Hiking Hendrie Park Valley
For every city I explore I always make sure to seek out its parks, gardens and green spaces. From San Diego’s beautiful Balboa Park to London’s top city parks, I always find remarkable gems. So when I planned a weekend in the Hamilton area to hike Spencer Gorge Wilderness Area I decided to also check out the Royal Botanical Gardens, little did I know just how vast the gardens were and that I’d also be hiking through its Hendrie Park Valley.
The Royal Botanical Gardens is set along Lake Ontario and covers an astounding 2,400 acres and its Hendrie Park is only but a fraction of all there is to explore. Hendrie Park is a part of the Niagara Escarpment World Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO site and the Hendrie Valley Sanctuary covers almost 250 acres along the Grindstone Creek Valley with almost 5km of trails.
After checking out a bit of the gardens and pretty reflecting pool in front of the Tea House we headed for the Cherry Hill Gate, the gateway to the trails of the Hendrie Valley Sanctuary to escape the over 30 degree heat and humidity and direct sun of the afternoon within the canopy of the forest. Upon setting out we were immediately met with a group of sweet little chipmunks. Their cheeks stuffed with the acorns that littered the trails, squeals of excitement if another got too close and you could tell they were quite accustomed to visitors, not even scurrying away when we crouched to take their picture and daring enough to check out the seeds we had in our hands made them all the more entertaining.
One of my favourite parts about hiking is the chance encounters with wildlife, from birds to mammals and peering in on their life in the woods. Connecting with nature and its creatures brings on a centering, peaceful tranquility that is unlike anything else and I wish more people would take the time to get outdoors and explore. They’d be astounded by the effects it can have on your emotions, confidence and sense of self.
We continued along, through the forested trails with the squeals of chipmunks and poetic melody of bird songs as our soundtrack and made our way to the first boardwalk. The forest canopy gave way to clear skies as we crossed over the marsh with a marsh sparrow darting among the reeds below and crossed over to the North Bridle Trail which hugged us back into the shaded forest. The North Bridle Trail is steeper in parts and follows the north side of the creek. There are a few sections when the trees part on the side of the creek to offer picturesque views over the marsh. At one such viewpoint across the way we caught sight of two large birds perched high in the trees, preening themselves. With the lack of binoculars and the sun shining down on them, almost illuminating them, they were hard to identify but thanks to the zoom on my trusty camera I could see they were great blue herons.
Just before we reached the second boardwalk that would take us back over the creek I saw another heron, this one a green heron – a stunning bird if caught in the right light you can see their stunning array of greens, yellows and purples, but this guy was wisely out of the sun today, trying to stay cool like the rest of us. And just as we crossed over the marsh, with an ideal bench to sit and gaze out over the serene landscape, I happened to catch sight of another bird floating amongst the reeds in the shadows along the shore in the distance. I could tell it was a wood duck and when I told my friend she was ecstatic, it was her first time seeing one in the wild. We lingered a long while there at the edge of the water hoping it would come out of the shadows. Our patience paid off and the male, with his majestic colours and markings, along with his female with her huge white eye circle, came puttering into the open and a tad closer for us to watch in awe.
When we finally tore ourselves away and reached the south side again where we were greeted by some sweet little chickadees and a gorgeous white-breasted nuthatch who I’m pretty sure had a contract with the Park as he seemed quite keen to keep posing for our cameras. And as wildlife encounters seemed to be the theme of this hike we laughed at our fortune when just a little further I caught sight of a muskrat swimming in the water next to the trail. Strangely enough he even seemed inquisitive and came right up to the edge to get a closer look at us. My friend and I were curious, was he being fed? was he a rescue and re-released? Both would explain his lack of fear of humans. I was impressed later to learn that the Royal Botanical Gardens had recently released over 100 turtles, some of which were Blanding’s turtles, an endangered species, into their Cootes Paradise and even Grindstone Creek (where we were hiking) marshes.
I couldn’t help but wonder, did we fall down a hole and end up in Wonderland? or did the fairies sprinkle us with some sort of pixie dust to attract the wondrous wildlife? Which ever it was I was more than happy with our endless encounters on the enchanted trails of Hendrie Park Valley. From even before we entered the trails where we spotted a majestic monarch butterfly that was tagged to the countless wildlife we encountered on the trails I must admit hiking the Hendrie Park Valley trails was an awesome surprise and one of my favourite hiking days.