Visitors to Toronto, a city of 2.7 million, tend to head for its iconic attractions — the CN Tower, say, or the Royal Ontario Museum.
But Canada’s largest city is also becoming known for its forests, beaches and bike paths. “The City in a Park” has become its unofficial slogan as Torontonians embrace the surprising swaths of nature in the urban landscape — 20,000 acres, says Richard Ubbens, Toronto’s director of parks.
“Sometimes you forget you’re in the city,” he says.
And that’s just the land designated as parks. Toronto’s popular ravine system, a natural greenspace network that runs along nearly every river and stream in the city, is another 27,000 acres of quiet forests and waterways — nearly 17 percent of the city’s total area — where you’re as likely to encounter a great blue heron as you are another human.
Whether your thing is bird-watching, outdoor yoga or swimming at any of the city’s 11 pristine beaches, Toronto has something for nature-lovers of every stripe.
Toronto is more than halfway through a 25-year plan to transform a 2,000-acre strip of its downtown waterfront from a postindustrial wasteland to an outdoor playscape.
The areas completed to date are centered along Queens Quay, a hopping promenade lined with world-class parks, bike paths and boardwalks such as the whimsical Spadina WaveDeck, lit from below at the end of the day.
Rent a boat to explore the small bay — with paddleboats, kayaks and even sailboats (lessons included) available, there are options for everyone — or take a nap in one of the complimentary rediners at Sugar Beach at the east end of Queens Quay, a great place to watch the boats go by. This is also the jumping-off point for many Lake Ontario boat tours and the park on the Toronto Islands, an 820-acre playscape just offshore.
Rouge National Urban Park
Toronto is surrounded by a green- belt, a wide swath of protected forests and working farmland, which includes this newly formed conservation area, Canada’s first urban national park, located on the scenic Rouge River. While it may not display the grandeur of the Canadian Rockies, the Rouge River corridor is home to more than 1,700 species of plants, animals, birds and other critters, including coyotes, deer and spawning salmon. The 20,000-acre natural wonderland holds extensive hiking trails, canoeing opportunities, Toronto’s only campground and a pristine beach, all less than 20 miles east of downtown. Admission is free.
Getting Down… Into Toronto’s Ravines
Toronto’s transit system, known as the TTC, will deliver you to many of the city’s parks and natural areas via subway, streetcar or bus. Even parts of the greenbelt are accessible via GO Train, the regional rail system. But finding your way into the city’s labyrinthine network of ravines and the steep stream and river valleys can be daunting. In most cases, roads and transit lines cross over the ravines — they’re hiding down below. Hopping on a bike is your ticket to explore them.
About $11 gets you a three-day pass to Bike Share Toronto shows the locations of Toronto’s 200 bikeshare stations. Many are found along the Martin Goodman Trail, a multiple- use path along the waterfront that stretches for miles in both directions from downtown. Head east for a mile and you’ll find the Don River, one of the city’s largest ravines, where numerous well-marked trails take you up various side ravines.
About 4 miles west of downtown along the Goodman trail, you’ll come to the Humber River, the access point to Toronto’s other major ravine network. From midtown, the Kay Gardner Beltline trail, a shaded bike path along an abandoned rail line, connects you to the trail along Moore Park Ravine, a fun downhill route to the Evergreen Brick Works.
Situated amid several chic neighborhoods in the city’s West End, this is Toronto’s answer to Central Park. The 400-acre space is framed by a pair of glacially carved valleys. One is home to a large off-leash area for dogs; the other is a complex of ponds and wetlands renowned among bird-watchers.
In between are athletic fields, a swimming pool, zoo, an environmental center for kids, extensive forests and hiking trails and a formal Japanese garden along a cascading stream. Parking is free and abundant, and you can access the lakefront bike path — which stretches for 30 miles from one side of the city to the other — at the southern end of the park.
Evergreen Brick Works
Located on the site of the Don Valley Brick Factory, which supplied much of the material with which Toronto’s early 1900s skyline was built, the repurposed Brick Works has quickly grown into a world-renowned environmental center famous for its urban ecology programs.
Abuzz seven days a week with farmers markets, outdoor education programs for kids and nature-themed events and festivals, the site boasts a farm-to-table restaurant, gift shop and extensive boardwalks and trails through the former quarry, now a wetland preserve.
Evergreen Brick Works is also one of the gateways to Toronto’s beloved ravine system.