, such as the Camino de Santiago.
I didn’t know what to expect, or even if I could finish it. I knew it would be hard, at least for me, as a somewhat overweight, moderately in-shape, mid-50’s guy. I wasn’t going to push myself to the breaking point, but I did want to see how far I could go.
But to find out I had to do it, and that meant starting with the Bruce Trail. My wife and I drove down to Niagara-on-the-Lake on a Sunday, the last official day of summer. We had a lovely evening, enjoying a great meal with some very good local wines, and a gentle stroll about town.
Leaving on Monday morning, I wanted to start at Fort George, because then I could finish in Toronto at Fort York and that appealed to the history buff in me. Besides, my family, the Bradt’s, emigrated from Europe in the 1640’s to then New Amsterdam / now upper New York state, and from there moved to the Niagara region as United Empire Loyalists in the 1790’s, where distant relatives served in the Canadian Militia units attached to the British Army (Butler’s Rangers) during the War of 1812 when Forts George and York played important roles. Basically, from way, way back I have roots in the area.
There was some rain that morning, but I had been keyed up to start, so I was ready to leave as soon as I woke up. I put the rain cover on my pack, clicked together my walking poles, and headed off down the Niagara River Recreational Trail.
The Niagara River Rec Trail is a great little walk in its own right. It follows the river quite closely so you get great views over the gorge, and it’s lined by wineries, orchards, and fruit stands. My wife and I have walked part of it a few times when we’ve been in Niagara-on-the-Lake and having stopped at various wineries to sample and buy, we return later with the car to pick up our trophies.
On this day, of course, my focus was ahead of me. I kept looking down the road where the Niagara Escarpment loomed larger and higher as I got closer. I knew that it’s about 100m high in most places, but it seemed higher because it just jumps up from flat ground.
As I walked, I was constantly jolted by something that seemed appropriate given my start at Fort George – the constant banging and thumping of air cannons. It was harvest time in the fruit basket of Ontario, and every orchard, vineyard, and field seemed to have at least one of these cannons firing away to scare off birds. The almost military cannonade called to mind the sound track from films of World War 1, and the rumble of the guns would accompany me all the way to Grimsby after I’d left the Bruce.
Coming into Queenston, the Recreational Trail takes you up into the Queenston Heights park. It also takes you past the Sir Isaac Brock Monument – a reminder of the historical importance of the area to what eventually became Canada.
After a quick look at the monument, I turned and saw that over the river, a number of turkey vultures and hawks were circling in the breeze, just a few meters from the roadway – I stood there mesmerized for several minutes, though they moved so fast it was hard to get a good photo.
From there, it was time to climb some more and find the cairn that marks the official start of the Bruce Trail.
Looking opposite the cairn, I could see a line of trees marching across the park, each marked with the white painted blaze that I would follow for the next 3 days.
After a quick break to fill water bottles and have a bite, I set off on the Trail. It was a weird feeling. I had been anticipating a rugged trail and yet as you cross Queenston Heights Park following the markers, you’re walking on mowed grass with very little that looks like a trail. Gradually you get closer to a line of trees with no apparent opening, though one eventually appears. The Trail looks easy here, but I would learn that it’s a deceptive entry.
Not long after I joined the Trail, the looming grey skies opened up and the rain stayed with me for another hour or so. Soon I was skidding on mud and blessing my walking poles as I descended the escarpment, in some places very steeply, and then climbed back up again; dipping down gullies and scrambling back out; up and down, up and down, all on muddy ground and broken rock.
I kept looking for a place to take a break, but another lesson of the Trail is that there are few places to stretch your legs unless you want to get wet. I eventually found a downed tree that served the purpose, at the cost of a soaked seat to my shorts.
The first 20 km of Trail takes some interesting twists. At one point, coming out of the Woodend Conservation Area, I followed the Trail across the Royal Niagara Golf Course where I ran into a guy searching for his ball and we shared a hello. In another section, I crossed a meadow along a narrow grassy path that was littered with snails – I tried to avoid stepping on them but couldn’t help crunching my way for several hundred meters, feeling guilty for my clumsy human feet.
