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Highland Creek, the overlooked river!

Updated: Oct 17, 2021

WHAT'S IN IT FOR YOU? Two good reasons to get out of the house: A beautiful urban river in Scarborough + a bit of time travel, (involving a cemetery, an independent café and all-day breakfast. (Note: This courtesy self-guided tour is not included in the 26 urban strolls and 52 mini-walks in the author's Toronto guide.)

I have long overlooked Highland Creek, thinking it was a mere small stream. I just discovered that this creek, on the eastern edge of the city, is in fact a beautiful winding river.

As a bonus, I found an independent coffee shop and a classic greasy spoon frozen in time on a little stretch of Old Kingston Road, set in the Highland Creek neighbourhood north of Colonel Danforth Park.

Starting point

My favorite starting point for the 7.5 km walk I propose here is East Point Park (see my May 23 post). Because it allows us to admire Lake Ontario from the top of a hill. And we get to walk along the Great Lakes Waterfront Trail without ever losing sight of the sparkling water.

The mouth of Highland Creek is a 10-minute walk away. You can then walk to Kingston Road. The round trip covers 7.5 km through two parks, Lower Highland Creek and Colonel Danforth, separated by Lawrence Boulevard East.

For those who prefer a shorter walk, note that parking is available in the heart of Colonel Danforth Park (73 Colonel Danforth Trail, Scarborough, accessible from Kingston Road going east; take Lawson Road exit and immediately turn right into Colonel Danforth Trail, keeping right until you reach the parking lot).

The loop south of Lawrence is 4.4 km-long. The loop I describe north of Lawrence, in Colonel Danforth Park, adds 3.1 km to the walk.

The contrast between the waterfront trail, with its endless horizon, and the paved path leading into the lush forest of Lower Highland Creek Park is striking. These days, the pedestrian bridge is especially pretty, with vines spilling over its roof.

Lower Highland Creek Park

The 1-km paved pathway going from the mouth of the river to Lawrence Avenue is shared by walkers and bikers. I encourage you to explore each little opening you see on your right, through the bushes. They offer very nice views of Highland Creek. In the fall, you can apparently see the salmon swimming up the river.

At some point, you'll notice an abandoned paved trail. My hiking companion had noticed many swallows nearby, where a sign reading "NO EXIT AT OTHER END" can be seen. An opening in the fence allowed us to walk to the river's edge and sit at the edge of a collapsed section to watch the show!

The cliffs on the sides are home to swallow "condos", dozens of small cave shelters built into the clay, from which the birds emerge at full speed to launch in a frenetic air choreography.

A little before the Lawrence Boulevard overpass, we see a large pipeline above our heads. I tried, without success, to find out what it is. Some sources said it was a water pipeline. Others, a large utility pipe to run fiber optics and telephone cables.

Colonel Danforth Park

A few minutes into Colonel Danforth Park, beyond Lawrence Avenue, you reach the central area with parking lot, water fountain and toilets! So ladies, no need to venture into the bushes... where mosquitoes abound.

Huge red pine trees cast shade over large grassy areas past the restrooms. Further, you see the overpass of Kingston Road.

If you were to continue on the trail that passes under this viaduct, you would reach the University of Toronto Scarborough campus 1 km away. Another 1 km and you would reach Morningside Park, where Highland Creek flows upstream.

We chose instead to take the dirt path along the river, on our left before the overpass. We soon came across some stately trees, and were surprised to find a fallen tree, burned from the inside out by lightning.

Following an open trail that brought us closer to the river, we found a sunny pebble beach and... a secret picnic table! I would gladly return to this little spot, armed with a well-stocked basket of victuals.

Continuing on the forest trail, we returned to the paved road, where we turned right to pass by the parking lot again. From there, we explored the trails along the river that runs down on the east side of the road.

Around this bend in Highland Creek, the views were even more beautiful than those I had seen south of Lawrence. We visited on a Sunday, and noticed that no one was taking advantage of these great spots for a picnic!

Gordon's gift

On our way back to Lawrence, we couldn't resist exploring one last trail that went into the forest on our right. I’m so glad we did! That's how we discovered a beautiful woodland shack and its creator. Gordon is a crafty nature lover who, for the sheer fun of it, has carefully interlocked large branches to make a small masterpiece that you can walk into. He has managed a small clearing lined with ferns, where he often sees deer. How cool is that?

The trail behind the installation took us back to the road. To find it from the paved path trail, look for a tree marked with the number 51, located at the entrance to the forest trail. You might also notice the tree marked in orange with the number 44, on the east side of the trail.