Around the Head of Lake Ontario: Introduction

Introducing HOLO, an Epic Loop Trail

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What Are We Talking About, Exactly?
We’re talking about a grand circular trail easily accessed by residents of Hamilton, Burlington, Dundas, Ancaster, Waterdown, Stoney Creek and vicinity. Our neighbours in the City of Toronto, the GTA, the Grand River Valley, the outer Golden Horseshoe, and the Niagara Peninsula are close enough to do it too. Believe me, there’s nothing to match it in their neck of the woods!

It’ll definitely appeal if you love to hike, like to keep fit, and are eager for a progressive physical challenge. If you enjoy photography, or just noticing and trying to understand your surroundings, so much the better.

You’ll love this trail if you’re into local history, geography, geology, nature, urbanism, industry, literature … well, you name it!

And for the most part you won’t have any problem keeping an appropriate social distance from the rest of humanity.

Most people will do the trail incrementally, that is, in a number of day hikes. Cars are the most convenient method of getting to start points and from end points, though public transit does cover most of the loop, and you might use ride-hailing services to fill the gaps. But stick to Shank’s pony on the loop itself. This is a trail to be savoured at walking pace.

It’s always a good idea to hike with a partner, as accidents do happen and then you have a shoulder to lean on. But you can do this trail on your own, and if you have a cell phone … well, it’s not as if you’re ever very far from civilization.

By all means take the dog, but please make sure it’s on a leash the whole time.

What Will You See on This Hike?
Here are just a few of the things I saw and photographed when I did the trail in high summer: sandy beaches, shore birds, watercraft on the lake, ships in harbour, dark satanic mills, giant steel and concrete bridges, bohemian beachside properties, ancient aboriginal meeting places, sweeping panoramic views, turkey vultures, fabulous fungi, heritage trees, painted tunnels, beautiful butterflies, wondrous waterfalls, a coyote pup, magical staircases, unique geological formations, an exotic domed temple, and a ghost-haunted ruin. At other times of year, butterflies might be absent, but there’ll be many other seasonal sights of interest to take their place.

Does This Trail Have a Name?
Not officially, though as it’s around the Head of Lake Ontario, I call it HOLO!

All maps on this page © OpenStreetMap contributors

Some Geographical Context
Lake Ontario may be the smallest of the five Great Lakes of North America, but at 311 km x 85 km it’s hardly minute. In fact, it’s the thirteenth largest lake on Earth.

Its name is derived from the Huron word Ontarí’io, which means … “great lake”!

These days, the area around the western tip of the Lake is called the Golden Horseshoe from its shape and economic importance. Canada’s most populous region by far, it lies entirely within the province that’s also called Ontario.

The urban areas that directly abut the Lake, those purplish bruises on the map above, have a combined population of about 8,000,000. Eight million is about 21% of the Canadian population. They’re all squeezed into about 10,000 square km, a mere 0.1% of the total area of Canada.

Most of these people live in the megalopolis centred on the City of Toronto, the provincial capital.

The population of metropolitan Toronto is more than six million and growing fast.

But our hike takes place about 65 km southwest of Toronto, an hour’s drive from the big city.

So let’s zoom in on that area …

The Head of the Lake
This is the area that was called Fond du Lac by early French explorers. That literally means “bottom-of-the-lake,” but metaphorically it suggests “back-end-of-the-lake,” a slightly dismissive expression.

In English, Fond du Lac became the more positive “Head of the Lake” in the nineteenth century, attesting to the area’s growing strategic and economic importance.

“Head of the Lake” is rarely heard these days, however. That’s probably because the local power centre shifted northeast along the lakeshore to the Toronto area. But I’m sticking with the phrase, as the Head of the Lake is still the place to go for the best hiking in the Golden Horseshoe!

The map above shows that the waters at the Head of the Lake are divided into three parts. The easternmost is the main body of Lake Ontario, which washes up against a narrow strip of land. That’s a low-lying baymouth bar of sand and gravel known as the (Burlington/Hamilton) Beach Strip. It was formed over the millennia by the combined action of waves and wind on the main lake.

West of this bar is a lagoon once called Macassa,* then Lake Geneva, then Burlington Bay, and (since 1919) Hamilton Harbour, from the large, heavily industrialized city of Hamilton that now occupies its entire southern shore.

At the western edge of Hamilton Harbour is a shorter baymouth bar called Burlington Heights. This separates Hamilton Harbour from the shallow lake or marsh (depending on the water level) with the exotic name of Cootes Paradise. It’s also referred to as Dundas Marsh, from the town just to the west that stands at the apex of the Head of the Lake.

The Beach Strip is penetrated by the wide Burlington Canal (just above the “QEW” sign on the map), that allows large vessels to enter and dock in Hamilton Harbour.

Burlington Heights is penetrated by the narrow Desjardins Canal, that once gave small vessels access to Cootes Paradise. But these days Cootes Paradise is too shallow to accommodate anything much larger than a canoe.
What the above map does not show is the most striking geographical aspect of the Head of the Lake …

*Macassa is an aboriginal name, and the Head of the Lake was certainly inhabited by First Nations for millennia before white settlement. But it’s thought that the Iroquoian-speaking Attawandarons, known as “Neutrals” in English, who were there when white explorers first starting arriving, were dispersed by other First Nations in the 1650s, so the pre-colonial aboriginal history of the area is difficult to determine. See Johnston, pp. 7-11 in Some More Resources below for more information.

