Despite growing up just a hop, skip and jump away from it, I only found out about the Bruce Trail a few years ago. Even though I grew up in a town the trail runs through, I was never exposed to a lot of the natural beauty it has to offer. As my love of hiking has developed over the years, finding out about this not-so-hidden gem was music to my ears. Yes, it took me ~25 years to figure out it even existed… but better late than never, right? If you’re like I was and are looking to learn more about hiking the Bruce Trail – this guide should help!
Over the months I’ve explored a variety of different pieces of The Bruce Trail. 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!
What Is the Bruce Trail?
Let’s start with the basics – what exactly is the Bruce Trail? Running from Queenston near the US Border to Tobermory, The Bruce Trail is Ontario’s (and Canada’s!) oldest marked footpath. This ~900km hiking trail used to be Canada’s longest up until the completion of The Great Trail which you probably know as the Trans Canada Trail.
The Bruce Trail follows the Niagara Escarpment: a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Areas such as this are internationally protected with emphasis on preservation and keeping the balance between people and nature. These special ecosystems hold special significance across the globe. Thus, they have special efforts to conserve the natural elements found within them.
FUN FACT: The Bruce Trail is said to be the oldest marked trail in Canada! Mind you this is in reference to the main trail, not including the +400km of side trails.
Brief History of the Bruce Trail
So, how did the Bruce Trail come to exist? Raymond Lowes, a Stelco metallurgist, had the brilliant idea of a trail that spanned the entire Niagara Escarpment. He shared his idea with Robert Bateman, the famous wildlife painter who was enthusiastic but questioned the work – who was going to do it?
Enter the Federation of Ontario Naturalists – well, a few of them. In 1960, the Bruce Trail Committee was born with its first four members: Dr Norman Pearson, Dr Robert MacLaren, Dr Philip Gosling and of course, Raymond Lowes.
The biggest challenge was getting local landowners on board. Gosling recounts the days of putting thousands of kilometres on his car, getting community after community on board with their vision. Three years later in 1963, the Regional Clubs were established to divide the work. It was up to each club to get landowner approvals, complete any construction and keep up with maintaining the trail. After years of hard work, the trail officially opened in 1967 for Canada’s Centennial Year.
Why Is It Called the Bruce Trail?
Chances are you’re probably wondering who is the Bruce Trail named after? I know I’ve definitely thought about it! Is there a dude named Bruce who wanted to be a trailblazer and was the first to walk the whole thing?
The “Bruce” in Bruce Trail is actually referring to the Bruce Peninsula where the northern section of the trail is located. Originally when the trail was in its early stages, the thought was that the trail would lead to the Bruce as it’s been a popular getaway destination for decades.
However, both the Bruce Peninsula and Bruce County are named after James Bruce. He was the 8th Earl of Elgin as well as the Governor General from 1847-1857of what was known then as the Province of Canada. So I guess you could technically say it’s named after a guy, but I’d prefer it be named after an area and not some old white dude that helped colonize the area. I don’t doubt there have been a number of Bruces who have hiked it though!
The Bruce Trail Conservancy
The Bruce Trail Committee from 1960 has transformed into The Bruce Trail Conservancy. A charitable organization, this trail association and land trust is dedicated conserving the corridor which follows the trail along the Niagara Escarpment.
Broken into nine different associations, each one has a section they care for. With over 1,400 volunteers, it truly is a team effort. Such an enormous trail requires maintenance after all! The nine sections are as follows:
- Niagara – covers where the Bruce Trail starts at the southern terminus in Queenston and around St Catharines through small towns until approximately kilometre 80 in Grimsby
- Iroquoia – follow the trail for ~120km along the ancient shoreline of Lake Iroquois and through Hamilton where waterfalls abound until kilometre 202
- Toronto – starting in the Kelso Conservation Area, follow the trail as you wind through Hilton Falls and Limehouse Conservation Areas until kilometre 252 along Creditview Road
- Caledon Hills – wander through mature hardwood forests and watch for birds as you follow glacial moraine deposits until kilometre 324 in Mono Centre
- Dufferin Hi-land – this is where my calculations start to get a little mucky as you’ll pass through Mono Cliffs and Boyne Valley Provincial Parks until you reach approximately kilometre 380
- Blue Mountains – here you’ll find a large change in terrain as you gain some elevation near Ontario’s famous ski resort as you trek from Lavender to Craigleith and kilometre 446
- Beaver Valley – admire the views across Nottawasaga Bay as you head towards the town of Kimberley and Old Baldy until you reach kilometre 560
- Sydenham – you’re getting close to the end as you trek from Blantyre to Wiarton as you wind along the Niagara Escarpment to kilometre 728
- Peninsula – it’s the final countdown as you tackle the last section of the Bruce Trail until you reach the northern terminus in Tobermory
These kilometre markers might be a bit off as some of the numbers on the Bruce Trail’s website aren’t listed but this should give you a general idea how of how long each stretch is!
