Hiking in Ontario: Photos from Digital Archive Ontario

October 12, 2021 | Sam

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Fall is one of the best times of year to get out for a hike, a pastime long enjoyed by Ontarians across the province. Digital Archive Ontario offers a window into that history. It has over 100,000 digitized photos, maps, postcards and other items related to Ontario's past. Below is a bit of background on hiking's history and a few historical hiking photos available on the site — as well as some vintage books on the topic of walking.

Illustration of figures on small bridge over waterfall and rocks
Illustration from the cover of a Niagara Falls guidebook, 1890s. View on Digital Archive Ontario.


Hiking as we know it today is generally thought of as “walking over long distances (preferably a scenic, natural setting) for pleasure or exercise” (Canadian Encyclopedia). In the 19th century, it became particularly popular in the U.K. with the rise of the “walking tour". Many books in the 1800s were published on the subject.

Hiking grew in popularity in the 20th century, which saw the establishment of many new trail associations in Ontario. These associations took on trail planning, including navigating municipal or provincial laws and bylaws. They also oversaw the construction and maintenance of trails. The Bruce Trail Committee (now Conservancy) was founded in 1960; the Rideau Trail Association was founded in 1971; and Hike Ontario was founded in 1974, among others. 

All trails in Ontario are on the traditional territories of the Indigenous peoples who were here long before colonization and still are here living on their ancestral lands. Evidence of these traditions is clearly visible on some trails. For example, on the Lake Superior Water Trail (part of the Trans-Canada Trail), trail-goers can view the Agawa Rock Pictographs. These were drawn by Ojibwe paddlers and date back to the 16th century.

Close-up photo of a backpack covered in patches, hung on a stick.
Patches on a backpack. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1993. View on Digital Archive Ontario.



Here are photos from our Toronto Star Photograph Archive showing a few trails in the second half of the 20th century.

Bruce Trail

The Bruce Trail attracted a lot of attention when it was completed in time for Canada’s centennial in 1967. Since then, over 4,000 people have hiked the trail end-to-end. The 900 kilometre trail connects Niagara to Tobermory in southern Ontario. (See all photos of Bruce Trail on Digital Archive Ontario.)

A hiker looks back down the trail.
Bruce Trail shown two years before it fully opened in 1967. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1965. View on Digital Archive Ontario.
Tree amid others with sign
Sign reads: "Bruce Trail: A Foot Trail From Niagara To Tobermory; Built And Maintained By Voluntary Help; For Information Write to Bruce Trail Assoc. Box 722 Hamilton Ont. or Caledon Hills Bruce Trail Club Box 302 Waterloo Ont." Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1990. View on Digital Archive.

Beltline Trail

For many popular hiking routes, “rail to trail” — using old railway lines — provided an easy inroad for establishing new trails. The Cataraqui Trail from Kingston to Smiths Falls, which uses old CN Rail routes, is one example. Similarly, the Beltline Trail, originally a short-lived commuter train operated by the Grand Trunk Railway, has lived a much longer life as a hiking route in the city. The trail is about 13 kilometres and is located in northeast Toronto. Toronto Mayor William Dennison initially wanted to sell the land to residents whose yards touched the trail. Learn more about the history of the trail.

Man walking on train tracks. Photo taken from above.
Toronto Mayor William Dennison walks along what would become the Beltline Park. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1970. View on Digital Archive Ontario.
Kids walk along a trail in winter.
Toronto City Council decided to acquire the Beltline as a park, and about 150 people walked the right-of-way to celebrate on March 6, 1971. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1971. View on Digital Archive Ontario.

Caledon Trailway

Another example of an abandoned rail line that was turned into a trail is the Caledon Trailway. This 35 kilometre trail extends the length of Caledon, Ontario. It links up with Bruce Trail and other trails, forming part of the Canada-spanning route, The Great Trail. Caledon Trailway is used for cycling and horseback riding as well as walking. (See all images of Caledon on Digital Archive Ontario.)

Wide path between bare trees with group walking in between
Caledon Trailway. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1995. View on Digital Archive Ontario.

Sherwood Park

Sherwood Park is located in North York, Toronto. It is an example of one of the many smaller parks in Ontario featuring hiking trails. Hiking does not have to be a marathon activity — it can take many forms.

Children walk down large steps, holding railings.
Day campers with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind hike in Sherwood Park. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1965. View on Digital Archive Ontario.

Digitized books on walking and rambling

Digital Archive Ontario includes digitized books from Toronto Public Library's Special Collections. This includes guidebooks as well as 19th-century books from the U.K. detailing ideas from the time around the physical and moral benefits of walking and rambling. If you're curious, here are two of those books from TPL's Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books.

Green book with gold lettering and drawings of trees.
Walks of a Naturalist, 1870. View on Digital Archive Ontario.
Blue book with gold lettering.
Walks Abroad and Evenings at Home, 1871. View on Digital Archive Ontario.



The next time you take a hike, check out the history of the path you’re walking. What’s your favourite Ontario hiking spot?

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