Hello From Ontario A Driving Tour Along The Niagara Escarpment

Although I love the city the summer always makes me itch to​ get out into the country. So I called up my friend Karel with whom I had helped organize a​ conference many years ago and​ asked him if​ he would mind getting together in​ his neck of​ the woods near Burlington​ for​ a​ country driving tour of​ the Niagara Escarpment. Since we had not seen each other for​ a​ couple of​ years it​ was a​ great opportunity to​ catch up and​ enjoy a​ beautiful drive at​ the same time.

So we met this​ morning on​ a​ parking lot just off Guelph Line in​ the north end of​ Burlington. I parked my car and​ off we drove in​ Karel’s convertible. We drove north into the green countryside and​ up a​ slope to​ get to​ our first destination: a​ nature area called the Mount Nemo Conservation​ Area. We parked the car and​ walked about 15 minutes eastwards through a​ forest until we reached a​ steep cliff and​ a​ lookout point that offered a​ beautiful 180 degree view over the rolling farm country that was sprawling far below us.

The Niagara Escarpment is​ a​ geological formation​ that extends from western New York State through Ontario to​ Michigan, Wisconsin​ and​ Illinois. it​ originated as​ a​ result of​ unequal erosion​ where a​ top layer of​ harder and​ more resistant dolomitic limestone overlays more easily eroded shale. The gradual erosion​ of​ the shale leaves behind cliffs of​ resistant cap rock. The limestone itself stems from an​ ancient tropical sea and​ contains some of​ the most astounding fossils of​ the Ordovician-Silurian geological era.

in​ Ontario, the Niagara Escarpment features the Bruce Trail: Canada’s oldest and​ longest footpath that extends over 800 km (with side trails) from Niagara Falls in​ the South to​ Tobermory in​ the north. The entire area has been designated a​ UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve due to​ its unique fauna and​ flora. The Bruce Trail itself is​ marked by white blazes (white markings about 8 cm high and​ 3 cm wide) and​ is​ maintained by the Bruce Trail Association​ while side trails are marked by blue blazes.

One of​ the Niagara Escarpments distinguishing features are the many lookout points on​ the rocky outcroppings over an​ otherwise rather flat area. in​ addition, the Niagara Escarpment has dozens of​ waterfalls where streams and​ rivers tumble over the limestone cliffs. The most famous of​ these waterfalls is​ of​ course Niagara Falls which is​ also reachable on​ a​ side trail from the Bruce Trail.

The Niagara Escarpment’s unique natural environment includes many bird species (some of​ them endangered) such as​ the Bald Eagle, the Red-Shouldered Hawk, the Black Tern and​ the Hooded Warbler. Rare reptiles and​ amphibians also live in​ the area, for​ example the Eastern Massassauga Rattlesnake and​ the North Dusky Salamander. 37 species of​ orchids have been found in​ the northern parts of​ the Escarpment, including the Calypso Orchid, the Ram’s-head Lady Slipper and​ Alaska Rein​ Orchid. Considering that about 7 million​ people live within​ close proximity the biological diversity in​ this​ unique area is​ astounding.

We started walking on​ a​ trail right at​ the edge of​ a​ cliff and​ Karel informed me that the Niagara Escarpment is​ extremely popular with rock climbers. I wanted to​ take a​ good snapshot of​ the cliffs and​ crevices, but my fear of​ heights and​ the shear vertical drop prevented me from exploring the very edge of​ the cliff. The many caves are also popular with spelunkers. We walked about 20 minutes northwards and​ had a​ beautiful view towards Rattlesnake Point, another rocky outcrop along the Niagara Escarpment. Then we took a​ side trail back through the forest to​ the parking lot and​ continued our drive.

About ten minutes further north we stopped in​ the village of​ Lowville to​ have a​ look at​ Lowville Park. The Sixteen Mile Creek slowly meanders through the park and​ nature trails branch off from the parking lot area. Right next to​ the park is​ the Lowville Bistro, a​ recently renovated restaurant that offers upscale casual dining, a​ licensed outdoor patio, an​ ice cream parlour and​ take-out. The town itself dates back to​ the early 1800s and​ was developed after the Mississauga Land​ Purchase. The descendants of​ some of​ these early settlers still live in​ the village today. 36 historic buildings and​ a​ Pioneer Cemetery still bear witness to​ this​ once thriving rural community.

