Wild Toronto: Winter hiking in the Rouge National Urban Park

The southernmost end of Toronto’s Rouge River is one of our favourite urban waterways to paddle in the spring, and later in the year too if water levels are high enough to float our canoe. The Rouge River is rarely used by other boaters, and we often see all kinds of wildlife as we paddle upstream just past the Hwy 401 overpass and back downstream to Lake Ontario. Somehow, in all those years of paddling, however, we had never made a point of hiking the Rouge National Urban Park trails further north.

We’ve been experiencing particularly intense cabin fever this winter. We decided to hop in our car and check out the hiking trails at this underrated wild space for the first time ever.

Rouge National Urban Park was first announced in 2011, established in 2015, and further expanded in 2017 when the Ontario government transferred more than 20 km2 of land to Parks Canada. Once completed, Rouge National Urban Park will be more than 79 km2 in size, making it one of the world’s largest protected areas in an urban setting – 23 times larger than Central Park in New York.

How to get to Rouge National Urban Park trails

Let’s be honest: the Rouge National Urban Park is not exactly “central” for most Torontonians in the way that Central Park is for New Yorkers. Much of the Rouge National Urban Park is technically located within the city limits, but it’s about as far east as you can go in Scarborough before you end up in Pickering.

We live in southwest Scarborough, near the Scarborough Bluffs, for example, and it’s still at least a 25-minute drive to the park with no traffic. From downtown or the west end of the city, you’re looking at an hour or more in the car. You can take the TTC or GO Transit to various parts of the park, but it’s also a mission involving multiple modes of transportation that will take you over an hour (or two) depending on where you’re starting from. Be prepared.

All that being said, it’s absolutely worth it to make the trek to the Rouge Urban National Park if you can. There are at least 8 different visitor areas in the park in Toronto, Pickering, and Markham, each with completely different landscapes and points of interest to explore.

On this visit, we started our hike in the parking lot next to the Glen Rouge Campground entrance (7450 Kingston Rd) just north of Hwy 401. The campground is closed in the winter, but you can still access the Mast and Riverside trails from the nearby trailhead.

Map of the Riverside and Mast trails at the Rouge Urban National Park
Map of the Riverside and Mast trails at the Rouge Urban National Park

Posted signs warned us that the trails are not maintained in winter. Fortunately, a recent thaw meant all the snow had melted down to packed ice and muddy puddles. At first, the only trail splits the distance between the Rouge River and Little Rouge Creek.

The start of the Rouge Urban National Park trails near Glen Rouge Campground
The start of the Rouge Urban National Park trails near Glen Rouge Campground

Very quickly, however, the trail forks, forcing you to go left or right. We went right, along the Mast Trail.

The Mast Trail at Rouge Urban National Park

The Mast branch of the Rouge Urban National Park trails quickly ascends high above Little Rouge Creek into a beautiful forest. In winter, the tall, skinny pines dominate the landscape and their red needles line the forest floor like a soft carpet.

This area of the park is known for being an important part of southern Ontario’s disappearing Carolinian ecosystem, however, so it must contain a large variety of deciduous trees as well.

Tall white pine trees on the Rouge Urban National Park's Mast Trail
Tall white pine trees on the Rouge Urban National Park’s Mast Trail

According to Parks Canada, the Mast Trail is a former logging route dating back to the 1800s where pine trees were cut and floated down the Rouge River to Lake Ontario, eventually bound for ship building yards in Europe. The trail’s ridge was apparently also home to a ski hill in the 1950s.

Both of these histories are somewhat difficult to imagine as you hike through the silent forest, oblivious to the fact that you are just a short distance from one of the largest highways in the country.

The stairs heading up the ridge were caked in ice, so we opted to wander off the main trail and follow a well-worn (but unmarked) path that runs along the ridge above Little Rouge Creek. This path wasn’t any less icy, unfortunately. We had to place our footsteps carefully to avoid sliding back down to the bottom of the hill.

The trail levels off eventually and you start to appreciate the sheer size of the trees here as you come across fallen giants in the forest.

