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Some tips on
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Canyon on the Grand
Ontario’s Upper Grand River Valley

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By Pat Mestern

Although First Nations peoples knew of the Canyon for centuries, folklore has it that Jacque Cartier was the first white person to traverse its rugged terrain. The second sighting was possibly by Jesuit Father Joseph de La Roche Daillon in 1627. The Neutral Indians called the area at that time Tinaatoua, "Place of the Violent Water." Today, the upper Grand River valley in Southern Ontario is noted for natural beauty, rural charm and Scots/Irish culture that reflects admirably in the area’s built heritage. From the Grand’s headwaters on the Dundalk Plain to its breathtaking fall through the canyon area, which includes a series of limestone gorges and outcrops between Fergus and Elora, visitors are immersed in early Ontario history, architectural heritage and unspoiled nature.

The portion of the Grand River, known as the Upper Valley, exudes a classic rural beauty not yet spoiled by rampant development. Now designated as one of Canada’ heritage rivers, the Grand flows through many diverse landscapes before it reaches Lake Erie at Port Maitland. None is more beautiful then the first forty miles, from its source near Dundalk to Pilkington Flats, where waters flow under the last remaining covered bridge in Ontario at West Montrose.

Charlie's Bridge West Garafraxa

Former black slaves, who first settled the valley in the mid 1820's, called the area near their settlement that encompassed a narrow river channel and high limestone cliffs, "Canyon of the Grand." Scots and Irish immigrants who explored the valley during the early 1830's saw the industrial possibilities of the water’s power as it tumbled and boiled through this restricted stone canyon. Communities were founded. Bridges, roads, homes and mills were built. The valley’s fertile soil provided a comfortable living for anyone who was willing to work hard. Its villages became home to wealthy and poor. An influx of famine Irish and clearance Scots during the mid-eighteen hundreds swelled valley population and ensured its place in history. Many descendants of original pioneer families live in the valley today. While appreciating and preserving built and natural heritage, they realize that it was the river which brought their ancestors to the area; and it is the river which still attracts thousands people today. Keeping that in mind, they welcome visitor with open arms and friendly faces.

Elora GorgeEach of the valley’s communities presents a different and unique face. Grand Valley nestles on the river’s bank near its headwaters and Luther Marsh. An early 1800's journalist was convinced that the boggy, oozing mass of water and natural matter resembled a bowl, was the head of an extinct volcano. Early environmentalists referred to the area " as the lungs of the river, breathing water into its channel". Salem, by Elora, hugs the cliffs of Irvine Creek, a tributary stream that has carved its own gorge through solid limestone. Belwood sits at the edge of manmade Lake Belwood, seven miles east of Fergus, the largest town in the valley. The communities of Elora and Fergus share spectacular gorge areas and spread prettily up wooded hills on both sides of the lush, fertile valley.

Architectural aficionados appreciate the self-guided walking tours provided by Centre Wellington Chamber of Commerce. Being a community of Celtic heritage, Fergus also has a self-guided ghost tour, available at the tourism office. The town’s heritage area, reminiscent of Scottish streetscapes, has more than one hundred and thirty historic buildings. Many have plaques, giving information on the year built, first owner and his occupation. The Grand’s first gorge area begins in midtown Fergus where waters tumble over several high dams before roaring into Mirror Basin & The Whirlpool behind Templin Gardens, Theatre On The Grand and Fergus Market.

Elora’s pretty Mill Street, anchored by the massive Elora Mill Inn & Restaurant, is tucked along the river. Tooth of Time, where waters thunder down a spectacular high rapid and spill violently into the lower gorge, is located behind the Mill. A quarter of a mile west of Elora’s business district, two limestone gorges meet at right angles as Irvine Creek joins the Grand at Lover’s Leap. High Bridge on David Street gives an excellent overview of a rugged landscape, as does the Leap’s outcrop of rock reached by a footpath through a cedar corps.

Monkland MillsThe Valley is noted for its summer activities that include professional summer theatre, art exhibits, music festivals and other cultural events. Theatre is well represented with three venues within a thirty mile radius of Fergus - Theatre Orangeville, Drayton Festival Theatre and Theatre on the Grand. All are presented in restored heritage buildings. Elora Festival is known for its "Concerts in the Quarry" series. This three-week celebration of music is held each year during the latter part of July and first week in August. Art is well represented through private galleries and special exhibits mounted at Wellington County Museum, a c1877 designated national heritage site located between Fergus and Elora. While this museum’s permanent collection of artifacts is much admired their archives, which is one of the best in Ontario, attracts researchers from across North America. Scottish culture is celebrated during the second weekend of August each year when Fergus holds its annual Scottish Festival.

The southern reaches of the valley is home to descendants of one of Ontario’s oldest immigrant populations. Prosperous Mennonite farms are prevalent in the lower valley. A drive along Middlebrook Road which parallels the river below Elora, takes visitors past well kept farms where fresh produce, eggs and quilts can be purchased. Do not forget to visit West Montrose Covered Bridge, the only surviving original covered bridge in Ontario. Known locally as "The Kissing Bridge", it is as unique as the upper valley’s concrete arched bowstring bridges. These arched masterpieces of concrete and steel rod, surprise visitors who drive the byways with their delicate and graceful arches. They were built by an early Italian immigrant who wanted to contribute a built art form to the Canyon of the Grand area of Southern Ontario. Come soon to see the remaining bowstring beauties that progress, large farm equipment and local government have allowed to stand - for the time being.

Bowstring Bridge

Valley accommodations range from quaint country inns to superb bed & breakfast establishments. Modern hotel and motel facilities are available in Guelph, Kitchener and Waterloo, a short drive away.

For those interested in recreational activities, the conservations areas of Belwood Lake and Elora Gorge provide swimming, boating, fishing and hiking. The Canyon of the Grand area is known for excellent "catch and release" fly fishing. Pilkington Flats is a particularly good place for record catches. Fly fishing seminars are held each June at Lake Belwood for the dedicated angler. Hiking is a major activity in the valley. Trails criss-cross the area, the most popular being "Elora to Cataract", easily accessed in Fergus or Elora. Canoeing the canyon area can be an exhilarating experience for those who have some experience. Grand River Conservation Authority has an excellent publication and video that will assist the canoe enthusiast.


  • For a free visitor’s map of Wellington County, Grand River Heritage pamphlet, fishing pamphlets, walking and ghost tours, community and accommodations guides and information on all valley events. Elora Public Library has a walk-in information centre also which can supply the same materials.

  • Wellington County Museum & Archives is located at

  • Information on Belwood and Elora Conservation areas, parks and recreational facilities can be obtained by contacting

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