Staycations are in, and if you’re looking to escape the GTA without actually escaping the GTA, these scenic destinations which offer the illusion of being someplace much further away are a great place to start.
Descending the forested slopes of Burlington’s Hendrie Valley is a great way to leave the city behind and reconnect with nature. Managed by the Royal Botanical Gardens, Hendrie Valley is part of the UNESCO Niagara Escarpment Biosphere Reserve—one of only 18 biosphere reserves in Canada.
The area is a microclimate, with plantlife more reminiscent of what you would find further south. The 4.5km of trails running alongside (and over!) Grindstone Creek offer ample photo opportunities, especially in autumn.
Many of the songbirds are accustomed to being offered treats (particularly near the boardwalk), and if you get lucky a woodpecker might just perch on your hand in search of unsalted peanuts or black oil sunflower seeds.
Rouge National Urban Park
When people mention national parks, the first thought is probably a remote, pristine wilderness far from civilisation. However Rouge National Urban Park (the first park of its kind in Canada) is the best of both worlds: a national park found right in the GTA. It even has a campground!
Parks Canada took over managing the original Rouge Park in 2011 with the goal of restoring the natural spaces and doubling the protected area. Within the park boundaries you’ll find habitats ranging from working farms (which contain some of the most fertile soil in Canada) to dense forest, and trails for all abilities to explore them. Kayaking through the waterways is another popular activity.
Keep your eyes open for wildlife: the park is home to over 1,700 species of plants and animals, 23 of which are at risk such as the Blanding’s Turtle, which is distinguished by its bright yellow jaw.
The Scarborough Bluffs lining Lake Ontario create the illusion of having traveled much further than Scarborough. Bluffers Park, which was created to improve access to the Bluffs, is the only park along them with access to a beach, making it a popular destination whether you’re looking to picnic, walk, boat, snap that perfect Instagrammable selfie, or even surf (if conditions are right).
Unlike other parks on this list, Bluffers Park is quite urbanized, however nestled between the lake and the towering cliffs are a few natural-feeling areas including some stormwater management ponds which have created a wetland environment that is worth exploring.
Lynde Shores Conservation Area
A visit to Lynde Shores Conservation Area is like stepping out of your car and into a nature documentary.
The conservation area includes forest, wetland, and open fields. Flocks of wild turkey and songbirds are found in abundance along the 5km of trails all year round. Deer can frequently be seen silently emerging from the trees right in front of you only to slip back into the forest leaving you to wonder if you dreamed it.
There are bird feeding stations throughout the park where you can place seed and peanuts, or (far more fun!) you can try your luck at having chickadees, woodpeckers, and nuthatches land in your hand to snag a tasty morsel.
McLaughlin Bay Wildlife Reserve
Located next door to Darlington Provincial Park, the wetlands of McLaughlin Bay Wildlife Reserve are something of a juxtaposition: this green space is not only located behind GM Motors, but actually managed by the multinational corporation. One of the goals of the reserve is “to create an area where people and wildlife could co-exist in harmony.”
The reserve is noteworthy for its accessibility: the Dogwood Trail was designed to be used by the visually impaired, and is suitable for park-goers with wheelchairs as well.
Birdlife here is quite friendly, and as in other locations on this list, bold little chickadees in particular will perch in your hand in exchange for a tasty treat.