Later, the trail follows the 3rd Welland Canal, the one from the 1880’s – the sun had come out again by then, and I stopped several times to admire the view of the old locks cut into the escarpment.
It was a grind to finish the Trail that day. I was tired and running short of water, so it was with great relief that I came off the Trail at Glendale Avenue, in the Merriton neighbourhood of St. Catherines. I was below the escarpment at this point, and I knew that the next day I would have to climb it once more. With that thought, I checked into my hotel and enjoyed a hot shower and a welcome glass of wine. Day 1 done.
In the morning, I thought that I’d feel stiff as a board, but to my relief it wasn’t too hard to get going. After walking back to where I’d left the Trail the day before, I followed it along Glendale Avenue and then climbed the escarpment up Tremont Drive. Here you’re walking through a residential neighbourhood, but very soon you step into forests again as you reach the top – in fact you’ve entered the grounds of Brock University. The walking is easy here – the forest is old with open ground under the trees and it’s easy to follow the markings.
Winding through the campus, I popped out passing by the Brock University athletic facilities, where I took a quick pic for my wife, a Brock Alumnus.
As you leave the campus, the trail takes you into the Short Hills Provincial Park. It’s mixed ground here, with some open meadows skirting fields, as well as laneways through the forest. The ever-present air cannonade still dominated the soundscape, but the open spaces teemed with the buzz and chirp of crickets, grasshoppers, and cicadas.
It was a gorgeous day, welcome after the rain the day before, and I made what I thought was pretty good time. When I took a break, however, and checked my fitness tracker and then the map, I was shocked to discover that after several hours of walking, I still had 15 km to go. I was doing a lot of walking but a lot of it was up and down, not forward towards my goal, so while the fitness tracker clocked kms I wasn’t advancing on the map. My strategy became short breaks and motoring on.
Here the Trail continues through several more conservation areas, and you keep climbing and descending, up and down gullies and sometimes up and down the whole escarpment. The terrain gets harder too – by the time I got to Rockaway Conservation Area, I ran into several km of broken rock underfoot. Each step took concentration to avoid a slip or worse, and several times I lost the trail and had to back track – in looking down at your feet you lose track of the markers. Even when it wasn’t rocky underfoot, it was narrow and twisty. Despite my best efforts I knew I was only covering about 3 km per hour, well under my planned pace.
Eventually, the Trail emerges from trees to follow a couple of country roads, and looking down one of them I had a perfect view of Toronto on the horizon. It was probably 50 km across the lake, and I knew there were at least 100 km to reach it.
There were more twists and climbs yet on the Trail that day. Near the end of the day, I came across a photographer set up in a gully, with a camera on a tripod aimed at single tree. He said he’d been photographing it for the past year, and was waiting for the perfect shaft of autumn sunlight to light up the leaves. While we chatted, just such a gleam appeared, and he happily fired off several exposures.
Leaving him behind, I followed what seemed like a hundred km of broken rock trail, and I was tired, sweaty, thirsty, and sore by the time I reached my Trail exit near Jordan. I reckoned I earned my beverage of choice that day.
On Day 3, I awoke still feeling pretty good – a bit stiff but otherwise ready for the day ahead. On paper, it looked easier – this was was going to be my shortest planned day, only around 25 km, and I thought I could knock it off in 7 hours or so.
I soon changed my mind when I rejoined the trail outside Jordan and entered the Balls Falls Conservation Area. You descend here, and along the bottom of the escarpment you follow the Twenty Mile Creek upriver. There’s a lovely little rock pool and with the sun shining, the water burbling, and the breeze tickling the leaves I couldn’t help but smile.
And then I came to the Stairs.
They stretch more or less straight up the escarpment, 120 steps in all, with another few meters of trail climb at the top. I was gassed by the time I got there, dripping with sweat and huffing and puffing. A kind soul has put a log in place so you can sit and catch your breath, and I took full advantage of it to recover.
From here you walk through the upper part of the Balls Falls area, and it’s gorgeous. The trail is friendly here, wide and level, with lots of open spaces to view the gorge of the Twenty Creek.
