This post discusses how to cycle southern Ontario, specifically a loop from Hamilton to Niagara falls and back, over a three day period. I provide details that include maps, costs, logistical requirements and facts as well as links to additional details, photos and videos. This is a self-guided adventure on a shoestring. Follow the links to dig deeper into the adventure.
Niagara Falls Loop Ride
This cold November three-day loop ride to Niagara Falls, Ontario, wasn’t so much an idea as simply something that happened. On a late November day in 2007 I happened to be visiting my brother (Silvio) who mentioned that he would like to do a similar trip, but this time on bicycles and in a large loop to take advantage of the many new bicycle routes that had been established over past few years. I agreed and then within two days I found myself at his house, early in the morning, trying on various articles of clothing, stuffing a tiny saddlebag with munchies, and then riding away. It all happened so fast, and like the last time, without much planning or consideration.
Total Cost Range of this Activity is: $
|3 days of riding & 2 Nights in hotels
Misc meals, drinks, junk food
After a bit of adjusting myself to the limitations of the borrowed bicycle (a rock-hard seat set so high that I felt as though I was perpetually facing downhill) I concentrated on the icy spots on the road and the places the cold wind was penetrating my limited clothing (it was negative 5 Celsius out). Granted the day was cold, overcast, and a little windy, but still it was a pretty good day for late November in the Canada’s Great Lakes region.
|Jump to Day 2
|Jump to Day 3
We had left the day’s objective fairly broad (Lake Erie) because we wanted the ride to be casual and neither of us was sure what the weather and riding conditions might be like near Lake Erie (a shallow lake with weather much different from Lake Ontario at times).
Click to watch Video
We started by riding thru the Hamilton suburbs towards Lake Ontario’s Conservation Park. Once we reached the park we could follow the Waterfront Trail as it wove its way along the lake towards the Niagara River. The wind down by the lake was more prevalent but fortunately the trail beyond the Conservation Park made extensive use of the local roads and sheltered parts of the QEW Service Road. That put us into small community housing developments or next to the highway sound barriers, which provided shelter from the cold wind.
Even with the shelter, I was fairly cold by mid-morning when we reached the Fifty Road Conservation area. This park is mostly a marina with a closed snack bar and empty boat slips. Fortunately the washrooms were left open so that we got to use the electric hand dryer to heat our cold shoes and feet. It is surprising how a little heat in an otherwise cold running shoe can make such a big difference to one’s riding pleasure.
Cycling Route Map (summary below)
So with slightly thawed feet we set out on the next leg. This time we rode along a more exposed Service Road for a few hours. Around noon I insisted that we stop and take a break at the next Canadian institution (a Tim Hortons coffee shop). Silvio wanted to stop for lunch at the Welland Canal Museum that was only another one or two hours away. I pointed out that it was around noon already, and that we were only stopping for a coffee break and not for lunch. He agreed reluctantly and then spent the time outside drinking his coffee and smoking while I sat inside the warm shop and marveled at how crazy Canadian smokers were. For a smoke it seemed they could put up with any kind of weather.
After the break we continued on the Service Road and then into some sleepy communities along the lake until we reached Port Dalhousie, where I mistakenly thought the town was called Fort Dalhousie. So we took a detour down to the river opening and marina in search of a fort that didn’t exist. After some lovely shots of ice, and a cold lake exposure, Silvio corrected my naming error and we rode back to the shelter of the side streets, post haste.
After a bit of confusion and zigzagging we reached St Catharines’ Lock 1 on the Welland Canal (known as the H2O Highway). From this point to the end of the canal we road on a paved and level trail that followed the Welland and Old Welland Canals. The trail is named both the Welland Canal Trail and the Greater Niagara Circle Route. This is a perfect trail for day strolls and riding, with observation decks at a few of the locks, and unobstructed views of major shipping (up close and personal).
As planned, we stopped to eat our packed lunches at the Welland Canal Museum (Lock 3). By this time I was very cold from the cold winds that were gusting from 30-40 km an hour. After lunch we were a little behind schedule but still kept the pace comfortable and leisurely. We breezed through the small towns of Thorold, Port Robinson, Welland, and then along an open stretch before reaching the lift bridge at Port Colborne.
Here we picked up our pace and dashed through the sleepy tourist section of town to reach the marina and our day’s objective of Lake Erie, just as the sun was setting. We preened and gesticulated a bit and then began to shiver, as it suddenly grew dark and the temperature seemed to drop quickly. We agreed to spend the night in Port Colborne as we set off in search of lodgings.
We made a quick pit stop at the local LLCB (liquor store) to pickup some liquid supplies and then followed the bad and contradictory directions of locals until we found a set of three motels in the NW part of town. Here we settled on the most inexpensive option that happened to be displaying a sign that read, ‘$29.95 A Room.’ I knew it was the perfect match for my budget when I mistakenly read the name as the ‘Crapi Motel’ rather than the ‘Capri Motel’ due to the street sign’s stylized script. We had covered 116 km that day and it was dark and growing even colder as we crossed the empty parking lot to our room.
