High Park and the Hillside Ornamental Gardens
1873 Bloor Street West (bounded by Bloor St. W., Parkside Dr., the Queensway and Ellis Ave.)
Opened 1873; 399 acres
Known for: Toronto's oldest park, including remnants of the 4,000 year-old black oak savannah
Wilderness and ancient history in Toronto's west end
High Park provides visitors with a unique and unusual sense of wilderness in the middle of the city. The area also includes the last piece of the Black Oak Savannah, a 4,000 year old ecosystem of forest and vegetation that once covered most of Toronto's west end. It is the city's oldest park, enjoyed by Torontonians for over a century.
Before it was a park, Native peoples knew the area well because of its location by the Humber River. It is just east of the Toronto Carrying-Place Trail, which had been traversed by Indigenous people for millennia before European settlement. First Nations also grew corn in the area.
After Toronto was settled, the property was owned by city's official surveyor and engineer, John George Howard. Howard donated the land to the city in 1873 for use as a "Public Park for the free use, benefit and enjoyment of the citizens of the City of Toronto for ever." (John Howard is buried in the park alongside his wife beneath a secluded monument near Colborne Lodge).
Over the next century, the city added roads and parking lots, a restaurant and concession facilities, a zoo, playgrounds, a greenhouse and work yard, allotment gardens (for community gardening), recreational facilities, picnic areas, and ornamental gardens.
Such development in the park made it very attractive for visitors, but in the mid-70s, the city realized that the park also represented a wonderful natural environment that needed to be preserved.
High Park itself stands on the last sizeable natural area remaining from Iroquois Sand Plain. These sands were laid down on the shores of glacial Lake Iroquois, the larger version of Lake Ontario that was formed when the glaciers retreated from our area about 12,800 years ago. High Park also is home to the only remaining part of the ancient Black Oak Savannah.
Although the park is like one big garden, there are specific gardens to visit: The Hillside Ornamental Gardens are a park mainstay. These beautiful and elaborate gardens on the west side of the park have been attracting gardening enthusiasts and amateur photographers for decades.
Other gardens include: the Butterfly Garden a.k.a. Peace Garden, Boulevard Beds Wildflower garden, Demonstration garden, Rock Garden, and Restored Gardens at Colborne Lodge. The "Allotment gardens" offer permits to local gardeners. The Maple Leaf Forever Garden features a large maple leaf made from plants.
High Park is truly unique. Only here can you still get a glimpse of the variety of habitats which once occurred throughout Toronto. There are some rare finds such as 40 species of native plants that are known to occur in only four other places in Toronto. Four of these species (Wood Betony, Shrubby St. John's-Wort, Wild Lupine and Cup Plant) are known to occur in four other places in Canada.
Legend is that when British grenadiers (military men) were making a winter patrol along Grenadier Pond in the 1800s, the officer in charge decided to cross the ice. They broke through and all drowned. The pond was named in their honour.
For wildflower enthusiasts, you can look up the many wildflowers in the park by visiting Wildflowers of Toronto's High Park.
Every spring when the weather warms up, there's a glorious display of Japanese cherry trees with brilliant blossoms.
The park is home to Canada's longest-running outdoor theatre event, Shakespeare in the Park. Now in its 36th year, every summer you can watch a play (offered through CanStage). Best of all, you get to sit in the park's 1000-seat amphitheatre, carved into the side of a high and surround by large trees. Bring your picnic and blanket.