Road Trip: Camping in the City? Believe It

Longer days, gentler breezes, and warmer sunshine on our shoulders – finally, decent weather has arrived. And with it comes the annual urge to get outside and enjoy it while it lasts.

The great tragedy of today’s lifestyles, though, is that finding the time can be a struggle. Hiking and camping do wonders for the soul, but they can also be a lot of work.

Fortunately, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

After finding ourselves desperate for some early-season outdoor adventure but also short on time, my daughter and I booked a campsite, threw some food and gear into the back of a Volkswagen Atlas on a Saturday morning, and set off from our downtown Toronto home.

Just 45 minutes later, we were pulling into the campground.

What is this sorcery? No, I’m not making it up. I didn’t drive the car onto an airplane, nor did I break any laws.

As it turns out, Toronto has an enormous natural treasure right on its doorstep.

Urban Sprawl

Rouge National Urban Park is one of the newest protected areas in the Parks Canada system. It was proposed in 2011 and made official in 2015 when the first portion was handed over to Parks Canada by Transport Canada, a section of the land that was expropriated for the Pickering airport project but never used.

Since then, the park has grown to nearly 79 square kilometres as various governments have contributed land to its growth. When it’s complete, the park will be 23 times larger than New York’s Central Park.

Rouge Park is part of Ontario’s Greenbelt and protects the Rouge River Valley from development, along with preserving its many unique features: rare northern examples of Carolinian forests, 1,700 species of flora and fauna including 27 at-risk species, Toronto’s final remaining examples of working farmland, and Glen Rouge Campground, the only campground inside Toronto city limits – and it’s only just barely that, sitting right on the border between Toronto and Pickering just north of Highway 401.

In fact, on arriving at Glen Rouge and turning into the parking lot, I couldn’t help but notice that the 401 is quite literally right across the street, just on the other side of Kingston Road, and the drone of cars whizzing by is constant. I immediately questioned my decision. Surely, this is never going to feel like we’re actually leaving the city!

After completing registration and continuing along the driveway, though, there’s a curve and a descent into the campground, which is tucked deeper into the valley. The hills provide an amazing amount of shelter from the noise, and it doesn’t take long at all to forget about the urban sprawl. 


Our quick weekend sojourn was made even easier by booking an oTENTik, a permanent structure that more closely resembles a cabin than a tent. At $120 per night, these are not cheap. But it saved us the trouble of packing a tent and air mattress and having to set them up once we arrived. Instead, we unrolled some sleeping bags onto the mattresses that were provided and immediately set off on a hike. To my mind, quality time spared is money well spent.

The three southernmost oTENTiks also happen to have some of the best locations. The rest of the campground is quite open with few trees, which means most spots don’t offer a lot of privacy. The oTENTiks on the southern boundary face out into tree-covered hills, which improves the sense of isolation considerably. (Not that my daughter would have cared – she’d happily sleep in the middle of an open field if it meant she could roast marshmallows over a campfire.)

Because the oTENTik comes with supplies – such as mattresses, lights and lanterns, chairs, space heaters, a fresh water supply, and built-in shelter – packing was an easy job. We brought sleeping bags and pillows, clothes and toiletries, reusable water bottles, cooking equipment – some permanent camping accommodations come with dishes and pots, but these ones don’t – and a bucket for fire safety. The only thing I wish I’d added to that list is folding chairs. The Muskoka chairs on the deck are heavy to lug around.

Exploring the Trails

The best part about staying at Glen Rouge, apart from the low-effort camping experience itself, is the easy access it affords to the extensive Rouge trail system. The Mast Trail that connects directly to the campground follows the river and then winds up into Carolinian forest. Early May is a wonderful time to explore this area: the woods are just awakening, so it’s easier to bird-watch without a full cover of leaves; the temperature is moderate and very pleasant; the trilliums and ferns are in full bloom; and the mosquitoes haven’t yet arrived.

That said, spring is the start of tick season, and this pest and the associated risk of contracting Lyme disease is well-established in the Rouge Valley. We arrived armed with light-coloured clothing and shoes, pants tucked into socks and shirts tucked into pants, and brandishing a giant bottle of bug spray.

On the Mast Trail, it didn’t take long for this to feel like overkill. It’s always prudent to be cautious, but ticks dry out easily and prefer to hang out in areas with long grasses and plenty of ground cover. The Mast Trail is very well-cleared, so it’s unlikely you’d run across any ticks unless you wander far off the marked path.

On the trails further north like the Orchard Trail, where we hiked the next day, the cleared areas are not as wide and it’s easier to brush up against overhanging greenery without thinking. We didn’t run into any ticks here either, but I felt that our precautions had been worthwhile.

The relative risk of contracting a tick-borne illness anywhere in Ontario is relatively low, so while everyone needs to find a comfort level, I’ve decided it’s best to just be vigilant, educate myself, and continue to bring my family out to enjoy this country’s natural beauty.

I’m a west-end girl, having grown up in Brampton, so I only ever had a vague awareness of where the Rouge Valley is and that it might be worth visiting. What motivated us to finally do it is that Rouge National Urban Park is part of the Parks Canada Xplorers program.

My daughter collected her booklet at the Glen Rouge’s registration centre. The campground is actually administered by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority rather than Parks Canada and evidently doesn’t always have Xplorers supplies in stock, so calling ahead to check or going straight to the Parks Canada Welcome Centre on Zoo Road would be a safer bet.

The park is spread across a wide area, and some of the activities are designed for specific regions like the beach and wetlands next to Lake Ontario or the farms near Beare Hill to the north. There are enough that can be completed anywhere in the park, though, that you won’t need to drive to all four corners of it if you don’t want to. It’s also not at all necessary to stay overnight to make the most of the program. I usually advocate staying overnight in national parks to fully experience them, but the Rouge is so close to the city that it’s easy to take in a lot in a day without feeling rushed.

My daughter finished enough activities in and around the campground to collect her Xplorers tag as we left. It’s her first of the year – a brilliant kick-off to the summer. Without this program, we might never have made the time to discover that we have this amazing natural resource so close to home.

In the hustle and bustle of modern lives, it’s too easy to forget how much good a walk in the woods can do and to think of camping as nothing more than a hassle. With resources like Rouge National Urban Park at our fingertips, though, enjoying the simple pleasures of the outdoors is made much easier.

And as I was reminded when my daughter told me her favourite part of the weekend was “just being in nature,” it’s worth every bit of the trouble.