Taking a hike now sometimes requires booking a reservation, but there are mental health benefits that come with being one with nature
In early July, three whole months into Toronto’s COVID-19 lockdown, I was dying to stretch my legs beyond my usual tiger trail around Cabbagetown. I longed for craggy rocks, the soft thud of dry, compact dirt beneath my sneakers and the feeling of coolness under a canopy of oak trees.
I’m not much of a hiker, or even an outdoorsperson for that matter, but something about being trapped inside my apartment for days on end – working, sleeping, eating all of my meals and Zooming in lieu of in-person socializing – broke me.
I needed to get out of the city I loved so dearly and into the woods. Turns out, there’s a reason I felt so restless and stagnant indoors.
“Getting fresh air, being outside and being one with nature just helps people feel better,” says Donna Ferguson, a clinical psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). “There’s actually evidence that shows being in nature can help boost your mood and decrease your stress levels.”
I decided to head over to Halton region to try two easy short hikes. Just over an hour’s drive west, numerous trails weave through 80 kilometres of the Niagara Escarpment, encountering lakes, creeks and waterfalls along the way.
Typically, you can just drive up to the parking lot, pay a fee ($6.50 for non-member adults, $5 for seniors and children 5-14) and begin hiking. But since the start of the pandemic, online reservations (conservationhalton.ca) lasting two hours are mandatory for most hikes. Some areas fill up quickly, especially on weekends, so it’s best to check for reservations (not all require advance bookings) and policies before heading out.
“This new reservation system enables us to predict and monitor the number of people in the parks so that we can create the conditions needed for physical distancing,” Conservation Halton, which oversees the area, states on its website. “Some washrooms are open and more facilities and services will be continuously added.”
When I arrived at the base of Mount Nemo one Friday in July, the parking lot was busy but not full. I encountered other hikers (and dogs) on the trails, but everyone maintained their distance and, for the most part, I was able to enjoy the lush green surroundings and occasional swooping of turkey vultures undisturbed.
The same was true about a 10-minute drive away at Rattlesnake Point, which has space for picnicking and tent camping (although campsites are closed this year). The trails are wide and relatively flat, making them ideal for families or groups with wide-ranging physical abilities. And I can only imagine the panoramic view of changing leaves from Buffalo Crag Lookout Point in the fall.
“Research indicates that a minimum of 120 minutes outdoors per week can help improve mood and produce other positive effects, such as a good night’s sleep,” says Ferguson. “And if you can take your exercise outdoors, you’ll get the benefits of sunlight and breathing in fresh air while you’re being physically active.”
Both Mount Nemo and Rattlesnake Point stay open to hikers throughout the fall and winter, and cross-country skiers and snowshoers are welcome to explore neighbouring areas like Crawford Lake, Mountsberg and Hilton Falls once it snows.
With physical distancing orders remaining in place in most of Ontario and the potential for a second wave of COVID-19, Ferguson stresses being proactive about scheduling time outdoors. Of course, when engaging in any activities with people outside your social bubble, physical distancing and wearing a mask are highly recommended.
“With shorter days coming up, conditions like seasonal affective disorder or the blues can be around the corner, so it’s even more important that people get their sunlight, fresh air and mood levels up,” she says. “People shouldn’t shy away from going outdoors, even if there’s another lockdown.”
Canada’s first national urban park is just a 30-minute drive from downtown and accessible by TTC (bring a mask!). With over 79 square kilometres of green space, you’ll find numerous tree-lined hiking trails, rich biodiversity and one of the oldest known Indigenous sites in the country.
1749 Meadowvale, rougepark.com. Free
About an hour’s drive north near Newmarket is a set of rugged woodland trails part of the Oak Ridges Moriane. Proper footwear is recommended for the 99-step descent leading from the parking lot to the ravine-like hiking area.
1260 19th Sideroad, King City, lsrca.on.ca. Free
One of the most popular areas to view fall colours will feel significantly more spacious this year, thanks to mandatory two-hour reservations. Open from September 19 to November 15, the three-kilometre trail near Hamilton is known for its panoramic views of the Niagara Escarpment and stunning Tew Falls.
581 Harvest, Dundas, conservationhamilton.ca. $5-15
Near the town of Mono on the picturesque Bruce Trail, the park offers over a half-dozen hiking paths for all skill levels. As the name suggests, cliffs are the attraction here, and the Cliff Top Trail offers a set of stairs down a rock face to get a close-up view of the rock and the surrounding ferns and cedars.
795122 3rd Line East, Orangeville, ontarioparks.com. Free
Accessible trails along the waterfront are less than an hour drive from Toronto. Situated on two marshes, this popular wildlife viewing spot provides habitat for nesting birds, as well as many water-dependent mammals.
1225 Victoria West, Whitby, cloca.com. Free