There was a time when I would have thought a walk in the woods before the leaves come out was a waste of time. Why go see a bunch of bare branches? Turns out it was another case of my own preconceptions getting in the way of a great experience.
- Transit: Most people will want a car. You could bike from nearby towns. The Conservation Area connects up to the Bruce Trail, for you committed hikers. It’s well worth a stop!
- Cost: There’s a fee to park. It’s low.
- Crowds: Depends on the day. We saw about a dozen other people on a Sunday afternoon.
- Attractions: The river and waterfalls, forest, historical buildings and ruins, tranquility, hiking, photography.
- Accessibility: The Conservation Area building is very accessible, but the rest of the grounds are less so. The paths are mostly stair-free, and most slopes are gentle. The Bruce Trail/Twenty Valley trails to the north (not discussed in this post, but definitely worth a visit) require the ability to do stairs and steep slopes.
- Bonus: The Conservation Area parking lot has an electric vehicle recharging station!
- Safety first: You might see people, as in the banner image, get up close to steep drops at multiple points along the trails – even to the point of going past the safety signage. In fact, every person I saw at the upper falls went past the safety signs. Please always use your common sense. Don’t do anything dangerous.
- Click here for a map.
There’s an achingly long period in southern Ontario between the end of winter and when the trees leaf out. The snow may be gone and the days may be warming, but all the green things here know there’s still a good chance of a surprise hard frost or two – like winter leaving a bag of flaming poop as a parting gift. The end of March through the last week of April can be a hard slog, and it can be easy to stay cooped up, waiting for real spring to start.
But last year, reading a book about Ontario’s old-growth forests, I was struck by a bit of advice from it – that the time before the arrival of the leaves can be one of the best, in fact, to go hiking in the woods. It’s then that one can really see the shapes and heights of the trees, the ephemerals (trilliums, bloodroot, jack-in-the-pulpits) are flowering, there are no bugs, and you can hike without overheating.
It’s also a time when I’m thirsty for sunlight and getting outside.
The upper falls were roaring, reaching from one side of the river bed to the other, crashing over the limestone cliff, and gushing out of cracks in the rock wall on the far side of us.
Okay, I thought last April. I’m going to give it a go.
I paired the idea up with my goal to explore more of the Niagara peninsula. It’s close, but still feels far. But I’d avoided it for years, thinking of cross-border shopping and the miasma of tackiness that surrounds Niagara Falls. There I was again letting preconceptions get in the way of a good time.
Ball’s Falls Conservation Area struck me not just because of the slightly puerile connotation the name comes with – I debated about mentioning that here, but everyone I talk to about Ball’s Falls gives me a little smirk or a giggle when I mention the name of the place. So I’m just going to name that and move on.
Where was I?
Right: It struck me not really because of that, but because it features not one, but two sets of waterfalls, so I figured even if hiking through leafless woods didn’t turn out to appeal to me, at least the falls would be at their most spectacular, still full from spring run-off. Indeed, they were the stars of the show.
Ball’s Falls Conservation area was a pleasant hike, not strenuous at all for me, but there was lots to see. The winter had come late, stayed late, and was brutishly cold, so the ephemerals were delayed. I didn’t see any flowers, but the green mossy feet of mature sugar maples stood out all the more.
We went upstream first, to the upper falls, and passed the ruins of a mill – an unexpected treat.
The west wind had a bite to it still when we arrived – even late in April, but again, winter had stayed very late this year. But in the river valley below the Conservation Area building the wind sailed overhead and the sun warmed us up. What felt like 17 degrees at the parking lot felt more like low 20s down by the upper falls. In fact, there were two people sunbathing on the rocks down by the reflecting pool, and by the time we got there I wished I’d brought my bathing suit. I would have joined them.
The upper falls were roaring, reaching from one side of the river bed to the other, crashing over the limestone cliff, and gushing out of cracks in the rock wall on the far side of us. Between that and the warm sun spilling through the branches of the trees, I could have stayed there for ages.
But we had a schedule to keep – we were due elsewhere in an hour – and hiked back to find our way to the lower falls. I wanted to see them and the old-growth forest north of them, where the Conservation Area trails meet up with the Bruce Trail. On the way, I began to feel what I’d been told about hikes in the woods this time of year. The tallness of the trees and the character of their shapes stood out to me in ways that I guess I hadn’t been looking for before. They were really quiet lovely, standing tall, taking their last quiet breaths before the humdrum of spring, summer, and fall began.
I also noticed how open mature maple forest was – not full of brush and vines and weeds, but airy, wide, and studded with old sentinel trees, tiny seedlings, and tall saplings reaching up and testing for sunlight, waiting for a break in the canopy.
Before coming to the lower falls we passed some heritage buildings from the area’s early European settler days. Fascinating on its own, we would have spent more time but the clock was ticking. Near them was a tremendous semi-circular cliff from which the lower falls thundered into a broad reflecting pool. The water was a milky brown from all the spring run-off, and the rock walls were painted by history in an array of hues – each layer a colour-coded slice of the area’s history.
It was gorgeous, and on full view from our vantage point, with the trees still free of leaves. We looked for a way to climb down to the bottom of the falls, but didn’t see anything that looked even vaguely safe, and it was nearly time for us to go.
I promised myself I’d come back, see the difference that summer would make, get to the Bruce Trail and old-growth forest, and get to the bottom of the falls. (Spoiler alert: I did it, and it was awesome.)
Update 01 March 2015: It’s been pointed out by a couple of readers that the gentleman in the previous banner image was on the other side of the (fun, old-timey) signage and wall that encourages people to keep away from the falls. Safety reminder added above.