Half an hour’s drive from central Toronto is a big space known as Rouge Park. When I say big, it’s 10,000 acres. I’ve never been very good with distances, but that’s 12 times bigger than Central Park and 13 times the size of Hampstead Heath.
As any BBC Radio 4 listeners will be fascinated to know, it also amounts to 1/500th of the size of Wales.
So yeah, big. And also wild, especially for an urban park surrounded by industrial towns and cities. Apparently, deer, coyotes, otters and even wild turkeys roam there. Who knew wild turkeys even existed? They look terrifying.
I drove there last weekend for a “hike”. Or, as us Brits like to call it, a walk.
Parking at Rouge Park Beach, I watch V-shaped formations of Canada Geese cutting through the cerulean sky before landing in the noisy marshes, which in summer act as a jumping off point for canoeists heading up the Rouge River.
A boardwalk takes me past the wetlands to the wide, sandy beach on Lake Ontario’s shoreline.
There doesn’t seem to be any access to the rest of the park from here, so it’s back in the car and round to Twyn Rivers Drive, from where I join the start of the 2km Orchard trail.
The trail hugs the rushing river, taking me through pine and beech forest, crunchy snow underfoot.
“Ah, a Grey Tit,” my husband points out, gesturing at a cute little flapping bird. He’s a bit of an ornithologist, but I suspect he just wanted to say “grey tit” out loud. Needless to say, when a panting woman wearing crampons rushes over to tell us about the Pussy Willow she’s spotted, there’s some quiet guffawing.
Pushing on to the Cedar trail through an open area surrounded by small rolling hills, I stop to watch a never-ending train chuff past on its way to somewhere far, far away.
Slippery wooden steps take me back into the forest, and it’s a short hop to Meadowvale road, where I turn back and do the route in reverse, noticing how the snow’s rapidly ebbing away in the sun. It’s a roughly 8.5 km walk and, other than crampon woman, we only pass about five other people.
National Urban Park
I was interested to read that the federal government’s planning to turn the area into Canada’s only “National Urban Park”. It’s not entirely clear what the designation means, other than an expansion of the park’s boundaries, but the aim’s to encourage more people to take advantage of the country’s wonderful natural landscapes, amid declining visitor levels at national parks.
The people in charge of all this might like to consider how to make the park more accessible to those without cars. Getting there via public transit takes more than two hours from downtown Toronto – ridiculous! Luckily we rented a car that weekend.
Some would also argue that the government’s mission isn’t going to be helped by the $29m spending cut to Parks Canada’s budget. Parks across the country have already been forced to cancel winter services; some trails and car parks in Quebec and Nova Scotia are reportedly no longer being maintained in the off season.
Perhaps it’s right that parks in more populated areas are prioritized over those mainly serving smaller, remote communities. But it’d be a terrible shame if the investment in the admittedly fabulous Rouge Park came at the cost of the beautiful wilderness areas for which Canada’s rightly famed.