While the trail conservancy owns some of the lands, much of the trail’s access is thanks to local landowners. They allow the public to utilize their property – meaning it’s important to stay on the trail. It doesn’t happen often, but there have been instances where permission has been revoked due to people abusing this privilege.
She’s a beast but hiking the Bruce Trail from end to end is not unheard of. Many people have done it! One man even did it in 12 days! Incredible! Don’t worry, you can do it more leisurely. Many have hiked The Bruce Trail end to end in 30 days or more!
Bruce Trail Conservancy Membership
As a way to pay for maintenance and keep the trail going for all to enjoy, the Bruce Trail Conservancy sells memberships. It’s $50 for one year, $140 for three years or $1000 for a lifetime membership. What perks do you get with your membership? You’ll have access to a number of organized hikes, special events, you’ll receive the official Bruce Trail Magazine and more.
By purchasing a Bruce Trail membership, you also get to select which of the nine clubs you would like to join. Once you’re officially signed up, you’ll even get a unique member card and the badge of the section you belong to! I’m not sure which one I’d pick. I might have to go with the Bruce Trail Niagara club since that’s where I grew up!
Things to Know When Hiking The Bruce Trail
As I’ve mentioned, the Bruce Trail is maintained by a number of incredible volunteers. By using the trail, you’re agreeing to follow The Bruce Trail Users’ Code:
- Hike only along marked routes, especially on farmland – do not take short cuts
- Do not climb any fences and use the stiles provided
- Respect the privacy of people living along the trail as they’ve been gracious enough to allow access
- Leave the trail cleaner than you found it, carry out all litter whether it be yours or someone else’s
- No open fires are allowed on the trail
- Avoid picking flowers/plants and leave them for others to enjoy
- Do not damage live trees or strip off their bark
- Keep dogs on a leash and under control at all times, especially when in the vicinity of farmland
- Do not disturb any wildlife you may encounter
- Leave only your thanks and take nothing but photographs
- Obey all signage you may see along the trail
While You’re On the Trail
How do you know you’re following The Bruce Trail? By the funny white lines depicted below. These ‘blazes’ guide you along the trail and be found on trees, posts and more. They also direct you if the trail changes direction. 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 spots, and other points of interest. At the end of these trails, the blazes will a blue T shape meaning that side trail has finished.
Is Hiking The Bruce Trail Alone Safe to Do?
Personally, I have had no problems during my many solo hiking day trips along the trail. However, there are things you need to be aware of depending on where along the trail you are hiking.
In populated areas, there will be more people around so be diligent as you would in any city or town alone. Unfortunately ladies, we are more at risk for attacks and sexual assault. I recommend if you wear headphones to keep one out and, while it sounds awful, don’t stop if you hear someone call for help. Keep going or head to a populated area and use your cellphone to phone first responders who can deal with the situation.
If you’re hiking in more rural sections, these risks are still possible however the chances are lower. Instead, you’ll have to contend with wildlife such as bears, coyotes, and other animals. While pepper spray is illegal in Canada, bear spray is legal and wouldn’t hurt to have if you are tackling these trails on your own.
That being said, I have never felt unsafe hiking the trail and I have hiked in a number of different places along it. That being said, I always take precautions such as letting friends and family know where I am, having a cellphone on me as well as food and water. This way someone knows where I am and if anything happens, I’m able to call for help as well as survive until emergency crews can arrive if the trip goes sour.
Tips for Hiking The Bruce Trail
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 are a few of my tips and tricks for hiking the Bruce Trail!
Have a Sturdy Pair of Footwear
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 very rocky. Having a good pair of hiking shoes is key, and has saved me from many slips and sprained ankles. I’ve had my Keens for years and while they’ve treated me well, I have been peeking at these really affordable options from Decathlon as my boots slowly die.
Have 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!
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!
SOMETHING TO NOTE:While I’ve never had any encounters myself, each year it seems the tick situation is getting worse and worse. I highly recommend wearing tick-repelling clothing or making sure your bug spray also keeps ticks at bay.
Make Sure to Bring Lots of Water
I always make sure I have my trusty Hydroflask water bottle with me on the trails. A few times I’ve actually run out of water 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 have stations 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!
If you find yourself going by a body of water like a river or lake, I wouldn’t recommend drinking directly from it unless you have a purification device. LifeStraw is a very common brand who offers straws, bladders and water bottles which remove bacteria, parasites and more. Take a look at their website for more information on their technology.
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.
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 while on the hiking trails 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.
Always Have Access To Maps
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 making Google a moo point, The Bruce Trail Conservancy has an app which is available for both Android and Apple phones.
