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How to Make the Most of the Scarborough Bluffs

How to Make the Most of the Scarborough Bluffs

I’ve hit that point in lockdown where I’ve done everything there is to do in my neighbourhood. I mapped Toronto on foot, I explored the lakeshore, I gazed adoringly at the public pool and wished I could go in.

This weekend I hit a wall. I needed a change of scenery. Since I can’t check off any of my Ultimate Canadian Bucket List for Adventure Travellers, I found a Canadian adventure closer to home: right here in Toronto!

I borrowed my sister’s car and headed to the premier destination for hiking in Toronto: the Scarborough Bluffs.

It was like a breath of fresh air! I didn’t know every flower on the route and hadn’t taken every conceivable photo (there are A LOT of lake shots on my Instagram right now).

For the first time in nearly six months, I was able to go on a solo travel adventure.

Sure, it’s only 40-minutes away – but it’s an adventure nonetheless!

 

What are the “Bluffs”?

Scarborough bluffs cliffs through trees

I actually had to Google this myself before visiting.

They kind of sound like a B-list hockey team, don’t they?

The Scarborough Bluffs are an escarpment in Scarborough, on the edge of Toronto. They’re made up of 11 parks and a blue water beach (that’s the cleanest level of water).

But they’re not just any old parks.

These are huge stretches of parks featuring hiking trails and the best views of the white sedimentary cliffs that tower over Lake Ontario.

Although the term “Bluffs” can refer to the whole assortment of parks, people associate the term with the cliffs.

 

What Can You Do at the Scarborough Bluffs?

Scarborough bluff's lookout

Growing up in Toronto, everyone talks about going hiking at the Bluffs and climbing the white cliffs.

I figured there were two trails that take you to the top or the bottom of the Bluffs.

No one told me there was so much more.

In fact, you can go hiking, take photos (which you can see I definitely did), have picnics, go sailing, swim a Bluffer’s beach, watch the sunset and sunrise, or try out some water sports.

How did it take me 24 years to visit this stunning place?

 

Scarborough Bluffs Hikes

Scarborough Bluffs hiking

I visited with the sole intention of hiking (and snapping some photos with my new tripod).

After weeks of walking the same circles through High Park, along the Lakeshore, up and down every side street and major street nearby, and even wandering halfway downtown, I was desperate for a real hike.

I’m talking that adventure travel rush of huffing and puffing your way uphill as you dodge roots and stones.

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Well, that’s not what you’re going to find at the Scarborough Bluffs.

It turns out “hike” means something different to city hikers than it does to adventure travellers.

Still, exploring the paths was a good temporary salve for my adventure travel withdrawals.

Bluffer’s Park Trail

Bluffs lake view view of lake ontario from bluffer's park Lake Ontario at sunrise

There are a number of routes you can hike at the Bluffs. The most popular is the Bluffer’s Park Trail.

This flat trail is a 1/5 intensity track. It leads from the Bluffer’s Park Beach, along the lakeshore, to Bluffer’s Park. If you continue to follow the path by the water, you’ll reach a gravel trail to the Scarborough Bluffs Lookout.

The route is almost completely flat, with no difficult to manage terrain. I actually jogged back along it with my sister’s dog (borrowed for the day, like her car) just to increase the intensity.

This trail definitely isn’t meant to challenge you. It’s meant to offer great photo opportunities and places to sit on the boulders overlooking the lake.

 

Scarborough Crescent Park Trail

Crescent trail with dog

For a slightly more challenging hike, make your way up Brimley Road to find the trail to Scarborough Crescent Park. While the actual trail only has one challenging hill, Brimley will have you huffing and puffing!

Unfortunately, there’s no easier route to access this park unless you drive. That means you’re panting your way up an active road. Stick to the sides and respect the drivers (who seem to expect that you’ll be there).

Scarborough Bluff's Hiking

You’ll notice paths up into the forest on the left-hand side of the road. Those are old paths that used to take you to the top of the Scarborough Bluffs.

DO NOT take these paths.

They lead to the tops of the Scarborough Bluffs, which is incredibly dangerous. The cliffs were caused by erosion and are continuously unstable. There is a $5000 CAD fine for trespassing.

(Oddly they don’t put the signs at the bottoms of the trails. Instead, they put them halfway up so you have to scramble up a steep hill before you even see them.)