Standing next to fallen trees on the Rouge Urban National Park's Mast Trail
Standing next to massive fallen trees on the Rouge Urban National Park’s Mast Trail

Behind me in this photo you can also see that someone has constructed a lean-to shelter out of dead branches. We encountered a few of these shelters along the Mast Trail. They didn’t appear to be lived in, and the trails are well-used, so perhaps someone constructed them to practice their survival skills or as part of an educational program in the park.

The Mast Trail continues all the way up to Twyn Rivers Drive, where there is another parking lot and access to more trails, but we opted not to trek all the way up there. We took the shortcut through the woods to the Riverside Trail instead.

The Riverside Trail in Rouge Urban National Park

What goes up must come down, and the same is true of these trails. Once you cross the forest floor to the Rouge River side of the trails (labelled as Riverside Trail on Google Maps but conspicuously absent from the Parks Canada website), the trail follows the ridge a bit further before it starts descending down the ridge to meet the river. The view of the river valley is spectacular in the winter, unobstructed by the tree canopy.

Shortly after this photo was taken, we basically slid straight down the steep, muddy, icy trail toward the river. Brian actually slipped and fell at one point, gracefully saving his camera as he went down on his butt. Phew!

Once we reached the Rouge River, we followed the trail along the riverbank. The surface of the river was still frozen in most sections, with the occasional slit of running water peeking through the ice. Although we didn’t see any wildlife aside from birds, we could see many different animal tracks criss-crossing the frozen sections of the river, including deer, raccoons, and coyotes. Clearly the river is a source of fresh water and perhaps even food for these animals through the winter.

As we walked along the riverbank, I wondered how much longer this trail could possibly stay open. The first section of the trail is just a few inches from the edge of the eroding riverbank. In one or two places, the trail actually disappeared into the river, and someone had forged a new trail that looped up the side of the hill, around some trees, and back down to the riverbank.

The frozen Rouge River at the Rouge Urban National Park Riverside Trail
The frozen Rouge River and the Rouge Urban National Park’s Riverside Trail alongside it

Please be cautious if you’re hiking the Riverside Trail in the spring when the water level is high and the banks are bound to be soft.

It wasn’t long before the Riverside Trail led us out of sight of the Rouge River and into a flat, open clearing. The river is never too far away, but it certainly isn’t visible from this section of the trail. With the ground still frozen, we couldn’t tell if this was a prairie, a wetland, or simply a section of the forest that had been cleared of most of its trees at some point in history. (The trail wasn’t without trees altogether, though, as we had to duck under or hop over a few fallen trunks blocking the unmaintained trail along the way.)

Brian crosses a clearing on the Riverside Trail in Rouge Urban National Park
Brian crosses a clearing on the Riverside Trail in Rouge Urban National Park

Toward the end of the trail, we could see the Glen Rouge Campground‘s picnic tables and oTENTik cabins on the other side of the river. From what we could see from the trail, the sites are crowded close together in a wide open space with only the odd tree to be seen here and there. It’s not necessarily our ideal setting for a camping trip, but it’s probably perfect for people who are new to camping, who don’t own their own vehicle, or who want to test the boundaries of their small children.

All told, this shortcut loop of the Mast and Riverside Trails is just a little over 3 km in length, but it can take a few hours to hike in the winter given the trail conditions. Besides, there is a lot to stop, see, and take photos of, including birds who took advantage of the unusual January thaw to fill their bellies with seeds.

A hungry chickadee snacks on seeds from thawing pinecones
A hungry chickadee snacks on seeds from thawing pinecones

We’re excited to paddle the Rouge River again this spring, but now we know the Rouge Urban National Park has fantastic options for hiking in all four seasons as well.

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Cassandra Jowett is a content marketer who works at a software startup in Toronto. Her love of the great outdoors first started at the base of the Rocky Mountains when her parents took her camping as a baby. It blossomed as an adult when Brian began taking her canoe tripping in the Ontario backcountry.

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