Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2021
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Blazing Trails

Head to the last remaining wilderness
around Canada's biggest metropolis

Try it some time. Lie down on your stomach, grab the ragged edges of a 30-metre cliff and look down -- not all the way down, but along the weathered edges, deep into each fissure. Look carefully for the leathery, lance-shaped leaf of the rare cliffbrake fern that is clinging to the limestone as precariously as you are.

Standing atop one of the Bruce Trail's innumerable cliffs during autumn, it's easy to overlook tiny ferns spilling from dark, moist crevices. The ferns are rooted in the defining feature of the Bruce Trail: the Niagara Escarpment. Four hundred million years ago, the escarpment formed the rim of a warm shallow sea. Today it's home to Canada's oldest footpath.

Stretching 782 kilometres, from the vineyards of Niagara to the tip of the Bruce Peninsula, the Bruce Trail makes the Niagara Escarpment one of the few UNESCO World Biosphere Reserves you can actually afford to visit. While hiking along it, you'll see many of Ontario's prettiest faces -- limestone cliffs, old-growth cedars, cobblestone beaches, dense forests, hidden waterfalls and pastoral farmland. You'll walk over a variety of terrain, from glacial river valleys and limestone ridges to country roads and railroad tracks. And, you'll experience the last remaining areas of wilderness left in one of the most populated regions in Canada.

Woodland Wonder
Hilton Falls
Sixteen Mile Creek flows through one of the largest forest tracts in southern Ontario, pausing to collect in deep pools and slide around protruding rocks. As it surges towards the edge of the escarpment, the water plummets 10 metres to the valley floor. Hilton Falls, as it's known, draws visitors again and again to one of the most spectacular waterfalls on the Bruce Trail.

Most people park the car and take a short walk up a gravel road that leads directly to the falls. There is, of course, a longer, more interesting pathway that starts at a nearby reservoir and takes you through 14 kilometres of scenic Bruce Trail. After leading through a hardwood forest, the path enters a cedar grove that lines the escarpment edge, where the trees cling to rock outcrops. The ground, soft to walk on and neutral of colour, highlights the glacial boulders that line the path.

The trail dips and curves through the cedars as it leads to a unique geological feature: a glacial pothole large enough to stand in. Worn into the bedrock more than 12,000 years ago, it was formed by loose stones spinning around in the current of meltwaters. From here you can soon hear the rush of the waterfall.

Descending the stairs to the bottom of the falls, you can stand near the limestone rock as streams tumble down and on a hot day you can duck underneath the waterfall. Part of a wall that held a 12-metre mill wheel in the 1800s is still visible. Called the Raceway Arch, it sits at the base of the falls, a silent witness to an industry that cleared the trees that once stood here.

Above Hilton Falls the trail continues along Sixteen Mile Creek and past a beaver pond before turning inland. In autumn, birch and poplar trees turn bright gold and, on the forest floor, ferns and bright-capped fungi peek out beneath a tumble of leaves.

Getting there: From Highway 401 take the Guelph Line North, turn right at Road 9 (Campbellville Road) and go east for about six kilometres to the park entrance.

Overnight Adventure
Nottawasaga Bluffs to Devil's Glen
This somewhat strenuous overnight trek takes you through deep crevices and canyon-like walls to reach some of the best autumn vistas. It begins with the Keyhole Side Trail at Nottawasaga Bluffs, which quickly leaves behind the fall colours of the forest and enters a canyon where large rocks split and curve into long channels. The path leads up a slope through large boulders, further into small crevices and ends with a tight squeeze through a small hole in the wall. This is the keyhole. You can scramble over some rocks to get around if you don't quite fit, but try and squeeze through. You're passing through a geological wonder: ancient tropical seas and glacial ice sheets shaped this formation over thousands of years.

At McKinney's Hill you'll connect to the main trail and follow the Mad River Trail to Devil's Glen Provincial Park, which rests on a broad terrace known as the Manitoulin Bedrock Ledge. From the park's lookout platform, the steep bedrock gorge carved by the Mad River spreads as far as the eye can see. One of the highest peaks along the escarpment, the lookout lies 460 metres above sea level.

Getting there: To start your hike at Nottawasaga Bluffs, from Highway 401 take Simcoe Road 124 (formerly Highway 24) to Singhampton. Turn south onto Milltown Road and immediately left onto Ewing Road. Turn left onto Sideroad 17/18 then left onto Nottawasaga Concession #10. The lot is 500 metres further on your right.