A couple of wild turkeys trotted along in front of me for a bit, and other than them and a few dog walkers, I had the trail to myself.
Those few km after the Stairs lulled me into a false sense of security, thinking that this was going to be an easy walk. That changed as I left the Balls Falls Conservation Area. The trail follows the escarpment quite closely, and I descended it to spend several km scrambling along the bottom over broken rock. I tripped here and fell, the only time I did so on the Trail, and then at the Cave Spring Conservation Area I climbed again back to the top of the escarpment. It was a slog on an increasingly hot day, but the view from the top was worth it.
I wasn’t the only one enjoying the view. I came across a through-hiker who had the foresight to carry a small camp chair and a portable set of watercolours. He was sitting, focused, a palette attached to one hand and a small canvas on his knee. I didn’t want to disturb him, and after a quick sneak peak at what looked like a pretty good landscape, I left him to his labours and continued along.
Past Cave Springs, there’s a small park with welcome benches where I could sit, take off my shoes, and have a bite. I had developed a blister on one toe, the first of the journey, and it a few minutes to treat that. After what ended up as a longer break than I wanted, I was shocked to check the Trail map and realize I still had 10+ km to go, and it was already around 2:00 pm – that meant 3 hours of walking so time to start chugging.
The Trail takes you through the Mountainview Conservation Area, and then the Thirty Mile Creek woods, with a lot of broken rock, gullies, muddy sloughs, and few breaks of open forest. There are a couple of stretches following roads where you can catch your breath, but otherwise it just keeps leading you up and down the slope of the escarpment. I could feel my pulse pounding and the blister on my toe was starting to bug me too. I was exhausted but relieved to pop out onto a road a couple of km from Grimsby to find the B&B I’d booked for the night right there in front of me. I was so tired that I abandoned thoughts of finishing the last 2.5 km of trail that would complete the Niagara section, instead checking in for the night. Day 3 was done, I was done, and also done, as it turned out, was my journey along the Niagara section of the Bruce Trail.
It rained overnight, and the next morning it was still damp and grey with a bit of misty rain in the air. I thought of polishing off the remaining bit of Trail, but I knew that it would be wet and muddy, and the map showed a steep descent and then a climb over that remaining couple of km, which I knew would be tough. Reluctantly, I decided to skip this last short section of the Trail. Officially I did all but 2.5 km of the Niagara section of the Bruce trail, but I’ll pick it up from there one day when I do the next section of the Bruce.
So what did I learn? Firstly, that I could actually do it even though it was tough going in many places. Ironically, I was travelling through fabulously scenic countryside and yet I didn’t actually see that much. I spent most of my time looking down for roots and rocks. At most I’d glance up every 5-10 seconds to catch the next blaze, and otherwise I kept my head down. Even so I must have tripped or slipped a few dozen times a day despite my best concentration – the Trail is not for the wandering mind.
I was also sobered to think that if the Niagara section is one of the easier stretches of the Bruce, then the toughest parts would take a lot more planning and prep. For this journey I had planned to do around 30 km a day but knowing what I know now, I think 20-25 km is more realistic.
As well, I carried a relatively light pack since I was staying at hotels along the way. Even so, that 11 kg felt pretty heavy near the end of each day so in future I’ll have to build in more training walks carrying at least that much weight, so I’m better acclimated.
I also learned that there are few areas on the Bruce for just sitting, and very few places to refill with potable water from a tap. On the more remote sections, I’ll need to plan to filter and treat water along the trail from streams and springs.
Finally, as beautiful as it is, and as famous as it is in the hiking community, I thought the Bruce was surprisingly lightly travelled. I only met 2 other through-hikers and just a handful of day walkers over 3 days on one of the busiest sections of the Trail. Granted it was a bit late in the season, but the weather was generally good. I was conditioned by my walks along Toronto trails to expect to meet people at least a few times an hour.
Several people have asked me what I do when I’m walking – do I listen to music, do I get bored, do I feel lonely walking by myself. No. The beauty of the Bruce, for me, is the peace and quiet. I loved it.