While it’s not the greatest for tracking your hikes, it’s amazing for staying up to date with your location as well as trail closures. If you have a tendency to get lost, I highly recommend downloading it so you have a Bruce Trail guide on you at all times. While $20 is steep for a phone app, it goes right back to supporting the conservancy. Otherwise, you can buy the Bruce Trail map a hard copy if you prefer to go old school.
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: leaves of 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!
Bruce Trail FAQ
Whether you’re just getting into hiking or you spend as much time as you can on the trails, chances are you have a few questions. If you’re not from Ontario, I’m glad to hear you’re spending some time on the Bruce Trail during your stay in the province! Here are a few things you might be wondering in regards to the trail.
Can You Bike on the Bruce Trail?
As far as I know, it is possible to bike the Bruce Trail as I have not found anything that says explicitly that you cannot. However, there are a number of staircases scattered throughout the entirety of the Bruce Trail so be forewarned – you might have to lug your bike up and down them!
Can You Camp Overnight on the Bruce Trail?
Yes and no. You cannot camp wherever you like along the Bruce Trail, however the trail runs through a number of parks and private sites. If you plan on thru-hiking the trail, you’ll need to plan well in advance and chances are your overnight accommodation will be a mix of camping, hotels and bed and breakfasts depending on where you are along the trail. It should also be mentioned that the Bruce Trail Conservancy will not arrange this for you. If you’re looking to book some accommodation, I recommend checking out my tips!
Where Does the Bruce Trail Start and End?
The Northern Terminus of the Bruce Trail is found in the town of Tobermory at the very tip of the Bruce Peninsula. You can find the cairn officially marking the trail on the eastern side of Little Tub Harbour on Bay Street. Be sure to check it out whenever you find yourself exploring Tobermory.
The Southern Terminus of the Bruce Trail is in Queenston Heights Park, right by the Canada-USA border. If you find yourself visiting Niagara Falls, I recommend stopping by even if it’s just to check out the stone cairn or enjoy a quick jaunt around the park!
Where Can I Buy a Bruce Trail Map?
As I’ve mentioned, you can get the Bruce Trail app for Android or Apple. If you prefer to not go the phone route, you can purchase digital copies of the individual maps from the Bruce Trail website. Want to avoid digital altogether? You can purchase the Bruce Trail Reference Guide from the BTC website. Updated every two years, it includes over 40 full-colour topographic maps as well as in-depth guides to the trails. The 30th edition is set to be released in the summer of 2020.
Is the Bruce Trail Closed?
99% of the time, the Bruce Trail is open all year round. However, at times the trails may need some work or there may be detours due to land closures. This is when the Bruce Trail App really comes in handy as it’s the best way to stay up to date on what’s open along the Bruce Trail.
The biggest thing as a beginner is to pick a section that fits your skill set. The terrain can change depending on where along The Bruce Trail you choose to hike. Further south in the Niagara Region, the trails are flatter and normally gravel or dirt. Further north close to Lion’s Head and Bruce Peninsula National Park, you’ll be facing uneven trails. I’ve been hiking for a few years now and found some of the trails in the north to be challenging. Large boulders and rocky surfaces can make the trail difficult. If you find yourself in over your head – take your time. It isn’t a race so it’s better to go slow than rush through and injure yourself, especially if you’re a klutz like me!
Can I Hike the Bruce Trail in the Winter?
As I said in the section above, the trail is open all year round so that’s a resounding yes! Winter is actually one of my favourite times to hike for a number of reasons including fewer people and no bugs.
Hiking in the winter does have it’s own challenges though. With shorter days and sometimes frigid temperatures, you’ll want to plan ahead and make sure you’re prepared. Bring the usuals like a water bottle, snacks, etc but I also recommend having a pair of crampons with you. They’ll make hiking so much easier, especially with an abundance of ice! Don’t forget to wear layers too.
What Section Should I Hike First?
That honestly really depends on you! Some people try and start at one end and work their way bit by bit to complete the full thing. Others stick to more of the side trails. Personally, I’m all over the place though I would love to complete the Bruce Trail end to end as a full hike!
If you’re not the most experienced hiker, I’d recommend some of the trails in the Niagara or Iroquoia sections as I find the terrain to have less elevation and be easier to complete. Up in the Peninsula section, you can run into a lot of varied terrain which can tucker out the legs if you’re not prepared!
Unsure Where to Hike Along The Bruce Trail? These Might Help!
Hiking Indian Head Cove, Tobermory Grotto & More in BPNP
The Essential Guide to the Best Waterfalls in Hamilton, Ontario
Hiking Hamilton’s Borer’s Falls
Dundas Peak – The Ultimate Guide to Hamilton’s Epic Lookout
Belfountain Conservation Area & the Cheltenham Badlands
Ready to Hike the Bruce Trail?
With these tips in your arsenal, I hope you’ll be motivated to get walking the Bruce 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 and 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!