To go directly to Devil's Glen Provincial Park, from Highway 401 take Highway 10 to Highway 24 north toward Collingwood. Look for Devil's Glen Provincial Park signs on your right a few kilometres outside of Singhampton.

Rise To The Challenge
Barrow Bay Loop
The somewhat demanding Barrow Bay Loop side trail is overlooked by many hikers, but offers up a number of Bruce Trail highlights, including isolated waters, rock scrambling and an up-close look at the escarpment.


The trail may be only 3.6 kilometres long, but it will probably take you the better part of a day to hike it. There are almost more trail blazes on rocks than trees along the route, which should give you some idea of the amount of rock scrambling involved. The trail starts on Rush Cove Road and heads into a forest of gold and vermillion. To reach the escarpment edge, follow the path as it winds its way through big boulders that form mini canyons. Eventually you'll see the bright blue of Barrow Bay in the distance set off against white birch trunks. Below the escarpment edge to the west, the trail crosses talus slopes where you will rock scramble and weave your way among giant boulders. This is a challenging section, so give yourself some time.

Eventually the trail descends the escarpment to the bay, where it follows the shoreline for a kilometre. Take the cobblestone route instead of the inland footpath and you can walk along Georgian Bay, find a stone to sit on among the waves and gaze at the open expanse of water. Although you can follow the shoreline for a long while, look for the blue blazes that will take you uphill, to climb the escarpment and follow its edge back to complete the loop.

[This trail edges the Niagara Escarpment UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and care must be taken when walking along its base.]

Getting there: From Highway 401, take Highway 6 north through Owen Sound and Wiarton. Turn right on Bruce County Road 9, then right on Scenic Caves Road. Park in spaces provided and observe the no parking signs on Greig's Caves and Rush Coves Road.

Rock Around The Clock
High Dump Trail
If you're in it for the long haul, High Dump Trail offers a challenging three- to four-day trek through the Bruce Peninsula, the most scenic section of the Bruce Trail. With 30-metre cliffs, ancient cedars and the turquoise waters of Georgian Bay, this picturesque 38-kilometre stretch is perfect for a long weekend hike at a time of year when most other visitors have hung up their boots for the season.

From Crane Lake Road, this section follows an old logging track. The path pushes through upland forests, past Big Marsh, Moore Lake and the remains of old mining cabins on the way to the Niagara Escarpment UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, where cedars more than 1500 years old straddle the cliff face over Georgian Bay.

A 200-metre access trail takes you to High Dump where, during the 19th century, logs were dumped from the escarpment edge and stored here until the ice breakup in spring. Spend your first night on this isolated beach, as the rest of this trip is rugged.

The next day takes you over crevices, down steep limestone ridges and up rock faces. When you reach Halfway Log Dump, turn right to explore the boulder beach, sea stacks and limestone flats. Six kilometres down the trail you'll find the Head of Trails at Cyprus Lake campground (pre-book your campsite through the Bruce Peninsula National Park at tel: 519-596-2263; www.parkscanada. ca/bruce/).

Day three takes you past small sea caves, under large overhangs and across narrow ledges. You also walk along boulder beaches -- rocks loosened and formed by waves, and flung onto shore by stormy waters and ice pressure. Make sure you pause at the Grotto, a small lagoon sculpted by waves pounding at its rock face. You can climb down the rocks to reach the grotto but do this at your own risk. In the fall, the water is extremely cold.

If the rocks are too slippery at the water's edge, make sure you lie down on your stomach, grab the ragged edges of the cliff and look down. You won't see the smooth cliffbrake here, or a fall vista, but you'll see the hues of Georgian Bay and the escarpment rising out of the waters.

Getting there: From Highway 401, take Highway 10 north towards Orangeville. At Chatsworth, take Highway 6 north towards Owen Sound. Continue through Wiarton and on toward Tobermory. Turn on Dyers Bay Road and left on Crane Lake Road till you reach a gate and Bruce Trail sign.

To start at Halfway Log Dump, from Highway 6, turn right on Emmett Lake Road and left on Halfway Log Dump Road.

-- Katherine Jacob is the author of a best-selling hiking book series, including The Best of the Bruce Trail and Bruce Peninsula Trails.

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