The Cheltenham Badlands occupy a special spot in my heart. Its unique topography and colour conjured images of the Mars Rover exploring the red planet, beckoning my family on our own expeditions. Summer evenings were particularly magical: watching the sunset’s effects on the slopes and valleys, listening to the excited chatter of my dinosaur-obsessed kids on their hunt for brontosaurus prints. On a night filled with shooting stars, we lay on blankets with friends pointing out the show above, the Badlands providing an other-worldly backdrop. Although we trod lightly and mindfully, we came to learn that each of our footfalls were culminating in its gradual erosion. It was with nostalgic sadness, but greater understanding, that we ceased our Badlands’ adventures and the kids settled for glimpses of their childhood playground with slow drive-bys. With a surge in visitors, its erosion accelerated—a University of Toronto study estimates that since the 70s, approximately 3 meters have been lost from its top level—causing the owners of the land, the Ontario Heritage Trust, to close off public access in 2015.
The term “badlands” was borrowed from early French-Canadian fur traders who called the challenging landscape “les mauvaises terre à traverser”, “the bad lands to cross”. It was subsequently adopted as geological jargon. The Cheltenham Badlands is a unique treasure which was first formed at the base of an ancient sea over 450 million years ago. At around the 250 million year mark, the waters finally dried up revealing layers of stone and sediment. Erosion from rain, snow, wind and humans caused its crater-like hills, gullies and rolling landscape. Naturally high-in-iron Queenston Shale covers the land giving it its red hue, its grey-green streaks are attributed to a chemical reaction from acidic groundwater that flowed through the shale many years ago. Such sites are rare in Ontario, indeed in Canada, and according to Ontario Trails, the Cheltenham Badlands is one of the best examples. TripAdvisor lists it as the number one out of 26 things to do in Caledon.
In addition to its Instagram-worthy setting and geological importance, the Badlands are historically relevant. For thousands of years, Indigenous people hunted, fished, foraged and established complex agricultural communities in the region. Ancestors of the Mississaugas of the Credit lived off of the land seasonally in temporary villages. When European settlers arrived, they removed trees and other vegetation to build their homes and farms, planted crops and orchards, and introduced cattle. This clearing, along with their farming practices, eventually caused the erosion of the shallow topsoil rendering it unsuitable for further farming or communal sustainability.
Located at 1739 Olde Base Line Road, Caledon, the Cheltenham Badlands re-opened to the public in September 2018 after extensive conservation efforts that included fencing off the vulnerable land, and adding a 33-car parking lot and an aesthetically-appealing, accessible boardwalk which serves as a panoramic viewing platform for the magnificent feature. According to Credit Valley Conservation (CVC), by the time it closed for the season at the end of October, over 14,000 people had visited, sometimes as many as 1,000 in a day. Since the 2019 season opened on April 19, the Badlands has seen approximately 50,000 visitors! Weekends and holidays are the busiest so Jamie Williams with the CVC highly recommends that you stop by on weekdays or off-peak hours (early morning or late in the day). It is open annually from mid-April to late-October and the current hours of operation are between 8a.m. and 7p.m. until October 27.
Headwaters boasts spectacular Fall colours and the feature and the trails that surround it are no exception. Pay and display parking costs $6.50 per hour or $10 for 2 hours (coins or credit cards), and the viewing area can be accessed by either walking along the Bruce Trail then turning right onto the Badlands Trail, or by following the sidewalk that runs parallel to the road. There is one accessible space for valid permit holders right beside the boardwalk. The parking lot is monitored and the no parking/stopping/standing restrictions along the road is heavily enforced by OPP and by the town of Caledon by-law officers. The parking fee in place to support the management and preservation of the site, and if you show your receipt on the same at any other of the CVC Parks, you will receive a discount equal to your Badlands’ payment off of your general admission fee. If you have a CVC membership, simply place your card face-up on your dash for free parking.
On-site amenities include a free bike-rack (remember your lock), porta-potties, educational signage, and clear trailhead maps to the .32km Badlands Trail and the 1.32km Bruce Trail (walking shoes necessary). Leashed dogs are permitted but no biking, horseback riding, or drones.
Due to abundant traffic each weekend, the CVC highly recommends you take advantage of their shuttle system from Terra Cotta Conservation Park. The Shuttle Service runs on weekends and holidays from June 1 to the end of the season and leaves every hour on the half-hour from 10:30a.m. to 4:30p.m. and returns from the Badlands every hour on the hour starting at 11a.m. Be sure to catch the last shuttle back at 5p.m.—if you miss it, it will be your responsibility to call for a local taxi service to return you to your vehicle and at your expense. The bus is complimentary with your paid admission to the Terra Cotta park: $6.50/adult, $5/senior, and $3/child. Cash, debit and credit are accepted and your receipt will allow you to visit other CVC parks for the rest of the day. No pets are permitted on the shuttle with the exception of service dogs. You can carry whatever fits reasonably on your lap but no hard-sided coolers or other large items please. Be sure to make time to explore some of the 485 acres of the Niagara Escarpment that the Terra Cotta park sits on. The park provides washroom facilities, picnic areas, a visitors’ centre with refreshments and a Trail System that runs through forests, fields and wetlands.
CVC is currently looking at adding additional shuttles to their Thanksgiving weekend schedule so visit their Shuttle Service FAQ website for the most up-to-date times and information. They also suggest you check the CVC website and/or their Facebook/Twitter pages before heading out for possible changes to operating hours and/or shuttle bus times, particularly during inclement weather.
My family recently returned to the Badlands for the first time since its re-opening and were not disappointed. We went on a weeknight after dinner, had no problem scoring a parking space and an hour was exactly what we needed to view the feature, read all of the new interpretive signage, take some selfies, and walk the Bruce Trail to Creditview Road and back. The kids, too old now to search for dino-prints, appreciated the preservation of the historically-significant, environmentally-sensitive site and we all marveled at how fortunate we are to have this in our backyard. So please, help ensure its survival for future generations by abiding by the rules of not treading on the land, even for a quick photo-op, stay on the marked trails and viewing platform—be kind to the Badlands—take nothing but photos, leave with nothing but memories.
Written by: Robina Lord-Stafford
– Lord-Stafford is a Orangeville-based freelance writer and screenwriter. Follow her on Twitter: @robinanat