Toronto walk: Doris McCarthy Trail/Gates Gully

Inaccessible by cars, this gorgeous spot to the east of Bluffer's Park is a private place full of history, art and nature

When I interviewed author and naturalist Jason Ramsay-Brown last year, I asked him about some of his favourite walks in the city, and he quickly mentioned Gates Gully in Scarborough. Well, this week I finally got around to checking it out – and I agree with his choice. While thousands of people will likely be swarming the Scarborough Bluffs and beach this summer, a few kilometres east is a much more interesting and serene walk with a better view of the lake and bluffs. The only drawback is its lack of accessibility.

Start: Wednesday, 2:45 pm, Bellamy, south of Kingston

I took the Markham 102 bus out of Warden Station and, after about 10 minutes, got off at Bellamy and Kingston. From there, it’s a quick walk south to the Doris McCarthy Trail. Don’t worry if you think you’re entering a residential neighbourhood (Bellamy turns into Ravine Drive south of Kingston). There’s a clear sign indicating the start of the trail.

How accessible is it?

The Gully is inaccessible for those in wheelchairs. And if you have mobility issues, it might prove challenging. Although the surface of the kilometre-long trail is gravel, it’s so steep there are signs warning cyclists to dismount. For walkers, going down puts lots of pressure on your knees, and coming back up works your gluteus to the maximus. The fact that cars can’t access the trail ensures a certain level of privacy – unlike car-clogged Brimley, which gets you to the Bluffs. If you’re coming by car, you can probably find parking on Ravine Drive, but there’s no parking lot.

Photo by Glenn Sumi

Walking down the steep Doris McCarthy Trail is one of the most peaceful walks in the city.

What will you see, and who’s there?

Despite its steepness, the trail offers one of the most enchanting and peaceful walks in the city. It’s the height of summer, so trees (among them birch, maple, oak) provide a magnificent leafy canopy blocking out the sun. Wildflowers and grasses line the path, and birds sing out from all around you. It’s hard to get a good look at Bellamy Ravine Creek, but while walking it’s easy to imagine its history as an early 19th century smuggling route bringing goods from the U.S. into Canada. Gates Gully gets its name from the Gates Tavern at Bellamy and Kingston, which played a key role in the Rebellion of 1837.

Glenn Sumi

Marlene Hilton Moore’s sculpture Passage honours artist Doris McCarthy.

The walk down will take about 10 minutes; at one point you’ll get a glimpse of Lake Ontario to show you you’re close. At the foot of the trail, right before the lake, is Marlene Hilton Moore’s magnificent steel sculpture Passage, which resembles the ribcage of a fish and the structure of a canoe. It’s a lovely homage to Doris McCarthy, an artist who lived nearby in a house called Fool’s Paradise, named for her mother’s judgemental statement to her when McCarthy purchased the land in 1939.

Once at Passage, you can veer right to explore some magnificent views of the bluffs. The effects of erosion are evident, with some sections where a single tree juts out, its roots dangling from the earth beneath it. Like Tommy Thompson Park, much of the coast has been shored up with rocks and slabs of concrete. There are several man-made piers made of huge boulders, and the beach consists entirely of rocks and pebbles. Warning: you’ll need shoes with good support to get to the piers (don’t wear flip flops). I imagine you can twist your ankle pretty badly if you’re not careful.

Glenn Sumi

Someone made a mini sculpture along the rocky shore.

At one point here, you can see the Bluffer’s Park beach. And if you’re very careful, you can hug the bluffs to get there. But be prepared to get a soaking if you lose your footing. One interesting fact: because you can see endless vistas of the lake but can’t see the Toronto skyline, you can pretend you’re not even in the city.

To the left of Moore’s sculpture are kilometres of peaceful, winding paths. You’ll see and hear lots of birds nearby. (One point seemed like a resting area for dozens of gulls.) And a marsh area indicates wetlands, resulting in a different kind of wildlife. Because of the quiet, twisty paths, you might, like me, take a chance and relieve yourself, since there’s no public washroom.

On a weekday afternoon, I encountered fewer than 10 people in an hour-and-a-half. I’m sure it gets more crowded at night and on the weekends, but the fact that cars can’t get there means it’ll stay pretty private. Besides the inaccessibility, the only other drawback is you have to return the same way you came. And as I mentioned earlier, that return walk up the path is quite a workout.

End: 4:25 pm, entrance to trail

It’s hard to find a beach in the city that isn’t overrun with people. But because the shore at Gates Gully isn’t your typical beach, it won’t attract the Coppertone set. If your ankles are strong and you want a good lower body workout and a bit of history, this walk is for you.

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One response to “Toronto walk: Doris McCarthy Trail/Gates Gully”

  1. Such a shame you published this. The Scarborough bluffs are totally overwhelmed with people, leaving garbage, urinating in the sand and causing chaos in surrounding neighbourhoods. Now a once local trail will no longer be local but encounter the same demise as the bluffs. People living on Ravine Drive get ready, and locals who use this trail be prepared for an influx of people who may or may not respect nature.

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