BY CRAIG MOY
We may complain about the shorter days and the noticeable chill in the air, but one thing we can’t lament with autumn’s arrival is the beautiful change it brings to our parks and woodlands. While trees are, of course, reasonably abundant in Toronto, you really do owe it to yourself to take leave of the concrete jungle in order to view the most vibrant foliage. So pack a picnic (or just some sturdy hiking shoes) and head to these just-outside-of-town locations to be awed by the best fall colours near Toronto.
THE NIAGARA ESCARPMENT
One of the most prominent topographical features of southern Ontario, the Niagara Escarpment runs from New York state through the Niagara region (indeed, the famous falls exist where the Niagara River drops off the escarpment’s cliff) and up to Georgian Bay. It’s also easily accessed from Toronto, traversed as it is by Highway 401 west of Milton. From the highway you’ll see clearly why the geological formation is a UNESCO-designated World Biosphere Reserve, what with its tree-lined slopes and limestone cliffs; venture up the escarpment for fantastic views and a great many conservation areas to explore. Rattlesnake Point affords a number of scenic lookouts and two great cliffs for rock climbing, while hikers can hook up with the extensive Bruce Trail. Just outside of the picturesque community of Campbellville lie a pair of conservation areas: Mountsberg (great for birdwatching) and Crawford Lake (surrounded by a lovely boardwalk). You can also take in the fall colours farther south in Hamilton—a city that actually straddles the escarpment—at Christie Lake Conservation Area, which boasts 10 kilometres of forested trails, plus boat rentals for an on-water view of your natural surroundings.
Stretching across more than 40 square kilometres between Lake Ontario in the south and the Oak Ridges Moraine in the north, Rouge Park features myriad ecosystems—rivers, meadows, forests and more—representing the largest natural environment to exist within an urban setting in Canada. Its most conveniently accessed hiking trails, tree stands (black maples and oaks are particularly prevalent) and scenic overlooks are concentrated north of Highway 401 in Scarborough. For a great, wide-angle photo op, seek out the Glen Eagles Vista, which affords a view of the Rouge River, Little Rouge Creek and rolling tree-lined hills. Note that the Toronto Zoo also sits within the Rouge valley, though not officially within the park itself.
An hour’s drive northwest of Toronto lies the town of Caledon, an amalgam of modest but vital urban communities dotting a swath of rural land. Though farmers’ fields often preclude bountiful woodlands, the area surrounding the Forks of the Credit Provincial Park does boast ample natural beauty, including the Credit River, which plunges over Cataract Falls—itself an attraction, as it’s abutted by the ruins of a 19th-century hydroelectric power station. The region is also popular amongst cyclists, who favour its hilly, tree-lined back roads (like, well, Forks of the Credit Road) that pass through picturesque villages like Belfountain and Erin. If you’ve embarked on a country drive, look for the Escarpment Side Road (off of Hurontario Street, just south of Caledon Village): the route runs along the top of the Niagara Escarpment and affords a panoramic view reaching, on clear days, all the way back to Toronto.
BRONTE CREEK PROVINCIAL PARK
Somewhat less rugged than many of Ontario’s other provincial parks (one of its defining features, for example, is a nearly two-acre outdoor swimming pool), the area encompassed by Bronte Creek Provincial Park in Oakville reflects its history as both a natural and agricultural site. If you can pull your family away from the Children’s Farm—a 150-year-old barn that’s been repurposed as a play loft for all sorts of haphazard hijinks—you’ll be rewarded with a number of walking trails that wend their way through a large Carolinian forest of resplendently coloured foliage.
ALGONQUIN PROVINCIAL PARK
Located about 300 kilometres north of Toronto, Algonquin Provincial Park takes a bit of effort to reach, but the three-hours-or-so travel time pays off in spades once you reach this vast wilderness filled with pristine lakes and rivers, marshes, old-growth forests and an array of easy-to-challenging trails from which to explore Ontario’s hinterland in all its glory. Algonquin’s visitor centre (at kilometre 43 on Highway 60) is an excellent first stop for photographers, who can snap a panoramic vista from its viewing deck. Then, if you’re up for a good hike, head to the Lookout or Centennial Ridges trails, both of which feature unbelievable views across several hundred square kilometres of the Canadian Shield. (Note that due to various environmental and geographic factors, Algonquin Park’s peak colour-change period is often earlier than that of more southerly locations. It typically falls around the end of September, as opposed to mid-October in the Greater Toronto Area.)