January 2022 update: Ontario has introduced a staycation tax credit to encourage travel in the province and help our local tourism industry. Residents can claim 20% of their eligible 2022 accommodation expenses when filing their personal Income Tax and Benefit Return for 2022.  Details here.

Autumn is the best season. You can’t change my mind. It has my favourite weather. My favourite holiday is Halloween. And it’s also my favourite time to travel internationally. This year, instead of taking advantage of those shoulder season flight and hotel deals though, I was forced to choose an Ontario Staycation. And you know what? It was alright. More than alright.

As I wrote in my first Liisa Wanders post, one of my favourite things about travel is that it’s so full of firsts. How rewarding that I found so many firsts in my own backyard.

Here’s what I learned about vacationing in Ontario in Autumn

Autumn trees in High Park Toronto
High Park in Autumn, photo by Eden Boudreau via Unsplash

Ontario fall colours are glorious. I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never paid much attention to the changing leaves in my own province before. I’m usually busy going to Halloween events, or saving money for my big fall trip. On this Ontario staycation, I had the chance to take drives out into the country around Toronto and Southern Ontario, where the golden yellows and ruby reds on our maple and oak trees are truly spectacular.

I know there’s nothing like the Rocky Mountains, but I felt a bit of the same wonder on these drives, another “oh!” around each corner, the views just getting better and better. But you don’t need a car, or a big trip to enjoy this, either. Every park in Toronto was looking lovely this October. I even spent more time appreciating the big maple in my own backyard. Go for a walk, look up.

Ontario Parks tracks their colours for you. There are tree nerds! And they keep track of things like “dominant colour” and “leaf fall” to help you plan your day trips. The Ontario Parks “Fall Colours” webpage provides regular reports on how the trees are changing, and the places to view them. If you hurry, you can still catch some a few spots in November. But I find crunching through piles of fallen leaves a great pleasure, too. So don’t let the news that most leaves have already fallen stop you visiting an Ontario Park for a nice long hike.

Via Rail is a safe way to travel. This was my second trip to London on a Via train since the pandemic started. They continue to impress with their hygiene and safety procedures.

Read more about travelling on Via Rail during Covid.

Via is only selling about half the available seats on each train – and only the window ones, allowing maximum distance in the aisles. There’s no advance seat selection, you are asked to take any empty seat. Mask protocols are strictly enforced, with ample staff in the stations, platforms and trains to ensure compliance and pointed announcements that those who take off their masks will be removed at the next stop. (You are allowed to remove your mask briefly to eat or drink.) I generally enjoy train travel in Canada, and can’t wait to use Via for a greater adventure out West sometime soon.

Scenic lookout at Halton Conservation Area
Lookout! We are stalking this picnic spot at Hilton Falls

Lookouts come to those who wait. Three things I will always detour for: cemeteries, taco trucks, waterfalls. So I was stoked when my friend chose a day trip to Hilton Falls at Halton Conservation Area for her birthday. It’s a popular destination, with reservations required for a two-hour window to visit. We pushed that window to the limit because after going to see the waterfall via the longest route to avoid crowds, we hustled to hike to a promised “scenic lookout.” The gorgeous viewing spot was already occupado. So we just chilled for a while until the couple finished their lunch and then swooped in for our own picnic. It was the perfect place for a birthday cake. Beautiful views in parks are at a premium these days, but be patient and you can have one to yourself.

Dundas is not just a street in Toronto. When your friend who loves cheese so much she’s started making her own tells you her favourite cheese shop is in Dundas, Ontario, you make it a road trip! Mickey McGuires Cheese Boutique is a small friendly shop with a truly special selection of local and imported cheeses. I now know the pleasure of a gooey Château de Bourgogne, and the upscale smalltown charm of Dundas’s main street. As a bonus, on the drive out of town we found ourselves climbing high above the most gorgeous canopy of fall colours — two fine reasons for a detour to Dundas.

The Bruce Trail is calling me. The Bruce Trail is a footpath that runs almost 900km from Niagara to Tobermory, but I’ve always associated it primarily with the Bruce Peninsula. On two separate occasions this fall I came across the signature Bruce Trail arrow signs while walking in the woods outside of Toronto. It gave me a thrill to be reminded that if you actually want to take a super long walk in Ontario, there’s a path for that.