We settled into our clean, dry, and warm accommodations only briefly since we were both hungry. The very large motel clerk had directed us to a local restaurant (Sambo Diner) that he guaranteed would satisfy our hunger for a mere $10. It turned out that the local restaurant was a much longer walk than his promised 10 minutes, but it was well worth it. The desk clerk certainly knew where to stoke calorie-deprived bodies. The beer was also helpful.
After the large meal we walked back to the motel with a bag of useless groceries I picked up along the way (2 liter bottle of Pepsi and the most wicked Humpty Dumpty Salt & Vinegar chips know to man). Although stuffed, I sat up in bed and worked on the chips and Pepsi for the next hour before giving up and falling asleep like a bear going into hibernation.
I awoke around 6 am then next morning to the sound of Silvio stepping out of the room to have a smoke. It was cold out and raining in sheets of wind driven rain out there. Smokers are crazier than cyclists, but combined they are even sillier I thought as I rolled over and went back to sleep. I was content to spend the day curled up in my warm bed, but eventually Silvio opened the curtains and announced that it had stopped raining and that it was 8 am. Reluctantly I got up and went through my morning maintenance rituals.
By 9:30 am we managed to exit the hotel and ride away in search of the trail we had abandoned the night before. It was a warmer morning (plus 5 Celsius); skies were overcast, raindrops fell intermittently, and winds were out of the west at gale force (50-70 km hour). We picked up the Friendship Trail on the edge of town and were heading in an almost strait line to the east with the strong winds at our backs.
In many places I simply stopped peddling and let the wind carry me along. I enjoyed every minute of that breezy morning ride because I knew for the balance of the day we would be heading north and that a broadside wind would make riding difficult and that the next day’s route might be a head-down battle with the tempest.
With the wind as our temporary ally we breezed through the towns of Loraine, Cedar Bay, Shisler Point, Sherkston (our high school party place), Ridgeway, and then Fort Erie at the confluence of Lake Erie and the Niagara River. Here we rode along a sleepy Lakeshore road until we reached the parks that line the Niagara River and picked up the northbound Niagara River Recreational Trail (also labeled the Greater Niagara Circle Route and Trans Canada Trail).
This trail follows the Niagara River along its entire length from Fort Erie, Lake Erie, past Niagara Falls, and to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Lake Ontario. At intervals the trail curved to the west where the wind made cycling a head down effort. When we reached the Peace Bridge, around noon I insisted that we find another coffee shop. I was very cold and my feet were even colder.
We got directions from a pedestrian and turned inland to find a Tim Hortons located in a restricted duty-free shopping area. Once inside I changed my mind about the coffee as I spied a McDonald’s restaurant. I had not eaten a burger at a McDonald’s in many years, (I had tried a veggie-burger at McDonald’s in Delhi, India last year out of curiosity, but that didn’t count), and now I foolishly had to try one.
I started up a conversation with the woman working the cash register while I waited for my meal and explained that I had not had a burger in many years. She smiled and then stated that I was sure to get s stomachache as a result. I thought it peculiar that an employee of a burger joint would give its food such a poor endorsement.
Naturally I was visually disappointed with the burger when it arrived. It was much smaller and shabbier looking than the one in the photo on display on the over-head menu board. Nor did it taste as appealing as the picture made it out to be. After this brief meal we continued our ride along the river.
Later in the day as prophesied, I did develop a stomachache. Silvio couldn’t help but laugh at my predestined fate, but karma is a pervasive power. Following his remarks he looked down and noticed that his tire had gone flat.
We spent the next 45 minutes huddled behind a closed recreation building replacing the tube and then trying to figure out how his cheap pump worked. After much fumbling and as the last symptoms of my stomachache mysteriously evaporated, we figured out the pump and continued our ride on the trial.
We spent some time acting like tourists at the impressive Niagara Falls and then made our way into the old town’s business district for another coffee break, smoke break, and LCBO restocking venture. By now the temperature had dropped to zero and the wind continued to buffet the bikes (and us) from time to time. We stopped briefly south of the falls to take photos of the US and Canadian hydro dams were we discussed our route options. I opted for a track due west towards St Catharines (a strait line).
Silvio wanted to continue north along the river to Niagara-on-the-Lake since he had never ridden this part of the trial. I was skeptical since it added a lot of distance to the return trip. While I was taking photos he spoke with a parked motorist and then happily advised me that the motorist had just told him we were only 15 minutes drive from Niagara-on-the-Lake. I gave him a scornful look and explained that it had been my experience that a one-hour journey by car usually took one-day by bicycle, and a one-hour journey by bicycle took one day on foot.
So a 15-minute drive would take at least 2 hours by bike. He wrinkled his brow, thought about it a bit, and then replied, ‘oh.’ I shrugged and then followed as he set off towards Niagara-on-the-Lake (which happened to be mostly downhill).
One thing I had learned the previous August when I had ridden a bicycle across Tibet was that you always paid for a downhill stretch since inevitably you had to regain the lost altitude with an up-hill ride. We reached Niagara-on-the-Lake (Lake Ontario) easily, as at sunset. We quickly established that the town was a high priced tourist destination and that we were not going to find any hotel or motel rooms for less than $100 per night.
