Places to Hike in Niagara That Will Blow Your Mind

hiking niagara

Hiking through the Niagara Glen nature area

The name Niagara Glen conjures up visions of a pleasant, peaceful glade. This image is reasonably accurate so long as you stay in the picnic area above the cliff.

But once you wander over the edge of the gorge, the scene changes dramatically, and a more apt descriptor would be the Devil’s Half Acre or the Battleground of the Gods. Gigantic moss-covered boulders are strewn about in the most chaotic fashion, as though some superhuman powers had fought a pitched battle on this site, gouging rocks as large as housed from the ground and hurling them at each other. You can wander around this bizarre landscape along approximately 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) of trails, which can be accessed via a metal staircase down the initial, steepest part of the gorge. Rock climbers are often seen dangling precariously by ropes and pitons from the cliff face.

The trails lead down into the gorge, revealing the geologic strata that were laid down over four hundred million years ago. Although steep in places, the trails are well-marked and easily negotiated. The paths, which thread over, under, and around huge boulders that have been carved from the cliff face and were smoothed when Niagara Falls was here approximately eight thousand years ago, pass by various natural features including the mammoth pothole, the leaning rock, and Devils arch. The forest is primarily deciduous with maples, Staghorn sumacs, sassafras, tulip trees, and even some red mulberry trees.

Fishing has long been a favourite pastime at the Glen, and fishermen can often be seen casting their lines from the many rocks that are strewn along the shore. A word of caution: do not clamber onto these rocks as the water level can change suddenly and leave you stranded.

The Recreational Trail

Walk or bike this 56 kilometre (35 miles) scenic 2.5 metre (8 foot) wide paved trail which runs parallel to the Niagara River from Historic Fort Erie in the south to Fort George in the north.

Trail users are cautioned that the Trail was not designed to accommodate small wheel devices such as roller blades, roller skates or skateboards.

Nine bridges close gaps over creeks and historic markers bring Niagara history to life as you enjoy the beauty of the Niagara landscape. There are a few spots where the trail does blend with the Niagara Parkway. Helmets are encouraged for cyclists of all ages.

Balls Falls

Ball’s Falls is a pearl suspended on the string of the Bruce Trail. Once an early 19th century hamlet, this site, perched on the edge of the escarpment, features an operational mill, two waterfalls, numerous historic buildings, and lovely nature trails.

To reach Ball’s Falls, exit the Queen Elizabeth Highway at Vineland. Follow Victoria Avenue (Highway 24) south to Regional Road 24, where you turn eastward and travel to Ball’s Falls.

Restored and maintained by the Niagara Peninsula Conservations Authority, the site occupies over 80 hectares (200 acres) of the original 480 hectares (1200 acres) purchased by the Ball brothers. George Ball constructed grist, saw, and wool mills, which lead to the growth of one of the first communities in this area. The hamlet was known as Ball’s Mills, Louth Mills, Glen Elgin, and finally as Ball’s Falls because of the two delightful cataracts on the property. In the mid 1800’s, however, significant developments such as the railway and the Welland Canal led to the rapid growth of other villages below the escarpment, and by the turn of the century, most of the activity at Balls Falls had ceased.

Ball’s Falls has been lovingly restored to its early 1800’s atmosphere and now features an operating flour mill, a lime kiln, a church, family home, blacksmith shop, carriage shed, and more. In addition to its historical interest, Ball’s Falls is also a centre for nature activities, offering a tremendous diversity of flora and fauna as well as excellent exposures of geologic strata.

The Bruce Trail passes through the very north end of the conservation area to the north of the lower falls.  6.32 K Hikes along the Bruce Trail either to the west or the east can be made from this location.

Our favorite trail at Ball’s Falls is the Cataract Trail, which starts from the west side of the bridge across Twenty Mile Creek and meanders in a loop to the Upper Falls and back. One leg is along the Creek and the other is inland, offering a wide range of plant species and scenery. The falls tumble delightfully over a high cliffs and can be viewed at close proximity from above or below. The character of the falls changes dramatically with the seasons, ranging from a raging torrent in the spring to a thin veil in late summer.

Other trails provide access to view the Lower Falls and to explore the rest of the conservation area.

Decew Falls Tour

hiking niagara decew niagara fallsThis is one of our favourite spots with its picturesque waterfall and historic mill. The site is located on Decew Rd, a little west of the intersection with Merritville (No.50) Highway in the southern outskirts of St. Catharines. This site is on the Bruce Trail and is a good starting point for hikes. It is also a good staging area for bicycle tours southward into the Short Hills, St. Johns, and Effingham. We often see white-tailed deer in this area.

