Around the Head of Lake Ontario: Part 15

Go back to Part 14

From Old Guelph Road to Snake Road

Date: 31 August 2021
Start Point: Old Guelph Road at Highway 6, Dundas
End Point: Snake Road, Burlington
Distance Covered: 3.0 km*
Total Distance Covered: 65.4 km

*plus optional ca. 3.0 km return.

All Maps © OpenStreetMap contributors

307. Today’s hike is a mere 3.0 km one way. Mainly through forest along the slope of the Escarpment, it can be challenging in wet or snowy conditions. With two cars, park the start one in the free P at the end of Old Guelph Road, as at the end of the previous hike. Park your end car, also for free, on the eastern shoulder of Snake Road near where the Bruce Trail crosses it. There is a gravel space there for half a dozen cars; make sure yours is completely off the road. Then follow the white blazes of the main Bruce Trail between these points.

Note that Blacks Woods (above), more usually known as Clappison Woods, is a maze of trails, many of which are intended for mountain bikers. So follow the Bruce blazes carefully or you might go astray. If you have only one car, you might want to loop back a different way to the start. In that case, plan your route carefully and use GPS, as non-Bruce trails are not waymarked.

As with the previous one, it might be best to do this hike one way and save your energy and the rest of the day for side trips, in this case to three sites of the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG), all a short drive away. There’s a map of these RBG sites and more information at #319 below.

308. So, now to cross the Highway of Death. Take the concrete stairs down from the P at Old Guelph Road, and enter this long pedestrian tunnel.

309. Its concrete walls are completely covered with … graffiti is the usual term, though I have seen pieces in contemporary art galleries less striking than the above. However, this parietal display begs a question. One can understand the motive behind street art (beautification of urban surroundings), and even the motive behind tagging (a desire to impose one’s marginalized identity on an impersonal landscape). But why this frenzied multichrome imagery in a dark place where it can’t be seen very well?

It’s the same question that has engaged researchers into the often extremely inaccessible prehistoric painted caves of Europe. David Lewis-Williams, an expert on South African rock art, casts some light on the subject in his book, The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art (2002). Briefly, he proposes that art on the walls of such famous caves as Lascaux in France was intended to be viewed by flickering lamplight in hard-to-access subterranean gloom, possibly under the influence of mind-altering drugs. That’s because, thus experienced, the images provided a gateway to new levels of spiritual awareness. Could a remnant of that ancient shamanic impulse have inspired the spray-can artists in this tunnel?

310. This tunnel (constructed in 2007) certainly does provide a startling transition between states: at the farther end of this dark concrete tube you emerge into a lush green forest.

Photograph of Clappison Cut in the 1920s looking northbound courtesy of Hamilton Public Library Local History & Archives, T. Roy Woodhouse Collection

311. Just by the trail on the east side of Highway 6 are the ruins of a stone farm building (above) on what was once known as the Little property. The farm would have stood on Old Guelph Road, the local Mountain Access before the 1921-23 construction of Highway 6 through the Clappison Cut (left). As we saw, Old Guelph Road now terminates at our start P, and Highway 6 climbs the Mountain through a greatly widened Clappison Cut. One hopes that blasting and bulldozing a divided highway through the Niagara Escarpment would not be acceptable these days!

312. The strikingly weird berries of Actaea pachypoda, the white baneberry, a native plant. They are known as dolls’-eyes as they resemble the eyes of old-fashioned porcelain dolls. Their lurid red stalks give the “eyes” a gouged-out appearance that would not be out of place in a gross-out horror film. Like the rest of the baneberry, dolls’-eyes are very toxic, and eating them can lead to severe gastric distress, cardiac arrest, and death.

313. The trail briefly emerges from the forest by these stormwater management ponds. Behind, the back of big box stores on Highway 5 (Dundas Street East) can be seen. In spite of appearances, this hike is never far from civilization, in the shape of the rapidly suburbanizing former village of Waterdown, now part of amalgamated Hamilton.

314. A lone juvenile waterbird, possibly a pied-billed grebe, paddles cautiously along the edge of one of the ponds.

315. It’s rather surprising to meet this rail line in the depth of Clappison Woods. This steep, single-track line is in the Hamilton subdivision of the Canadian Pacific Railway, connecting Guelph Junction near Campbellville to Hamilton’s Hunter Street GO Station, and on to Welland. There is no formal pedestrian crossing here, but it’s not a busy line, and freight trains using it to climb or descend the Mountain move slowly and gingerly.

316. Among a pile of old wooden railroad ties by the side of the track, the most all-Canadian of detritus. During the pandemic, only discarded facemasks rival Tim Horton’s single-use coffee cups as the most common kind of litter found at the Head of the Lake. And no, these cups are not recyclable. Toronto alone puts 1,000 tonnes of disposable paper coffee cups into landfill per annum, and that doesn’t include the millions tossed carelessly from car or train.