Leaving Lowville behind we headed straight north to​ another conservation​ area in​ the Halton​ Region​ Conservation​ System: Crawford Lake features a​ so-called meromictic lake, a​ deep body of​ water where different layers of​ water do not intermix. this​ creates an​ oxygen-poor environment that is​ not conducive to​ living organisms. as​ a​ result, archeologists are able to​ drill core samples of​ soil from the lake bed that date back several centuries. One of​ these drillings led to​ the discovery of​ corn pollen and​ the conclusion​ that there was once an​ Indian village in​ the area. Subsequent archeological digs confirmed the presence of​ a​ native settlement.

A 15th century pre-contact Iroquoian Village has been reconstructed on​ its original site and​ features two wooden longhouses that contain​ sleeping quarters, a​ fire pit and​ storage areas for​ tools, animal hides and​ food. Guides provide explanations of​ the lifestyle of​ the Iroquois tribes that inhabited this​ area. this​ conservation​ area is​ a​ popular destination​ for​ school children and​ summer camps and​ during our visit several groups of​ young people were enjoying themselves in​ the grassy areas in​ front of​ the long houses.

The Niagara Escarpment is​ just full of​ protected nature areas, and​ just 10 minutes north of​ the village of​ Campbellville is​ another nature area: the Hilton​ Falls Conservation​ Area features excellent hiking, mountain​ biking and​ cross-country ski trails in​ the area. More than 30 km of​ woodland​ trails weave their way around the Hilton​ Falls Reservoir and​ a​ 10 metre high waterfall cascades over the Niagara Escarpment. Across the road from Hilton​ Falls is​ the Kelso / Glen Eden Conservation​ Area whose highlights include a​ sandy beach as​ well as​ 22 kilometres of​ trails for​ mountain​ bikers and​ 12 slopes for​ downhill skiers.

We continued our drive south to​ the Town of​ Milton, which according to​ the 2018 Census, is​ the fastest growing community in​ Canada. The population​ of​ Milton​ has grown by more than 70% between 2018 and​ 2018 and​ stands about 56,000 people now. Milton​ dates back to​ the 1820s when English settlers Jasper Martin​ and​ his wife Sarah were granted 100 acres of​ land​ from the Crown.

Martin​ built a​ grist mill along Sixteen Mile Creek and​ also created a​ pond, Mill Pond, which is​ still in​ existence today and​ has become a​ popular recreation​ area for​ local residents with its walking trails and​ the gazebo that overlooks the water.

Main​ Street in​ downtown Milton​ still speaks of​ its Victorian heritage, old City Hall, the Post Office Building and​ several other churches and​ secular buildings date back to​ the mid to​ late 1800s. Many restaurants and​ cafés have sprung up in​ the downtown core which beckon​ visitors to​ sit down and​ relax on​ some of​ their outdoor patios.

From the quaint town of​ Milton​ we headed northwest towards a​ small village called Aberfoyle, north of​ Highway 401. Karel suggested that we have lunch at​ the local Aberfoyle Mill, an​ actual mill that was converted into a​ restaurant in​ 1966. Aberfoyle itself was first settled in​ the 1840s and​ is​ famous for​ its Aberfoyle Spring Water.

The Aberfoyle Mill itself was built by a​ Scottish immigrant by the name of​ George McLean in​ 1859 and​ even won​ a​ gold medal for​ its oatmeal at​ the 1867 World’s Fair in​ Pairs. After stopping operations in​ the late 1920s the mill was purchased by the Owens family in​ 1960 who then spent six years renovating it​ and​ turning it​ into one of​ the most unique country restaurants in​ Canada.