The mill was built of local stone in 1872 on the site of a former blacksmith and carpentry shop. Water was diverted from Beaverdams Creek to power the mill. Several millers leased the mill, and in 1883, it was purchased by Wilson Morningstar, after whom it is named. Destroyed by fire in 1895, it was rebuilt and operated until 1933. It then fell into disrepair but has recently been reconstructed and made into a museum.

A highlight of this stop is Decew Falls, which cascade 22 metres (72 feet) into a bowl-shaped amphitheatre just behind the mill. Proceed a few hundred metres along the Bruce Trail toward the east and look for a place to scramble down into the gorge. Although steep, you will be rewarded by a wonderful view of the falls. For a special treat, you can go behind the falls and feel the cool spray.

The Bruce Trail continues eastward, passes a large reservoir which supplies water for the Decew Hydroelectric Power Station, one of the oldest in Canada, and then wends its way to Brock University. You can follow the Bruce Trail or go east along Decew Road to the stone remains of a house built by Captain John Decew. This house served as the headquarters for the British in this area during the War of 1812, and it was to this house that Laura Secord made her famous walk from Queenston.

Hiking westward from Morningstar Mill, you will gradually descend the Niagara Escarpment and enter into Short Hills Provincial Park. This is an interesting area where the normally linear escarpment has been broken into a jumble of hills and valleys. Deer are a relatively common sight as you hike up and down along this stretch of the Bruce Trail.

Short Hills Park

The landscape in the Short Hills area is quite unlike anywhere else in Niagara. It has been moulded into a jumble of small but steep hills and valleys by the last ice age. With its varied topography, enchanting woods, winding lanes, and historic buildings, Short Hills is a delightful area for for walking, biking, and car touring.

The tiny community of St. Johns is a good starting point for many a tour through the Short Hills. It is hard to believe that the tiny, sleepy hamlet of St. John was once a thriving, bustling community.

The village formed around a sawmill that was built on Twelve Mile Creek in 1792.A post office was established in 1831, at which time the village boasted a woollen factory, a tannery, a foundry, stores, and several mills. Sadly, the village declined to almost nothing when the early water power of Short Hills was replaced by the greater resources and transportation convenience of the Welland Canal. The hamlet, although greatly reduced in size from its hey day, has retained its picturesque charm.

Sassafras Tour

If you are looking for a quiet place, an oasis of solitude, where you can commune with nature and escape the hectic, stressful pace of our modern society, you have no further to go than the St. Johns Conservation area. This secluded forest area, nestled in the Short Hills, offers the perfect retreat for nature lovers, hikers, bird watchers, and fisherman.

Tucked into this relatively small area (31 hectares; 76 acres ) are trees and shrubs of the Carolianian forests normally found in the eastern and southeastern United States rather than this far north. Because this area has never been farmed or developed, you will see rare species and trees that are over 200 years old.

But the jewel of this conservation area is a large pond whose still waters teem with trout. Built in 1964 to regulate the flow of water into Twelve Mile Creek, the stocked pond serves as a trout fishery and is jealously guarded secret amongst local anglers.

The Sassafras Stroll is a self-guiding nature trail that is named after the Sassafras tree that grows abundantly in this conservation area. The loop, which is over flat terrain, is shown in Map 15 and can be completed in as little as twenty minutes.

1. The many shrubs in this area provide food and cover for various species of birds including scarlet tanagers, rofous-sided towhees, thrushes, catbirds, and warblers.
2. This small pond fills a former gravel pit and is fed by a natural spring.
3. To the left of the trail (east side is a forest in a young growth stage, while on the right is a mature (Maple-Beech climax) forest. The trees in the young forest are smaller and allow more light to penetrate. This stimulates growth of ground cover plants that attract birds and animals. Ferns along the Sassafrass Stroll
4. This stop features a small tangled clearing of grapevines. The vines grow up support trees which eventually die, creating the clearing.
5. Many small sassafras trees are located here. The leaves have a spicy odour when crushed, and Sassafras tea can be made from the bark or the roots.
6. The forest floor is home to fungus, moulds, mushrooms, and toadstools as well as insects such as spiders, ants, beetles. It takes about 1,000 years to make one inch of soil from the fallen leaves and branches.
7. The Rough Horsetail, the most primitive member of the fern families, is found here. It does not have flowers, leaves, seeds, or true roots.
8. Several species of ferns can be seen here. Ferns are unlike any other green plants in that they do not have flowers and , therefore, can not reproduce by seeds.
9. The St. Johns are contains trees typical of the Carolinian zone such as sassafras; tulip tree; black, pin, white, and red oak; black cherry;shag bark hickory; butternut and flowering dogwood. Also found here are red and sugar maples, white pines, eastern hemlock, and American beeches.
10.The trout pond contains not only trout, but also a variety of animal and plant life including common toads, spring peepers, flathead minnows, eastern painted turtles, and the green heron.

