You can drive up and park near the nature reserve and bird sanctuary on Mount Royal’s western peak, but part of this trek’s appeal is getting close to the stately Westmount mansions that line the public stairs above The Boulevard.
The lowest of Mount Royal’s three peaks at 201 metres, Westmount’s Summit Woods is a green oasis prized by birdwatchers, dog walkers, joggers and people who just want to walk in a rare patch of urban wilderness.
Birders flock to this forest, binoculars in hand, particularly during spring migration. And dog walkers love it in part because they can forego leashes between late fall and early spring when nesting and foraging birds aren’t at risk.
The dog walkers include Michael Walsh, who writes the Westmount Overlooked blog about his walks with his Saint Bernard.
“The biodiversity is really quite spectacular — the plants and the bushes that have taken root there,” he said. “And if you’re lucky you can see a barn owl resting in the tall trees near the city information signpost” in the middle of the woods.
Though Summit Woods has been a public green space in the middle of Montreal since the early 1940s, the closest many Montrealers have gotten to the 23-hectare urban forest is a visit to the adjacent and better-known Westmount Lookout, located on a southeastern stretch of Summit Circle road.
A walk in the forest, open to all and not exclusively to Westmounters, is your chance to see another side of Westmount — the wild side.
My walk up the slope started on the public stairs at the end of Aberdeen Ave., just north of The Boulevard.
Westmount’s public staircases, some in concrete and others made of wood, are a reminder of the days when people didn’t mind walking to get where they were going. Some run next to the front doors and backyards of some of Montreal’s priciest real estate.
Turn around as you start your climb and admire your first view: Nuns’ Island and the St. Lawrence River.
At the end of the first set of stairs, a winding paved path with a gentle slope leads to another staircase from which you reach Sunnyside Ave. and the rarified air of upper Westmount.
At the top, turn around and see how the other half lives by taking in the view beyond the manicured lawn and deck of an adjacent palatial home, valued at $4.6 million. The new Champlain Bridge is taking shape in the distance.
Keep walking on Summit Crescent for another block and you’ll reach the unassuming entrance to Summit Woods: a modest path covered in wood chips, its edges lined with Queen Anne’s Lace plants.
A few feet inside, you’ll find a sign declaring the space to be the Summit Woods and explaining the rules: no bikes, closed from midnight to 5 a.m., dogs must be on leashes at this time of year, no picking flowers or plants.
Once inside, you’ll find a maze of narrow paths and wide trails.
They’re not marked but the park is small enough that it would be hard to get lost for long. Google Maps on your phone will show you the trails. A map is posted near the middle of the park; to reach it, walk along the trail that runs along Summit Circle.
I preferred to wander aimlessly.
Dirt paths criss-cross the woods. They’re mostly flat, though some include gentle slopes; a gully crosses part of the forest. You’ll pass a red oak grove, a black cherry grove and a section featuring sugar maples. Lush greenery, fallen trees and rock formations line some of the trails.
On my last visit in June, the woods were deserted, apart from a dog walker and a jogger.
There are no official places to sit but you can take a break on a tree stump.
Small mammals and amphibians are known to live in the Woods but my only non-human companions were squirrels, snails and mosquitoes.
Birdsong is ever present and several birds of prey could be seen soaring over the nearby Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery. A peregrine falcon is known to visit the Woods from its nest at the Université de Montréal.
The land that now makes up much of the Woods was bought up by tobacco tycoon Sir William Macdonald and given to McGill University in 1895.
The concrete base of an observatory McGill built on the site is still visible. The summit was also home to the radio tower for North America’s first radio station, CFCF, which launched in 1922.
McGill sold the site to Westmount in 1940 for $300,000 with the stipulation that it remain “a park and playground in perpetuity.”
The Summit Circle road used to cut off the northern part of Summit Woods. But Westmount permanently closed 500 metres of the 1.5-kilometre road to traffic in 2016, embarking on a $1.3-million “renaturalization” plan completed in 2017.
The paved road was replaced with a four-metre-wide gravel path and reforested land. More than 3,000 trees of various sizes were planted. About 2,300 square metres of green space was added to the woods.
A steep, narrow path from the main section of the woods takes you down to the new path.
There’s a lookout from which you can see part of the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery and, in the distance, the Outremont summit. Stand on a boulder and crane your neck and you can also catch a glimpse of the transmission antenna near the Mount Royal summit.
The section below this new gravel path features some alluring walking paths but keep your wits about you.
I mistakenly wandered off one of them and ended up on a narrow, uncharted path that went by a steep dropoff. I could have easily lost my footing and broken my neck.
This uncharted path took me to Belvedere Rd., a winding road that reaches Côte-des-Neiges Rd., which runs between Summit Woods and Mount Royal Park.
I turned around and made my way back through the Woods, thinking I would return in the spring for some birdwatching.
Many of the birds spend the winter in Central or South America and have flown hundreds of miles to get this far, a city of Westmount information panel tells me. “They are in brightly coloured breeding plumage, and very vocal during the prelude to the mating season.” Some stop to feed and rest, others stay and nest.
“From a bird’s-eye view, this knoll appears like a green beacon for warblers seeking a stopover; the woods are a refuge, the fresh vegetation containing the promise of a feast of insects,” John Fretz wrote of the Summit Woods in Westmount Magazine.
“Indeed, the banks of trilliums that peak on Mother’s Day in mid-May are a delight to the inhabitants who visit the summit’s pathways, as much as they are a benefit to the feeding warblers.”
I exited on the southern side to take in the Westmount Lookout. Twenty metal markers are embedded in the balustrade, letting visitors zoom in on the Adirondack and Green Mountains, Mont Saint-Hilaire, Mont Rougemont and other spots in the distance.
From there, I walked west down Upper Bellevue to Sunnyside Ave., peeking between the big manors to take in the views. If curtains are open, you can sometimes see right through houses, admiring the living room vistas some enjoy.
Then I headed back to the stairs that would take me back to The Boulevard.
In the middle of the day, only the din of gardeners’ lawn mowers and contractors’ tools could be heard among the stone mansions.
With the forest and affluence at my back, the stairs led me back to reality.
- Reaching Mount Royal’s second major lookout
- The stairs to the peak
- Mount Royal’s first no-through-traffic project
IF YOU GO
Difficulty level: Medium
Starts: Aberdeen Ave., just north of The Boulevard
Ends: The Boulevard and Renfrew Ave.
Distance: About 3 kilometres
Estimated time: 1.5 hours
Accessibility: Due to the dirt surface, slopes and tree roots, most paths are not accessible to wheelchairs and strollers. But the gravel Summit Circle path is flat, with a gravel surface.
Transit: The STM’s 66 bus runs along The Boulevard.
Cycling: Bikes are not allowed in Summit Woods.
Parking: Available on Westmount streets and at a nine-car parking lot at the corner of Summit Circle and Summit Rd.