Walk the wilds of Leaside

walk-gageAttention South Leaside and Bennington Heights walkers, joggers, and stroller-pushers: Unlike your north-of-Eglinton ‘kin,’ you may be unaware of a nature wonderland right on North Leaside’s doorstep.

Other nearby nature walks such as the Rosedale Ravine and the Belt Line have more obvious entranceways. This one, at the very northern tip of Sutherland, at Glenvale, features two black-lantern-topped brick arches beckoning. But only the Toronto Rehab or Lyndhurst Centre seemingly lie beyond.

Not so. Hang a right past the arches and your journey begins.

Take the paved path past the car-gate or cut across the sprawling lawn studded with pine. You’ll soon come to a blue Dogs Must Be Kept on Leash sign near a pile of loose stones. Go past the open iron gate and you’ll find yourself on a paved no-cars-allowed road that winds rather steeply downward, affording a bracing view of a forested sheer drop, at the bottom of which you might make out romping dogs. More on that shortly. 

Bear in mind that you’ll eventually be walking back up that same hill, though I did see a cyclist managing to puff his way to the top. After several minutes you arrive at a small bridge with concrete abutments and a concrete flow-way beneath, your first babbling brook with pleasing views on either side.

Proceed along the path until a spacious fenced-in field appears on your left: the Sunnybrook Park Dogs Off Leash Area, three football fields-worth shaped into a triangle. Owners I talked to enthused that it’s a great space where dogs can really let loose, and socialize.

The downside? A faulty water fountain and a fence on the woods-side that’s too low to contain larger friskier canines. (Interested dog owners, go to www.facebook.com/ groups/sunnybrookdogpark)

Walk - pathJust before the dog park, an initially-paved path heads left (west), and presents the option of a 20-minute add-on walk, along Burke Brook, which meets the West Don a bit further east. The trail shadows the tributary closely and picturesquely, Burke being almost detritus-free.

Within a few minutes, it even presents a bonus for dog-walkers, though I would surmise that it’s an ecological no-no. Twice at a broad-but-shallow bend in the river, I saw several dogs way beyond the path’s fence frolicking in the water with their owners.

Moving on, you’ll pass an algae-covered pond and many fallen trees, before the sometimes wooden-planked path and fencing end in a spoon shape. There you can view a steep irregular embankment that only the most energetic and perhaps foolhardy would dare clamber up to reach Bayview or Sunnybrook Hospital. At present there are no formal links.

Returning to the dog park, you continue north to a small parking lot. To your left is a paved road for cars that disappears up the hill and connects to Sunnybrook Hospital. Turn instead to a bridge, with rusty-green iron railings.

Once again: lovely views on either side. Moreover, the swift-moving water is ideal for a friendly game of Poohsticks. Cross the bridge and head for the Sunnybrook Stables, bearing left on the main park road, and sidestepping any traffic since there’s no sidewalk. Soon you’ll be at the seating overlooking the enclosure where horses and riders do their jumping.

HORSES CAN BITE. DO NOT FEED THE HORSES reads a sign on the corral’s every second post. To see basic riding-lessons in progress, walk all the way around the back, behind the huge red, brown and white barn of a stable, till you reach the arena, where visitors can enter the open end for a look-see.

Upon returning to the park road, you can check out another outside horse enclosure at the far end of the complex. The afternoon I stopped by, I saw 20 horses there, ambling about and grazing. Across the road is the closed-down Sunnybrook Café, but adjoining washrooms (plus a port-a-potty) are open and well-maintained.

A Leaside waterway
A Leaside waterway

Make your way back across the bridge. On the other side the first path to your right, a meandering dirt path hugs the West Don for a mile or so. This is the hiking highlight of the excursion. However, to ford gullies, there are a few iffy wooden-plank crossings that might be unsafe to guide a stroller over. Stroller-pushers should instead take the more formal path just a bit further past the bridge, and also heading right (north). It will join the meandering path about halfway to Glendon College. Neither is for cyclists.

As for this forest, the signs say that the higher trees include old growth mature sugar maple, American beech and eastern hemlock. Below them range choke cherry, red ozier dogwood and eastern white cedar. In wetlands stretches on the west side, cattails dominate. Also, there’s Joe-Pye weed and boneset.

Come here next spring and you may see blue heron, Mallard ducks or noisy red-winged blackbirds, monarch butterflies and green frogs, one of which I caught peering out from the knothole of a tree. There are all kinds of invasive plants as well.

But for the likes of me, the experience is mainly the wind in the trees, and the sights and sounds of the West Don, gently rippling here, rapids gushing there.

There are oddities. A few mysterious white stone benches appear along the way. A fallen and snapped tree provides an archway over the path. Watch out for those piles of horse poop.

Some pebbly ‘beaches’ are quite accessible, but given that too much wear-and-tear has closed down the path on the east side of the river, perhaps best to avoid any tramping along the actual riverside. We don’t want the west-side path closed for restoration too.

A half-hour stroll from the bridge takes you to the edge of Glendon College’s property. Another several minutes would take you all the way to its playing fields and field house. For any nature/exercise-loving Glendon students living in Leaside, the main path described here is the perfect alternative to commuting via Bayview.

Time for the rest of us Leasiders to amble back and notice some things we missed on the way out. There are other trails to explore in the vicinity, but those can wait for another day.

After two hours of cardio-vascular communing with nature in our midtown setting, hopefully there’s a parked car waiting for us on Glenvale.