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Whether it's a half-hour trip to a dog park or a trek along the Humber or Don, here's our guide to enjoying the city's parks and recreation
Over the past year, most of us have upped our walking game. Whether it’s a quick half-hour trip to a dog park or a two-hour trek along the Humber or Don Rivers, getting some fresh air and exercise has been essential in keeping us grounded – and healthy. Scientists say it’s more important than ever to get outside – properly distanced, of course. So lace up those walking shoes, fill up that water bottle, put on that hat and sunblock and enjoy the city’s parks and recreation.
There are plenty of manicured and clipped parks in the city, but absolutely nothing else like the man-made, 500-hectare nature preserve just east of Toronto’s Port Lands. This unique urban wilderness contains the detritus from decades of rapid urban growth in the city, with chunks of concrete and rusted sheets of metal dotting the finger-like shores and creating a rugged sort of outdoor environmental art. Walkers, joggers and cyclists (no motorized vehicles are allowed) enjoy the ponds, plants and eclectic wildlife – no surprise that there’s a nature centre and bird research station on the premises. There are even a couple of ponds stocked with fish. If you’re tired of cyclists bearing down on you, pedestrian-only dirt paths offer you some peace. And the place is big enough that you can visit several times and never see the same thing twice. One thing you won’t see any time is dogs – it’s a canine-free zone! The fact that there’s only one way to enter it by foot, car or bicycle ensures a certain privacy – although lots of people have discovered it during the pandemic. GS
What to look for — The lighthouse, wildlife, stunning views of the skyline and sunset.
Ease/accessibility — There’s free parking, and the 83 Jones bus drops you off five minutes from the entrance. The paved main road is wheelchair accessible, but smaller gravel and dirt paths will be harder to manage.
Washrooms — Half-a-dozen porta-potties are located throughout.
Level of difficulty (out of 10) — 8
This is among the GTA’s major nature walks, so if you’re new to walking it’s probably best to work up to this one. Expect lots of variety. If you’re coming from the south – a good entry point is Corktown Common – the path starts out narrow, with old railway tracks on one side and the eponymous Don on the other. As you head north you’ll be able to see Queen, Dundas and Gerrard overhead (there are exit points at Queen and Riverdale Park) before coming to the magnificent Bloor Street Viaduct. North of Bloor is the Instagram-friendly gargoyle display, and after that the sights get really interesting. Hills are steeper, and there are some stunning views of the river, including some places where it’s possible to sit and take a physically distanced break. From here it’s not far to the junction at Pottery Road, with its cutoffs to Evergreen Brick Works or Todmorden Hills. Also nearby is Crothers Woods, which is a nature lover’s paradise, full of ancient trees and birding areas. Once you get to the molar-like sculptures on the side of the DVP you can travel east to Taylor Creek Park or north to E.T. Seton Park. The one drawback to the Lower Don is the strong presence of cyclists. Unlike lots of the Lower Humber River trail, there aren’t separate lanes for walkers/joggers and cyclists. So walk at your own risk. GS
What to look for — Bloor Street Viaduct, Duane Linklater’s concrete gargoyles installation, Evergreen Brick Works, Todmorden Mills Heritage site and Noel Harding sculptures that resemble giant molars along the DVP.
Ease/accessibility — It’s pretty impossible to access this walk if you’re in a wheelchair. Entrances at Corktown and Pottery are accessible, but these points are far apart, and the few entrance/exit points between them have stairs.
Washrooms — You’ll have to use the bushes or wait until you get to the Brick Works.
Level of difficulty — 9
While the Bluffs get all the attention in the city’s east end, this two-and-a-half kilometre, fully paved path in a central part of Scarborough deserves more love. And it’s a helluva lot more accessible and pedestrian-friendly than the rapidly eroding Bluffs. The diagonal trek from Ellesmere and Scarborough Golf Club to Lawrence and Brimley gets its name from the underutilized “wasted” space beneath Scarborough’s hydro towers. It’s a key part in the massive project known as the Meadoway, which will eventually become a 16-kilometre trail connecting the Rouge National Urban Park with the East Don Trail system, which in turn can get you to downtown. Mind you, it doesn’t look like much now – most of the area consists of dead turf grass labelled with signs about the meadow restoration. Can’t wait to see what it looks like eventually, when it’s a true habitat for plants, pollinators and wildlife. Walkers, joggers and cyclists currently enjoy the winding paths (pro tip: bring sunblock, because there’s not much shade). And the path ends at Thomson Memorial Park, which is full of amenities and things for everyone in the family to do.
