Many would consider walking 500 miles an arduous and pointless task, but when it comes to the Bruce Trail, thousands have done just that. Some have walked it many times, and one intrepid traveler, known as Wolfmann, has walked it barefoot. The trail stretches from Queenston on the Niagara River to Tobemory on the Bruce Peninsula, which creates Georgian Bay in Lake Huron, and is Ontario's longest and oldest footpath.
For a few hikers, it's the challenge that draws them. How fast can an end-to-end hike be done, or how many times? Charlotte Vasarhelyi covered the distance in 13 days, 10 hours and 51 minutes in 2010, and Doug Sloane has completed the trail 40 times. But for most ramblers, it's the scenic landscape that attracts them.
"I've traveled around the world and the landscape is like nowhere else; it's absolutely stunning," says Wolfmann, the shoeless hiker. The Niagara Escarpment, designated a UNESCO World Biosphere in 1990, was once the edge of a shallow sea. Now, according to the website for Ontario's Niagara Escarpment, the glacially sculpted land is home to a rich ecosystem of "more than 300 bird species, 55 mammals, 36 reptiles and amphibians, 90 fish and 100 varieties of special interest flora, including 37 types of wild orchids."
The trail is maintained by the Bruce Conservancy, a nonprofit organization, with nine clubs, 8,500 members and 1,000 volunteers. The closest to Western New York is the club overseeing the route from Queenston to Grimsby (www.niagarabrucetrail.org).
Fred Nix, a transportation consultant and city councillor for the town of Orangeville, is among the dedicated members who spend many hours maintaining the trail. He said he and his wife have hiked the trail end-to-end three times and are currently working on their fourth. They do it, he says, for the exercise, the camaraderie and "just for the pure beauty."
Nix's advice for beginners is to go on one of the organized hikes that each club holds. Each section has its own calendar of events, which include easy, two-hour jaunts and weekend excursions that traverse the entire length of the club's section of the trail.
Those who would rather explore on their own can consider these worthwhile hikes close to home to get started:
Queenston Heights Loop: At the eastern end of the Queenston Heights Park in Niagara, at 14184 Niagara Parkway, is the marker that indicates the beginning of the Bruce Trail. The path follows the edge of the Niagara Escarpment through woods and onto an old railway bed, which was once part of the New York Central Railroad. It is now part of the Upper Canada Heritage Trail, where you can find monuments and historic buildings.
Grindstone Creek and Smokey Hollow, Mill Street: Located in the town of Waterdown near Hamilton, this hike showcases one of the escarpment's most scenic features, its waterfalls. The trail starts at the falls that has a multitude of names including Grindstone, Smokey Hollow, Waterdown and Great Falls. Whatever you want to call it, it is postcard-perfect and a photographer's dream. Its power ran industry in the area for more than 100 years. By 1912, the mills had closed, but remnants of the escarpment's industrial past remain along the trail.
Rockway Falls: Even among locals, this easily accessible falls near St. Catharines (Rockway Community Centre, 2021 Regional Road 69, Lincoln) is not widely known. Soon after crossing Fifteen Mile Creek, you'll catch sight of the falls, which is 60 feet high ending in a plunge basin more than 10 feet deep. Downstream is a smaller falls; the water continues to flow over a series of rapids, eventually reaching Lake Ontario. Interesting historic features include the remains of Upper Canada's first salt well.
Ball's Falls Conservation Area: At two-thirds the height of Niagara Falls, Ball's Falls ((3292 6 Avenue, Vineland) is a jewel, and you won't find throngs of tourists here. The site is also home to an early-to-mid-19th century industrial hamlet. Attractions include the original Ball family home, an operating flour mill, a lime kiln, church, blacksmith shop and carriage shed. The hike leads into a wooded valley, which you can get to by following Twenty Mile Creek. Bring a picnic or enjoy a glass of wine at the nearby Calamus Estate Winery.
Other popular hikes suitable for a day-trip are the Cheltenham Badlands, Hilton Falls, Rattlesnake Point and Crawford Lake. If you're interested in venturing farther afield onto Bruce Peninsula, the Home-to-Home Bed & Breakfast Network accommodation package allows trekkers to plan their daily excursions without worrying about returning to their starting point -- an ideal way to explore to the dolomite cliffs and caves that edge the turquoise waters of Georgian Bay.
Hard-core hikers and Sunday strollers alike can enjoy the footpath that was the inspiration of Raymond Lowes more than 40 years ago.
But be warned: Hiking "The Bruce" can be addictive and may lead to hard-to-resist thoughts of completing all 500 miles of it.