For playground enthusiasts, 2020 has been…sub-optimal. Pandemic precautions have forced the city to (quite rightly) shut everything down, and while it’s unclear how long that will last – as of this writing, splash pads have already been given the green light – an unintended positive has been a re-discovery of the many other outdoor options this city has to offer.
Our family has been exploring Toronto’s valleys on a near-daily basis since this all began, and it has been a valuable reminder of the hidden wealth of green space that hides just below street level. It’s also been a reminder that for little ones as young as ours (5 and 3) anything is an adventure, and anywhere can be a playground. My kids are as happy making a stick pile in the forest as they would be playing on a multi-million dollar play structure, and I suspect your kids are too.
No playgrounds? No problem. Let this be the summer of forest walks, long bike rides, unexpected adventures, and picnicking until your blanket wears out.
Here are, in no particular order, my ten favourite spots for hiking, biking, and picnicking:
If you’ve ever been stuck in traffic on the DVP (which is to say, if you’ve ever been on the DVP) you may have spotted the “Rainbow Tunnel” as you head north towards Lawrence. For years, I would pass and make a mental note to visit it someday. It was only recently that we made the trip as a family, and I’m glad we did. Easily accessed via Moccasin Trail (there is a small parking lot at the bottom of the hill, or you can park at the top and enjoy a beautiful and gently exhilarating bike ride to the bottom) the tunnel is part of the East Don Trail, a short but lovely public path that connects Moccasin Trail Park with Lawrence to the north, and Wynford Drive to the south. Cross the bridge just after the Rainbow Tunnel and keep right; then keep your eyes open for dirt paths leading directly to the river, and small pebble beaches just waiting to be explored.
A well-known biker-and-jogger haven, the Kay Gardner Beltline trail cuts diagonally through some of the city’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, and I find myself prone to serious backyard envy whenever I go. Hands-down my favourite biking route, and there are several parks along the way (Forest Hill Road Park and Oriole Park among them) that make ideal picnic spots. As you go from northwest to southeast, the trail gets gradually more and more impressive, eventually diving into Moore Park Ravine and then, finally, the Brickworks. Any section is worth trying.
The selfie-friendly slopes of Riverdale Park East also provide scenic, if perhaps gravitationally challenging, picnicking opportunities. The best views are along the northern stretch, but at the south end, closer to Bridgepoint Health, the slopes are gentler, the trees bigger, and the picnicking probably better overall.
Fish and chips from Off the Hook make for a delightfully greasy picnic. Or if it's more a mid-day snack you're looking for, Rooster Coffee is close by. Our kids enjoy burning off the subsequent calories by biking around the racing track at the bottom of the hill.
Our favourite airshow-watching venue, Trillium park is built around the corpse site of Ontario Place, and makes a great place for a summer picnic. Some creative landscaping provides little human-made caves and kid-sized rock climbing opportunities, with a danger level just high enough to terrify parents and excite kids. This spot also gives a clear and up-close view of planes taking off from Billy Bishop Airport, which our kids love. Go a bit further along the path and you can go for a nostalgic exploration of the old Ontario Place log ride.
Okay, I know that this list has been very Don-Valley-centric, but hey, I’m not Etobicoke Dad, right?
Between Pottery Road and the Millwood (Leaside) Bridge, the Don Valley briefly balloons to almost a kilometre in width, allowing for a series of walking and biking trails that are much more sparsely used than the main, paved trail.
Accessed most easily via Bayview or Redway, Sun Valley (and its neighbour, Crothers Woods) has a variety of terrain for families to explore. Some challenging bike hills, some quiet forested areas, and the occasional GO Train spotting make for a full afternoon’s adventure.
There’s also a mysterious pile of concrete slabs on the south bank of the river that make for a good post-apocalyptic-Stonehenge type of picnic, if that’s your thing. (Full disclosure: it's kind of my thing.)
It’s hard to go wrong anywhere on the Humber, but this has to be one of the best.
Magwood Park came to me as a recommendation from Multiple Momstrosity, and it features a beautifully forested walking path which, as of this writing, is home to a number of “Fairy Houses." My kids could barely contain themselves as they hunted through the woods to uncover these little treasures.
After the fairy finding frenzy, we explored the river itself, which at the time was safe enough to explore in our sandals. But be careful; the river swells significantly during/after heavy rains, so don’t wade in if you’re not comfortable.
Taylor Creek is a large and perhaps under-appreciated portion of the Don Watershed, with some wonderfully shaded bike trails to enjoy as it winds its way from Coxwell Ravine Park to Warden Woods. At several points the bike path splits; take one path and you cross the creek on a bridge, while the other path goes through the creek.
These creek crossings have become, in the eyes of my kids, pretty much the best thing ever. It was while I watched them spend 30 minutes making “leaf boats” to put in the creek that I realized I was spending too much on toys.
Although the Todmorden Mills heritage site is closed these days, the trails around it remain open, and a less-crowded walking option than the nearby Don Valley Trail. A small loop just south of the heritage site is dotted with interpretive plaques, and buttons that provide audio information in the form of a bizarrely apathetic-sounding British male voice. The whole area, as the voice tells us, was once a construction site as the DVP was being constructed, and it’s only recently that the area has been turned into a wildflower preserve, in an attempt to bring back native plant species.
Walk the loop carefully and you might spot some side paths that continue south, coming up either between two apartment buildings on Broadview, or at the Chester Hill lookout. Those paths get a bit rough at times, so only go if you’re reasonably comfortable with a bit of climbing; it was just difficult enough to make my 5-year-old feel like a legitimate bushwhacker.
I hope the neighbourhood doesn’t hate me for spilling their secret, but this is a beautiful little corner of the east end, and I'm not sure many people outside of the immediate area know that it exists.
We picnicked here on a big flat stone near the dog park before wandering down into the ravine, which is an extension of the Williamson Ravine just south of the train tracks. Wooden steps and a boardwalk (similar to the Glen Stewart Park near the Beach, another summer bucket-list spot for us) lead through a small ravine that adventurous kids will love.
Honourable Mention: Toronto Islands
Under normal circumstances, the Islands are the picnic spot. As of the end of June 2020, ferry service has resumed, but it’s a bit touch-and-go, and the locals aren't too happy about it. Given that even in normal circumstances the Toronto Ferry Terminal experience can feel like an immersive Ellis Island exhibit, and given that crowds these days can be a bit anxiety-inducing, I think I’m going to wait a while before venturing to the Islands.