HAMILTON – It had never occurred to me.
Like many Ontario residents, and a lot of other folks, I’ve driven along or over the Niagara Escarpment hundreds upon hundreds of times. I’ve always enjoyed gazing up at the rock face and admired the way the escarpment snakes its way through southern Ontario. I’ve skied on it and walked on it and driven over it on countless occasions.
But I’d never taken a minute to think about what happens when it rains on the escarpment. Naturally, the water collects in small creeks and streams and even small rivers, right? Just like it does all over the world. And, if you reason this out, that water has to go somewhere when it reaches the edge of the escarpment, right?
It turns out that water drops off the escarpment as logic would suggest, and that it does so in utterly fantastic fashion. There are hundreds of spectacular, gob-smackingly beautiful waterfalls up and down its 700-km-plus length as it snakes around southern Ontario. Not only that, but a ton of them are located a stone’s throw from Hamilton and from major highways that many of us drive on every day.
I took a drive last week at the behest of Ontario Tourism (which has a cool campaign going on that outlines the remarkable diversity of the province and highlights a series of little-known but fascinating things to do) and found an unforgettable world of water and canyons and cool, green valleys and dramatic drop-offs that I never knew existed. In the space of a few hours in an around the booming and suddenly hip city of Hamilton I found three amazing waterfalls and a beautiful lake not to mention a fun farm with old-fashioned corn mazes, a lavender farm and one of Ontario’s coolest, hippest neighborhoods. All within a 15-minute drive of downtown Hamilton.
I’d wanted to see as much as I could, so I deliberately chose to start with Webster Falls and Tew Falls, located with a few hundred metres of each other in Dundas, just west of Hamilton. I pulled off Highway 403 and drove along beautiful country roads, with roan-coloured horses nibbling on perfect green grass that the Irish would envy. As I turned down Ofield Road towards Webster Falls, I startled a giant blue heron, which swooped maybe three metres over the front of my car and fluttered off into a nearby tree.
After parking at the Webster Falls lot (it’s part of a larger complex called Spencer Gorge that’s run by Conservation Hamilton) I took an easy walk that couldn’t have lasted even two minutes and found my first overlook; a stunning spot off to one side and in front of the falls. There are trees partially blocking the view, but you can see a massive cliff of pale rock with water that tumbles several dozen metres to the valley below. The sound is worth the price of admission, but it’s the majesty of the view that takes you by surprise so close to one of Ontario’s biggest cities.
I was there on one of those perfect summer days, with little humidity and a nice breeze rustling the willows and maple trees and the sweet smell of cedar in the air. The falls are surrounded by a beautiful park with stone bridges, picnic tables and open areas of lawn that would be perfect for a game of Frisbee or football. Wispy yellow wildflowers grow along the creek that leads to the falls, and the trees were radiant under a sky of robin’s egg blue.
There’s a second viewing area near the top of the falls, albeit without a great view. When I was there there were a couple of families with young kids as well as a pair of 20-something girls with Go-Pro cameras strapped to their heads.
It’s a short walk from there (maybe five minutes) to Tew Falls. You’ll pass a small burial plot for the Webster family and then get some awesome views from the top of the escarpment, looking east and a bit south to Hamilton. There also are a couple scattered homes you can view, with lush backyards and steel and glass designs to let in the maximum light.
You get a much better water view at Tew than over at Webster Falls, as the onlookers’ platform is just a few meters from the falls and devoid of trees that might get in your way. It’s a marvel to stand so close to something so ancient and beautiful. The water drops a full 41 metres at Tew’s (almost as high as Niagara Falls) and you can see all the way to the bottom and into the valley below.
As pretty as the water was, I was just as entranced by the waving shadows that the water made on the rock behind the falls. I think the little girl who was there with her parents was more entranced by a nearby tree her Dad placed her in with her Teddy Bear, but I suspect she’ll treasure the photos many years from now.
I also chat with a local woman who suggests I come back in five or six weeks.
“I was here last October and the colours were amazing.”
I can only imagine what the views would be like in autumn, and make a note to come down again in early October.
My ticket for Webster and Tew Falls gets me free parking at Christie Lake, also part of the conservation authority. You’ll find a large lake that’s great for swimming or canoeing, plus disc golf, fishing, off-road biking and more. The website says there’s an antique and vintage show every May and September.