The Escarpment
… namely, the Niagara Escarpment, whose course through this part of southern Ontario is shown as a thick black line on the map above.

The Niagara Escarpment is a long cuesta, an extremely ancient geological formation caused by unequal erosion in the exposed strata that comprise it, though it has been subsequently reshaped by glaciation. On the ground in this area the Escarpment may look like a steep cliff face or a line of low hills up to 100 metres high facing the Lake. It’s referred to as “the Mountain” in these parts, but when you climb to the top there is no peak, only a plateau that slopes gently away from you.

The Escarpment’s course through southern Ontario begins in the east at Niagara Falls, the world-famous waterfalls that give their name to the whole formation.

From there it runs westward parallel and close to the shore of the Lake, then laterally right through the city of Hamilton. Hamilton thus has an upper and lower city, divided by a steep scarp face. Dozens of small creeks in this area turn into lovely waterfalls as they descend the Escarpment and flow into the Lake.

At the Head of the Lake the Escarpment makes a tight U-turn, enclosing the valley town of Dundas in its embrace. Then it begins to head in a northerly direction, bypassing the Toronto metropolitan area that lies farther to the east.

The Bruce Trail, Canada’s oldest long-distance hiking trail, follows the course of the Escarpment as closely as possible for about 900 km from near Niagara Falls to Tobermory on Lake Huron.

The HOLO Loop Trail
The map above gives a rough overview of the course of the loop trail around the Head of the Lake.

(Each episode of the photo blog to follow will provide a more detailed map of the individual hike it describes.)

The trail is almost entirely off road, though you’re never far from urban amenities.

I recommend that you hike clockwise starting at point A (Bayview Park, Burlington). That’s because, approached this way, the trail begins in a very easygoing manner, and only gradually becomes more demanding.

From A to B you’ll descend half the height of the Escarpment to Lakeshore level. Mainly on quiet roads and the paved Francis Road Trail, you’ll pass through light industrial and suburban areas of Burlington.

From B to C you’ll hike the full length of the Burlington/Hamilton Beach Strip, acquainting yourself with the Ontario Lakeshore, the Burlington Canal, and its bridges. This section is all on a well-paved multiuse trail, and the Beach Strip is so narrow it’s almost impossible to get lost!

From C to D you’ll follow the Red Hill Valley Trail as it gradually climbs from the Lakeshore to the full height of the Escarpment. This trail, which is broad and in good shape but not particularly well waymarked, becomes a little strenuous as it nears point D.

From D all the way back to A you’ll chiefly follow the main Bruce Trail. This Trail is very well waymarked, but has some quite narrow, rough, and steep sections. Follow the Bruce white blazes and you won’t go astray.

From D to E you’ll be crossing the city of Hamilton, then part of Ancaster, but when trees are thickly leaved you’ll be amazed that there is often little visual evidence of the densely built-up surroundings. But you’ll hear traffic noise and other urban sounds, and there’ll be quite a few spectacular views over Ontario’s fifth biggest city and Lake Ontario that, on clear days, extend as far as the distant Toronto skyline. At E you’ll descend the Escarpment steeply down to the floor of the beautiful Dundas Valley.

From F to G you’ll traverse the streets of the old and charming town of Dundas. (For reasons which will be explained, the Bruce Trail has recently been rerouted away from the Spencer Gorge, one of the most beautiful places on the whole 900 km length of the Escarpment. I’ll suggest a side trip to two eyecatching waterfalls and a panoramic viewpoint.)

Near G you’ll scale the full height of the Escarpment into the territory of the Royal Botanical Gardens.

You’ll then follow the Escarpment as the Bruce Trail makes its devious way toward Waterdown (H), a former village in the process of rapid expansion. You’ll get the full rocks-and-roots Bruce Trail experience on this section, but you’ll also see how unrestricted development threatens the natural integrity of the Niagara Escarpment.

From H back to A is a relatively easy hike that concludes with a descent of half the Escarpment’s height.

So, you’ll ascend and descend the full height of the Niagara Escarpment twice during the hike. Don’t worry, no mountaineering is involved, but the trail is steep in places and you should tread carefully, especially if it’s wet or icy.

You can of course start wherever you like on the loop and there’s nothing to stop you from doing it counterclockwise if you prefer to take the widdershins path though life!

A to B = 5.9 km
B to C = 7.8 km
C to D = 8.7 km
D to E = 16.3 km
E to F = 12.3 km
F to G = 6.3 km
G to H = 12.4 km
H to A = 3.5 km

HOLO Total = 73.2 km

73.2 km doesn’t sound like a great distance, but you have to factor in getting to and from your start and end points.
If you are an experienced hiker with a good drop-off/pick-up arrangement, you can probably do the whole loop in five hikes or fewer.