This area is typical of both the Short Hills and the Niagara Escarpment and contains Carolinian forest, limestone crags, and waterfalls. The map can be used by anyone who is interested in cartography, map reading, or simply hiking away from the beaten path.

The map was prepared by the Niagara Orienteering Club and is used for orienteering competitions, which are much like car rallying except done on foot with map and compass.

The map may be purchased at the Scout Shop in St. Catharines. Be sure to register with the Camp custodian. An interesting outing is to visit Swayze’s Falls, near the southern edge of the map.

Brock Tour

This beautiful 18 kilometre (11 mile) outing is one of our favourite hikes and offers an excellent introduction to the Niagara Escarpment. As a linear route it can be done in either direction, although we will describe it from east to west. There are good picnic facilities and ample parking areas at either end.

The start is at the Bruce Trail cairn at the east end of Queenston Heights Park. Cross Queenston Heights Park going west along the brow of the escarpment. This first section contains a tour within a tour: the Queenston Trails, which is marked by signposts and provides a wonderful insight into the historical Queenston Quarry. Queenston Trails can be done either on its own or as part of this tour to Woodend. If you only have a short time for a short excursion but you want to capture a flavour of the Niagara Escarpment and some of the history of this area, the Queenston Trails is recommended. The first Queenston Trails signpost occurs at about kilometre 2 (mile 1.2).

The following are highlights that you will encounter walking west along the Bruce Trail.

1. View of St. Davids. From here you will have a magnificent panorama of the plain below the escarpment with its orchards, vineyards, and tiled fields that stretch to Lake Ontario on the horizon.
2. The Abandoned Tower. This landmark was erected by the Department of National Defence in 1951/52, probably to intercept American radio waves.
3. Foundations of Worker’s Village. Fourteen houses were built here in 1897 to house workers for the Queenston Quarries. Small Map of the Brock Hiking Tour
4 & 8 These areas show evidence of quarrying activity that preceded the opening of Queenston Quarry in about in 1840. Scottish masons retrieved top quality stones from these locations; the blocks you see are rejects. Quarrying in those early days was done on the edge of the escarpment so the rocks could be easily rolled over the edge.
5. This old moss-covered limestone block on the south side of the trail shows evidence of the quarrying method using steel wedges, called plugs and feathers, that were pounded into holes bored into the stone. Large rectangular blocks were split off and shipped throughout eastern Canada.
6. In 1882, Isaac Usher & Son opened a cement operation at this site. The Ushers mined into a natural layer of rock cement, fired it in limestone kilns, ground it into a powder, and barrelled the final product. Facing stiff competition from Portland cement., the Usher operation closed in 1905.
7. Limestone Caverns. A detour from the main path to visit these caves is well worth the effort. Not only do you get a look at these “caves”, which actually have formed largely by quarrying, but you also get a close-up look at the mammoth pot left by Queenston Quarry. A unique feature of the cavern is the flat roof, the petrified mud floor of an ancient shallow sea.
–About 3 km (1.8 miles) from the starting cairn, the Bruce Trail descends to the bottom of the escarpment.
–Follow the railway bed of the former New York Central Railway, emerging at the intersection of Townline Road and Creek Road {5.5 km or 3.4 miles from the start.}

–Go South along Four Mile Creek Road passing under Highway 405. Halfway up the hill turn right into the woods. The trail then enters Fireman’s Park {7.4 km or 4.6 miles from the start} which has toilets and parking.

–The trail climbs back up the escarpment; when you reach Mewburn Road, head south until you reach Mountain Road. Turn right, crossing the QEW Highway, and proceed to Garner Road {14.9 km or 9.2 miles from the start} Turn right and walk to Warner Road, turn left and go for about 1.0 km (0.6 miles).

As an aside, it should be mentioned that previously the Bruce Trail crossed the QEW Highway via a railway bridge (the old path is shown on the Map). Due to incomprehensible bureaucratic logic, the railway no longer allows right of way across its bridge, causing this very long and boring detour.

–Turn right into the woods and proceed past a vineyard to a road that leads into Woodend Conservation area.

–Turn right following the trail in a loop around the Woodend Conservation Area.

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