I knew the Niagara Escarpment is a UNESCO world biosphere reserve. I didn’t know until reading up on it that the conservation areas in and around Hamilton (and undoubtedly elsewhere in the province) are home to precious and often endangered species, including Jefferson Salamanders, Acadian Flycatchers and the Louisiana Waterthrush.
As I head towards Hamilton I find the Hanes Corn Maze and Farmland attraction, which also includes a shop selling delicious looking pies and cookies. Shelley Hanes says the family is sixth generation farmers in the area and that they change the design of the corn maze (it’s amazing to see the photos from the sky above) every year. Kids who tour the maze are given clues along the way as part of a game. They also have farm animals you can check out for an old-fashioned, fun family trip without breaking the bank.
Just south of the Hanes Farm I drive along Weirs Lane and stumble on a lavender farm. The lavender I saw wasn’t in full bloom in August, but it looks like a great place to check out. Nearby Sulphur Springs Road is a beauty that dips and swirls its way through thick stands of cool green trees with filtered sunlight.
I make my way into downtown Hamilton, where I hadn’t been in probably a decade, and find an outstanding neighborhood on lower James Street. Chocolate on James looks delectable, and I’m told Born and Raised is an outstanding restaurant. There’s a lot of construction going on and new condos popping up, a sure sign of gentrification.
I admire the art at Blue Angel Gallery and stop to chat with Shilo Morton at a lovely shop called Shine, which features works from some 50 Canadian artists and producers; everything from jewelry to cool art and vegetables in a jar. I also like the symbolism of the name for a shop in on-the-rise Hamilton. Ditto for the pride that appears to be behind the Born and Raised restaurant name.
“I’ve had the shop two years now,” says Morton, originally from Toronto. “There’s a lot going on here, and I really wanted this kind of vibe. It reminds of Queen Street West in Toronto in the 90’s.
“Downtown Hamilton is edgy but approachable,” she says. “And, yes, affordable, too.”
Morton says there’s a regular James Street art crawl on Friday nights, with music and booths.
“There are no permits required; everyone just shows up. They do it year ‘round, and stores stay open until 11 p.m. or midnight. Then in September there’s a “Super Crawl,” set for the 9th to the 11th this year with musical acts that include The Trews.
“Last year we had more than 100,000 people.”
My urban detour finished, I hop back in my car and head south to Stoney Creek to check out another waterfall I’d read about called Felker’s Falls.
I honestly wasn’t sure my GPS was working as I drove along. I turned off Mud Street in Stoney Creek and went past a small, surburban plaza fronting Paramount Drive, with offices and a pizza shop, then turned into a typical subdivision. It seemed odd, but I soon found a parking lot for the falls. From there it was perhaps 50 metres to a wooded path that took me to the edge of a deep valley, with a thin ribbon of water falling from a small creek to the canyon below.
It’s a pretty spot, for sure. You also can take a 10-minute walk through the woods and get nice views of Hamilton and Lake Ontario. (In winter you’d see more without the leaves on the trees). It’s a great area for hiking and biking, with a few trails to choose from. The Bruce Trail also runs through the area, which is pretty cool.
The main viewing area is on the north side of the falls. But if walk south from the parking lot you’ll find a bridge over the creek and then a trail (just off The Bruce Trail) that takes you down a small hill to the edge of the falls. There’s no protection provided so the utmost caution is needed. It’s a big drop to the bottom: roughly 20 metres. But if you stand back and don’t get cute trying to get that perfect Instagram shot you should be okay.
The other cool thing I found is that there are flat stones on the edge of the creek and you can walk up river (or up creek, if you like) without getting wet, using the flat rocks as stepping stones to admire the rushing water and towering trees. One side of the creek is lined with a tall bank of chunky rock that looks like interlocking natural Lego or a giant jigsaw puzzle of rock. It’s very pretty, with a shade that conjours up a Tim Hortons double double.
As I walk back to the parking lot, I see grey and black squirrels darting in the underbrush and cackling at me from the safety of a small birch tree. Dappled sunlight dances on the creek as it heads towards the falls, and a pair of white butterflies tumble in the summer breeze.
The humdrum traffic on the QEW is maybe five km’s away. It may as well be 500.