Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Laura Secord Legacy Trail and the Bruce Trail : St. Catharines to Short Hills Provincial Park

Having trekked for three days across the beautiful Niagara region from Fort Erie to Niagara-on-the-Lake and from Queenston Heights to St. Catharines we were looking forward to our trek to Short Hills Provincial Park.  

However, circumstances led us to have to return home.   This meant that the next time we were able to return to the Great Trail in the Niagara region was in the Fall of 2019 after we had already trekked 3500 km from Cape Spear Newfoundland to Riviere du Loup Quebec. As such after leaving the snowy winters of the Charlevoix region we returned to the trail amid the still beautiful weather of Niagara - even in November!

Today we were joined with a good friend of ours, Lenora, a wonderful Science teacher from Delhi District Secondary School!  She was kind enough to drive us to the trail and spend the day with us (as she has so often along many of our Bruce Trail hikes).  In fact we have hiked farther with her on The Great Trail (Niagara, Brantford, Hamilton, Norfolk) and Bruce Trail systems than with any other person!  She is a cool individual, a birder, and has an amazing knowledge of trees.  And she is just really fun to spend time with. 

Arriving back into St. Catharines on a beautiful day we returned to our point of departure from the trail last spring at the Pen Centre Mall where we parked, got a coffee. 

St. Catharines, is also known as ‘The Garden City” or the “Best Blooming Town in Ontario” because of the ideal conditions and climate in the region which it is located for growing plants, vegetables, and grape vines.  As we had the opportunity to learn  during our venture along the Niagara Parkway, much of this area was originally a heavily populated First Nations encampment before European settlers came and was later also the site  were United Empire Loyalists arrived in the 1790s following the American Revolution.  In the decades that have followed the Niagara Peninsula has also been the focus point for the Underground Railway, the War of 1812, the construction of the Welland Canals, and the centre of Ontario’s wine industry.  In short Niagara is a place filled with history as well as a lot of wonderful trails. It is such a privilege in Ontario to have access to so many amazing trails and natural spaces to explore.

We had spent part of the morning seeking to relocate the Great Trail’s route in the city only to find that much of it was still closed from the downtown core along Twelve Mile Creek due to poor path conditions and construction.  As such we decided that it was best to continue along the Bruce Trail until DeCew House where the two routes and the Laura Secord Legacy Trail met back together.  Our paths might briefly differ but our goal was still the same. 

Though hardly an auspicious continuation of our Great Trail venture, we departed from the Pen Centre as our chosen route followed the sidewalk along the nearby roadway.  For some unknown reason St. Catharines appeared to be extraordinarily busy on this particular Saturday morning.  As such, we were glad when the trail turned south on Tremont Dr and begin the gentle climb up through a quiet affluent subdivision to the top of the Niagara escarpment. 

Soon the pathway blazes indicated a trailhead, and we ducked off the road to begin walking along a footpath that followed the forested edge of the escarpment above the houses.  Here the forest was tall and open, composed mainly of sugar maple and other deciduous trees.  We passed a mother with two daughters, as well as a man walking his dog, and another solitary hiker, all out enjoying the brisk, sunny morning.  The trail here was easy to follow, but in places it wove its way through some fairly steep switchbacks from the bottom of the treed slope back up to the top.  Apparently we passed the Glenridge Quarry Naturalization Site sometime during this stretch, but with the exception of a trail sign and a small footpath heading off across an old field, there was no other evidence of doing so. 

The Glenridge Quarry is an Environmental Restoration Park and an interesting project.  While presently it is a beautiful green space filled with trees, trails, and wildlife, it was formerly a quarry and home to the city landfill.  With years of dedicated work however, this is a beautiful park to visit.  Our trail cut across this wonderfully restored region along the edge of the escarpment and soon led us to Glenridge road the main route from the city below to the local university.  

Here the trail crossed the busy Glenridge Ave. which is a steep winding route that seems to only rarely provide a break in the speeding traffic.  It is never a wonderful or safe feeling to venture across roadways while hiking and the experience makes you appreciate the calm of pathways in nature all that much more.   After a few minutes we got an opportunity and made our way across and were soon following the sidewalk for a few meters before continuing west along the escarpment through another forested area. 