What to look for — It doesn’t look like much right now (in early spring), but the Daventry Gardens between Markham and Bellamy should be quite a sight when things start growing. And if you head east-to-west, ending at Thomson Memorial Park, there are tennis courts, ponds, an off-leash dog area and the old-timey Scarborough Museum. GS
Ease/accessibility — The corridor is entirely paved and gently sloped, so it’s easy to access via wheelchairs.
Washrooms — None. You’ll have to hold it in until you get to Thomson Memorial Park.
Level of difficulty — 4
While this little ravine located north of the Beach won’t get you to your daily 10,000 steps, it’s perfect if you need to immerse yourself in nature for a half-hour or so. The best way to enter is from Kingston Road, where a steep wooden staircase plunges you into a magical, tree-filled realm straight out of J.R.R. Tolkien. Massive red oaks and red maple dominate the area, but there are many rare species of plants, including sassafras and blue-bead lily. Close your eyes and the sounds of the burbling Ames Creek will instantly calm you down. Even the terrain provides variety; at one point you’re on a handsome elevated boardwalk, while at another you’re on what resembles sand. The ravine feels like a neighbourhood spot – much of its upkeep is done on a volunteer basis – but the fact that it’s been added to the city’s Discovery Walks means more people are using it. Hope it maintains its quiet, calm feel. GS
What to look for — The massive red oaks, Ames Creek, the backyards of houses from the neighbourhood.
Ease/accessibility — Because of the mixed terrain and the steep staircase, it’s not wheelchair accessible from the north, but you can travel part of the path if you enter from the south.
Washrooms — None. Once restaurants open again, you can probably use a place on Queen East.
Level of difficulty — 5
Among lovers of Toronto nature, there’s a bit of a competition between those who prefer the Don River to the Humber, or vice versa. While I like the Don, especially how it feeds into other rivers in the central part of the city, I adore the Humber for its majesty and drama. From the beginnings near the condo-cluttered Lake Shore – right near the recognizable Humber Bay Arch – to King’s Mill Park, where many canoe enthusiasts join, on through Étienne Brulé Park, where salmon spawn in the fall, there are many unforgettable sights. I also appreciate that it’s easier to navigate for those with accessibility issues. And since there are lots of cyclists on the paths, it’s worth noting that north of Bloor, there are separate walking and cycling lanes – very handy. Plus, while the Don has its fair share of history – including a major flood and the construction of the Bloor Street Viaduct – the Humber’s history is well-documented with plaques and markers. Especially fascinating are two signs, one illustrating Huron-Wendat villages from centuries ago, the other the effects of 1954’s Hurricane Hazel, which resulted in 80 deaths. Ironically, the main drawback to this trail is the lack of signs telling you how to get back on the trail when it ends north of the Humber Wastewater Treatment Plant. GS
Ease/accessibility — This is one of the most wheelchair-friendly walks, with mostly paved paths and gentle hills.
Washrooms — I couldn’t find one on my one trip, but there are lots of private areas where you should be able to do your business.
Level of difficulty (out of 10) — 5
Toronto’s second-largest municipal park is popular year-round, but it’s especially nice during the warmer months. In a typical year, there’s so much to do – visit the zoo, plant something in the community gardens, take in a Shakespeare drama, play tennis and savour the sights of the cherry tree blossoms in the spring. Alas, most of these things will be curtailed because of the pandemic. Last year you could view the cherry blossoms virtually, and the same thing will likely be true this year. But some things can be enjoyed with physical distancing, like hiking the multi-purpose trails, walking along Grenadier Pond and enjoying the extensive off-leash dog area. Plus, if you’re got kids, take them to the Jamie Bell playground, one of the largest outdoor playgrounds in the province. GS
What to look for — Cherry blossoms (in spring), Grenadier Pond, Jamie Bell Adventure Playground, zoo.