Karel and​ I sat down at​ a​ table on​ an​ elevated platform that overlooked the restaurant. Various farm implements and​ even an​ entire sled were suspended from the ceiling and​ the mechanism of​ the old gristmill was still visible in​ a​ stairway to​ the basement. I enjoyed a​ tender trout filet with garden fresh vegetables and​ rice while my friend and​ tour guide savoured his mixed grill. After our meal we walked around the entire mill and​ admired the scenic pond that was home to​ a​ group of​ Canada geese.

Then Karel introduced me to​ another famous destination​ in​ Aberfoyle: the Aberfoyle Antique Market, which although closed today, holds more than 100 vendors of​ antiques during market days and​ has become an​ extremely popular weekend destination​ for​ collectors.

One more nature area remained for​ us to​ explore: the Spencer Gorge Conservation​ area, north of​ the City of​ Hamilton. We parked our car at​ the entrance, paid the $5 day use fee by depositing cash in​ the self-serve box and​ started walking on​ the trail that would lead us to​ Dundas Peak. Just about 150 m from the parking lot we stopped to​ admire Tews Falls, a​ waterfall with a​ height of​ 41 m that is​ almost as​ high as​ Niagara Falls. The water level was pretty low since we have not had any significant rain​ fall in​ a​ while, but I could only imagine how picturesque this​ waterfall must be when the water level is​ higher.

A serene 20 minute hike with occasional views past the lush green trees into the Gorge took us to​ Dundas Peak, an​ elevated cliff with a​ platform of​ natural stone that provides a​ magnificent view of​ the Town of​ Dundas, the City of​ Hamilton​ and​ the Niagara Escarpment which encircles the entire area. The rocky platform is​ an​ overhang and​ with my fear of​ heights I made sure I stayed about two metres away from the edge since the edge of​ the rocks continues into a​ sheer vertical drop into the valley.

After our hike down we drove just a​ few minutes to​ Webster’s Falls which is​ also part of​ the Spencer Gorge Conservation​ Area. Another waterfall was enchanting a​ group of​ children who were playing at​ the bottom of​ it. Picnic areas and​ grassy meadows surround the river on​ both sides and​ a​ unique stone bridge connects the parking lot with the waterfall.

At the end of​ this​ 20 minute walk we continued on​ towards the Town of​ Dundas which dates back to​ 1847. John Graves Simcoe, Lieutenant Governor of​ Upper Canada, named the town after Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, a​ good friend of​ his and​ a​ Scottish lawyer and​ politician who never even visited North America. Dundas still has a​ nice historic core that features an​ old Post Office and​ various other Victorian era buildings.

Karel proceeded to​ show me the remainders of​ the Desjardins Canal, a​ historic canal that was completed in​ 1837 and​ substantially promoted the growth of​ Dundas as​ a​ settlement, but was later overshadowed by the opening of​ the Great Western Railroad in​ Hamilton​ in​ 1854. Due to​ the railway’s stiff competition, the canal fell in​ disuse and​ in​ 1867 sediment blocked direct access to​ the town, making it​ unusable. Today, the canal has largely been forgotten, but there are some walking trails along the canal near Cootes Paradise, a​ large wetland​ area at​ the western end of​ Hamilton​ Harbour.

It was now after 5 pm and​ our driving tour had come to​ an​ end. Karel drove me back to​ my vehicle and​ I thanked him sincerely for​ his time and​ for​ sharing his local expertise of​ the Burlington, Milton​ and​ Dundas areas. We resolved that there were so many interesting places that we had not seen and​ that we would do another driving tour in​ the area in​ the next few months.

I was also a​ bit tired, but in​ no mood to​ get on​ the Queen Elizabeth Expressway during rush hour no less. So I drove all the way south to​ Lake Ontario and​ had a​ quick peek at​ the Burlington​ Waterfront which has been beautifully developed in​ recent years. Since dark clouds were starting to​ roll in​ I decided to​ postpone my explorations of​ Burlington​ for​ next time and​ embarked on​ a​ slow relaxing drive back to​ Toronto next to​ the Lakeshore. The western waterfront of​ Lake Ontario is​ very scenic with multiple public parks and​ stately older mansions with beautifully manicured gardens.

Burlington, Oakville and​ Mississauga will also remain​ to​ be explored next time.

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