Two moderately fit people with two cars (one parked at each end) can do it comfortably in eight to ten hikes.

I chose to do the loop on my own with one car. With the occasional supplementary use of public transit, I needed seventeen different hikes over the course of seven weeks to complete it, and I probably walked close to 140 km altogether.

Several of the individual hikes can be walked as part of mini-loops, so if you are hiking solo you don’t always have to retrace your steps.

Free parking is available at almost all the start and end points of the individual hikes I’ll document. There’ll be more details in each episode.

If you plan to use public transit, here you’ll find maps of the Burlington and Hamilton bus systems. You can use these maps to help you plot your access to and departure from various points on the loop. There are connections with these transit systems at the Lakeshore West GO Train stations in Aldershot and Hamilton, though these connections are not always very convenient or frequent. All three systems accept PRESTO cards.

Note that there is an area on the Escarpment between Dundas and Waterdown that is not served by public transit.

Want to Set a Record?
No doubt someone will attempt to do HOLO in one go, thereby setting a record that someone else will immediately aim to break.

But if it’s a contest you’re after, why not enter Hamilton’s annual 30 km Around the Bay Race, which circles Hamilton Harbour? It has been run since 1894 and is older than the Boston Marathon. Or if it’s speed you love, bike the HamBur Loop, a 48 km circuit that includes the Beach Strip and the Red Hill Valley.

In my view, the extremely diverse HOLO Trail—and it’d be hard to imagine more diversity packed into 73.2 km—should be savoured at walking pace, the better to absorb the riches that it offers.

There are also plenty of interesting short side trips off-loop if you have the time and inclination. I’ll tell you about some of them, but you’ll probably discover others as you go.

When Should You Go?
The answer is simple: there are four distinct seasons in this part of southern Ontario, and HOLO is great in all of them!

Of course, the snow and ice of winter do cause sometimes insuperable difficulties on the more challenging parts of the trail. But it’s rare that such conditions obtain all winter, and that season has the advantage of offering views unobstructed by leafage, especially from the heights of the heavily wooded Escarpment. Wear cleats on off-road sections of HOLO in winter, as even if there is no snow elsewhere on the ground, there’s likely to be compacted ice from footfall on sheltered parts of the trail.

Spring brings slippery mud, and footwear should be water resistant and have good gripping soles.

Summer is hot and humid, so it’s best to hike early in the morning or in the long evenings, especially in open areas.

Fall is perhaps the best season of all, and the Escarpment provides a truly stunning array of colour on the cool, sunny days of mid-October.

I did this trail in high summer, but I’ll include the occasional photo taken at other times of the year to show you that the beauties of HOLO can be experienced all year round.

Some More Resources

Ancaster Township Historical Society. Ancaster’s Heritage: A History of Ancaster Township. (Ancaster, ON: Ancaster Township Historical Society, 1970).

Beckett, Thomas A. My Path to the Dundas Valley (2018).

Bruce Trail Reference, The: Maps and Trail Guide (Latest Edition).

Byers, Mary and Margaret McBurney. The Governor’s Road: Early Buildings and Families from Mississauga to London. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982).

Campbell, Marjorie Freeman. A Mountain and a City: The Story of Hamilton. (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1966).

Freeman, Bill. Hamilton: A People’s History (Toronto: James Lorimer, 2001).

Houghton, Margaret, ed. Hamilton Street Names: An Illustrated Guide. (Toronto: James Lorimer, 2002.)

Johnston, C.M. The Head of the Lake: A History of Wentworth County. (Hamilton, ON: Wentworth County Council, 1967).

Keogh, Pat and Rosemarie. The Niagara Escarpment: A Portfolio (Don Mills, ON: Stoddart, 1990).

Kosydar, Richard. Natural Landscapes of the Niagara Escarpment (Dundas, ON: Tierceron Press, 1996).

Machan, Claire Emery. From Pathway to Skyway Revisited: The Story of Burlington (Burlington, ON: Burlington Historical Society, 1997).

Newcombe, Olive. Picturesque Dundas Revisited. (Dundas, ON: Dundas Historical Society Museum, 1997).

Ruddick, Nicholas. The Bruce Trail End to End: Niagara to Tobermory the Hard Way. (Dundas, ON: Wilmar Editions, 2021).

Scadding, Henry. Yonge Street and Dundas Street: The Men after Whom They Were Named. (Toronto: Copp, Clark & Co., 1878).

Smith, J.H. Historical Sketch of the County of Wentworth and the Head of the Lake (Hamilton, ON: Wentworth County Council, 1897).

Turcotte, Dorothy. The Sand Strip: Burlington/Hamilton Beaches (St. Catherines, ON: Stonehouse, 1987).

Tyson, David E. Trail to the Bruce: The Story of the Building of the Bruce Trail. (Tellwell, 2017).

Weinberg, Paul, ed. Reclaiming Hamilton: Essays from the New Ambitious City. (Hamilton, ON: James Street North Books, 2020).

Woodhouse, T. Roy. The History of the Town of Dundas: Part 1 of a Series. (Dundas, ON: The Dundas Historical Society, 1965).

Go to Part 1: Bayview Park to the Brant Museum