Very quietly, almost without notice amid the roar of traffic on the 401, the Government of Canada is setting up a national park in our horizon-stretching, sky-piercing mega-city.
When it’s finally ready, visitors will be able to stroll, hike, cycle or run from Rouge Beach in Scarborough to the Goodwood Conservation Area in Glasgow, a crow-flying distance of some 25 kilometres, during which they will follow the meandering channels, ponds and ravines of the Rouge River and its squiggly tributaries—around, over, under or through the Toronto Zoo, several commuter and freight rail lines, highways 401 and 407, acres of private farmland, several golf and country clubs—from Lake Ontario to the Oak Ridges Moraine, via a network of trails, paths, windy roads, bridges and underpasses that might make any regular visitor to Banff snicker with pity and choke on his protein bar.
Sure, Rouge National Park is still closer to a grand idea than it is to Banff or Gros Morne or Quttinirpaaq, and even when it’s complete few visitors will confuse it with the towering escarpments of Auyuittuq, the thundering cascades of Nahanni, or the Switzerland-sized beaver realm of Wood Buffalo.
But we’re talking about a metropolitan area of some 6 million inhabitants, smaller in size than Jasper, containing—with the rest of its urbanity—a national park. That’s a lofty ambition, and one worth exploring.
For the time being, Rouge Park sits diminutively on about 40 square kilometres of a delicate riverine ecosystem, created by the Province in 1995 to protect an extension of the Greenbelt—a network of wetlands and aquifers that provides much of the drinking water to southern Ontario’s 13 million residents—amid the sprawl of amalgamated Toronto and the suburban townships of Pickering and Markham. In 2011, the Federal Government committed $143.7-million to a ten-year process of establishing a national park in Rouge. The House of Commons passed the Rouge National Urban Park Act on January 26, 2015, and in July, an additional 21 square kilometres in the township of Uxbridge were added to the survey.
In total, the Rouge initiative will consist of 79 square kilometres of land belonging to Toronto, Pickering, Markham, Uxbridge, York Region, Durham Region, the Province of Ontario, and myriad public and private interests.
At present, evidence of Parks Canada in Rouge is limited to a small information cabin, located next to the Rouge Valley Conservation Centre, and an adjacent demo oTENTik. But it’s all coming, said the pair of contract Parks Canada employees when I visited their hut on November 1, the last day of their season. They showed me a map (not yet published) of the eventual park complete with dotted lines promising a contiguous trail network linking the existing park with the proposed additions to the north.
In other words, an ultra-distance, mixed-surface, cross-country trail within a protected area of land, just twenty minutes (in Sunday-morning non-traffic) from downtown Toronto: an urban, off-season trail-runner’s dream.
Rouge Park Trail Run, Route 1: Glen Rouge Campground to Woodland & Back (21.6km)
Rouge Park on a typical Toronto autumn Sunday seems to wake slowly, like the city itself. Just after dawn—on the morning following the end of daylight savings—there are already a dozen cars in the Glen Rouge Campground / Mast Trailhead parking lot off Kingston Road, but few souls are seen. [Download Trail Map]
For today’s discovery run—it’s my first visit to Rouge—I head north with an iPod, a folded trail map, a baggie of sliced grapefruit, and a handful of gummy bears—along the series of connected trails called Mast, Vista and Cedar, following the Little Rouge Creek ravine over several hills and through a canopy of fall-coloured oak, maple and walnut trees. (There’s a great organization—called 10,000 Trees for the Rouge—devoted to tree planting and arboreal conservation in the park.)
Arriving at Meadowvale Road near the zoo, and out of trail for the moment, I head south to Old Finch Avenue, west to Reesor Road, and then north to Steeles Avenue (mostly on a gravel surface beside the roads), crossing two sets of railroad tracks. At Steeles, I meet up with Little Rouge Creek again and follow the Woodland Trail south to its dead-end at the CN rail tracks.
Once again I’m out of trail, and to continue southward to connect back with the rest of the trail network, I have to run for about a kilometre alongside the tracks (pausing my music to listen for trains) to the Plug Hat Road bridge. After a bit of a scramble up the slope, I’m back on a road for about a click to meet up with the Cedar Trail.
By now, other weekend warriors abound on the trails; I’m overtaken by a high-school cross-country team out for practice, and all of us are stepping around couples, families, dog walkers and others enjoying a Sunday stroll with their smartphones poised to Instagram the lingering fall colours.
I return to the Glen Rouge Campground roughly the same way as I ran outbound, except I take the Orchard Trail down the eastern bank of the creek to Celebration Forest, meet up with the Mast Trail once more, and after a few last uphill climbs (the Mast Trail is the hilliest section of the entire run) I bear west at the fork to follow the trail along the Rouge River back to the parking lot.
Finish! A little more than half a marathon, a little more than two hours, on a perfect autumn morning in a national park in the city of Toronto. Time to eat pie.
Got tips for Rouge Park Trail Running, I’d love to hear them. Email or Tweet at me, or something.
Photos and text copyright © 2015 Richard Alexander Johnson