The next section of the trail essentially skirted around the university campus.  I had walked a trail in this region previously, while Sean was a Graduate Student and Instructor here, but I now realized that there are multiple intersecting pathways throughout the area which allow people to dirt bike, geocache, puddle stomp, and go for day walks.   One of the trails that I had previously ventured along was below the escarpment and it appeared to be one that many people used as a bike path.  This route joins up with the Bruce trail at several junctures and with Twelve Trail (which is also the Great Trail), and leads back to the town of St. Catharines. 

Continuing along the escarpment, there was little denying that compared to our last venture in the Niagara region, the weather was significantly cooler, in addition to which seasonal rains made some of the trail muddier and more slippery.  Regardless it was great to be out and back out in nature!

Unfortunately in this stretch – as we have found on so many urban pathways - there was a fair amount of discarded food wrappers, alcohol bottles, and garbage.  In addition to which we could hear loud music emanating from the nearby student residence buildings, which did little to add to the peacefulness of the day’s trek.  However, as we had to remind our selves it was time to shift our expectations and realize that urban trails were simply a different experience requiring different expectations.  No sense in expecting one experience when you are in the middle of another - to do so is to miss out on the opportunities in front of us each day.

Continuing around the edge of campus, the trail briefly ducked back into a thin stretch of trees, prior to coming back out to follow the edge of one of the school’s vast parking lots before turning west again and leaving the property behind.  At the point where the Bruce Trail intersects with The Great Trail, Lenora, the resident tree expert found a small stand of Pignut Hickories, identifiable from their oblong nuts.  Apparently Pignut Hickories are less common than Bitternut Hickories!

Once we left the university behind, we followed a gravel road for a short distance, and were passed by a maintenance truck. The trail then continued along a fence line beside Twelve Mile Creek and around to the beautiful Lake Moodie.  At first the trail followed along the natural shape of the shoreline on a small footpath, which was a beautiful section, with the oranges, yellows, and red of the fall foliage reflected in the dark teal of the water. 

Eventually we emerged from the woods on Decew Rd. which we followed for a few hundred meters before coming to DeCou House Heritage Park.  Here we found the remains of DeCou House, now a historical monument, which included the footprint of the heritage house.  The remains were situated in a nice, open, grassy park, and consisted of a foundation and stone walls that reached about shoulder height.  Two fireplaces were evident, both inexplicably located side-by-side at one end of the house.  We stopped for a short break here to have some water and the cookies we had purchased earlier.

Having now rejoined with the Laura Secord Legacy Trail and The Great Trail we discovered that DeCou House also was the destination for Canada’s heroine in her run to warn British authorities of the coming American attack upon Beaver Dams. 

After Decew House the footpath of the Great Trail re-entered the forest, and continued along the shore of the lake.  Soon the trail emerged onto a kind of raised burm which was open and exposed.  After this point the trail and lake had a more constructed feel, like they have been built rather occurring naturally. At the end of the long straight stretch of gravel path we came to what looked like a hydroelectric dam.  We could hear a large volume of water falling over the edge of the escarpment, but we couldn't see it.  We discovered later that this was because the water was being carried over the edge inside several large pipes. 

To his frustration, it was also at this point, on the edge of Moodie Lake that Sean discovered that one of his water bottles had leaked into his bag, soaked his gear and was presently dripping water down his backside and legs.  It was starting to get cool and it was windy at the lip of the escarpment, so it was not an ideal day to be wet.  Unfortunately we couldn't figure out which bottle was leaking, so he emptied both while Lenora and I had a good laugh – not only at his sodden condition but the fact that his largest challenge in hiking across Canada so far had happened on a simple day trek.   So much for being the ‘great explorers’. 

Once we left Moodie Lake behind - with two of us walking and the other gingerly wobbling in his wet pants - the trail again wended through a wooded stretch at the top of the escarpment.  This section was fairly wide and gravel covered, and as we approached the Morningstar Mill we could hear the river far below us.  Eventually we could also see DeCew Falls, and we noticed people far below us, on what appeared to be a footpath at the bottom of the escarpment. Sean decided to scramble down the steep side of the gorge to take a photo of the falls from the bottom.  Leaving him to his own uncertain adventure, Lenora and I assumed that since there were other people at the foot of the gorge there must be a better way down.  We soon continued along the top of the cliff in search of the way down, but discovered that there really was no official way down, you merely scrambled at your own risk. 

