The innovation behind today’s trails is leading to recreational discoveries
“From our perspective, a great trail is one with a minimal environmental impact. Protection of the environment has to come first, and we can balance out recreational needs against that.” BOB MORRIS CREDIT VALLEY CONSERVATION
After a seemingly endless winter, Ontarians are desperate to get outside: to hear the sound of birds and spring peepers, to bask in sunshine streaming through the early foliage, to breathe the fresh air of the outdoors.
Fortunately, we need look no further than the GTA’s vast and diverse trail networks that journey through rolling hills and lush forests, offering unforgettable views that awaken the senses. The thrill of reconnecting with the outdoors come springtime may be in our blood, and conservationists have worked hard to bring the experience closer to visitors.
With more than 10,000 kilometres of trails throughout the Golden Horseshoe, notably through the Greenbelt, TransCanada Trailway and conservation areas, residents and visitors have the country’s largest trail network right at their doorsteps. And trails are the windows onto this verdant world.
Trail design is a complex and collaborative process that balances public usage and ecological conditions. It is done with the utmost care with input by a host of individuals, including technical specialists, community leaders and those who will eventually use the trails.
The goal is to create trails that contribute to everyone’s health and wellbeing. So, whether you’re hiking a rugged single-track or pushing a stroller along a wider gravel pathway, you’re following a route that was created to maximize your enjoyment, while balancing a variety of competing priorities.
“Our goal is to provide trail experiences that appeal to as many of our residents as possible,” says Adam Szaflarski, greenspace conservation project manager with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), which owns 18,000 hectares of land in the Toronto Region and more than 450 kilometres of different trail experiences, ranging from treks on the waterfront, through the urban river valleys and to the headwaters in the Oak Ridges.
There is such an abundance of enriching activity happening on the region’s trails, and the TRCA eagerly embraces the challenge of meeting a wide range of needs: Walkers want interesting paths that include scenic lookouts and rest stops. Hikers and trail runners want less-trafficked routes that offer variety in elevation and trail surface. Mountain bikers want to reach steeper heights, while tackling some twists and turns. To meet these requests, while minimizing our eco-footprint, ecologists and naturalists tread carefully.
“From our perspective, a great trail is one with a minimal environmental impact. Protection of the environment has to come first, and we can balance out recreational needs against that,” says Bob Morris, natural heritage manager with Credit Valley Conservation (CVC), the conservation authority dedicated to managing the natural resources of the Credit River watershed.
A trail built on a steep slope will erode, impacting a user’s experience. To that end, conservation managers conduct research and consult with ecologists before planning a new trail, to ensure the land’s natural contours are considered. They survey the land to ensure the trail is built away from environmentally sensitive areas, such as nesting spots, while providing access to scenic views.
“Let’s say the flushing distance, or distance at which birds will fly away when people pass, is 100 metres. A trail should be kept even farther away, so the birds stay in their nests,” to lay eggs and raise their young, says Jennifer Sylvester, an ecologist with the CVC.
Successful trail design is all about welcoming visitors to the magnificence of nature. And more thought — and technology — goes into trail planning than many might think.
Adam Dembe is a greenspace conservation planner with the TRCA, which uses a High Efficiency Trail Assessment Process device (HETAP) — picture a jogging stroller with measuring devices and a sturdy laptop welded on top — to collect detailed data on trails; measuring slope, length, surface material and trail width to assess accessibility.
Until this high-tech device arrived on the scene in recent years, this data was painstakingly collected manually, via tape measure and the naked eye. A trail that once took weeks to measure can now be assessed in days. This information can be converted into user-friendly info on the TRCA website, conservation area pamphlets and trail maps, to help visitors determine how suitable a given trail may be for them.
“Let’s say you’re visiting with a small child. A double-track trail will let you walk beside one another. Hard-packed limestone screening is better for a wheelchair or stroller. Single-track trails are good for mountain bikers, and utilize terrain that may be harder to travel than a leisurely trail,” says Dembe.
Trails are also designed to minimize soil compaction from foot and bike traffic. Scenic boardwalks like the ones at CVC’s Rattray Marsh Conservation Area and the TRCA’s Bruce’s Mill Conservation Area are installed in places where foot traffic would harm the fragile ecosystem. In hardier areas, routes and trail surfaces are designed to keep people on the trails because if they meander offtrail, says Morris, there can be unforeseen ripple effects.
Take the provincial flower of Ontario, the white trillium, for instance. It grows in loosely packed, humus-rich woodland. But when people trample off-path to take photos (or avoid mud), their feet compact the ground, making it hard for subsequent waves of trilliums to grow. Eventually, trilliums die off, as garlic mustard — a fast-growing invasive species — outcompetes them in this compacted soil.
To reduce harmful environmental impacts, it’s important to guide visitors to the appropriate sites and trails — but this by no means limits the diversity of trail activities.
“We are simply focusing use in appropriate areas,” says project manager Szaflarski. He uses the example of Albion Hills Conservation Area, which hosts 24-hour adventure races, as well as the popular Mud Hero obstacle race. Albion Hills, he says, has the infrastructure to absorb high-traffic, high-intensity events like these, which introduce new groups to conservation lands — in a safe and manageable way.
“We want to get more people into green spaces more often, and teach them how to use them in a responsible way,” he says.
Tara Nolan, of Dundas, Ont., favours specific GTA and Greenbelt trails depending on her activities.
“The Dundas Valley Rail Trail leads to many single-track offshoots that provide quad-busting hills and great terrain. I can mountain bike for hours in there,” she says.
Nolan also enjoys the “fast, flowy terrain, and technical aspects” of trails at Hamilton’s Christie Lake Conservation Area, and Toronto’s Don Valley. When walking, she chooses trails that stand out due to their scenery and wildlife.
“A couple of years ago when bald eagles were nesting on Royal Botanical Garden property in Hamilton, I’d go out super early with my husband to watch them feed their young through binoculars. The Bruce Trail, which hooks up to Hamilton trails in a couple of areas, provides some great scenery, as well,” she says.
As demand grows, land managers and other stakeholders aim to balance increased traffic with environmental stewardship. Expect to see old rock quarries repurposed into parkland, and mixed-use paths linking trails to one another.
The Greenbelt Route, a 600-kilometre cycling route that traverses through six Greenbelt regions, opens this year, encouraging tourism on two wheels from Northumberland to Niagara. And CVC’s Island Lake Conservation Area features a 10-kilometre fully accessible loop of boardwalks, bridges and trails over and around this scenic lake.
Clearly, whether you walk, hike, bike or roll, the right path has been blazed for you. You just have to get out there and enjoy it.