Sassafras and sugar maples, and swimming to the falls.
- Transit: The Twenty Valley and Ball’s Falls trails are part of the Bruce Trail – so if you’re feeling quite adventurous you could hike. Otherwise take a car, or bike from a nearby town.
- Cost: If you park at the Ball’s Falls Conservation buildings there’s a fee. It’s low.
- Crowds: We saw a few dozen other hikers on a busy summer weekend.
- Attractions: Photography, hiking, quiet ancient forest, streams and waterfalls, historical buildings and ruins.
- Accessibility: The Ball’s Falls trails are fairly low-intensity, but the Twenty Valley trails require that you can do some steep stairs and slopes.
- Environmental note: Please stay on the paths. The trail to the bottom of the lower falls doesn’t appear to be marked or maintained. Take at your own risk, and please avoid disturbing the plants that grow there. Stay on the rocks. People clearly use the reflecting pools at the bottom of the falls as swimming holes, but there’s no reason for people to be splashing about in the river.
- Safety note: Lots of folks wander onto the top of the upper falls when it’s dry. If you do so and you’re not careful, be it on your own head.
- Bonus: Twenty Valley and Ball’s Falls are in the middle of the province’s most productive cherry, peach, and grape growing area. Make sure to visit some of the fruit stands and wineries when you go. Also, the Ball’s Falls Conservation Area parking lot has a recharge station for green vehicles!
- Click here for map.
When I was here in the spring, before the leaves came out and the sun gushed between the naked branches, I vowed to come back in summer. I wanted to see what this place looked like after the green came in. I also wanted to come in peach season and gorge myself on those fuzzy delicious little fruits (but that’s for another article).
It occurred to me, last time I was here, that one of the big benefits of living in a place with four seasons is that the same place can be a totally new experience at least four times a year.
Walking the same trail I had months earlier has an entirely different feel. Swollen by spring runoff, the river and falls had been the stars of the show last time; now, they are diminished – the river more like a brook and the upper falls nearly dry. People wander out on top of them for a view of the gorge below.
Along the eastern limestone escarpment, water still cascades out. My scientific brain gets that it is just groundwater finding its way through the cracks in the Earth; yet some older part of me is held in thrall by the magic of water gushing from the stone.
The green, now, holds the spotlight in the trail to the upper falls. Ubiquitous green. Moss on the rocks and moss climbing up roots and trunks. Small understory plants carpeting the ground. The leaves of the canopy trees, mostly sugar maples here – Canada’s national tree – wreathing the sky in emerald.
Emerging from the forest, we reach the historic village as a wedding party rehearses. Here, in the river valley, the breeze sails high overhead, not quite reaching us, as the sun pours down heat upon heat. The wedding party smiles through the sweat.
We’ve been here before, so we rush through to the Twenty Valley section of the Bruce Trail at the northeast corner of the historic village.
An impressive set of stairs leads up to the trail, which forks away from the river along a flat path, or toward the river down a vertiginous slope that has my stomach firmly lodged in my throat until I am half-way down. (We later discover that both directions lead down, with the flatter one coming shortly to another, very steep, set of stairs.)
With the stream to our left, and under a tall canopy of ancient trees, we are in the cool again. The forest floor slopes sharply away from the water. Very little grows in the shadow of the leaves: Mushrooms and mosses, ferns and baby trees waiting to spring up to the light. It is wide open in the way of old-growth deciduous forests.
We spend most of our time staring up. The trees here grow in a thin-looking soil on top of the rocks that make up the gorge. They don’t grow wide on their diet, but they grow tall, trying to outdo their neighbours for a place in the sun.
Shade-tolerant trees like sassafras take advantage of growing up just under the rest.
There is a cathedral-like quality that I recognize here from other old-growth forests. All is quiet under the high arching branches, and sun filters through green. The floor may be dark, but the translucent roof above shines in the sun. In the few places with an opening in the canopy, green things crowd in.
It’s magnificent, this little slice of what Ontario used to look like. Sitting in the shade of this ancient forest, listening to the water babble by, I’m steeped in a peace that can’t be bought or built.
We loop around and come back to where the trail meets the stream. I see that, as upriver, the water swells here in the spring and rushes over what are now bare, dry shelves of water-polished rock. We walk out to the stream’s summer edge, and see people winding along a trail of broken limestone toward the waterfall.
Soon we are blasted by the sun, pouring on us from above and reflecting back at us from the hot rocks. I sweat through my shirt as we make the trail that I’m sure would be impassible in the spring and high water.
We reach the lower falls where they’ve eaten a mammoth circular hole in the bedrock. There’s an equally huge reflecting pool before us, glittering, beckoning us in.
A dozen people are there, and at any time half are in the water. I join about half my fellow travellers stripping to their underwear, and jump into the water.
It’s not warm, and that’s exactly what I wanted.
The falls are much bigger up close than they looked from afar. I swim up to them, and sit on a bare slab of rock – anxious to avoid the areas with green on them, lest I end up disturbing some rare piece of an ecosystem.
The water beats on my back, a sometimes too-harsh massage that reminds me that, while I am blissfully enjoying this place, I do so at nature’s pleasure.