Rouge National Urban Park


The GO train pulls into Rouge Hill station and I’m back where I left off in December. It’s a balmy zero degrees and the sun is shining over Lake Ontario. The Waterfront Trail continues east past Scarborough bluffs from Port Union to Rouge Beach, where a flock of Canada geese and a lone swan have found shelter from the winds coming off the lake.


The beach is a tiny piece of the Waterfront Trail but it is one of the entrances to Rouge Park. It’s time to explore the first National Park that intersects the Trans Canada trail route east from downtown Toronto.


Since I began this series of walks from Yonge Street in November 2015, Toronto amenities have never been far away. Even when I have been at the bottom of the Don Valley Ravine or in the parks along Highland Creek, the trail has led eventually to food, water and even an entire cookie factory. The conditions get a little more rustic this week. Rouge Park may be an urban national park accessible by public transit but it’s still a wilderness area. The New Year will begin with the transition from city walking to hiking.


Of course, I will not be hiking the entire park in an afternoon. When Rouge Park  is complete, it will be 79.1 square km and will stretch from Lake Ontario to Uxbridge. (Here’s the map). Instead, I make my way up Rouge Hill Drive then down into the ravine and under Hwy 401 to Glen Rouge campground and the start of the Mast trail.



The Mast trail is a 200 year old logging route. The timber floated up the Rouge River for use in shipbuilding including mainmasts. The path through the woods goes up and down hills and has some icy stretches this time of year. More experienced hikers than myself have crampons attached to their snow boots. When I encounter a particularly treacherous looking slope in my travels, I sit down and slide to the bottom, using the back of my knee length parka as an impromptu toboggan.




At Sheppard Ave, the Mast Trail comes to an end and the Orchard Trail begins.


This trail provides spectacular views of the Rouge River, flowing under a thin layer of ice. There are few people out walking in this weather – the most recent issue of Macleans Magazine claims that Canada has become “A nation of winter wusses” –  but this area was once filled with activity.


The Rouge River valley was charted by Louis Jolliet (1645-1700), royal hydrographer to King Louis XIV of France. Jolliet’s 1680 map was one of the first to use the word “Toronto” – an Iroquois term for “where the trees are in the water” – to describe the area. While past generations of explorers of what is now Canada had crossed the Atlantic from France, Jolliet was born and raised outside Quebec City. In 1673, Jolliet, Jacques Marquette and a team of Metis voyageurs paddled and portaged from Lake Michigan to the mouth of the Arkansas river, exploring the upper Mississippi. One of Jolliet’s descendants, Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché became a father of Canada’s Confederation.


The Rouge River valley had been inhabited for thousands of years before Jolliet arrived. Rouge Park contains the site of Bead Hill, the 17th century Seneca village of Ganatsekwyagon, that was a key site in the fur trade. Correspondence between the Comte de Frontenac, Governor General of New France from 1672 to 1682 and Louis XIV reveals French concerns that the inhabitants of Ganatsekwyagon were trading with the Dutch, based in New Amsterdam (New York). These disputes over trade and territory erupted into open warfare. The village was abandoned in 1697 during the French and Iroquois Wars. Today, the site is archaeologically sensitive and not open to the public. 


The Orchard Trail ends at Zoo Road. The Rouge Valley conservation centre is located near the trailhead, in a house built for local sawmill owner James Pearse Jr. and his family in 1893.


There’s another hiking trail – the Cedar Trail – that continues north of Zoo Road but it’s nearly sunset, time to wrap up the walking for the day.  The corner of Zoo Road and Meadowvale Road is on the bus route back to the city from the Toronto Zoo.

Next time, we’ll leave Toronto and follow the Waterfront Trail around Frenchman’s Bay through the nautical village in Pickering.


Getting there by public transit: GO Transit to Rouge Hill for Rouge Beach, Subway to Kennedy then 86A bus to the Toronto Zoo for access to the Orchard and Cedar trails. 

