The long and winding road named for Olmsted
For Frederick Law Olmsted, getting there was half the fun.
That’s clear from his writings and from the gently sloping, meandering 6.6-kilometre pedestrian and bike road on Mount Royal that bears the landscape architect’s name.
The mountain’s grandest views are “greater when they are made distinct spectacles or when they are enjoyed as successive incidents of a sustained poem, to each of which the mind is gradually and sweetly led up,” the designer of Mount Royal Park wrote in 1881, five years after the 200-hectare oasis opened.
Olmsted wanted to “reinforce the spirit of the mountain,” says Jean-Michel Villanove, head of public programming at Les Amis de la montagne.
“It’s a little hill — he wanted its mountainous spirit to come out. For that, he created a long road that allowed people to immerse themselves in different areas, different ambiences.
“He wanted visitors to take their time and discover the mountain on their way up so they could feel the therapeutic effects of nature and enjoy the beauty of the landscapes.”
Our walk starts at the Sir George-Étienne-Cartier monument on Park Ave., near Duluth Ave. (Look for signs indicating you’re on Chemin Olmsted, heading in the direction of Beaver Lake/Mount Royal Chalet.)
The road, which covers the breadth of the mountain’s southern flank, starts at an open gathering place (site of the Sunday Tam-tams) and then runs parallel to busy Park Ave. as you head in the direction of Mont-Royal Ave. But you’ll soon be immersed in nature.
You feel the presence of the mountain as the forest gradually becomes denser and then you’re walking along the bottom of a steep escarpment, an area Olmsted referred to as “the Crags.”
This part of the road is nice and wide (enough to fit two lanes of car traffic if it was allowed here) and the trees that line it provide a welcome canopy on hot summer days.
About two kilometres from the start, you’ll reach the steep staircase (near the Peel St. entrance to the mountain) that reaches the chalet and adjacent Kondiaronk Lookout.
It’s one of the shortcuts you can take if you don’t want to walk the entirety of Olmsted Rd. If Olmsted is too long for you, along the way secondary trails perpendicular to the road also act as bypasses.
Many benches provide respites along Olmsted, Mount Royal’s busiest path.
On a recent visit in mid-July, I was joined by countless ramblers, runners, women pushing strollers, plus one sweaty shirtless man on roller skis. Plenty of cyclists were also here as this is one of the few Mount Royal pathways where bikes are officially allowed.
If you stick to Olmsted Rd. past the stairs, you’ll come upon a vestige of the days when calèches plied the road, known at the time as Chemin des Calèches/Carriage Drive. It’s a water trough — a feature now used by horses in the Montreal police cavalry unit, which has stables near Smith House.
For the next kilometre or so, you’re in a densely forested area.
Soon, there will be a break from the forest, a restorative stopover before you continue toward the summit.
Coming around a bend, you’ll catch a glimpse of soothing water. You’ve reached Beaver Lake and the large, inviting clearing before it, a grassy area dotted with trees whose shade creates popular summer picnic spots.
If you didn’t pack a meal, you can buy food and drinks at the restaurant on Beaver Lake or the smaller café at Smith House welcome centre further down Olmsted Rd.
After Smith House, you’ll reach a 2.2-kilometre section of Olmsted Rd. that’s referred to as the “Boucle du Sommet” on signs and maps.
The ring road, whose focal point is the chalet, encircles the top of the mountain and is not as shady as the first section. I made the mistake of walking it in the mid-day sun during a heat wave. You have been warned.
Despite the challenging conditions, I pressed on, getting close-up views of two mountain structures that Montrealers normally only see from kilometres away.
First, the unsightly red-and-white, multi-pronged broadcasting antenna that soars 112 metres in the air and transmits signals for about 20 local radio and TV stations.
Second: the iconic 30-metre-high steel cross, installed to commemorate the wooden cross planted in 1643 by Montreal co-founder Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve to thank God for saving the colony from floods.
Be sure to also visit Mount Royal’s unheralded peak (233 metres), though alas there is no view here.
You have to know where you’re going as there is no sign or explanatory panel.
From the main path, you’ll see a second antenna — this one white and shorter than the broadcasting one — at the end of a secondary path.
A city of Montreal communications antenna used by emergency services, it’s in an unmarked clearing atop a shabby mound covered with patchy grass, weeds and dirt.
This is the mountain’s topmost point.
It’s a far cry from what Olmsted proposed for this location, an area he described as the “crown of the mountain.”
Olmsted wanted this spot to be the end point of a walk to the summit, suggesting a restaurant be built here, as well as an elevated platform from which mountain-goers could take in a 360-degree view of the city, according to Charles E. Beveridge, a historian who has written extensively about Olmsted.
Designed to resemble an old French farmhouse, “the most distinctive feature of the (proposed) structure was the viewing tower that Olmsted envisaged, rising high enough to provide a panoramic view and appearing to the surrounding countryside like an actual crowning form, sheathed in tin or — preferably — gilded copper,” Beveridge wrote in a 2009 study of Olmsted’s Mount Royal plan.
That vision never became a reality.
The last stop before you head back is a small lookout on Olmsted Rd. near the communications antenna, offering a sweeping view that includes Mount Royal’s two other summits: Outremont (211 metres) and Westmount (201 metres).
Like many of the mountain’s secondary lookouts, the view is partially obstructed, with trees in need of a trim.
After more than two hours of wandering the mountain, I wasn’t about to retrace my steps.
So after leaving Olmsted Rd., I made my way to Camillien-Houde Way and was whisked away by an air-conditioned 711 Parc-du-Mont-Royal/Oratoire bus. A summer-only bus route, it will take you from the top of the mountain to the bowels of Montreal, with stops at the Snowdon and Mont-Royal métro stations.
IF YOU GO
Difficulty level: Easy but long
Starts: Sir George-Étienne-Cartier monument on Park Ave.
Ends: Mount Royal Chalet
Distance: 6.6 kilometres
Estimated time: 2.5 hours
Accessibility: Gentle slopes make this ideal for people pushing strollers.
Cycling: Bikes are welcome on Olmsted Rd.
Parking: Street parking near Sir George-Étienne-Cartier monument.