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 2006 Census, is the fastest growing community in Canada. The population of Milton has grown by more than 70% between 2001 and 2006 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.