Further Reading: The Rouge River Valley: An Urban Wilderness by James E. Garratt

Next: Frenchman’s Bay, Pickering


Highland Creek


The entrance to the Highland Creek Ravine at Lawrence Avenue is marked by a distinctly Canadian warning sign. “Skiing, tobogganing and sleigh riding are hazardous and are prohibited on this slope.” As a historian specializing in Europe’s royal families, I don’t dispute that. Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter Princess Louise suffered a concussion in an Ottawa sleigh accident in 1880. Winter sports can be dangerous.


The painful toboggan injury is a fixture of so many Canadian childhoods – including my own – that it has made its way into Canadian literature.

“He did not see the collision coming, only the second sled’s slanting path from the darker, less frequented south ridge, and that it would surely intersect with the toboggan now hurtling in a straight line toward the ramp. When the slight human snap registered in his muffled hat-covered ear half an instant after the two sleds actually met, he began down the hill before anyone else knew what had happened, and soon was kneeling in the snow by her side, holding her squarely by the shoulders. She was crying.

He touched her leg gently, feeling for the break. “Does it hurt here?” He moved down the thigh to the shin. “What about here?” — Dennis Bock, The Ash Garden

What makes the  winter sports warning sign seem out of place is the weather, which remains unseasonably warm for December. The temperature dropped to zero for the day but there is no snow on the ground. A white Christmas is unlikely.


There will be no further signage along the Highland Creek trail until we reach the University of Toronto Scarborough campus. Those helpful Pan Am path direction notices that announce how many metres or kilometres until the next major road or trail exit are almost entirely missing from the Highland Creek section of the trail. Therefore, the first direction we will take is the wrong one, away from the Trans Canada trail and south into the Highland Creek community park. The scenery is so spectacular that the wrong way feels like the right one, following the meandering creek. This narrow waterway used to be far wider than it is today. In the 1830s, a ninety-five ton schooner traveled one mile up the creek from Lake Ontario.


Somewhere near Guildwood, I remember that maps are not just colourful images for this blog but are meant to be consulted now and then and I retrace my steps back along Highland Creek to the Pan Am path.


The scenery grows even more imposing and you can see why this site, with its fresh water and towering bluffs, has been inhabited for thousands of years. The name Highland Creek comes from Yat-qui-i-be-no-nick, the Mississauga First Nation word for “creek comes out under high [lands]” and archaeological excavations have uncovered evidence of settlement dating back to 3500 BCE.


The water is less inviting today – a sign sternly warns against swimming and wading because of pollution.



The Highland Creek trail loops around the tennis courts at the University of Toronto Scarborough. This part of the University was once the summer estate of Toronto businessman Miller Lash, whose house remains a popular wedding venue. The University of Toronto bought the land in 1963 as part of its expansion plan. Enrollment in post secondary institutions increased dramatically in the 1960s with the coming of age of the post-war baby boomer generation.


After leaving the campus, the trail passes under the Old Kingston Road, which was built as a stagecoach route between Toronto and Kingston and remained the main roadway between the two cities until the completion of the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway (Highway 401) in 1965. As the creek meanders through Colonel Danforth park (named for Asa Danforth Jr, a land speculator who acquired vast tracts of property in Upper Canada in the 1790s then upset Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe by not recruiting further settlers as promised), we encounter our first wild animal warning in our travels on the Trans Canada trail.


At first, I am not concerned. I have seen numerous coyote warnings in Toronto’s ravines but never a single coyote. But as the sun begins go down, I pick up the pace and begin singing along with my iPod, trying to simulate that “noise maker” effect recommended by the coyote warning sign.


“Say what you will, I will miss you my friends. Let me move along for the road never ends…” — Gordon Lightfoot


The only wildlife I encounter is a lone raccoon, who looks singularly unimpressed with my off key musical efforts.

I emerge onto Port Union beach, in time to join a group of dog walkers on the Waterfront Trail for a spectacular sunset over Lake Ontario.




The beach brings the Pan Am Path to an end and its signs provide a quick recap of the walks since this journey began.


