In October 2017, Rouge Park, which previously fell under mostly provincial protection, was officially transferred to the federal government. The event completed a process to make it into Canada’s first National Urban Park administered by Parks Canada. The title says it all: massive green space within a busy metropolis. It’s not a new idea for Toronto, though. The City of Toronto’s Parks, Forestry, and Recreation Department’s motto, “City Within Park”, neatly captures the sentiment its own parklands and trails.
Rouge Valley’s physical landscape dates to the last Ice Age, when the retreating ice sheet covering the Toronto area left grooves, dips, basins, and indents in the land. This is how the landscape became hilly and flat, and also how we get water bodies. Lakes, rivers, and streams form as meltwater rushes to fill the “holes” in the land. Human activity began from this point with Aboriginal hunters and farmers making use of the valley.
Although evidence is perhaps scarce for the entire period, there was a now well-known Seneca Village Ganatsekwyagon located where the Rouge meets Lake Ontario. The waterway was a portage Carrying Place Trail, too. Ganatsekwyagon is a National Historic Site (although strangely listed under Bead Hill instead of its true name), which perhaps plays into the desire to include the Rouge lands under Parks Canada.
Although there are many access points within Rouge National Urban Park, a popular locale is the Vista Trail, located off Zoo Road at Meadowvale Road — right across, well, Toronto Zoo. The ‘welcome centre’ is a gorgeous Victorian farmhouse known today as the Rouge Valley Conservation Centre. Operated by the volunteer-based Rouge Valley Foundation, the centre’s mandate is to promote and engage in environmental conservation and offer interpretive and education programming within the Park. The homestead itself was built as the 1893 James Pearse House.
The Pearse House is named for the family who came to amass several hundred acres of land in the Rouge River Valley, including the present plot of the Vista Trail and Conservation Centre. This is not the house’s original location, however; it was restored and moved here in 1995 through efforts of volunteers.
European settler presence since the 1800s has had the most transformative effect on the land, with maybe the most changes coming after World War II. In the 1950s, the (Metro) Toronto and Region Conservation Authority was created to put greater emphasis and protection in the Toronto area’s natural ravines. A couple of decades later, the Riverdale Zoo moved from Cabbagetown to the Rouge, further reorganizing the land.
The Vista Trail itself is a scenic walk, offering a number of fabulous views along its 1.5 kilometre route. An observation deck in particular allows for a great panorama of the Carolinian forest within the Little Rouge River and its dale.
Its pathway winds through that forest on a central ridge-like formation. On either side, the land dips down to give one a great look of the trees and colours of fall. The trail itself rolls up and down with tree roots serving as defacto stairs.
But speaking to the urban park aspect, the Vista Trail passes through an open space where Gatineau Hydro Corridor power lines run above. It’s a reminder that despite the perceived seclusion, civilization is not actually that far way.
Like the Rouge Valley Conservation Centre, the Parks Canada team host various guided hikes through the Rouge’s trails, ranging from topics like bird watching to tree identification to the wildlife in the valley to even a social hike. These walks run in all seasons too, offering the chance to see what Rouge Park has to show year-round.
Guided or not, a walk through the Vista Trail might offer one the opportunity to engage in some ‘forest pathing’ or shinrin-yoku. The Japanese practice invites one to engage with his or her surroundings in a way to cleanse oneself and relieve stress. And indeed, a calmness follows from taking in all Rouge National Urban Park’s richness.