We passed through a small wooden gate, walked past the site of the old spiral staircase and a historical house, and crossed a small parking lot to Morningside Mill.  Here the waterfalls looked beautiful and the region was serine and calm with the historical mill being highlighted by the fall colours of the season. 

Morningstar Mill, a grist and saw mill was initially built in 1872, by Robert Chappel and was later purchased by Wilson Morningstar.  Unfortunately the Mill burned down in 1895 though was later rebuilt prior to being sold to Ontario Hydro and being acquired by the City of St. Catharines in 1982.  The historical sites is composed of a collection of period buildings including the grist mill, saw mill, blacksmith shop, and museum.  

Lenora and I entered a small side door at the mill, and were invited to climb down a set of wooden steps to see the turbine in motion.  A very kind volunteer explained how the turbine worked, and we were able to look out of the two small windows at the falls.  From the window we saw Sean down at the base of falls, slightly wetter for his efforts and looking for a way back up.  We decided to wait for him at a bench along the trail, and had our lunch while doing so.

When Sean joined us we all visited the mill together.  A volunteer inside explained how the flour was ground in the grindstone, and told us that today was the last day of the season that the mill would be in operation.  She also explained that we could buy a small bag of flour for a $3.00 donation.  The heritage site seemed to be run by volunteers, and there was a box for donations.  There were also washrooms and water available on site – both of which we took advantage of.

After leaving the mill the trail continued along a narrow and winding section of the road that had very small shoulders and no sidewalks.  This section was a little precarious, but only lasted a few hundred meters.  Regardless, we soon found the boundary to Short Hills Provincial Park and entered following the trail to a parking lot on West Rd. within the park itself.

The Short Hills region was formed by glacial activity, deposits, and till which later gave way to the erosive action of Twelve Mile Creek forming a number of "short hills" though the region.  The Provincial Park, a 700 hectare property, which also includes a large Scout Camp set in the heart of the region and is beautiful to explore on its network of wonderful dirt trails.  

Soon the signs and blazes directed us into a small wooded trailhead which led into Short Hills Provincial Park.  Here we discovered that there are quite a few trails throughout this provincial park and while signs indicated that the Great Trail ventures into this region neither the app nor the online map suggested that this was the case. 

Regardless we continued into Short Hills along the mostly wide gravel pathway and the beautiful Bruce Trail.  At one point we passed a sign which indicated that the loop of trail we were on was paired with a trail in Africa – the Friendship Trail on the Rim of Africa.  This discovery led us to quickly reference our phones to discover what and where the Rim of Africa was exactly.   (  While we paused for a moment, Lenora looked up the twin experience offered by the trail in Africa - it looked, like quite an adventure, and one very different from that offered by either the Great Trail or Bruce Trail. 

After reading about trails in Africa for 15 or 20 minutes we continued on.  The route through Short Hills was very hilly, passing through deciduous forests, crossing streams, and emerging into open, old fields.  Of course we also passed two scenic waterfalls - Terrance Creek falls and Swayze Falls.  The path curved around and followed the hill beside Terrance Creek falls, giving a unique perspective.  Only a tiny trickle of water was falling in a small puddle at the bottom of the falls, and the riverbed below was dry.  In spring or after a rainstorm this falls would be quite impressive.  Swayze Falls was quite a bit larger than Terrance Creek, with a large semi-circular basin though no water fell here.    We soon discovered in fact that most of the falls in the area including Swayze Falls are known as "Dry Falls" and now only rarely flow, especially at this time of the year.  We took a moment to admire Swayze Falls on the built platform overlooking the escarpment's edge, and wondered what a fully flowing waterfall would look and sound like during the spring runoff.

The gentle and peaceful region was a mixture of rolling hills and open meadow grasslands full of migratory birds whose songs could be heard clearly.  Eventually we left Short Hills upon reaching Effingham Rd., which like most of the roadways in this region have been wonderfully marked with handmade wooden signs where the trail and road meet. Here, unable to find another Great Trail sign we decided that we had become caught up on exploring the region and enjoying the beauty of Short Hills Provincial Park rather than following our determined route that we had left the TGT behind us.  As such we decided to call it a day. 

Overall Short Hill was very wonderful, but I think by the end of the park we were all getting a bit tired from the hilly terrain – now warm from hiking and with sore legs, we were ready for a break.

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