The Waterfront Trail leads to Rouge Hill GO train station, which was built in 1967 as the first station of a new regional public transit system for southern Ontario. The rapid expansion of Toronto and the surrounding communities after the Second World War increased demand for commuter transit beyond the capacity of the Canadian National Railway Company.


The GO transit system was popular from the start – 1 million people rode the trains to and from downtown in Toronto in the first four months – and the modern double decker trains were introduced in 1979 in response to ever growing number of commuters in the region. From Rouge Hill to Union Station, a couple blocks away from Yonge Street where this series of walks began, the GO train journey takes 30 minutes.

Getting there by Public Transit: GO Transit to Rouge Hill on the Lakeshore East line.

Further Reading: Along the Shore: Rediscovering Toronto’s Waterfront Heritage by M. Jane Fairburn

Next: Rouge Park

Scarborough Museum and the East Corridor


We’ll begin today’s walk at the Scarborough Museum, near West Highland Creek, which we crossed during our stroll along the Gatineau Hydro Corridor last week. There is currently an exhibition about the life and diaries of Frances Tweedie Milne and I am reliably informed by The City of Toronto that there will be “baked holiday goodies.” Victorian women’s history and Christmas treats sounds like my kind of December afternoon and so we will start there, just after noon, the time of the museum opens on winter weekends then finish the Hydro Corridor and walk along the Highland Creek section of the Pan Am path until dusk.


Frances Tweedie Milne was born and raised  on a farm in Whitby where she began keeping a diary in 1866, at the age of eighteen. In 1869, she married and moved to Scarborough with her husband, continuing to keep a record of her daily life. The exhibition includes her account of celebrating the first Dominion Day – Canada Day – after Canada achieved Confederation in 1867 by attending fireworks and military parades.

“Eventful Day Saw the eleph. go away, the Cavalry come in 9 a.m. Nick called at Campbells. We went to review. G. Rumsey came down to Hall with me. Went home, Em came to fireworks. Mack and I promenade around. Came home with Dave in new buggy.” — Diary of Frances Tweedie Milne, July 1, 1867


The museum imagines what Frances’s Facebook page might have looked like if she were alive today. Likes include the novels of Paul Clifford – the writer who coined the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night” – ice skating and the public library on St. Andrew’s Road.


The Scarborough museum is a collection of historic buildings from around the area that were brought together on the site of Thomson Settlement, which we visited near the end of our walk through the west and central sections of the Gatineau Hydro Corridor last time. The main house, Cornell house, belonged to a family of apple farmers and it’s decorated for Christmas in early 20th century style.


The log cabin, McCowan house, was located near the current site of the Toronto zoo, which we will be visiting in a future walk. It was the home of sheep farmer, William Porteous McCowan who emigrated from Scotland in 1833 and gave his name to one of Scarborough’s main roads.


Frances’s diary contains numerous references to dressing in tartan – in case the names of the settlers and the proximity of St. Andrew’s road and Highland Creek are not evidence enough that this community used to be more Scottish than Scotland.  In the mid 19th century, much of the political elite in English Canada was of Scottish descent and Frances Tweedie Milne and her neighbours had every reason to display their heritage in their homes, clothing and celebrations.


After enjoying the hot apple cider and apple cinnamon muffins at the Scarborough museum, let’s continue east along the Gatineau Hydro Corridor. The hydro lines in the east end of the corridor look the same as they did in the west end that we visited last time but the terrain is very different. Instead of a flat prairie, there are rolling hills and you begin to understand why Elizabeth Simcoe was inspired in the 1790s to name the area Scarborough after the town in North Yorkshire.


The landscape is different at the east end of the Gatineau hydro corridor as well. Instead of vast expanses of browning grass that encourage visitors to cycle or walk though as quickly as possible, the east corridor is filled with community garden plots and meadow restoration projects that carpet the land with wildflowers in the Springtime. Here, visitors are encouraged to linger with only the signs prohibiting kite and model airplane flying reminding us that we are in a hydro corridor rather than a traditional park.