More things to do on the Bruce Peninsula

Egyptian mummy on display at the Royal Ontario Museum toronto
Mummies and Me, Royal Ontario Museum

It’s calm at the ROM. I can’t remember ever having a world class museum collection all to myself. But that’s how it felt on my weekday visit to the Royal Ontario Museum. I went to see the ROM’s temporary Egyptian Mummies exhibit (more on that soon) and discovered the rest of the building was almost empty, with mask and distancing rules in place throughout. I do worry about our cultural institutions’ ability to survive low attendance numbers, and I’ve been jealous of Parisians visiting the Louvre without all the tourists. So I was very happy to support the ROM on my Ontario staycation.

Beltline Trail is not really for biking. Cycling a rail trail outside of the city was on my 2020 summer list but I didn’t get around to it. So decided to finally take a ride on Toronto’s Beltline Trail, a series of paths on a former railway line that cuts across midtown. While I did enjoy learning that we have a Bowie Avenue (the entrance point for the York Beltline Trail section), I also discovered that the prettiest parts of this trail are where the rich residents of Forest Hills and Rosedale go running and walking en masse. Great place to get ideas for workout fashion. Not so great for biking. Which is fine, discovery is the point and not all discoveries are equally great!

Humber College has a botanical garden. There are nearly 250 acres of free public gardens on Humber College’s North Campus. What a perfect place to picnic after a bike uphill on the Humber Trail from the Weston UP Express station. The Humber Arboretum is home to different biodiversity than I’m used to downtown. Like the Kentucky Coffeetree  – with the largest leaves of any Canadian tree. I know I’ve talked a bunch about trees in this post but I truly believe looking at them is a cure what ails ya and I love finding out more about them. I might need to stop joking about getting nosebleeds when I go north of Bloor….

Cheltenham Badlands in Caledon Ontario in autumn

What planet are we on?

The Badlands are a nice photo op. The Cheltenham Badlands are a “Mars-like” geographical phenomenon of red and grey shale that make a perfect backdrop for your selfie. In the past, you could walk and frolic right on it, but that was eroding the unique terrain, so it’s now under conservation protection and reservations are required to limit crowds. Fair enough. A very short walk from the parking lot takes you to a viewing platform, from which you can enjoy the view of both the Badlands and surrounding rolling hills of Caledon. I’m glad we went when the colours were popping and I got my cool photo but I would consider it a lovely pit stop, not a destination.  The trail entrance and platform is officially closed now until March 2021, but you can still drive by for a look at it.  

You can hike in Toronto’s High Park. File this under yet another thing I had never done in Toronto before the pandemic closures, despite living here for more than 20 years. High Park is my local – 400 acres of nature in my own neighbourhood. But I always bike there – the hills and loops are excellent for cycling practise. I’m quite familiar with its Grenadier Pond – where I picnic in summer and ice skate in winter. The public swimming pool, the small zoo, the cherry blossom trees, these spots I know. I had never considered it has hiking trails – because you can’t see them. An avid hiking friend showed me the entrance on the north east side of the park and took me on the easy 5km loop through the interior. It’s not far at all from car traffic but it sure feels like it.

Parklawn Cemetery Toronto
Parklawn Cemetery

Mount Pleasant isn’t the only great Toronto cemetery. When I travel, I go out of my way to visit lots of great cemeteries. Why not at home? It’s been ten years since I last walked through the historic Necropolis in Cabbagetown, and this time I had the pleasure of joining a guided small tour with Toronto Cemetery Tours for Halloween. Our guide was an enthusiastic Toronto historian who told great stories about the royals, war heroes and Black community leaders buried here I would not have discovered myself. It really is a beautiful garden cemetery close to the city centre.

I also took a solo wander through Parklawn Cemetery for the first time. It’s so massive I couldn’t possibly see everything in one visit, but was impressed with the opulent family tombs, and enjoyed stumbling across history like the grave of fighter pilot and prisoner of war Wally Floody, who dug tunnels for the Great Escape. I’m on a mission now to visit the rest of our resting places.

Read my Goth Girl guide to visiting cemeteries

The best destination is one with a friend waiting for you. Toronto rental and real estate prices are ludicrous, so I’ve watched plenty of friends leave this city and not look back. My Ontario staycation was a success in great part because I made a point of visiting some of them, whether they were in another city, or tiny rural community. And even if we had to keep our distance and socialize outside for safety, we had lots of laughs and made new memories. So, no, this fall I didn’t get to stumble upon some delicious new street food in a new-to-me country, but I did have friends taking me to their favourite local farmer’s markets and cooking for me in the houses they’ve made homes. Life is good.