Fall is one of the most beautiful seasons in Ontario, and after last weeks early fall colour tour through the Kawarthas east of Toronto, it was time yesterday to check out the areas west of Toronto. My husband and I set off on the highway, left the 401 at Mississauga Road and drove north into rolling agricultural farmland. Our first interesting village along the way was Glen Williams, a little hamlet outside of Georgetown, whose former sawmill now houses more than 30 artists and artisans. We headed north along the scenic Credit River and drove up onto the Niagara Escarpment and literally stumbled over the Cheltenham Brickworks, a now abandoned brickmaking factory dating back to 1930 that utilized the area’s clay soil to manufacture bricks for Toronto’s housing boom. Abandoned industrial buildings always hold a strange fascination for me, and they offer great opportunities for curious photographers.
Not far away is another very unique area, the Cheltenham Badlands, a unique geological formation of weathered terra cotta hued rock, that originated as a result of deforestation and overgrazing during the early 1900s. It’s a fascinating landscape of undulating hills of red clay with greenish stripes, due to the soil’s red and gray iron oxide content.
The 800-kilometre-long Bruce Trail that goes all the way from Niagara Falls to the tip of the Bruce Peninsula snakes through this region, and there are several entry points close by. The Niagara Escarpment is a truly unique habitat and home to 300 bird species, 53 mammals, 36 reptiles and amphibians, 90 fish and 100 varieties of special interest flora including 37 types of wild orchids. UNESCO named Ontario’s Niagara Escarpment a World Biosphere Reserve in 1990. It’s a popular spot among hikers and naturalists.
We headed east and down the Niagara Escarpment again and drove north in its shadow to the Forks of the Credit area and the quaint little village of Belfountain. This popular excursion destination was founded in the 1820 by Scottish and Irish immigrants, many of whom worked in local quarries, railroads, mills and tanneries. Today the village has souvenir shops, a beautiful country store, a spa, and an ice cream parlour.
From Belfountain we drove westwards through the town of Erin into Wellington County, an area of fertile farmland, punctuated by rivers, gorges, small lakes, and golf courses. Our next stop on this country drive was the little town of Fergus, a town known for its Scottish Heritage which Fergus celebrates every year, usually during the second week of August, with the Fergus Scottish Festival. During this three-day event, visitors from all over the world enjoy all aspects of traditional Highland Games with a wee bit of modern flare tossed in.
Fergus has a number of historic buildings in the downtown area, and a major draw in this little town is the Fergus Market, housed in the historic Beatty Brothers Farm Implement Manufacturing building which overlooks the Beatty Dam and dates back to the 1830s. The foundry was the first industrial location in Fergus and today houses a diverse collection of merchants, food retailers, and artisans.
Just outside Fergus is the Wellington County Museum and Archives. The museum stands majestically overlooking the once mill-laden Grand River. Built of locally quarried limestone in 1877 as the House of Industry and Refuge, this landmark structure then provided shelter for the “deserving poor”, the aged and the homeless for almost a century. The museum now gives visitors an opportunity to experience the cultural legacy left by the intrepid settlers to this vast county of rolling hills, stony fields, deep gorges and quaint villages.
Another few kilometres down the road is the country town of Elora, one of Ontario’s favourite weekend excursion destinations. Elora is situated in a beautiful nature area with glacial rock formations, and its most stunning geological feature is the Elora River which plunges over a number of rapids into the spectacular Elora Gorge. The mill sitting at the top of the gorge, aptly called the Elora Mill, has been turned into an upscale fine dining restaurant and country inn with 32 guest rooms.
The Elora Gorge features several kilometres of 80-foot cliffs, caverns, rapids and quiet pools. During the summer, hiking along the cliffs and inner-tubing through the gorge are favourite pastimes. Hiking trails start right at the Elora Mill. During the winter months visitors indulge in cross-country skiing and scenic nature walks through the area. The Grand River also provides excellent opportunities for fly-fishing, canoeing and kayaking.
The Elora-Cataract trail crosses 47 kilometres of scenic countryside. Between Fergus and Elora the trail passes by the Elora Quarry Conservation Area, an abandoned quarry that is a favourite spot for a refreshing dip. The quiet farmland around Elora is perfect for long country bike rides, and numerous golf courses round out the activities on offer.
During our visit yesterday, Elora was nicely dressed up for Halloween – a variety of ghouls, ghosts, spiders, monsters and witches adorned the buildings, balconies and lamp posts along the town’s main streets.The town also offers a variety of shops, antique stories, galleries and diverse dining establishments. Horse-drawn coach rides throughout town are also a popular activity for tourists.
Not far from Elora you can visit Ontario’s last remaining covered bridge in Montrose, and you’ll have a chance to explore Old Order Mennonite Country. Summer brings a variety of festivals to this area, including the Elora Festival which is a one-month musical showcase of internationally acclaimed musicians and singers.
About 15 minutes south of Elora is the major city of this area: Guelph is a university and manufacturing city with a population of more than 100,000. Its diverse economy also includes high technology enterprises and today Guelph is one of the fastest growing economic regions in all of Canada. Similar to Fergus and Elora, Guelph was founded by Scottish settlers in the 1820s at the junction of the Eramosa and Speed Rivers. The University of Guelph Department of Scottish Studies links academic research to the community of those with Scottish ancestry.The city features many trails for hiking, biking, skiing and horseback riding and a variety of riverside dining establishments.
Guelph’s most stunning architectural feature is the impressive Church of Our Lady Immaculate, a Gothic-Revival structure begun in 1877 and completed in 1888. The twin towers, more than 200 feet high, were not completed until 1926. The Church of Our Lady Immaculate is one of Ontario’s largest and most impressive churches.
This time we didn’t have a chance to explore Guelph in detail as it was getting late afternoon and we had to head back. But there will be another time for exploring this beautiful, historic city and other surrounding communities. But our little excursion out of the city was a perfect Saturday getaway for exploring the history and countryside just outside of Toronto.