317. These are the fruit of the shagbark hickory (Carya ovate), a native deciduous tree whose mature specimens have an unmistakable … shaggy bark. When ripe these casings can be broken easily at the four seams, but the nut inside has a hard shell that you probably need a hammer to crack. Hickory nuts can be eaten raw or roasted and taste somewhere between a pecan and a walnut. They tend not to be grown commercially because the trees are unreliable producers and the nuts are difficult to extract in one piece. Compare black walnuts at #68 above.

318. This is the end of today’s hike. Snake Road follows an old First Nations trail, and is so called because of its serpentine path up the Escarpment, not because of its reptilian denizens. (There were rattlesnakes at the Head of the Lake until the nineteenth century, but they were extirpated by nervous settlers.) Too steep and rough for horse and buggy, in 1853 Snake Road was relaid in gravel by James Kent Griffin (son of the founder of Waterdown) as a toll road connecting Hamilton and Waterdown. These days the south end of Snake Road (now renamed Beth Jacob Court; see the map at #319 below) is a dead end for vehicles, but it continues as a pedestrian trail that connects with the Grindstone Marsh Trail of the RBG.

Side Trips

319. The bonus appeal of today’s hike, as with the previous one, is in the side trips … and in this case there are three of them, to a trio of different garden areas of the RBG. One fee will get you admission to all three sites on the same day. Allow at least an hour each for the Rock and Laking Gardens, and two hours for RBG Centre/Hendrie Park. Note: the Laking Garden is closed in winter. The Rock Garden and RBG Centre/Hendrie Park are open all year, but are best visited in spring, summer, or fall.

It’s possible to walk either along Plains Road West or via off-road trails between these three RBG sites. A Burlington Transit bus (#1 Plains) runs along Plains Road between Appleby GO Station and downtown Hamilton, linking all three RBG sites. This bus does not, however, offer effective transportation to either end of Hike #15.

1: The Rock Garden

320. The RBG Rock Garden, 1185 York Boulevard, Hamilton, is about 4 km (a 5 minute drive) from the Snake Road end of today’s hike. Go south down Snake Road until, renamed Hillsdale Avenue, it joins Plains Road West. Turn left (south), go over the bridge over Highway 403, and turn right at the lights along York Boulevard. The Rock Garden P is 500 meters on the left at the next set of lights. Cross York Boulevard on foot at the lights to enter the Rock Garden via the Visitor Centre (above).

Though relatively small, the newly renovated (2016) Rock Garden is sensationally beautiful, especially on sunny days. It’s hard to imagine that it was created between 1929-31 from a gravel pit used to provide railroad ballast. (Maybe you trod some of it down as you crossed the line at #315 above.) Ten thousand tons of limestone were transported from local quarries to line the walls of the pit. It’s also not obvious, until a thundering sound disturbs the peace, that the Rock Garden sits right next to the busy rail junction at the north end of Burlington Heights.

321. The Visitor Centre from the lower Rock Garden. Narrow stone stairways, beloved of children, thread the steep rock faces of the former pit, but there’s also an accessible paved trail that gently connects the levels.

322. The beds in the lower Rock Garden in high summer.

2. The Laking Garden

323. The RBG Laking Garden is at 1221 Spring Gardens Road, Burlington. It’s reached by turning right off Plains Road West about 900 metres east of the Rock Garden. If driving, watch carefully for the sign as the entrance to Spring Gardens Road is easy to miss. The small P is immediately visible on the left. You then cross a pedestrian bridge high over a rail line to the entrance booth.

The Laking Garden (opened 1947) occupies a fairly small (1.7 ha/4 acres) grassy plateau overlooking the estuary of Grindstone Creek and lies just within the boundary of the City of Burlington. From May through October the Laking showcases thousands of bedded flowering plants, most of which are carefully labelled.

324. The Laking gazebo in June seems to float on a sea of irises and peonies.

325. A Laking peony.

3: RBG Centre/Hendrie Park

326. The RBG Centre, 680 Plains Road West, Burlington, is a complex of modern buildings about 1 km east of the Laking Garden on the right side of the road. It is surrounded by a large P. Once you have entered the main building, you can tour the greenhouses and interior displays, then take a pedestrian tunnel under Plains Road to visit the outdoor Hendrie Park section, which includes (among many other superlative attractions) a newly renovated rose garden and a striking contemporary sculpture collection.

(Above) A South African bird of paradise plant (Strelitzia reginae) in the Mediterranean Garden greenhouse at RBG Centre.

327. The Tea House in the Rose Garden at Hendrie Park in September.

328. The decorative fountain in the Scented Garden at Hendrie Park in late fall.

Go to Part 16: Snake Road to Smoke Hollow