About a year ago I stumbled upon The Bruce Trail while looking for new places to explore in my home town of St Catharines. Despite growing up in the city, I was never exposed to a lot of the natural beauty the Niagara Region has to offer. With a semi-new found love of hiking that had developed over the past two years, finding out about this not-so-hidden gem was music to my ears. Yes, it took me 25 years to figure out The Bruce Trail even existed… but better late than never, right?
Over the months I’ve explored a variety of different pieces of The Bruce Trail from its northern terminus in Tobermory to the southern in Queenston, close to the US border. With each stumble step I’ve learned more about not just the trail itself, but about the sport of hiking. I keep thinking how I wish I knew more before I started. It may sound silly considering you’re probably sitting there thinking hiking’s LITERALLY putting one foot in front of the other, what else is there to know but I’ve figured out a few tips and tricks that I’d love to share so that your experience with The Bruce Trail is as magnificent as it can (and should) be! Hence, a beginner’s guide to The Bruce Trail – from a beginner who’s learned it first hand!
First however, a little history.
The Bruce Trail is Canada’s longest and oldest marked foot path, which follows the Niagara Escarpment: a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Areas such as this are internationally protected with emphasis on preservation and balance between people and nature. These special ecosystems hold special significance across the globe, and have special efforts to conserve the natural elements found within them. The main trail is over 890km long, but also has over 400km in side trails that branch off from it. The entire trail is maintained by nine different associations that cover it from end to end.
Along the trail you’ll see these funny white lines marked on trees. These are called ‘blazes’ and they guide you along the trail. However, they’re not only found on trees but also bridges, fence posts, hydro poles, you name it! They also direct you which way to turn. If you see two blazes, whatever side the top blaze is on, that’s the direction you should turn. As you’ll see below, the image on the left directs you to turn left, and the other to turn right.
If you’ve hiked the Bruce Trail at all, you may have noticed there are blue blazes also. These blazes mark one of the many side trails, and they often highlight a point of interest along the Escarpment. For example, many of the side trails in the Hamilton area highlight waterfalls, lookout points, etc. At the end of these trails, the blazes will a blue T shape meaning that side trail has finished.
The Bruce Trail is a fantastic trail that highlights a huge part of Ontario’s natural beauty that’s accessible year round, and I’ve learned a thing or two while hiking numerous parts of it. Here’s a few of my tips and tricks to make your Bruce Trail adventure the most enjoyable it can be!
TIP 1 :: Have a Sturdy Pair of Hiking Boots
The terrain of the Bruce Trail can vary from section to section, with many of the trails further south having gravel or dirt paths. As you go further north however, the trail can get quite rocky. Having a good pair of hiking shoes is key, and has saved me from many slips and sprained ankles.
TIP 2 :: Keep The Sunscreen Handy
I make it a rule to always put a coat of sunscreen on before starting a hike. If you forget to re-apply, much of the Bruce Trail is shaded so it’s not too big of a deal but having a pocket sized bottle is super handy!
TIP 3 :: Run Out of Water? Look for Fountains and Rivers
A few times I’ve actually drank all the water I had on me due to the heat and exertion during the hike. If you find yourself stuck with no H2O, don’t panic. Much of the Bruce Trail either has stations (and rivers if you’re really in a pinch) to fill up at (washrooms too!) which can really come in handy. Try to make a note of these locations ahead of time, or plan your route to ensure you have enough water to stay hydrated!
TIP 4 :: Don’t Forget the Bug Spray
Some parts of the Bruce Trail can be heavily wooded… meaning mosquitoes have a field day! Always have your trusty bug spray handy. For me though, the spray sometimes isn’t enough so I opt for the cream version instead – it works wonders!
TIP 5 :: Use Your Hair To Your Advantage
It drives me nuts when flies buzz around, especially when you can hear that bzzz sound when they’re too close to your ears. However, I’ve found that having a ponytail can really help with this as shaking your head a bit to make it swish helps keep them at bay. If you have short hair, this might not work for you, but having a baseball cap with a small towel tucked through the back gap could help with this, as well as keep the sun off the back of your neck.
TIP 6 :: Keep an Eye on the Blazes
In the more forested areas of the trail, you can get caught up in the beauty of the trees (or keeping an eye on your footing). Be aware of the blazes at all times, as it can be easy to lose them and get lost. If you find yourself unable to pick out a blaze from your eyesight, retrace your steps until you come back upon the trail before carrying onwards.
TIP 7 :: Always Have Access To A Map
Whether this is digital or on paper, it’s always good to have an idea of where you are. Time can fly and before you know it, the sun could be starting to set! If you don’t have great cell reception as I sometimes run into, you can download the Bruce Trail App which shows every inch of trail. You can also use it to track how much of the Bruce you’ve completed, along with many other handy features!
TIP 8 :: Beware of Poison Ivy
Yes, that nasty little plant that’s got quite the bite runs fairly rampant throughout both the main Bruce and side trails. Keep a careful eye as you’re hiking so you don’t misstep. If you have trouble recognizing the plant as I sometimes do, remember these three sayings: leaflets three, let it be; hairy vine, no friend of mine; and berries white, run in fright. Sometimes the Bruce Trail itself will have signs, as seen on the left below. As we move into the fall seasons, the leaves change from green to orange/red so beware! Some areas of Ontario have also been having trouble with giant hogweed (pictured on the right, taken from Wikipedia), which can cause serious injury if not careful. Take a look at the photos below for your reference – better to be safe than sorry!
With these tips in your arsenal, I hope you’ll be motivated to take on the trail! With so much ground to cover, it’s hard to know where to start! I often head for lookouts and waterfalls, then just see where my feet take me. However, while you’re out exploring be sure to remember these key ideas:
- Respect Nature – We’ve only got one beautiful planet and so much of our environment is being destroyed by our impact. Keep to the trails and treat the trees, plants, etc as they should be… they’ve been here much longer than us!
- Don’t Harass the Wildlife – In any of our National Parks this is actually illegal and you can suffer serious consequences. However, it’s a good rule of thumb to leave the wildlife be and respect their boundaries.
- Take A Garbage Bag With You – Unfortunately, many people don’t follow the above rules and leave their litter scattered along our beautiful parks and trails. Fortunately, you have two hands and can help repair some of the damage done.
- Take Only Pictures & Leave Only Footprints – If everyone did this, then our planet would be in a better place. Remember to keep this in mind when exploring the Bruce, and these beautiful lookouts will be enjoyed for years to come!
Now, what are you waiting for? Time to get some hiking boots and hit the trails! If there are any tips and tricks you’ve found that help while on your adventures, I’d love to hear them in a comment. Happy hiking!