Get Close to Nature in Ontario, Canada

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110 Nature Hot Spots in Ontario (Firefly, 2018), by Chris Earley and Tracy C. Read, explore parks, conservation areas, and wild places in Ontario, Canada. Learn about each place and view beautiful photography from the various parks and conservation areas. Find out about the native wildlife as well as the plants and flowersin the area.

Devil’s Punchbowl Conservation Area

(Southwestern Ontario)

A colourful slice of geological history in an increasingly densely populated part of the province

The Upper Falls at the Devil’s Punchbowl Conservation Area drops 37 metres into a plunge pool. Photograph © Hamilton Conservation Authority

Address: Ridge Road, Stoney Creek, ON

Tel.: N/A


Open year-round

The Niagara Escarpment is rightfully considered a treasure trove of natural wonders, and the Hamilton-area Devil’s Punchbowl is, without question, one of these. Yet it might more accurately be described as a geological smorgasbord. The 100-metre-wide semicircular plunge pool at the foot of the Upper Falls was carved by massive meltwater at the end of the last ice age, and the exposed walls are a colourful composite of compressed sand, silt, clay and organic material from the ancient inland sea that covered the region.

Where glacial waters once roared, Stoney Creek now tamely meanders. From the parking lot, a small loop trail leads to a lookout platform. Also situated here is a 10-metre-tall steel cross. Some visitors to the Devil’s Punchbowl Upper Falls may be a little disappointed, as the 37-metre-tall ribbon waterfall is often reduced to a mere trickle. But onlookers will appreciate the rare opportunity to take in this stratified slice of the escarpment’s past, which spans over 40 million years and shows the complete sequence from the Queenston Formation to the Lockport Formation. The Lower Falls, a charming six-metre classical waterfall, is located on the gorge below the lookout. (Visitors should be aware that there is no designated path to the smaller waterfall.)

Both waterfalls are located in the Devil’s Punchbowl Conservation Area, a 42-hectare property that is managed by the Hamilton Conservation Authority. The Bruce Trail runs the length of the area, through red oak and white pine forest. The Niagara region is increasingly encroached upon by agricultural and suburban developments— all the more reason to enjoy a precious landscape that is renowned not only for its significant landforms but also for its diverse populations of plants, butterflies and birds.

During a hike at Devil’s Punchbowl, you might see a yellow-billed cuckoo. Photograph © Paul Sparks/Shutterstock 

What Makes This Hot Spot Hot?

  • This dramatic waterfall offers a vertical geology lesson.
  • A visit to the Devil’s Punchbowl is also a chance to hike some of the Bruce Trail.
  • The surrounding area preserves rare communities of flora and fauna.

Holiday Beach Conservation Area

(Southwestern Ontario)

Winged migration viewing at the end of Lake Erie


Will this tagged monarch make it all the way to Mexico? Fingers crossed! Photograph © Chris Earley 

Address: 6952 County Road 50, Amherstberg, ON N0R 1G0

Tel.: (519) 736-3772


Open April to Thanksgiving

On the shore of Lake Erie, Holiday Beach Conservation Area is a globally significant Important Bird Area (IBA) and home to the Holiday Beach Migration Observatory. The observatory has a three-storey observation tower to help visitors and researchers alike enjoy memorable sightings of migrating birds and insects—and there are lots of them to watch. In over 40 years, more than 3,000,000 hawks have been counted. Even daily totals can be impressive: Imagine counting 96,000 hawks, 600 hummingbirds, 250,000 blue jays or 10,000 cedar waxwings in just one day! 

A northern saw-whet owl sports a new bird band. Photograph © Chris Earley

The observatory also bands birds and tags monarch butterflies. Monarchs that emerge from their chrysalises in Ontario in late August or later are then likely to try to make the over 3,000-kilometre trek to their overwintering grounds in Mexico. But like migrating hawks, the monarchs prefer not to travel over large bodies of water if they don’t have to. That’s why Holiday Beach is such a great migration site: The migrating hawks and monarchs funnel their way to the site before they finally hop over the Detroit River and continue on their way south. At night, northern saw-whet owls migrate through Holiday Beach as well, and nocturnal researchers are able to catch and band them here. Banding these smallest of eastern North American owls is one of the only ways to learn about their migration patterns; unlike the easy-to-see, high-flying diurnal raptors, the nighttime movements of owls are difficult to observe.

Beside Holiday Beach is Big Creek Conservation Area. This huge wetland is part of the IBA and supports many water birds, including herons, egrets, ducks and geese. It can be viewed from the observatory at Holiday Beach.

The blossoms of the aquatic American lotus cover the water at the nearby Big Creek wetland. Photograph © Essex Region Conservation Authority

What Makes This Hot Spot Hot?