Ease/accessibility — The main paths through the park are paved and accessible by wheelchair. Keep in mind that cars aren’t allowed in the park on weekends.
Washrooms — Plenty of porta-potties, and the permanent ones may reopen in May.
Level of difficulty — 7
There are plans to revitalize this park – and the adjoining Humber Bay Park West – to make them popular destinations, complete with more accessible trails, farmers markets and a boardwalk. That will all be nice, but I’m pretty fond of the rugged, unkempt beauty of this park as it is. Some off-trail areas provide marvellous places to get lost in nature, and the rocky, boulder-strewn shores offer some stunning views of the skyline. And there are stretches of land that appear overgrown with wildflowers and shrubs. Closer to Lake Shore Boulevard, there’s a butterfly habitat that’s full of plants meant to support butterflies through their life cycles. Another landmark, albeit a sadder one, is the Air India 182 Memorial, which includes the names of the 329 victims of the 1985 bombing of flight 182. GS
What to look for — Air India 182 Memorial, butterfly habitat, rocky shore.
Ease/accessibility — Although there’s a parking lot, only some of the park is wheelchair accessible.
Washrooms — One in a rest area in the middle.
Level of difficulty — 8
From certain vantage points, Downsview Park looks like an afterthought. The huge man-made berms that jut up here and there throughout the landscape resemble the grassed-over remnants of dirt piles from the construction of condos rising up from around its fringes. There seem to be more geese than trees in huge swaths of the green space. The main forested area is further north toward the Keele and Sheppard entrance. Wander the paved trails and soon the humps and the vast windswept, open surroundings take on a steppe-like feel. The Muskoka chairs placed here and there atop the berms provide a bird’s-eye view of the area. From the highest one you can see clear to downtown on the east and make out the distinct circa-1970s towers on Jane Street a few kilometres away on the west. The park forms part of the vast swath of Downsview lands in the city’s northwest that includes a former military base and the hangars of the de Havilland aircraft plant, which gives the place a dusty, industrial air. The area’s place in aviation and military history is marked with weather vanes and a large art installation in the north end of the park. But if greenery is your thing, there are plenty of trails, too, to get lost in. EDM
What to look for — William Baker Woodlot; the Circuit Path, a 2.7-kilometre loop around the park that takes you to mature stands in Boake’s Grove; orchard
Ease/accessibility — Buses from Sheppard West and Finch West stations take you right onto the grounds, but the walk from Sheppard West is worth it for the military museum outside the Department of National Defence
Washrooms — At the Orchard Pavilion but they’re only open from May to October.
Level of difficulty — 5, unless you want to walk (or ride your bike) up the berms; then it’s closer to 8.
Beneath some of Toronto’s priciest real estate lie two of the city’s most attractive ravines. Cedarvale Ravine, in Forest Hill, features a variety of plant life, since part of it is in a wetlands area and includes a cattail marsh, with lots of insects buzzing and fluttering about in the warmer months. The gently winding path eventually opens up to the massive Cedarvale Park, with its gently rolling hills, sports fields and off-leash dog area. South of the ravine is Nordheimer Ravine, but you have to cross St. Clair West (right near the subway station) and then descend a wooden staircase to get there. This ravine is more private than Cedarvale, massive trees providing a leafy canopy in the height of summer. It’s easy to see the effects of erosion, with some trees’ snaking, their gnarled roots exposed, providing a dramatic sight. Both ravines are popular with walkers and joggers, with Nordheimer having a reputation as a place where neighbouring kids like to party. There’s an off-leash dog park at Nordheimer, too, as well as the emergency exit used in the 1995 TTC subway accident that resulted in three deaths. It’s important to note that neither ravine would be here had the proposed Spadina Expressway gone up in the 1970s. So when you’re taking these gorgeous walks, give thanks to activists like Jane Jacobs, David Crombie and John Sewell for stopping it. GS
What to look for — Off-leash dog parks in both ravines; graffiti beneath the Spadina Road bridge in Nordheimer.
