Choose your own adventure in a snowy wonderland. Here’s how to hike, bird-watch, trail run or ID animal tracks in North America’s largest urban park. 

Rouge National Urban Park is a must-visit for hikers, trail runners and nature enthusiasts of all stripes. North America’s largest urban park spans roughly 79 sq km (30.5 square miles) and boasts varied ecosystems including meadows, forests, wetlands, parks and rivers, where beavers build dams and black-capped chickadees sing. 

Located in the Rouge Valley near Tkaronto, the Rouge has several unique trails that meander through its varied landscapes. It’s also arguably the country’s most accessible national park, located only 30 minutes east of downtown Tkaronto when travelling by car, about 90 minutes by transit.

Indigenous history in the Rouge

Indigenous peoples have existed and still exist on the lands within and around Rouge National Urban Park. Archaeological finds have shown the historical significance of the trails that can be explored today. 

Evidence of human presence dates back 10,000+ years when Indigenous people were traversing and inhabiting the space. Over many centuries, the Rouge River was used as an important First Nations canoe route, while the land was settled and farmed. 

Today, Rouge National Urban Park is operated by Parks Canada, with an Advisory Circle of 10 different First Nations:

  • Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation,
  • Hiawatha First Nation,
  • Alderville First Nation,
  • Curve Lake First Nation,
  • Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation,
  • Chippewas of Rama First Nation,
  • Beausoleil First Nation,
  • Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation,
  • Six Nations of the Grand River,
  • The Huron-Wendat Nation.

Here are five ways to explore these scenic trails that are rich in history and biodiversity. 

Hike at Rouge National Urban Park

With its vast landscape, the makes for a uniquely exciting hiking spot, with hiking trails that suit a range of comfort and activity levels.

If you’re feeling like an easy walk, the 600 m (1,968.5 ft) long Glen Eagles Trail offers striking panoramic views of the Rouge River and Little Rouge Creek, as well as a geologically significant bluff, with rock layers dating back 13,000 to 20,000 years.

Want to cover more ground? The 2.9 km (1.8 miles) Coyote Trail loop takes you through multiple ecosystems including pine and cedar forests, a pond and meadows. (Note: trail is closed until late December, 2021 for infrastructure improvements.)

Finally, the gently rolling 7.6 km (4.7 miles) Monarch Trail is one of the Rouge’s longer hikes, taking two to three hours to complete. It flows through rare cedar savannah, a white pine stand and past adjacent farmland and is known for year-round wildlife sightings.

Explore trail running’s Indigenous roots 

Indigenous runners have excelled on the international stage despite great adversity, including Canada’s occupation of Indigenous peoples’ ancestral lands. First Nations runners such as Fred Simpson (1878-1945), Albert Smoke (1891-1944) and Tom Longboat (also known as Cogwagee, 1887-1949) are part of an illustrious athletic heritage.

Longboat was an internationally renowned Onondaga distance runner from Six Nations. His fame picked up in 1907 when he won the Boston Marathon, and in 1912, he set a world record in the 15-mile distance. Inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1955, Longboat is considered Canada’s greatest long-distance runner.

Pre-contact, some of the very trails that still exist within the park were used by First Nation communities as travel paths for communications, travel, hunting and sport. The 4.5 km (2.8 miles) Cedar Trail and Beare Wetlands Loop is one such route that is not only perfect for a healthy running challenge but will also take you through stunning ravine valleys, hilltop forests and alongside Little Rouge Creek.

Snowshoe Rouge National Urban Park

Snow that sparkles and glimmers on tree branches and spanning meadows is something that we are not short of here in Canada. And where there is snow, there is snowshoeing! Snowshoes are a type of footwear that attaches to boots so the wearer can walk over deep snow without sinking. Snowshoes were designed by Indigenous peoples long before colonization and were soon adopted by fur traders and voyageurs. Modern snowshoes make it easy — and fun — to hike over heavy snow.

Many of Rouge National Urban Park’s hiking trails are ideal for snowshoeing. The Mast Trail is a local favourite, but try to beat the rush if you want fresh powder: snowshoeing requires at least 15-20 cm (6-8 inches) of snow, so if you’re faced with a well-trod path, ditch the snowshoes and opt for a hike. (Do not forge a new off-trail path.)

Tip: Need snowshoes? You can rent a pair through Exclusive Sport Rentals.

Birdwatch in the Rouge 

The various habitats within Rouge National Urban Park match the multitude of bird species found there. From forest to shoreline to farmland, at least 225 different bird species can be spotted within park boundaries. The species you can glimpse will vary by season. 

During the cold winter months, with care, quiet — and of course a pair of binoculars — you can find black-capped chickadees, cedar waxwings, downy woodpeckers and many more.

So put on a parka, grab a few friends, bring your patience and settle in for the long haul if birdwatching is your calling.

Identify animal tracks in the snow

Snow is a great canvas for (temporarily) preserving animal tracks. Rouge National Urban Park’s various habitats provide ample opportunity to practice footprint identification, which is a fun activity for kids and adults alike.

The Rouge is home to 44 different species of mammals, including beavers, chipmunks, deer, coyotes and even black bears (a species that, reassuringly, hibernates in winter). New to tracking? Check out this easy-to-follow guide from the Nature Conservancy. 

Most tracking walks do not end in an animal encounter, but it’s important to tread carefully, be quiet and respectful, and never feed or approach any wildlife you see. 

If you spot a wild animal, follow Parks Canada’s “rule of thumb” for mutually safe wildlife encounters: “If you close one eye, extend your arm and can fully cover the animal with your thumb, you are likely a safe distance away. If you can still see any of the animals, you’re too close, and it’s time to move back.” 

Humans have coexisted with other animals within the park boundaries for millennia — so fear not, get ready to be amazed by this winter wonderland and carry on with intention and curiosity! 


Getting to Rouge National Urban Park:

To reach the Zoo Road entrance (adjacent to the Toronto Zoo), take the Line 2 Bloor-Danforth subway to Kennedy station. From there, catch the 86A Scarborough bus towards the Toronto Zoo; get off at Meadowvale Road and Zoo Road. Walk about 250 m (just over 800 ft) down Zoo Road to the Parks Canada Welcome Centre and Rouge Valley Conservation Centre.

Rouge National Urban Park has multiple access points. Visit Parks Canada for more info and driving instructions.