Nature has always been important, but even more so over the past year. With folks of all ages looking to get a breath of fresh air for their own mental well-being, we also need to do our part to protect and respect the nature we seek. With some of the best hiking trails in Niagara Falls, plenty of thoughtful interpretive signage and a homey atmosphere, the Heartland Forest in Niagara Falls is the perfect spot to recharge while being inspired to protect the nature that surrounds us.
What is the Heartland Forest?
For almost two decades, the Heartland Forest has been a refuge in nature for locals and visitors alike. Located in the southwestern area of Niagara Falls, these 200+ acres protect a prime section of Carolinian Forest as well as provincially significant wetlands. It serves as an important sanctuary for many species at risk as it’s one of the largest remaining ecosystems of its kind.
It all began thanks to a gentleman by the name of Dan Bouwman. In 1999, he purchased the land to rescue it from industrial development. Though it was until his granddaughter, Sydney, came into the world that the idea for the Heartland Forest was created.
Sydney was born with Lissencephaly. Literally meaning “smooth brain”, this rare, genetic brain disorder occurs when there’s an absence of folds in the brain’s cerebral cortex. As it can cause a number of health issues, Dan wanted to create a peaceful atmosphere in nature that Sydney could experience to help her cope with the disorder.
In 2004, the Heartland Forest opened as a natural destination for all to experience. It features a number of wheelchair-accessible trails, beautiful sculptures sprinkled throughout the property as well as scenic views. Parents pushing strollers and those with mobility devices can meander through the forest without worrying about getting caught on roots or encountering rocks and other obstacles. Created to serve the greater community, the Heartland Forest is a destination that can truly be enjoyed by all.
Since then, the property has grown and developed to include even more accessible offerings like a picnic pavilion, one of the largest treehouses in Canada, mini-putt and more. There’s even an accessible woodworking shop! Though the biggest feat is the fully accessible 14,000 square foot nature centre. These features are free for all to use, though donation boxes can be found throughout the property. If you can spare some change, it goes right back into the upkeep and development of the Heartland Forest.
While Sydney has since passed, this beautiful vision lives on for locals and visitors alike to cherish and enjoy.
Things to Do at the Heartland Forest
Welcome to this beautiful environmental playground! Disconnect from the every day and reconnect with the natural world for a few hours as you experience what the Heartland Forest has to offer.
Walk the Trails
The most popular activity of the Heartland Forest Nature Experience – hitting the trails! There are five trails in total, ranging in length from just over 100 metres to just under a kilometre. Their shorter length and varying atmospheres make the Heartland Forest a fantastic destination to expose young children to the wonders of nature. It’s never too early to get them passionate about the planet! The Heartland Forest map below gives you an idea as to how the park is laid out.
I recommend following the outskirts of the park, going in a counter-clockwise direction. As you pass the information booth, you’ll be following the Pin Oak Trail. Breathe deep and take in that fresh air as you meander through the trees but don’t forget to stop by the beautiful turtle lookout. Maybe you’ll even spot Franklin!
Then, continue along to the right and the start of the Black Gum Trail. This stretch of the park is more wooded as the trail takes you through a fairly forested area. You’ll find a number of lookout platforms along this stretch of trail that highlight points of interest within the Heartland Forest.
You’ll eventually connect with my personal favourite, the Boardwalk Trail. Follow the elevated platform over the marsh-like terrain and admire the brilliant reflections of the sky and trees. This is the only section of the park that’s unfortunately not accessible due to its narrow nature. You will then take a left to continue along the trail as you make your way in the direction of the parking lot… but not before passing by the Pollinator Loops!
Once you’re done making friends with the bees, continue to follow the Boardwalk Trail as it will take you to the main area where you started.
Learn About the Forest
With the slogan where learning comes naturally, it’s not surprising to know that there is plenty of interpretive signage within the Heartland Forest. These signs talk about a range of topics including some of the various habitats you’ll find within the park, specific plant and wildlife species and more!
You may also notice some tags on various trees in the forest. These are labels that you can use to help learn how to better identify different species of trees! Become a rookie forester as you hone your observation skills and see how many different kinds of trees you can spot.
Exercise With the Fitness Stations
It’s a no-brainer that exercising is good for you, but did you know that exercising outdoors is often more beneficial than an indoor gym workout? Thanks to nature’s calming effects, the physical activity actually feels less strenuous outdoors than if you were to do the same activity inside!
Along the Black Gum Trail, you’ll find various what I’d call “pull-outs” with signage. These fitness stations create a circuit that’s guaranteed to get the blood pumping! Each one outlines a number of different exercises you can do. Try to complete them all or do just a few of the stations and work your way up to the entire circuit!
Hunt for Birdhouses
Throughout the Pin Oak and Black Gum Trails, some brightly coloured objects will catch your eyes… birdhouses! These adorable little structures are hanging from branches, sitting on stumps and even nestled in tree stumps.
While they’re meant as a refuge to help the local bird population, they make for a great scavenger hunt for children of all ages. I was able to count six during my visit. How many will you spot?
Enjoy the Artwork
Besides the radiant birdhouses, there is plenty of art to spot through the Heartland Forest! As you’re exploring, you’ll pass by beautifully intricate wood carvings of wildlife such as hawks and owls as well as stone animal sculptures. You won’t go long without spotting a new friend along the trails!
These sculptures add an extra level of whimsy to the experience and are truly what make the Heartland Forest one of the most unique things to do in Niagara Falls.
Plenty of Family Fun
So I can’t quite speak from experience here as I’m just a cat momma, however there are plenty of additional family-oriented activities to be enjoyed at the Heartland Forest. Just to the right of the parking lot, you’ll find a playground that I know I would have enjoyed in my younger years. Kids will also have a blast spotting the aforementioned art and sculptures as well as just enjoying the trails overall!
In the summer, the Heartland Forest offers day camps for children ages 5-9. Kids enrolled in the program will garner a fascination for the natural world as they play games, enjoy outdoor challenges, learn survival skills, make nature crafts and more.
There are also a number of group workshops throughout the year for individuals who have acquired brain injuries, autism and other developmental disabilities. Led by staff and volunteers who have years of teaching experience, they share the art of woodworking in their fully accessible woodshop. As far as I know, it’s one of the few programs of its kind in the Niagara Region!
Plan Your Visit
The Heartland Forest is such a wholesome attraction in Niagara Falls that people of all ages and walks of life can enjoy. As I stated earlier, there is no admission fee (though donations are encouraged) to experience this wonderful nature reserve. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the Heartland Forest is dog-friendly! Please just be respectful, keep them leashed and pick up after them.
Currently, the hours of operation are from 9:00 am until 7:30 pm but they are subject to change without notice. Be sure to follow their Facebook Page for up-to-date information. The address for Heartland Forest is 8215 Heartland Forest Road in Niagara Falls, Ontario or you can click here for Google Maps directions.
The Heartland Forest is the perfect place to unplug and enjoy a few hours of some quality nature time. Chances are you’ll not only have a calmer mind but you just might learn something new! If you’d like to explore more of the top hiking trails in Niagara Falls, be sure to check out my guide.
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