Ease/accessibility — The main paths of both ravines are wheelchair accessible, but most of the exits are only by stairs.
Washrooms — One in Cedarvale Park.
Level of difficulty — 7
While not as magical as its namesake forest in Nottinghamshire – home to the legendary Robin Hood – this handsome 50-acre area nestled in Lawrence Park provides a great escape from the bustle of the city. There’s something for everyone. Kids can have fun in a playground with wading pool; canine lovers can let their four-legged friends loose in the off-leash area, judged one of the best dog parks in the city; and naturalists will want to savour the huge range of plant and tree life – some trees are over 150 years old. What’s great for walkers is there are flat, paved paths for easy outings, and steep off-trail places for more vigorous hikes. A trip to Sherwood wouldn’t be complete without visiting the burbling Burke Brook. And if you’ve got lots of energy you can walk to Sunnybrook Park and beyond. GS
What to look for — The playground, off-trail hiking area, dog park.
Ease/accessibility — The presence of stairs and steep cliffs means most of the park isn’t accessible via wheelchair.
Washrooms — There’s one public washroom in this park, and if you continue east to Sunnybrook you’ll find two more.
Level of difficulty (out of 10) — 7
If the idea of walking through a cemetery doesn’t freak you out, this massive midtown resting spot is varied enough to provide short or long walks. The winding nature of the paths – and, at over 200 acres, its sheer size – means it’s easy to go several times and not repeat your steps. On one trip you could attempt the section from Yonge to Mount Pleasant, and the next the area from Mount Pleasant to Bayview. The tombstones and memorials provide an instant history lesson and might make you contemplate the meaning of life – something that’s appropriate during this time of loss and sadness. While walkers, joggers and cyclists regularly use the cemetery, because of its purpose you won’t find people throwing frisbees or picnicking. You will, however, find one of the finest tree collections in North America. And if you’re tired of staring at graves you can take a break at the Garden of Remembrance in the Mount Pleasant/Bayview section, complete with a little fountain. GS
What to look for — The resting places of everyone from William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s longest serving prime minister, to classical pianist Glenn Gould. The cemetery also contains hundreds of varieties of trees, including some of the rarest in Canada.
Ease/accessibility — The St. Clair and Davisville subway stations are within walking distance, and there are several car entrances. The paved paths are wheelchair accessible, but it might be harder to reach particular graves that are off the path.
Washrooms — Porta-potties are available year round.
Level of difficulty — 5
Earl Bales Park is not a destination that’s on the radar of most downtowners, unless you happen to be into snowboarding or downhill skiing. Then you’ll know that it’s home to the North York ski centre and some of the most slammin’ hills – and views of the city’s canopy – this side of the 401. The 51-hectare green space north of York Mills is the fourth largest park in the city. It’s like two parks in one. The area above the ski hill and off the main entrance on Bathurst is for the casual park goer. It includes a community centre with a gallery, picnic areas with working barbecues, as well as a huge kids’ playground and splash pad. In the centre, a sprawling Holocaust memorial is anchored by an obelisk you can see from Bathurst. Nestled behind the trees to the right of the ski hill is the park’s real hidden gem – an outdoor amphitheatre where summer productions of Shakespeare are staged (and a much-needed rest without distractions can be had). The section below the ski hill is another experience entirely, a rugged branch of the Don River valley that’s great for biking and walking. If you’re looking for a casual jaunt to take in the scenery, a path on the east side of the ski hill takes you west to a stormwater pond in the bowels of the park where it borders on the city-run Don Valley Golf Course. The gate leading to the golf course has been left open during the pandemic to give visitors more space to explore. EDM
What to look for — View from the top of the ski hill looking east; bike trails off main path at the foot of the hill; foot bridge off parking lot below Sheppard entrance of the park that leads to an upscale residential area and another branch of the Don.
Ease/accessibility — The Bathurst bus stops at the front entrance of the park, and there’s ample space for parking.
Washrooms — Limited access in the community centre.
Level of difficulty — 5-8, depending on which path you take.