Stay on the road until just before the school yard, then you’ll be able to turn into the forest (where it’s flat) and walk along the top of the Bluffs.

 

Hiking the Crescent Trail

Crescent Park Trail

Crescent Park Trail

The path offers views of Lake Ontario, the rolling forests, sailboats, and a lot of wildflowers.

About halfway there’s a hugely steep hill that you will 100% regret when you have to climb back up it in the blazing sun later (…maybe that’s just me?).

Crescent Park isn’t all the exciting. You’re too far back from the edge of the Bluffs to get a good view below.

It’s a good spot to break for a picnic, rest on a bench, or whip out a Tupperware container to give your dog some water (to the bemusement of some firemen doing drills).

 

Cathedral Park Trail

Cathedral Trail

Cathedral Trail

The last trail I recommend runs behind Bluffer’s Beach, through Cathedral Park.

The Cathedral Park Trail seems like it was made to help people make their way to the far end of the beach without having to navigate the crowds.

It is a mix of dirt and sand, which after a rainy day becomes a clay mess that is very hard to get off dog paws (or your sister’s backseat).

This flat trail offers peaks of the Cathedral Bluffs over towering grasses and scrawny trees. Occasionally, the path breaks into small offshoots that take you up boulders to clearings where you can get a great shot of the famous white cliffs (if your dog doesn’t run headfirst into your tripod and throw your phone a millimetre away from a ravine).

Scarborough Bluffs hiking Scarborough Bluffs hiking

On your right, the bushes occasionally clear to offer paths to Bluffer’s Beach. These heavy trodden paths are clearly the route of knowledgeable beach goers who’ve set up tents and sometimes full camping gear to enjoy the day.

As the path continues, it gets increasingly narrow. You’ll have to walk single file or be shoved into the brush.

After 20 mins, the path comes to a final fork: the end of Bluffer’s Beach or into the overgrown remains of an old path.

At that point, I’d already stepped in a ravine, had a clay covered dog, and a fair few scrapes from trying to retrieve my thrown phone. Rather than brave the brush, I headed to the beach.

 

How Long Does It Take to Hike the Scarborough Bluffs?

Scarborough Bluffs hiking

It depends on the hike and how many photos you’re taking.

Bluffer’s Park Trail: 30 – 40 minutes round trip (with time for photos)

Crescent Trail: From the Bluffer’s Trail, 1-hour round trip

Cathedral Trail: 40 minutes round trip (if you don’t visit Bluffer’s Beach)

 

Biking at the Scarborough Bluffs

The Bluffer’s Park Trail, Crescent Trail and Cathedral Trail are all accessible for bikes.

Hikers and cyclists share the routes so be mindful of each other as you go. Many of the trails narrow down to fit one person and hills often lead into blind turns.

If you plan to bike the Bluffs, be sure to prepare for hills. You’ll be cycling on the road at times in areas without bike lanes and with blind turns, so stick to the edges for safety.

 

Bluffer’s Park Beach

Scarborough Bluffer's Park Beach Swimming Scarborough Bluffer's Park Beach

When I told my sister that I wanted to visit the Scarborough Bluffs, she assumed I was going to the beach.

She’s not big on hiking, so to her the best thing to do at the Bluffs is to go swimming.

I’m not a big swimmer, but after spending nearly three hours wandering up and down hills, getting very lost in a schoolyard, and the whole tripod-dog-ravine fiasco, I was ready for a dip.

The beach is definitely a Toronto summer hot spot. By 9am, the first ¾ of the beach were packed with bodies. They seemed to be attempting to social distance, but from the far end of the beach it seemed like the umbrellas never ended.

I didn’t expect people to come so prepared, armed with folding chairs, straw mats, day tents, and even portable grills.

The most I ever pack for the beach is a spare towel to use as a pillow!

 

Visiting the Beach

Scarborough Bluffer's Park Beach swimming with dog

Luckily, I didn’t turn onto the beach from Cathedral Trail until the very end, where there was a solitary woman playing fetch with her dog.

The soft white sand felt so nice to walk on after trudging through clay and brambles. With the heat of the day, it’d probably sting my feet if I had taken off my sneakers.

But I wasn’t there for the sand: I wanted the water.