  • Audubon magazine describes Holiday Beach as Canada’s best hawk-watching spot and ranks it third overall in all of North America.
  • Visitors can help researchers count migrating birds and insects.
  • Visit during the Festival of Hawks events to come face-to-face with banded wild birds.

Pelee Island

(Southwestern Ontario)

Rare species and a wine tour make a visit to this southern Canadian island one the whole family can enjoy

Meet the blue racer: Pelee Island holds the only Canadian population. Photograph© Psychotic Nature/Shutterstock

Pelee Island’s prime location at the very southern edge of Canada has significant consequences for this large island’s native plant and animal residents. Thanks to its southerly position and the moderating effect of western Lake Erie, the island enjoys a milder climate than nearby mainland areas. As a result, several natural areas on the island are able to support a plethora of rare species that would struggle to survive elsewhere.

One of these, the 42-hectare Stone Road Alvar Nature Reserve, protects 44 provincially rare and 33 regionally rare plants. These plants have adapted to the globally rare alvar habitat, which is made up of limestone plains that can become extremely hot in the summer months. Some species, such as the downy wood mint, are found only on Pelee Island and nowhere else in Canada. Provincially rare trees that grow here include the Chinquapin oak, hop tree and blue ash.

The island is also on an important flyway for migrating birds. Fish Point Provincial Nature Reserve and Lighthouse Point Provincial Nature Reserve are birding hot spots where spring migrants sometimes gather in species-diverse flocks during their northward travels. These and other natural areas on the island are home to many rare reptiles and amphibians, including the Lake Erie water snake, eastern fox snake and eastern spiny softshell turtle. The blue racer, a gorgeous steel-grey snake, and the smallmouth salamander are found nowhere else in Canada.

If you have a partner or friend who is less of a nature geek than you are, Pelee Island is the perfect spot. Promise a refreshing ferry ride, a wine tour and a stay in one of the island’s many bed and breakfasts. While touring around the island, keep your eyes out for a grey fox. This small canine is partially arboreal and relatively adept at climbing trees for a member of the dog family. Though uncommon, one just might appear during your visit.

The lighthouse at Lighthouse Point, built in 1833. Photograph © Jukka Palm/Shutterstock

What Makes This Hot Spot Hot?

  • A ferry ride takes you to a must-visit destination for every Ontario naturalist.
  • Rare plants and animals are found throughout the island.
  • The promise of a wine tour is sure to entice a non-nature-obsessed spouse or partner to make the trip with you.

Pukaskwa National Park

(Northern Ontario)

This park puts fresh life into the overworked descriptor ‘pristine wilderness’

The clean, cold waters of Superior sweep into shore at Pukaskwa. Photograph © Ontario Parks

Address: Hwy 627, Heron Bay, ON P0T 1R0

Tel.: (807) 229-0801


Open year-round; campgrounds are open from spring to fall 

You can reach Ontario’s only wilderness national park by the most conventional of routes. Simply turn off the Trans-Canada onto Hwy 627, which drops you at the Hattie Cove Campground. Once you exit your vehicle and look around, you’ll quickly realize you’ve left civilization far behind.

Pukaskwa National Park sprawls across 1,878 square kilometres of some of the province’s most dynamic landscape. It’s the very definition of “Shield Country.” On its western edge, Pukaskwa hugs the dramatic undulations of the Lake Superior shoreline, where massive headlands push into the waters of Canada’s tempestuous inland sea, creating a dazzling series of deep, sculpted bays. Punctuating the coast are beaches of white sand and water-smoothed stone and stretches strewn with massive pieces of timber tossed ashore by the tumultuous Superior waves.

Inland is a world of rock-lined lakes, surging rivers and intact boreal forest that serves as a natural habitat for northern wildlife, such as moose, black bears and wolves. A small, elusive herd of woodland caribou also makes its home here, though the forest industry operating in adjacent lands threatens its territory.

The intrepid might consider exploring Pukaskwa by water, but be forewarned: The typically cold and unpredictable Lake Superior waters and winds will inevitably pin down paddlers for days at a time. For hikers, there are moderate trails that lead to some of the park’s best vantage points. The Beach Trail winds through North, Middle and Horseshoe Beaches; the Southern Headland Trail leads to the lakeside, where, on a late-summer afternoon, you might relax on the sun-warmed granite to the sounds of Superior lapping against the shore. The more ambitious can undertake the 18-kilometre return hike to the White River Suspension Bridge, which soars 23 metres over Chigamiwinigum Falls.

What Makes This Hot Spot Hot?

  • It’s the only national park in Ontario that is designated a wilderness park.
  • A trip to Pukaskwa is for the fit and self-reliant nature lover.
  • You’ll experience the raw beauty of Ontario’s natural world at its best.

Reprinted with permission from 110 Nature Hot Spots in Ontario: The Best Parks, Conservation Areas and Wild Places by Chris Earley and Tracy C. Read and published by Firefly Books.