Naturally, Hamilton! A Guide To the Green Spaces of Hamilton and Area
Vistas and Waterfalls
The Niagara Escarpment is recognized as one of the world's unique natural wonders and one of Ontario's most spectacular and well known surface features. The United Nations designated the Escarpment as a World Biosphere Reserve in 1990, one of only six in Canada, on par with other sites such as the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific, and the Serengeti Plain in Africa.
In the shape of a gigantic horseshoe, the Escarpment can be traced from upper New York state through Hamilton, around the tip of Lake Ontario, northwest to Tobermory, under Lake Huron and around the west side of Lake Michigan, and south into Wisconsin. With origins dating back into geological history some 450 million years, this massive topographic formation is comprised of layers of sedimentary rock originally laid down in ancient tropical seas which covered the area at that time. This rock is mostly buried beneath deposits of clay, sand and gravel left behind by glaciers more than 12,000 years ago. The escarpment is actually the narrow exposed rim of base rock that appears at the surface of the earth. The thin (often eroded) top layer is dolomite (hard limestone) with softer shales and limestones underneath.
Called the Mountain in Hamilton, this steep cliff cuts through the region at an average height of 90 metres above Lake Ontario and loops around the lush Dundas Valley as it winds around the head of Lake Ontario. It offers breathtaking views and wide vistas of the entire region especially Hamilton Harbour, Cootes Paradise, Lake Ontario and the surrounding communities. At its highest point, the escarpment rises to 110 metres. This peak is accessible within the Spencer Gorge Conservation Area and the view should not be missed!
Webster's Falls (Photo: Alan Ernst)
The forested escarpment is mainly a mix of coniferous and deciduous trees. As viewed from below, it envelops the area in green during the spring and summer months then blazes with the fiery colour of Sugar Maples and Staghorn Sumac in autumn. The escarpment supports a variety of vegetation types, from ferns and trees that survive on shallow soil on the top layer, to mosses and lichens clinging to the rock face, to lush, thick vegetation found at the moist base. It also provides critical refuge and diverse wildlife habitat throughout the city.
Apart from providing great opportunities for sightseeing, photography, and hiking, the escarpment is an excellent source of "thermals" which attract raptors and other migratory birds. Thermals are pockets of warm air that rise from the ground and provide extra lift for soaring birds such as hawks, eagles, vultures and falcons. Thermals are formed near the escarpment face wherever the best angle to the sun is provided for warming and where it is of the right colour and texture to warm up and radiate heat into the air. Also, when winds blow in from Lake Ontario, the wind is deflected and an updraft will provide even more lift for heated air. Birds use the buoyant hot air to glide with less effort and to move quickly during their migration along the escarpment throughout southern Ontario to Georgian Bay.
With its edges, cliffs and magnificent gorges, the Niagara Escarpment spawns a multitude of running waters and cascading waterfalls. Cracks in the porous limestone and ancient gorges, cut by melt water into the top dolomite layer, allow stored water to tumble down over the horizontal bands of soft shales and limestone. There are twenty-nine such waterfalls in Hamilton and seven in Halton, each with its own beauty and charm.
In 1819, Joseph Webster purchased property on the escarpment above Dundas, including the waterfall which still bears his family's name. In 1856, his son built a huge stone flour mill just above the falls but it was destroyed by fire in 1898. After the fire one of the first hydro-electric generators in Ontario was built at the base of the falls. In 1931, a former Dundas mayor, Colonel W.E.S. Knowles, generously bequeathed monies so that the area surrounding Webster's Falls could be made into a public park.
Albion Falls (Photo: Alan Ernst)
Albion Falls is the largest of three waterfalls in the Red Hill Valley in east Hamilton and the location of Hamilton's first industries. A sawmill was constructed there in 1795 followed by a grist mill which operated into the twentieth century. The mill stone has been preserved and the wheel pit is still visible, as well as other traces of its industrial past. Hiking trails up and down the creek, including a section of the Bruce Trail, are accessible from the falls area.
Smokey Hollow Falls
At Smokey Hollow in Waterdown, Grindstone Creek plunges over the Niagara Escarpment and flows through a steep, boulder-strewn valley. An observation platform provides a wonderful view of the falls as well as interpretive information on the falls and local history. The Bruce Trail winds through the forested slopes along the east side of the valley.