Bluffer’s Park Beach is known for having the cleanest access to Lake Ontario. Even though it’s beside a few marinas, the water is so much cleaner than on the Toronto boardwalk.

In the heat of a Toronto summer (one with constant heat warnings), the water is so refreshing.

I didn’t go all the way in. I had a dog, a backpack, and a lot of spandex athletic wear I wasn’t willing to trouble myself with removing and re-donning. But I did wade in up to my knees, muddy shoes included.

The dog was not nearly as willing, so I left her at the edge of the water to chase the tide.

I spent about ten minutes before I got bored and decided to trek back through the trees to the car.

 

Tips for Making the Most of Bluffer’s Beach

To make the most of visiting the Bluffs Beach, bring an easier change of clothes and some comforts to spend hours on the beach.

Apparently, some hallmarks of Bluffer’s Beach are pool floaties, beach volleyball, and all-day picnics. Or so it seemed from the people on the beach that day.

Go early to stake a prime spot. The further down the beach you go, the less traffic you’ll deal with during the day.

I should note that dogs aren’t actually allowed on the beach. This rule seems to be obeyed until you hit the halfway mark, when suddenly camps are dotted with pups panting in the shade. If you do decide to throw caution to the wind, head further down the beach and be respectful of other beachgoers. Be sure to clean up after your dog.

 

Water Sports from Bluffer’s Beach

Scarborough Bluffer's Park Beach Paddle board

When I arrived a little after sunrise, there were almost no people around. There was one family heading to the beach and a man paddle boarding around the lookout to see the Bluffs.

As the day wore on, more and more people took to the water.

Kayaks, paddle boards, canoes, and even a jet ski appeared on the water.

People seemed to bring their own and launch them into the water to view the Bluffs from the water.

If you don’t have your own, search for a Toronto rental service and pick one up on your way.

 

Considering moving to Canada? Check out 10 Pros and Cons of Living in Canada.

 

Sailing Around the Bluffs

Bluffs marina sailing

If you’re into sailing, join one of the Bluff marinas and dock your boat. Or sail over from another mooring point across the lake.

I can’t honestly speak to the experience as I get way too seasick to manage it myself.

From the Cathedral Park Trail and Bluffer’s Beach I spotted at least a dozen white sails, from large to small, ambling along the shorelines to get better views of the white cliffs.

While you won’t be able to get as close as you could on a paddle board or at the Bluff’s Point Lookout, it will ensure you don’t have a queue.

 

 

How to Get the Best View of the Scarborough Bluffs for Pictures

Posing in front of Scarborough Bluffs through trees

Scarborough bluff's lookout

The Bluffs are a mess on the map, so it’s nearly impossible to tell how you find the classic spot to shoot the gorgeous white cliffs.

You’ll have to do some sleuthing to figure it out – or read the next sentence and avoid all that hard word!

The classic shot of the Bluffs is from Bluffer’s Park Lookout. The lookout is on a little peninsula that follows from the Bluffer’s Park Hiking Trail.

There are tons of spaces along the white boulder’s shore to pose for your perfect Scarborough Bluffs picture!

I found a hidden little grove where the trees framed the photo so nicely.

Most people prefer the open shot taken by standing or sitting on the boulders with the white cliffs to their backs.

 

Tips for Getting Great Photos

Scarborough Bluff's lookout picture with dog

At 7am, there was already a queue of 2 people when I arrived. If you come later in the day, be prepared for a longer wait or a busy photo. Try to visit at the beginning or end of the day to avoid long queues for photos.

If you’re taking pictures of the Bluffs, be sure to respect those around you. Don’t take thousands of photos without giving others their turn and don’t cut the queue.

To ensure you get a great solo photo with the Bluffs, bring a tripod! There’s plenty of room and flat ground to place it on while you take your photos. The area is really safe so there’s no concern of losing it if you want to take a shot of your back.

 

How to Get to the Scarborough Bluffs

Scarborough bluff's photo

Scarborough clearly knows how popular the Bluffs are for hikers, swimmers, and photographers so they’ve made it really easy to get to.

If you’re driving, set your GPS to Bluffer’s Beach Parking for directions to the lot closest to the beach. It will take you past two public lots outside of the lookout and the sailing clubs where you can also find parking.

Parking at the Scarborough Bluffs is limited, so be sure to arrive early. By 9am, people were circling all three lots unable to find room.

