Man-made nature preserve east of Toronto's Port Lands will make you forget you're in the city
If you don’t want to let summer pass by without enjoying the nice weather, there’s nothing better than a walk or hike. It will clear your head and boost your spirits during this difficult time. In this series, I explore some of the city’s parks and streets. This week: the vast man-made nature preserve of Tommy Thompson Park.
If you’ve ever gone to Cherry Beach or the Port Lands, this long, spidery stretch of greenery (also called the Leslie Street Spit) lies to the east. It’s also south of the Ashbridge’s Bay Wastewater Treatment Centre.
There’s free parking, and the 83 Jones bus (from Donlands station) drops you off 5 minutes from the entrance. I travelled by BikeShare along the Martin Goodman Trail and parked at a station conveniently located right inside the park gates.
Pedestrian-only paths mean you won’t have cyclists bearing down on you.
The park (which doesn’t feel like a park) is named after the former Toronto Parks Commissioner. It’s not, as I fancied, a laid-back reference to the landscape painter, although there are vistas worthy of one of his canvases. Incredibly, the entire thing is man-made, creating an “accidental wilderness.” Currently, the nature preserve’s nature centre and bird research centre are closed, but there’s so much more to do and see.
Because it’s relatively hard to access, the park feels pretty secluded. During my glorious one-and-a-half hour walk, I saw maybe 50 people in total. A few were wearing masks, but the main path is very wide, allowing for easy physical distancing.
The walkers included couples, some families (with strollers) and singletons (like me) pretending to be Thoreau. Cyclists were alone, in pairs or groups. There were also a few people fishing. Only near the end of my walk did I see a group of sweaty, exhibitionist, shirtless joggers like you might find in other parks. One big plus (or minus, depending on your pet status): no dogs are allowed in the park. Ditto electronic bikes or motorized skateboards/hoverboards. And amplified music is a no-no. The result? Bucolic bliss.
There are plenty of spots to think about the meaning of the universe.
While the paved main road going south from the gates is wheelchair accessible, some of the smaller gravel and dirt paths might be harder to manage.
Thankfully, there are several walking-only trails, although on the night I went some obnoxious cyclists managed to wheel their way in. The walking trails in this nature preserve include many places where you can rejoin the main shared-use road. Closer to the lake, people with mobility issues should beware of precariously placed stones.
One good thing about this walk: there are about half a dozen porta-potties located throughout the park. So when nature calls, you can respond with dignity.
Sculptures along the lakeshore could seem spooky at night.
If you thought butterflies were extinct, you’ll see dozens flittering about. I lost count of the number of times I saw geese flying in that V formation. And there are birds of every colour around, a nice change from my usual urban view of gross balcony pigeon.
Ten species of owls have been identified in the park, but there are strict rules to stay at least 12 metres away when observing or photographing. You also can’t use flash or follow them.
Step off the main path and you’ll see lots of rocky shoreline. Previous visitors have made cool sculptures from blocks of concrete, rusted iron and driftwood. No fires are allowed, but when I visited there were suggestions that not everyone had followed these rules.
There are lots of private places to sit on a rock, stare out onto Lake Ontario and contemplate the meaning of life. Just keep in mind that there are signs warning of snakes. And the park guide says ticks have also been found, so check yourself when you get home.
Despite the view, make sure you look on the ground for the occasional snake.
Also, I wouldn’t stay too late. Some trails can, I imagine, get creepy near closing time, with twisted branches recalling the artifacts from The Blair Witch Project.
I just found out there’s a lighthouse in the park. I’ll make it a destination on my next visit.
I ended up walking 7 km in just over 90 minutes. The park has such an unusual layout that it’s possible to go many times and not repeat yourself. There are vast kilometres of nature preserve to explore and breathe in the fresh air. Alas, because there’s only one way to enter the space, you’ll have to retrace your steps when you leave. But you’ll be too invigorated to care.
More Pandemic Walks here.