Crothers' Woods is a hidden gem in the heart of the city
I first started visiting what is now known as Crothers' Woods in 1991. I remember this because that fall the only music I listened to was Use Your Illusion I and II by Guns and Roses. Back then my friends and I simply referred to the area as the Don, and it was where we spent most of our out-of-school time, riding our mountain bikes throughout the many trails that lined the ravine walls. In those days, the woods northeast of Pottery Road were littered with things like abandoned cars, scattered bricks, rusted-out oil drums, and other detritus left over from the days when the area was used by Sun Valley Ltd. for brick manufacturing and then as a site for industrial landfill.
It was a forgotten place — miraculously located near the heart of the city, northeast of the Bayview Extension and Pottery Road.
Virtually unused despite its ample size, one could explore the trails for hours without running into anyone, save for one or two bikers doing the same thing. There were the occasional hikers and dog walkers, too — but throughout much of the 1990s the entire area was something of a secret.
To some extent that hasn't changed. One can still hike or bike around the area on a Saturday in autumn without running into more than a handful of other people. And yet, over the last three years or so, much has been done to make the park easier to access and navigate and to lessen the environmental impact of mountain bike use.
Although the City made modest efforts to maintain the trails at Crothers' Woods around the same time that the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) classified the site as an Environmentally Significant Area in the mid-1990s, the project was abandoned post-amalgamation. In the years that followed, minor conflicts over the best use of the land erupted between mountain bikers and other stakeholders.
It wasn't until 2007, when a masterplan was completed for Crothers' Woods, that significant steps were taken to appease the various users of the site and to put this underused parkland on the map, so to speak. Through a series of community consultations, the new plan called for more considered and environmentally sensitive trail management and for better signage throughout the system.
The changes were a long time coming. Three years earlier a partnership between the Don Valley Trail Users Club and the City of Toronto resulted in a series of consultations with the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), which helped to foster an awareness of how to make the trails at Crothers' Woods sustainable.
Scott Laver, a natural environment specialist with Parks, Forestry and Recreation attributes the adoption of these trail-building principles to the renewal of Crothers' Woods. "The IMBA knows how to design low impact trails," he explains. "It's all about getting water off the trail. You have to follow the natural topography. Many of the previous trails frequently went straight downhill, and that's not a sustainable design."
Since 2007 a number of former trails have been closed for environmental regeneration, while others have been built using this new philosophy. And though a dedicated group of individuals used to do some DIY trail maintenance back in the day, this aspect of site management has taken on a whole new life. "Over 1000 hours of volunteer work went into maintaining these trails this year," Laver proudly tells me. That's quite attentive considering that there's about 10km of trails and paths in total.
Finding Crothers' Woods has also been made easier. While there have always been many access points to the area, Laver and his team have built traihead markers at key spots like the Loblaws parking lot at Redway Road, where prospective users can leave their cars before heading off into this urban wilderness escape.
The initial work is nearing completion at Crothers'. Along with finishing a main hiking / dog walking trail that circles the Sun Valley portion of the system, a few more trailhead markers will be installed and the informal parking area at the foot of Pottery Road will be converted into a main entry point with a restored wetlands around the Don River. Given its proximity to the popular Lower Don Recreational Trail, one expects that this move alone will attract more users to the parkland.
Although maintenance efforts will continue at the site, Parks, Forestry and Recreation hope to turn their attention to the other 300 some odd kilometres of off road trails scattered around Toronto. That's a whopping number when you think about it, but Laver hopes to use Crothers' Woods as an example for what can be done with all of it. "We're working on a city-wide trail management system and public outreach survey work. We'd like to give our trails a real identity."