CALEDON, Ont. — As Lynne Jereza gazes out at the hillocks and gullies rolling across the Cheltenham Badlands in southern Ontario, she feels a sense of calm wash over her.
“You can meditate here,” Jereza said as peered down at the desolate landscape, red clay still drying from a spring shower the night before.
Her relative, Joanna Jose, wanted to give the California resident a taste of the natural splendour in Caledon, about an hour’s drive northwest of Toronto.
For years, Jose made the pilgrimage from Brampton to the badlands every fall to see the grey-banded rusty hills surrounded by a forest full of multi-colour leaves. But even she wasn’t sure what to expect as she returned to the site for the first time since it was closed off to visitors in 2015.
The Ontario Heritage Trust, which owns the more than 36-acre property, re-opened the badlands last fall after a years-long conservation project to protect the fragile topography.
The geological origins of the badlands date back more than 400 million years ago, when most of North America was submerged in a shallow sea, said Kevin DeMille, natural heritage co-ordinator for the provincial trust. Ancient rivers carried mud and sand, and deposited it into a delta. Over time, the sediment was compacted into Queenston Formation, which covers swaths of Ontario and New York.
Queenston shale is rich in iron, which gives the clay its distinct red hue, and causes the chemical reaction with groundwater that create green-grey streaks throughout the stone, said DeMille.
In the early 1900s, farmers cleared the land of vegetation and soil cover, exposing the shale to the elements. This rapidly accelerated erosion, resulting in the gullies and ridges that are today considered one of the best examples of badland topography in Ontario.
But as thousands of visitors flocked to the photogenic destination over the years, DeMille said it eventually became clear that one of the forces that helped shape the badlands was threatening its longevity — human activity.
Recent studies by the University of Toronto researchers have shown that since the early 1970s, the elevation of the shale had declined by up to three metres in some areas, suggesting human activity had accelerated this natural process of erosion, said DeMille.
To ensure the ecologically sensitive site will be accessible to future generations, a boardwalk has been installed to allow visitors to view the site, while restricting them from trampling all over the delicate soil.
“(The badlands are) special because it’s not going to last forever,” said David Orr, a superintendent with the Credit Valley Conservation, which manages the site. “We made it, and now we’re trying to protect it.”
Orr said safety features had also been put in place, such as paving a new 33-spot parking lot and sidewalk to ensure visitors can make their way to the main attraction without encountering traffic on the countryside road.
A 500-metre trail has also been cleared for hiking, and panels have been put up to inform visitors about the site’s historical and geological significance.
In the roughly five weeks the badlands were open to the public last fall, the site drew more than 14,000 visitors, according to Credit Valley Conservation, and Orr said he expects the spring and summer months to be just as busy.
“People say it’s out of this world. It looks like you’re on Mars, or it looks like you’re in a different country,” he said. “It changes, so we get people who want to come out in the spring, in the fall, in the summer, because the sun reflection on the clay looks different each time you’re here.”
Jose was satisfied as she took in the changes that had been made to the site. Before, she said, the badlands were crowded with visitors posing for photos and dancing all over the soil.
Now, Jose said, people can “just enjoy the beauty and relax.”
If You Go…
— On-site parking is $6.50 per hour or $10 for two hours, but spots tend to fill up quickly. Visitors are encouraged to come on weekdays or during off-peak hours to avoid congestion.
— Shuttles running to the Cheltenham Badlands are available at the Terra Cotta Conservation Area, which includes the service in the price of admission.
— Learn more about the Cheltenham Badlands at https://cvc.ca/enjoy-the-outdoors/conservation-areas/cheltenham-badl https