If that happens, you’ll have to park at the top of Brimley Road (the one with the big hill I told you about). It’s a 15-minute trek downhill or a 20-25-minute trek uphill from there. If you’re going to beach laden with floaties and tents, you do not want to do this.

Parking at the Bluffs costs $3/hr or $12 for the full day (until 8pm). If you arrive before this like I did, the parking is free until the metres start running. Be sure to download the Toronto GreenP app so you can start paying once the clock hits 9am. You’ll need your license plate number and a credit card on hand.

To reach the Bluffs by TTC, head to Kennedy Station then take the 175 bus all the way to the Bluffer’s Beach Parking lot. It drops off right beside the entrance to the beach. The bus runs from 8am to 10pm on weekends and holidays, with buses arriving every 15 minutes.

 

When to Visit the Scarborough Bluffs

Lookout over lake ontario

Opening/Closing Times

Technically the Bluffs don’t open until 9am – at least according to the parking meters. And they close at 8pm – again, according to the metres.

I arrived a bit before 7am to begin my hike and found everything open. There were a few people on the beach already and some cars in the lots, so I wasn’t the only person to arrive with the sun.

Unfortunately, I missed the sunrise, but that is often cited as the “opening time” for the Bluffs. And “sunset” is seen as the closing time.

 

Sunrise and Sunset

The Bluffs are best when they aren’t busy. On a sunny day, they quickly become packed with people hiking, cycling, swimming, and picnicking.

If you want a solitary visit, head to the Bluffs at sunrise or sunset. Not only will you get excellent lighting for your photographs, you’ll also get a lot less foot traffic.

Most people arrive after breakfast and leave before dinner. If you plan to visit around these times, then you’ll have a much more solo travel experience.

 

Best Time of Year to Visit

Like most of Toronto’s attractions, the Scarborough Bluffs are open all year round. It’s one of the reasons that makes it so hard to figure out the best time to visit Toronto.

Some activities, like hiking or cycling, aren’t advisable on the forested trails in winter since they aren’t cleared. Toronto winters can be epically cold, but that doesn’t stop visitors from arriving for parka-clad photos in front of the Bluffs.

Check the weather forecast before you arrive so you aren’t blown clean off the lookout!

Fall is a spectacular time to visit the Bluffs when the trees framing the white cliffs are brightly hewn. This is a less popular time to visit the beach, as Lake Ontario quickly cools once September arrives. You can lounge on the sand in hoodies or bundle up in blankets as November rolls in, but typically this time of year is reserved for hiking and cycling.

Spring and summer are the most popular times to visit the Bluffs if you’re from Toronto. Everyone desperately feels the need to cool off from the scorching heat and to escape the four walls of their home after being cooped up all winter (or after a seemingly eternal lockdown).

If you’re looking to swim or go paddle boarding, visit in the summer. This is when the lake is it’s warmest and, even if it wasn’t, you’d hop in anyways to cool down.

 

A Mini-Solo Travel Adventure

Scarborough bluff's lookoutThe Scarborough Bluffs are a great spot just outside of Toronto for hiking, swimming, and feeling like you aren’t in a concrete city.

With the stresses of finishing my dissertation and staring at the same four white walls for months on end, I was so desperate to escape and find new things to do at the Scarborough Bluffs. Although I was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t climb to the top of the cliffs for some epic pictures and that the hikes weren’t at the level of the Auckland Day Trips I used to do (probably for the best with how out of shape I am), it was still such a perfect break.

I only spent 3 hours in the new environment, taking in the beautiful scenery and discovering a few of the many parks. You could easily spend a full day there, lounging on sand or grass with a basket full of food.

If you’re looking for a change of pace during lockdown, find your nearest Scarborough Bluffs-equivalent. Look for somewhere with great views to practise your photography, new hikes to change up your environment, clean waters to go swimming, or just something that isn’t your home.

With the pandemic still in full effect, it’s hard for avid solo travellers to find outlets for their wanderlust. Doing little, socially distanced day trips are a great way to help ease some of that tension.

If you’re in Toronto, definitely head to the Scarborough Bluffs lookout to shake things up and feel a bit more normal.

 

What little adventures have you been going on to stay sane during lockdown? Share them with me in the comments!

 

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