We had not been christened ‘Cheap & Cheaper’ without cause. Rather than submit to such blatant exploitation we spent the next three hours riding against the wind and up-hill, towards St Catharines. This ride was galling because we could have reached it so easily from the hydro dams that afternoon, rather than making this five-hour loop.
Plus Silvio had decided, for safety reasons, that he should place a red blinking taillight on his bike and that he should therefore ride in the rear. Naturally we were riding against the wind at this stage and he got to wheel-suck (draft) the entire way as a result.
When we reached downtown St Catharines we checked into the cheapest motel (Leonard Motel/ Knights Inn) after we convinced the desk clerk that we had discount privileges. The net result was that we still had to pay twice what we had paid the night before, but at that late and extremely cold hour I didn’t much care. A room is what we needed after that 126 km day.
We checked into our room. Dashed out to eat a meal and then returned to the room immediately. I felt cold, my feet were cold, I was tired, and my thighs were sore. The weather forecast for the next day predicted more strong winds and the possibility of an afternoon snowstorm.
I lay in the short pull-out couch and recalled that I had been hit with the first snow of the season on the Indian Markha trek and then a four-day storm when climbing Stok Kangri in September, followed by the first snowstorm on my Italian Corno Grande climb in October, and now possibly again while on a bike ride in November. Was I destined to be chased by early snowfalls on all my adventures?
The next morning we hit the streets by 9 am. Silvio wanted to use the Service Roads, but I wanted to follow the old highway back to Hamilton since it was an area full of youthful memories for me and afforded better shelter from the head winds. He agreed to follow the highway for a while. This proved to be a good choice since the homes, businesses, trees, or gullies on this winding route provided us with ample protection from the gusting winds.
However, at some stage he insisted that we switch to the strait Service Road. As soon as we turned onto the open and exposed road we both knew we had made a mistake. The wind was unimpeded and whistling. At one stage we passed a road construction crew who laughed at us as one member walked along next to us and said we should stop peddling so he could watch us being blown backwards down the road. His statement was very true since I was in the lowest gear on the bike and peddling as though I was riding up a steep incline yet hardly moving at all.
Finally at Fifty Road we exited the Service Road to ride along a partially sheltered Barton Street to another Tim Hortons coffee break. Naturally Silvio spent most of the break outside smoking and sipping his quickly cooling coffee. While watching him through the window I noticed that it was starting to snow. I took the opportunity to use the washrooms to change into my second set of clothing. My first set was soaked through with sweat. With a snowstorm coming I wanted to start the next stage in dry clothing.
We exited the coffee shop, turned up Dewitt Road and passed my old high school as the snow started to fall in earnest. We continued up the mountain road that was mostly boxed in by homes now. In my youth it was all open fields in which we rode our bicycles, dirt bikes, dune buggies, or simply made fires and drank beer. After the railroad tracks the road became steep as it hugged the steep escarpment cliffs. At this stage it was snowing for real.
When we reached the top of the escarpment (known as the mountain to the locals) we entered whiteout conditions. I couldn’t help but laugh at the weather that the Fates had thrown into the mix. We rode head down, blinded by snow, for the next few km conversing very little. At one point a woman in a van pulled along side, slid down her window, and asked in a concerned tone if we needed a ride. I laughed, thanked her, and explained that it was only snow after all.
At the next road down the escarpment (Mountain Avenue in Stoney Creek) Silvio opted for exiting the high ground and returning to the shelter of the towns below. I agreed as we raced down the winding, snowy road at breakneck speed. At the bottom we entered the sleepy town of my youth (Stoney Creek). Not surprisingly, it was not snowing below the escarpment. This is one of the quirks know as ‘Lake Effect’ that often creates two distinct weather patterns separated by the glacier made escapement along the lake.
We rode the last few kilometers towards home as the skies cleared and just as we rode up the driveway the sun came out to tease us. I couldn’t help breaking out in laughter. We had had every possible kind of weather on this 300km, three-day ride. We had moderate and really cold temperatures, calm stretches, high winds, sporadic rains, overcast skies, a snowstorm, and finally sunshine. I could no longer say that Canada was the ‘Great White North,’ to me. It was now a little bit of everything.
|Jump to Day 1
|Jump to Day 2
|Jump to Day 3
Niagara Region Bicycling Map, 2nd Ed
Including major trails and back roads
Regional Niagara Bicycling Map Committee
The Welland Canal Map
Lock 3 Museum
The Welland Canal Map
Lock 7 Viewing Complex
|Day 1 (116 km)
|Day 2 (126 km)
|Day 3 (56 km)
Stoney Creek –Waterfront Trail
Fifty Point Conservation Area
Welland Canal –
Welland Canal Trail &
Greater Niagara Circle Route
Old Welland Canal
– Friendship Trail
Fort Erie – Niagara River Recreational Trail,
Greater Niagara Circle Route,
Trans Canada Trail
Left trails & used roads