Beyond the Skyway: Hamilton's Great Outdoors

By John Kernaghan  

Steeltown has segued from gritty to pretty. Just look beyond the heights of the Skyway Bridge for a wealth of eco-trails and conservation areas offering biking, birding, boating and more.

The view of Hamilton most widely thought to represent the city is the panorama from the Skyway Bridge as it passes over Burlington Bay. And the stark majesty of that industrial front yard, with its steel mills and attendant industry, scarcely suggests an outdoor mecca.

It is in fact a narrow look. Sometime over the past two decades, Hamilton went from gritty to pretty. You just can't see it as you hurtle across the heights of the bridge.

It's there, though, in a very high ratio of conservation areas and recreational lands that offer hiking, biking, in-line skating, swimming, boating, birding and fishing, as well as many winter sports opportunities. And Hamilton may just be Canada's capital of waterfalls, with 34 documented falls amongst the many streams that tumble down the Niagara Escarpment.

"There's no chart comparing percentages of recreational land for cities in Canada, but we believe we rank very high," says Garnet Cowsill of the Hamilton Conservation Authority (HCA). "We believe we compare very favourably with other cities in terms of open space." In and around Hamilton, some 6,353 hectares of publicly owned lands, or 14 per cent of a watershed area with a land component of 280 square kilometres, are devoted to an array of recreational activities.

One of the newest additions is almost right under the Skyway Bridge. The Beach Strip Trail, a 10-kilometre paved pathway along Lake Ontario that won back public access to the lake, was introduced in May. For some of its distance it covers the former Beach Strip Promenade, a popular walkway back when the area was a summer holiday retreat in the late 1800s and early 1900s. At Confederation Park, the Beach Strip Trail also leads to Wild Waterworks, boasting slides, a wave pool, restaurants, batting cages, go-karts and fine picnic areas as well as the lakefront promenade. The new trail came three years after the opening of the Hamilton Harbour Waterfront Trail, a 10-kilometre magnet on the city's west harbourfront for walkers and joggers.

Dozens more trails wind through several conservation areas. Then there's the storied Bruce Trail, which bisects the city along the Niagara Escarpment. The uninterrupted footpath follows the escarpment from Queenston Heights near Niagara Falls to Tobermory on Lake Huron.

More paths are being added. The Lafarge 2000 Trail, for instance, is one of the HCA's two Millennium projects. The 22-kilometre route in suburban Flamborough will link conservation areas and ultimately join up with the Hamilton Harbour and Lake Ontario Waterfront trails. The other Millennium project, the 11.5-kilometre Dofasco 2000 Trail, will connect the Devil's Punch Bowl Conservation Area with the Vinemount Wetlands and the Bruce Trail, in time continuing to a conservation area on Lake Ontario.

A cycling favourite is the Hamilton to Brantford Rail Trail, a 32-kilometre multi-use trail that runs from west Hamilton to Brantford. Canada's first fully developed, multi-use interurban trail system, it's also part of the Trans Canada Trail network. Links to Paris and Cambridge extend the trail to 80 kilometres. In fact the old rail bed and good trails between Paris and the Hamilton suburb of Ancaster has sparked an annual cycling event called the Paris to Ancaster classic, a 60-kilometre test of endurance which often draws some of Canada's best riders. The 2003 event, which attracted about 1,000 cyclists, was won by recent Commonwealth Games silver medallists Susan Palmer-Komar and Seamus McGrath.

There are also 40 kilometres of trails in the Dundas Valley Conservation Area and 10-kilometre systems at both the Valens and Christie Lake conservation areas. They're groomed for cross-country skiing in winter, too. Valens also offers clean, safe swimming in chlorinated waters separated from the rest of the lake by a special screen. You can camp there year round as well, at campsites nestled in a pine and spruce forest, with good access to modern washrooms and showers (reservations are recommended).

The Christie Lake Conservation Area also offers clean, safe swimming in an idyllic natural setting. Like Valens, it has a chlorinated beach area separated from the rest of the lake by a screen. Nine ponds in the conservation area are stocked with rainbow trout from late April to early July, but you can fish right into September.

Meantime at Fifty Point Conservation Area, anglers can fish for salmon in Lake Ontario - salmon charters are available at the marina - or catch rainbow trout and bass in the stocked pond. Fifty Point also boasts one of the warmest and cleanest beaches on Lake Ontario.

Boating is available at the Valens, Christie Lake and Fifty Point conservation areas. Christie Lake and Valens rent canoes, paddleboats and HydroBikes and offer boat launch areas as well, though only electric-powered boats are permitted. Over at Fifty Point, the full-service marina is one of the best on western Lake Ontario, complete with a double boat launch and docking space for 312 craft.

For winter sports, the Dundas Valley Conservation Area is a mecca for cross-country skiers; the valley's 40-kilometre trail system offers a challenging mix of terrain for experienced skiers. Those looking for more moderate conditions can try the smooth, level surface of the Hamilton-Brantford Rail Trail, which runs through the valley.

Birding is another popular activity found at 23 locations in and around Hamilton. The Beamer Memorial Conservation Area offers peeks at migrating hawks, falcons, and eagles from March to early May, particularly on sunny days with southeast winds. Luther Marsh, meantime, boasts various waterfowl, ospreys, sandhill cranes and cormorants in spring and summer. And right in the city, the Red Hill Valley provides viewing of long-eared owls and finches in winter and breeding Carolinian zone songbirds in spring and summer.

All in all, Hamilton's rich outdoor opportunities are beginning to change people's perspective of the old industrial city.

Hamilton Features

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