Hey Toronto, remember to Practice Physical Distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic! That means that, unfortunately, Tommy Thompson Park is closed right now, until restrictions are lifted. Read on to dream about walks when we’re all released from our cages.
And on to the regular post …..
For the past 150 years, Toronto has been growing and building at a furious rate – the skyline has evolved with every decade, as new towers join and dwarf older ones. In recent years, there have been more than 100 high rise buildings under construction at any one time.
All of that development, including the roads that connect it, has resulted in massive amounts of demolition and of excavation, which has created hundreds of thousands of tons of construction debris. It all has to go somewhere, and for 50+ years that somewhere was Lake Ontario.
And thus, from debris was a park born. Today, through a lot of effort from a lot of people and groups, especially the Toronto Regional Conservation Authority, the Leslie Street Spit has become Tommy Thompson Park, and the Trail within the park has become one of the most popular in the city. While many bike out to the tip of the park, I like to walk it in a loop. It’s a great way to escape the city – it can be so quiet that, on a winter’s day, you can hear the ice groaning along the water’s edge. And yet, only a couple of km away, that ever-changing Toronto skyline is in full view – the park is one of the best places for taking selfies of the city. And it’s also one of the best places to view wildlife in Toronto, home to many species of birds and waterfowl, as well as squirrels, raccoons, coyotes, beaver, and more. It’s a favourite year-round, and a must for any visitor to Toronto.
Length: about 12 km if you do the full loop around the tip
Surface: gravel and pavement, about 50% each though you can use the paved road the whole way if you’d like
Public Transit: take the #83 Jones bus south to Commissioners Road, either from Donlands station on Subway Line 2 or from the 501 Queen East streetcar.
Route: Starting from the parking lot at #1 Leslie Street, follow the trail signs into the park. The walking trail proceeds south and west from the car park just to the south (left-hand) side of roadway. If the trail is too muddy, you can just walk the road. Follow the trail/road about 1 km into the park, until you come to a gate on the south side (left-hand) side. Turn left and follow the trail/road along the south side of the ponds. Where the road turns right (north), on the lake side of the road, there is a gravel/dirt path. Follow that along the shore to the tip of the point, by the lighthouse. Loop around the lighthouse and follow the trail back to the roadway. Follow the roadway straight east all the way back to the the car park, where you started.
Sights: For me, there are several key sights along the way. First and foremost, there’s that stunning view of the Toronto skyline.
Then of course there is the wildlife, especially waterfowl. In spring and autumn, there are many migratory species coming through – I’ve seen clouds of raptors like hawks, eagles, and vultures, as well as swans, geese, ducks, gulls, and many other species.
I’ve also seen a lot of evidence of coyotes, though I’ve never actually seen one in the park. Similarly, there are often trees downed by beavers, though again the actual animals keep hidden during the day. Both of these species are nocturnal, so one of these days I’m planning to visit late in the evening, just at sundown, to catch some of the night critters.
In summer, there are also many species of butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, beetles, and other insects, plus snakes, turtles, toads, frogs, and fish in the ponds. You can spend hours just exploring the ponds and observing in the smaller creatures.
As well as the city and the wildlife, there’s also the lake itself. In any season, sitting by the water and listening to the lap of the waves is deeply relaxing. I’m sure it’s also pretty dramatic during a storm, though also pretty exposed.
And finally, there’s an interesting free-form artistic side to the park. Over the years, many people have built sculptures out of the construction debris – wires, bricks, concrete and rebar are combined with driftwood to create some fantastic pieces.
Food & Refreshment: This is a bring your own picnic spot, because there no restaurants or refreshments in the park. At the intersection of Leslie and Lakeshore, just outside the park, there are several coffee shops as well as a grocery store, so you can pick up snacks there. Bring lots of water, especially in the summer, because there are no fountains anywhere. There are also few washrooms – just a couple of portapotties along the way.
Diversions: I’ve drawn the full loop trail on the map, but you can also make a shorter walk by cutting across the park about a third of the way along.
You can also just go straight along the north road to the tip, and back the same way – it’s a bit more sheltered/shaded if the weather is blustery or sunny, and it’s a bit shorter that way as well.
One other alternative is to start at Cherry Beach
and follow the Waterfront Trail to the entrance to Tommy Thompson Park – that adds about 1.5 km, and is a nice walk in its own right.
Finally, the TRCA hosts various events in the park, so check out the park website to see what’s happening.
In early October, we had a stretch of those blue-sky, warm-for-the-season, autumn days that demand that you use them. So I did – I headed out for a walk through a favourite park, Tommy Thompson, to take advantage of just-warm-enough-for-shorts-and-a-T-shirt temps and perfect sunshine, enough to keep you warm but not enough to make you overheat.
What I also wanted to do was fill in a gap – in looking at the map of the Great Trail, I could see that a big chunk of it within Toronto consists of the Waterfront Trail, and I’ve walked nearly all of that except for a short stretch through the port lands and along Cherry Beach. To get to Tommy Thompson Park, I could complete my missing bit of the Waterfront Trail and cross that off my list of completed sections of the Great Trail. (And by the way, when did I get to be a cross-off-the-list guy?)
