The Big Apple has Central Park, Rome has Villa Borghese, Madrid its Buen Retiro Park, and London has Hyde Park, but Toronto has a beautiful park of its own, High Park. And like the city’s new nickname, “The 6ix”, I’m here to sing 6 of its praises.
1. High Park: A Natural Oasis
One of the beautiful characteristics of High Park is that unlike some of the other urban parks mentioned above, High Park is more organic and true to its original geography than its architect-designed counterparts in other cities. In fact, one third of High Park remains in its natural state, with trails that wind through huge black oak trees, (forming part of a rare oak savannah ecology) and where fallen trees are allowed to remain and decay just as they would in any other forest.
The 35 acre Grenadier Pond at the southwestern end of the Park is no man-made ‘water feature’, either. This natural reservoir is where it’s always been and was used in the 1800s to supply fish for soldiers at the nearby Town of York garrison. Today, its wetlands are protected and form part of an ecosystem that supports many species of indigenous birds and wildlife, and it’s not uncommon to see herons, swans and red-winged blackbirds nesting on the shores in the spring.
Not all of the park is wild of course, and there are formal gardens and groomed areas as well, but I think one of High Park’s charms is that it is still a little undomesticated – with patches of poison ivy to prove it. (But don’t worry, these areas are well-marked!)
2. It’s free!
Colborne Lodge, and the 400 acres around it now known as High Park, was originally the home of John George Howard, who in 1873 deeded most of the land to the city of Toronto and its residents (the remainder followed after his death in 1890.)
The bequest came with a few conditions, however, one of which was that the City would not be allowed to profit from his donation, a policy which holds true to this day. Even as recently as 2008, when the cash-strapped city was looking for ways to replenish their coffers, a proposal to put parking meters in High Park was struck down based on the original stipulations of the deed.
There aren’t many things in life that are free, but being able to enjoy a patch of green, wherever it is, should be one of them, and apparently Howard couldn’t agree more.
3. High Park’s Wood Spirits
Where else can you find wood spirits hiding ‘in plain sight’? High Park has 4 wood spirits watching over the park and its visitors, and although they may not come to life the way that Tree Ents do in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, these carvings do breathe new life into dead trees, thanks to the work of the artist, Colin Partridge, who made them.
A retired RCMP constable, Partridge was commissioned by the city in 2006 to carve these faces, and spent two weeks with chainsaw, hammer and chisel revealing the spirits in these stumps. Keep your eyes open as you wander through the park and you might just find another pair of eyes looking right back at you.
4. Cherry Blossoms
Every May, High Park explodes with colour. Not just with the usual plantings of daffodils, tulips, and other perennials, but with very special bouquets of pink and white ‘Sakura’ (cherry blossoms) as well. These trees were a gift to the people of Toronto from the Japanese ambassador to Canada in 1959, to show appreciation from the many Japanese-Canadian refugees who were relocated here after World War II.
In the 60 years since the original 2000 trees were planted, the “Cherry Blossom Watch’ has become a much-anticipated spring ritual for Torontonians, and there is even a website that monitors the status of the blooms. And even though all 2000 trees have not survived, other ones have been donated by generous patrons to ensure that High Park will always have its Sakura tradition.
The best place to see the highest concentration of trees is on the paths to the west of the Grenadier Cafe, where visitors can wind their way down a gentle slope flanked by Sakura trees whose pink blush of flowers form a delicate canopy overhead.
TIP: At the cherry blossom’s peak, there’s also an explosion of visitors to the park, so be prepared for plenty of photographers and other admirers on the paths. Go early in the morning to avoid the crowds, and in order to take better pictures.
5. The Grenadier Cafe
Yes, Manhattan has the Tavern on the Green in Central Park, but if you’re looking for a much more affordable, unpretentious place to enjoy a casual meal or a sweet treat after a long walk, High Park’s Grenadier Cafe is the spot. Just ask any of the moms with strollers who make it a regular morning destination during the weekdays, or the hundreds of spandex-clad runners who end their run here with some well-earned bacon and eggs.
The food is family-friendly and the breakfasts are plentiful (and one of the best deals in the city at only $3.99 on weekdays before 11am), and there’s no better place to enjoy your morning caffeine than on the treed patio at the back – one of Toronto’s best kept summer secrets when it comes to a beautiful outdoor patio. You won’t find any mimosas here, though: High Park is the only ‘dry’ area left in the city because the sale of alcohol in the park was forbidden as another condition in Howard’s deed.
6. Shakespeare in the Park
High Park isn’t all nature with no culture, either. Every summer for the past 34 years, The Canadian Stage Company has presented Shakespeare in High Park, allowing theatre lovers and nature lovers to enjoy the best of both worlds all summer long.
Performances take place at the outdoor amphitheatre not far from the Grenadier Cafe, and guests are welcome to bring their own picnic and make a night of it. This year (2016), the Company will hold performances of Hamlet and All’s Well That Ends Well from June 30 – September 4, and tickets can be booked through the website.
Great theatre in an urban park – just another way to enjoy some of the perks that a big city has to offer, but all done ‘al fresco’ surrounded by towering trees.
I am the first one to admit that I love a big city, and I love living in Toronto. But I think every metropolis needs a place where its residents can escape the asphalt, without having to get on a highway for 3 hours. Green spaces like High Park, where we can connect with nature and slow the pace of life down, is what keeps living in Toronto ‘human’. Time spent here helps rejuvenate the soul – and if you don’t believe me, just ask one of the wood spirits.
TIP: Parking is free in High Park with more than enough spots during the week, but this place fills up fast on weekends – and don’t even TRY to drive here when the cherry blossoms are in peak bloom. Instead, park the car far outside the entrances, take transit, and enjoy the walk. (It is a park, after all.)