Tired of navigating Toronto’s bumper-to-bumper traffic? Then get off those busy, dangerous streets and take one of these handy, intriguing trails.
If you’re anywhere near Yonge and Davisville and need to get to the Eglinton West station area, or vice versa, I recommend this four-kilometre walk that takes you through Forest Hill. The route is along the old railway trail, built in the 1890s. While there’s not much to see except the backyards of some pricey homes, at least it’s flat, consistent and easy on the joints (the surface is smooth soil rather than asphalt). If you’re just starting a walking program, this would be a fine place to begin. It’s wide enough for socially distanced walks and to feel safe from the many cyclists. GS
If you’re in the west end and want a safer, more interesting route to either High Park (or close to it) or the Junction, try this two-kilometre path for some novelty. The quiet trail is bordered by a mix of plants and trees, but mostly you’ll be looking at the train tracks on one side and the backs of old buildings along Sterling on the other. Some places, like Henderson Brewing Co., have entrances onto the path. There are plans to extend the path down to Abell (just above King West), which could make it an essential route for pedestrians and cyclists. GS
The north-south routes in the city’s west end around the CNE can be hard to navigate by foot; Bathurst seems constantly under construction and Strachan is often busy and congested. So Garrison Common, reached through Garrison Crossing, provides a stress-free route with some rare greenery in the urban jungle. The nearby Bentway, located directly under the Gardiner Expressway, makes creative use of its space. Let’s hope there are lots of (properly distanced, of course) community arts events there this summer. GS
Getting from the easternmost part of Danforth Village up to North York isn’t very interesting on the surface roads – especially with Eglinton still under construction. So this 7.5-kilometre trek provides a better route full of nicely maintained parks and cool sights like an archery range. Best? If you have more energy, you can walk beyond E.T. Seton and get to Sunnybrook and Sherwood Parks. GS
If you’re pressed for time, these brief walks – which you can do in 20 minutes or less – will give you something to look at besides your phone and laptop.
Keep your duck and weave game strong if you plan to hit the boardwalk on an even mildly nice day. Crowds descend on the beach when the weather rises above five degrees. But the appeal is obvious as you trek across the bike trail or boardwalk, enjoying the changes in scenery: from Woodbine Beach, where the volleyball jocks show off their summer bods, to the dog parks and lighthouse. The boardwalk is littered with playgrounds for the kids, locally dubbed the pirate park (Woodbine Beach), the castle park (Kew Gardens) and the purple park (Balmy Beach). Afterwards, ice cream shops like Brett’s, Ed’s Real Scoop and La Diperie are just a block away. RADHEYAN SIMONPILLAI
With U of T students mostly studying virtually, the feeling of walking along this winding, tree-lined path isn’t quite the same. It used to be especially magical when students at the Royal Conservatory of Music could be heard playing their instruments from the little windows. But even without big crowds, this verdant, shaded space – formerly Taddle Creek ravine – lives up to its name. With history-laden buildings like Trinity College, the conservatory and the ROM nearby, and carefully placed benches and gently rolling hills around you, philosophizing should come easy. GS
For the longest time, the northern part of Queen’s Park was blocked off for a revitalization project, and then the south part was shrouded in construction, too. Now it’s all completed, just in time for us to safely enjoy the widened paths (perfect for physical distancing), comfortable benches (100 were added) and colourful plantings – all in the middle of the city. Among the stiff statues and memorials of important dead white males is Edwin and Veronica Dam de Nogales’s characterful 2008 statue of poet Al Purdy, which provides a nice contrast. GS
Unless you live in Corktown you probably aren’t aware of this little oasis located at the intersection of Bayview and Front. There’s a real community feel to the place, with people throwing around frisbees or a football on the multipurpose field, or picnicking on grassy knolls. There’s a splash pad for kids (the playground area may be closed) and an elevated section of meandering paths edged with trees, wildflowers and rocks. The best thing about the common is the mix of habitats, which includes a marsh area that is home to frogs, birds and ducks. A raised wooden walkway through the marsh makes it hard to believe the DVP is nearby. GS