We Ontarians love getting out of doors, and each of us has a different approach to drinking in the inspiration, exhilaration, and relaxation that nature can provide. Mono Cliffs Provincial Park and its surrounding towns offer a diverse palette of nature experiences. Trails of different lengths and degrees of difficulty allow you to customize your trip for hiking, biking, or horseback riding. Once you’ve finished exploring the trails, there’s plenty to see, shop, and eat in the charming towns in these forested hills.
Mono Cliffs, found 20 minutes northeast of Orangeville, is one of Ontario’s “non-operating” provincial parks, which simply means there is no gatehouse, store, camping, or on-site staff. When you pull into the main parking lot off 3rd Line you’ll just find an old barn structure, simple bathroom facilities, and a park map. You may want to snap a picture of the map before you hit the trails. Although the map is found at a few key trail intersections throughout the trails, given the large number of trails, it can be helpful to have a handy reference in your pocket for reassurance. To begin, simply pick up your pay and display ticket, costing $3 an hour, $5 for two hours, and $11 for a full day, and head for the trail head beside the parking lot.
There are several trails found here, some as short as a kilometre, or you can walk them all for a 20 km excursion:
• Carriage Trail
• Spillway Trail
• Walter Tovell Trail
• Cliff Top Trail
• McCarston’s Lake Trail
• South Outlier Trail
• Lookout Trail
• The Bruce Trail (a 6-km section)
One of the advantages of Mono Cliffs is each trail connects with the others so you can mix and match to find just the right number of kilometres and the perfect landscape features for you. The 750-hectare park has a surprising array of different natural features thanks to the climatic variations found along the Niagara Escarpment. You’ll find a few ponds, lookouts from 30 metres up, rare species of plants, a wide variety of deciduous and coniferous trees, deep rock crevices, open meadows of native and adaptive flowers, and many turkey vultures, attracted to the warm air current from the cliffs.
I decided to combine the Carriage Trail, Walter Tovell Trail, and the Cliff Top Trail to take in the main sites in the park; that meant that I had to skip the South Outlier, Lookout, and McCarston Lake Trails. The route took about 3.5 hours walking at a brisk clip and with a few short stops to take photos.
Anyone starting from the main parking lot will start on the Carriage Trail, which takes the traveller through fields of milkweed, clover, and daisies that are colourful from July to October. A few old trees extend their heavy bows over the trail for some appreciated dappled shade. Once the Carriage Trail met up with the Spillway Trail, I headed right, past a pond with the gentle kerplunks of frogs hopping into the shallow water. Soon I veered left onto the Link Trail which brought me through dense forest, past a small lake, and wound its way up the side of the escarpment.
At the top, I met up with the Cliff Top Trail and a set of mysterious stairs. Despite being a little out of breath from your climb, you should definitely take the time to descend the steps as you’ll find an impressive crevice flanked by imposing rock walls. This damp, dark oasis holds snow and ice well into the spring and in the summer is home to mosses and ferns (there are 44 varieties in the park, including several rare ones like the Rugulose Grape Fern) that eke out a living by clinging to the unforgiving rock surfaces.
Soon after the crevice, you’ll come to a lookout over the lake you passed on the Link Trail. Enjoy a beautiful view of forest, hills, and open, green fields. Then, head along the Cliff Top Trail for several kilometres. Despite its name, most of this trail offers no easy views over the cliff given dense foliage of aspen, cedar, and white birch; however, it you still feel on top of the world as you make your way along this well-groomed path.
At the end of this trail, you head down the escarpment again to meet up with the Walter Tovell Trail. As on several of the park trails, you’ll note two types of fences – stone and wood rail – left by early settlers. This trail will take you all the way back to your start at the Carriage Trail.
Over the course of the trail, I passed a jogger, other hikers, a group of young mountain bikers, a family with toddlers dipping their feet in a pond, and a group of horseback riders. During the school year, Toronto District School Board operates an education centre in the park and takes students on outings here so you could see them as well.
Grab a Bite, You’ve Earned It!
After a few hours of clambering up and down stairs and hiking a portion of the beautiful Niagara Escarpment, you’ll have worked up an appetite. Fortunately you are spoiled for choice, since several of the best dining experiences in the region are within 5-20 minutes’ drive of the Park.
First up is the Mono Cliffs Inn
just a few minutes’ south of the park. This popular fine dining establishment has warmed chilled cross-country skiers and refreshed weary hikers for years. The main floor (formerly a general store) has its country charm, while the Magnolia Patio – which was built around a lovely mature tree in its centre –is a perfect place to watch the sun inch its way down in the early evening. There’s also a cozy pub downstairs where the building dates from 1853. Whichever spot you choose, you’ll enjoy hearty meals of beef tenderloin, butter chicken, salmon, and, their specialty, Australian rack of lamb which references the owners’ roots Down Under.
Heading north of the park, you’ll come across Mrs. Mitchell’s. One of the best culinary experiences in the region known as the Hills of the Headwaters is found at this meticulously renovated 1889 schoolhouse-turned-restaurant that serves expertly prepared hearty fare. Inside, the dark wooden floor boards, heavy beams and long harvest table are complemented by a well-worn cast iron pots, an open hearth fireplace, and harvest-themed paintings. The pride of Violet Hill serves tasty beef stew, smoked wild mushroom soup, and spoon bread made from a seventeenth-century recipe.
Finally, Hockley Valley Resort has a couple of posh restaurants, where 80% of the produce is from the resort’s own gardens and all bread and salami are made in house. One option is Babbo, which has indoor and outdoor eating space and plenty of options in burgers, ribs, and pasta. With a stone bar counter illuminated from below, a gas fireplace, and sleek furniture, this feels more like an elegant Toronto establishment than you’d expect in the country. The Cabin restaurant is an expansive blend of modern and vintage with funky wallpaper, rustic reclaimed woodbeams, and a steel and glass chandelier. The fare here is more traditional upscale dinner offering scallops and rack of lamb. Hockley Valley Resort isn’t just for skiing, there’s also a lovely spa, golf course, and vegetable and fruit gardens to stroll through.
While You’re in the Area…
In addition to great dining, Dufferin offers a variety of charms.
For shopping, there’s Mono Centre’s Nesting Habits, a chic home décor shop which will tempt you from its spot directly across from the Mono Cliffs Inn patio. Across the street from Mrs. Mitchell’s
in Violet Hill, you’ll find another great home décor shop: Granny Taught Us. In Shelburne, stop by Rosemarie Armstrong’s RA Gallery to take home a fine art painting of some of rural Ontario’s hidden spots and best-loved spaces.
The Dufferin County Museum
is one of the better regional history museums in the province. The 2,300 sq-m lofty main building has ceilings high enough to house several historic buildings within its walls. Permanent local history mixes with rotating exhibits, including fine art. Wander through the property to see several charming buildings, including the little white Corbetton Church. Just east of the museum is the historic Rosemont General Store
. You’ll find a lot more than the daily newspaper and lottery tickets here. Huge fresh-baked cookies, sandwiches, ice cream, Creemore Coffee, and prepared meals to-go.
North of the resort on the west side of the Hockley Valley Nature Preserve
is the beautiful Canning Falls on 1st Line East. Though not as high as some of the Niagara Escarpment’s famous falls, the untouched forest surroundings (there’s no maintained trail) and the multiple drops along the Nottawasaga River makes this a magical spot.
Mono Cliffs is a great park to introduce kids to hiking, check out the wide variety of Escarpment scenery, and try out a new hobby from a gentle horseback ride to rigorous mountain biking. There’s plenty in the area to help make a full day road trip. All you have to do is choose between the many great trail and entertainment options in the Mono area.