I decided to start at the Distillery District and walk south along Cherry Street along the Martin Goodman Trail. This takes you over the Cherry Street bridge to cross the Don River channel. The view west is of the harbour.
The view east is of the Don River, lined with the construction sites that are slowly turning the port lands into parks and urban areas.
At the bottom of Cherry Street, you come to an unexpected little treasure – Cherry Street Beach park. The view across the water to the south is of Tommy Thompson park and looking west you get a view out past the Toronto Islands to the lake.
As I stood there looking out over the beach, a song from the soundtrack of my university days came into my head – the Pukka Orchestra’s 1984 hit called Cherry Beach Express. It’s a catchy tune though the lyrics are pretty dark – it’s about a practice that was alleged against the Toronto Police back in the 1970’s and ’80’s, of taking suspects out to Cherry Beach in the middle of the night and roughing them up. Standing there in the sun, it was hard to believe that 30-40 years ago Cherry Beach was not a place you’d visit voluntarily. The city has done a lot of growing up since then, both in terms of parks and its relationship with the lake, and more importantly in terms of social progress. I can’t believe that in today’s Toronto, such a practice would be tolerated (if it actually happened then). Still, like I said, it’s a catchy tune – look up Pukka Orchestra and check out their back catalog. Toronto produced a lot of great groups back then.
With that thought fading, I turned east to follow the Waterfront Trail and soon came to the hulk of the defunct Hearn generating station. This coal-fired electrical generation plant has been shut down for years but there seems to be no plan yet for it’s long term use, though the interior has served as a backdrop for several films and TV shows. The chimney dominates the view, looming over the trees along the trail as you near it.
From the Hearn, the trail takes you further east, to the corner of Commissioner’s Road and Leslie Street where a new entrance is being constructed for Tommy Thompson Park (what was once known as the Leslie Street Spit). It was such a gorgeous day, I wanted to do the full trail through the park out to the lighthouse at the tip.
There was a stongish breeze off the lake and a bit of chop so the soundscape was composed of waves slapping the shore, rustling reeds, and the shushhh of leaves in trees. While I was only a km from the downtown core, apart from the occasional aircraft overhead my footsteps were the only man-made sound.
If you stick to the lake-side of the park, the trail takes you through some new growth bush, and on this early autumn day it was just starting to turn colour in a few places. The sunshine made it warm enough for grasshoppers, crickets, and cicadas to serenade me as I walked, and I was joined by a couple of wee grass snakes sunning themselves.
As I walked, I passed only a couple of people out for a bike ride. On a mid-week visit, I mostly had the place to myself, something that helped me to tune out the world and just get into the zen of a hike on a beautiful day. My strides were on auto-pilot and I could enjoy the scenery, the sun, and the breeze. I kept to the left at the fork halfway down the trail so that I could take the loop around the ponds in the middle of the park, and then at the next trail intersection, I turned west to head out to the tip.
There, a small hill serves at the base for the lighthouse. It’s been much decorated with graffiti over the years.
Below the lighthouse, there isn’t a beach as such – instead the reclaimed nature of the park is on display. The whole of the park is based on excavated soil and construction debris that came from the gradual development of the buildings that now form the Toronto skyline. Over the years this landfill has supported the growth of plants that have transformed the old Leslie Street Spit into the new Tommy Thompson park. The underlying concrete and bricks on display at the lake-facing side of the tip have been used by artists to create sculptures that cover the area.
But when you turn back towards the city, the skyline view across the harbour is stunning, all the more so when you think that many of those buildings exist because their foundations required excavating soil that had to go somewhere, and that somewhere is where you are standing. One of these days, I’m going to come out here late in the evening to get a sunset view.
After taking a break to soak up the view and have a sandwich, I turned to head back. By taking the harbour-side trail I could complete the loop around the park, while passing the more mature wooded parts of the park, the oldest bits that have had the longest to generate plant cover. There are more of the improvised sculptures here, wherever old construction debris is exposed.
The trail is really a road along the harbour-side of the park, built for the trucks that until recently had been delivering more fill to extend the spit. Now that the park is closed to further dumping, this road has become a test track for bikes. I was passed and repassed frequently by cyclists doing time trials up and down the trail. They were in their zone and I was in mine, as I trudged back to the park entrance.
As you come out of the park, you pass a trail through what has recently been designated as Villiers Island. This part of the port lands is going to become part of the redeveloped mouth of the Don River. The idea is to carve a new channel for the Don that will allow the river to pass through a more natural wetland area instead of the shipping channel that it’s forced through today. By doing this, the original habitat will be partially restored and the wetlands will provide flood control as well as park space.
It’s great to see that, out of the growth of downtown Toronto and the many towers that make up its skyline, Tommy Thompson park has emerged and will be joined by even more green space. Come back in 20 years and you might not even realize that it’s all man-made.
As a society, we’ve often prioritized economic growth at the expense of making a mess, so I’m happy to see that now we’re getting good at cleaning up those messes and turning them into something that our kids and grandkids will appreciate.