You know those lists of “Ontario’s Natural Wonders” or “Places You Wouldn’t Believe Are in Ontario” that are often circulated on Facebook and Twitter? There is no shortage of them on social media so you’ve probably seen at least one. I occasionally click on those links to see which places we should visit in Ontario. Every time I scroll through those lists, I am amazed that while we have been to parks like Sleeping Giant, Kakabeka Falls and Ouimet Canyon that are two days away from Toronto by car, we haven’t visited any of the places that would take less than an hour to get to.
I guess I should change that previous sentence to the past tense. This autumn has been a season of microadventures and we have visited a lot of local natural wonders, some straight out of those lists and some rarely mentioned, yet no less spectacular. We explored Scarborough Bluffs, went hiking at Rattlesnake Point, and this past weekend we finally made a trip to Hamilton to discover some of its waterfalls.
Hamilton is often referred to as “Steeltown.” But did you know that it is also known as the City of Waterfalls? With over 100 waterfalls within its boundaries, the name is well-deserved. Niagara Escarpment that runs through Hamilton creates perfect conditions for those majestic cascades. The Escarpment, of course, is a UNESCO biosphere reserve that stretches over 800 kilometres from Lake Ontario near Niagara Falls all the way to the tip of Bruce Peninsula. Canada’s longest and oldest marked footpath, Bruce Trail, runs along the edge of this important geological feature so most of the waterfalls are part of the Bruce Trail system located either on the main trail or along one of the side trails.
I should confess that I have a soft spot for waterfalls. There is something fascinating about all that tumbling water, a majestic display of power and beauty. I once made my family change our road trip route so that we could hit as many waterfalls along the way as possible. That’s why it’s even more surprising that having lived in Toronto for close to 13 years we have never found time to visit the City of Waterfalls. But, as they say, better late than never, and this past Saturday with its balmy un-December-like weather was a perfect day to start exploring.
Our destination was Spencer Gorge/Webster’s Falls Conservation Area near the Town of Dundas. Two beautiful waterfalls are located in this natural area: Webster’s and Tew’s Falls along Spencer Adventure Trail, which is part of the Bruce Trail System.
We started at the parking lot near Webster’s Falls. Before we set out on our adventure, we had a snack of nuts, sweet potato chips and apples because proper sustenance is key to a great hike, especially when you have kids in tow. We checked out Webster’s Falls, then decided to hike to Dundas Peak and back before exploring the waterfalls from the other side.
The distance from Webster’s Falls to Dundas Peak is about two kilometres one way. The trail has a couple of staircases to climb but for the most part is pretty flat and easy with Dundas Peak visible across Spencer Gorge and Spencer Creek down below. I know most people would prefer the deep greenery of summer or the colourful glamour of fall to the monochromatic landscape of December. To me, though, the leafless forest speaks of solitude and quietness. I can hear those bare trees whisper of winter slumber and potential for rebirth in the spring.
It didn’t take us long to reach Tew’s Falls. It is easy to overlook this narrow ribbon of water, especially this late in the season (it is much fuller in the spring). Yet even though Tew’s Falls have now been reduced to a trickle, its bowl-shaped basin and the widening of Spencer Gorge downstream speak of a roaring past: according to the information panel nearby, the falls was once as big as the Horseshoe section of Niagara Falls. While the water volume is long gone, at 41 metres, Tew’s Falls is only a few metres shorter than Niagara Falls and is the tallest waterfall in the Hamilton area. Exposed bedrock with its layers of shale, sandstone and limestone provides a beautiful backdrop to this thin stream of water.
Dundas Peak was our next stop along the trail. Once we reached it, we were treated to well-ordered, checkerboard views of Dundas to one side and rugged Spencer Gorge on the other. Apparently, on a clear day you can see as far as Stoney Creek and Hamilton Harbour. It wasn’t one of those days. However, sunlight streaming though the clouds and misty hills in the distance made for some beautiful pictures.
The whole trip to Dundas Peak and back took us over two hours, way more than a trail this short normally would. But it included numerous stops to enjoy the views, climb trees, balance on logs, not to mention fix socks.
Also add time spent trying to locate the source of twittering up in the branches (red-bellied woodpecker) and identify a bird sitting on a distant tree (most probably a hawk) as well as the time we spent wondering at weird tree formations trying to figure out what could make the trunks follow such an uneven growth path and how a hole at the bottom of the tree came to be.
Once we returned to Webster’s Falls, we made our way to the other side of the waterfalls. While not as tall as Tew’s Falls, Webster’s Falls is much wider and is the largest and most famous in the region. The park around Webster’s Falls is designed as an English country landscape with low stone walls along Spencer Creek and a famous arched cobblestone bridge. There are a few information panels explaining the history of the region since it was purchased first by Dr. James Hamilton, then Joseph Webster Sr. (when the Falls was renamed from Dr.Hamilton’s to Webster’s) and a bunch of other wealthy guys. Over time, the area was used as a site for a distillery, all sorts of mills, one of the first hydro-electric generators in Ontario until it was purchased by the town of Dundas in 1917 and became a public park shortly after. We couldn’t find any information about the pre-industrialized history of the falls or what its name had been before rich owners started naming it after themselves.
The trail leading down to the bottom of the falls was unfortunately closed (not that it stopped people). Another option was to continue along Spencer Adventure Trail all the way to Christie Lake. However, the male part of our group already started discussing dinner, and that signaled the end of our adventures. But I am hoping to come back and explore more of Hamilton’s waterfalls and maybe even turn it into a section hike of the entire Bruce Trail.