The east corridor ends near Military Trail, which used to be the only way to cross Highland Creek. The ravine surrounding the creek acted as a natural barrier to settlement further east just as the Don Valley, which we visited in a previous walk, inhibited the growth of the city before the building of The Prince Edward Viaduct.


A short walk through a Scarborough residential neighbourhood takes us to the entrance to Morningside Park at Lawrence Ave, which provides access to the Highland Creek ravine that we will explore in the next part of the walk.


Getting to the Scarborough museum by public transit:  54A Lawrence East bus eastbound to Brimley road

Further Reading: Much to Be Done: Private Life in Ontario From Victorian Diaries by Frances Hoffman and Ryan Taylor

Next: Highland Creek


The Gatineau Hydro Corridor


Before you ask, we are still in Toronto. If we continue walking in this direction along the Trans Canada Trail, we will eventually arrive in Ottawa and stroll across the Ontario-Quebec border into Gatineau but that day has not yet arrived. The Gatineau hydro corridor that traverses the former municipality of Scarborough (amalgamated with Toronto in 1998) is named for the Great Gatineau Power Station that was built in Leaside in the 1920s. The electricity generated by the Chaudière Falls was transmitted to the power station along the Gatineau Hydro Corridor, the longest 220,000 volt line in Canada.


The Gatineau Hydro Corridor acts as a linear park, taking us from the industrial warehouses of Bermondsey, where we left off last week, to north of the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus. By this time of year, I expected the corridor to resemble a snow swept prairie but the weather remains curiously above zero. The Doctor Zhivago inspired landscape shots will have to wait for later in the season. Instead, there is browning grass and the occasional overturned shopping cart.


For our previous walks, I’ve had a good sense of where I am going but the Gatineau Hydro Corridor portion of trail meanders in and out of parks, through residential areas of 1950s bungalows that all look remarkably the same, over bridges and past deserted playgrounds. I know I’m walking vaguely northeast but there isn’t the same sense of consistent path as there was on The Lower Don Trail or Taylor Creek Park. The signage comes and goes and is often a recent history of Toronto itself, announcing both the Pan Am path established this year and “Metro Toronto,” which existed before amalgamation.


As a result of the meandering path and unfamiliar terrain, I am reluctant to go looking for interesting places off the trail as I did downtown but no historian can resist the giant sign that says “Historic Site” on St. Andrews Road. Here is one of the oldest parts of Scarborough, named by Elizabeth Simcoe in 1793 because the terrain reminded her of the town of the same name in North Yorkshire.

“The shore is extremely bold, and has the appearance of chalk cliffs, but I believe they are only white sand. They appeared so well that we talked of building a summer residence there and calling it Scarborough.” — Mrs. Simcoe’s Diary, August 4, 1793

St. Andrew’s Street is site of the Springfield farmhouse, Scarborough’s first brick house and a reminder that this busy region of Toronto was a rural area until comparatively recently. The first settlers here were David and Andrew Thompson, stonemasons and mill owners who established a community that became known as “Thompson settlement.”



Past Springfield farmhouse is St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church and Scarborough’s first public library, which was in operation from 1834 until 1861. James Thompson, the owner of the Springfield farmhouse (and son of original settler David Thompson) was also one of the founders of the public library. In keeping with nineteenth century ideas about libraries as places of intellectual and moral improvement, book acquisitions were strictly censored to ensure that “No book of a seditious, deistical or licentious character was to be allowed on the shelves on any pretence whatever.”





The sun is going down and soon the light will not be strong enough for photos. We’ll wrap up here for the day and start the next walk at the corner of St. Andrews and McCowan road, continuing along the eastern portion of the Gatineau Hydro Corridor to West Highland Creek.

Getting there on public transit: Subway to Warden, McCowan 16 bus northbound to St. Andrews St. 

Further Reading: Leaside by Jane Pitfield

Shawn Micallef, Scarborough is wild, historic and steep, Toronto Star, March 28, 2014

Next: Highland Creek