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Getting Outside, Locally: Four Ways To Find A Nature Fix Close To Your Urban Home

This winter paradise can be found in the City of Guelph on conservation lands. 
We all know that getting outside in nature is a curing prescription for all kinds of ailments. The great thing about this prescription is that it is often free and easy to obtain. But if you don't live in an area that is traditionally thought to be an outdoor adventure lovers' playground, it's easy to get trapped into thinking you have to drive at least a few hours to find the right spot, making it easy to put off taking a good healthy dose of "outside".  It's also easy to think that provincial and national parks are the only way to experience the outdoors. As awesome as our recognized, government-run parks can be, they aren't the only places to enjoy nature! The great outdoors are everywhere and awesome experiences can be found right outside your home, only a few minutes (or just a few steps) away. Here are four ways you can find a little bit of outdoor paradise in the city, and spend more time outside without investing  a lot of money or travel time.

1) Be A Backyard Explorer

This one is so obvious, but people just don't do it often enough. Do you have a yard or park within walking distance from your home or workplace? You don't always need to hit the trails to get a slice of nature. In warm weather, take time to sit in the grass and do some creative cloud watching or do a local bird count.  Try to identify the plant life around you. Is any of it native to your area? Winter is a great time to look for and identify animal tracks. Head out to your yard or closest park and go on a safari. Try to identify the tracks you see in the snow and then try to figure out the story behind them.

Urban wildlife in my backyard! 
 2) Contact City Hall

Check out your city's website and find out about the trails in your town. A quick search can give you locations, descriptions and maps of the trails developed and maintained by your city. This is a great way to discover your town and municipal trails are free for users. Well, sort of free. If you pay taxes, you are also paying for the trails. So get out there and use them! It only took me five minutes to find information about city trails in Toronto, Hamilton, Guelph, Kitchener-Waterloo, Ottawa, Windsor, Sarnia, and London. All I entered into my search was "City of ...... nature trails".

An urban trail in the City of Guelph.

3) Have A Watershed Moment

Check out your closest Conservation Authority (CA) and visit a Conservation Area. As the Conservation Ontario website states, Conservation Authorities are "community based watershed management agencies dedicated to conserving, restoring, and managing Ontario’s natural resources on a watershed basis."  The CA's manage Conservation Areas, which are "are natural lands that are owned and managed by Conservation Authorities. Hidden within these natural gems are lakes, rivers, and streams as well as wetlands, sand dunes, beaches, waterfalls, caves, and forests- just waiting to be explored.

There are so many great things to say about Conservation Areas that I should probably write a post just about them. But here's what I want you to know about them in this particular post.... Many conservation areas offer camping, trails for hiking and biking, and  rivers and/or lakes for swimming, fishing and paddling. Many of these areas also offer excellent programs that teach you about the natural  - and sometimes cultural - habitats protected and managed by the CA.  

I live in Guelph, Ontario and am fortunate to have close access to two different Conservation Authority lands:  the Grand River Conservation Authority Parks and Halton Conservation Parks.

Check out Conservation Ontario's site to locate your local CA. There are conservation areas that are located within or right on the edge of city limits, and can be accessible via public transit. Note that Conservation Areas usually charge admission fees.

Hilton Falls Conservation Area. This beautiful spot is only 25 minutes away from my suburban home in Guelph, Ontario
4) Explore Agreement Forests and Conservation Tracts

These areas can be a little harder to find, but if your city is anything like mine you could be pleasantly surprised at how many small tracts of land with forests and trails dot the landscape of your town. Agreement forests in Ontario are generally managed by the municipality in which they are found, or the Conservation Authority responsible for that particular watershed. These tracts of land may have been homesteads and farmland at some point, but were then donated for conservation. Hiking through these areas is often very pretty, somewhat wild and a bit of a history lesson. Old building foundations can be found, and you may find yourself walking through the remnants of old orchards.  

If you have an outdoor outfitter's store in your town, talk to the people working there to find out where the agreement forests can be found, or check-in with a local hiking club. Believe it or not, people with dogs can also be a great source of information on where you can find some great tracts of forest within your city.  Often, a tell-tale sign of an agreement forest is a small parking area off a side-road, full of cars on a nice day. But all you can see near the parking lot is a forest! 

A trail in an Agreement Forest, managed by the Grand River Conservation Authority. This spot is a 10 minute drive from my house in the city.

Where are your favourite places to get outside, go explore and do stuff when you need a nature-fix, but want to stay close to home? Share your tips and favourite places by leaving a comment below.