Cheltenham Badlands – If Mars Visited Ontario

When I was around 8, I learned about geology and topsoil in school. We were taught how the soil was formed and how different rocks, climate, vegetation, erosion, and farming affected the colour of the soils. We were taught these things while learning about the Great Canadian Shield and how the Great Lakes were formed. As an 8-year-old, learning these things was EXCITING because when teachers taught ✨ Canadian ✨ things, it always meant there was an opportunity to go on a field trip.

So around this time, I vaguely remember asking my parents to sign me up for a field trip to go somewhere ‘far away’ for geography class. Naïve little me thought we were going to hike in a forest or go to a beach by Lake Ontario. Wow, was I ever wrong!

When I first saw the Cheltenham Badlands, it felt like I was transported straight into the movie ‘The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars’.

How could the soil be SO red!? Why was it called the badlands? It’s scorching hot, a part of Mars must have teleported here!

Thoughts I probably had as a kid

I distinctly remember carefully treading along the edge of the badlands. We were told to keep off the badlands to preserve the fragile land and I was hyperaware of the fact that should I accidentally disturb the bright red soil, it would immediately latch onto my white socks…. and that I’d be in a lot of trouble with my parents later for treading dirt into our home. Back then, the badlands didn’t have any viewing decks established and the only dirt-free path was too narrow for thirty 8-year-old kids to walk in pairs (does anyone remember teachers asking us to find a buddy?). My socks eventually turned a brilliant rust-red shade above the ankles… I can’t recall if I got in trouble or not but the stain never left those socks, a permanent reminder of my strange encounter with the red soil of the badlands.

A screencap from the 1998 Movie: The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars
Image credit:

What are badlands?

Badlands refers to regional terrains with extensive erosion and uncultivatable land. They are characterized by:

  • dry terrain
  • extensive erosion of soft rocks and clay-rich soils
  • minimal vegetation

Well-known examples of badlands include the Badlands National Park located in South Dakota, United States, the Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, Canada, and the Valle de la Luna in midwestern Argentina. Most badland areas are naturally occurring formations as a result of millions of years of deposition and erosion.

About Cheltenham Badlands

Located in Caledon, Ontario, the 91-acre Cheltenham Badlands consists of barren, windswept red hills alternating between deep red rust to bright clay reds with occasional streaks of off-white-kind-of-green bands. It is considered a part of the Niagara Escarpment, a designated UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.

Unlike most badland areas, the Cheltenham Badlands were not a result of gradual deposition and erosion, but rather from poor farming practices.

If we visited this site before the early 1900s this area would have been completely unrecognizable! Ancestors of the Mississauga of the Credit used this land and surrounding areas to hunt, fish, and forage. It would have looked very much like the rest of its neighbouring areas – filled with forests and fields of grass.

From the 1800s to the early 1900s, European settlers cleared the land and established apple orchards, pastures, and farmlands. Then in the 1930s, due to extensive clearing of trees and heavy farming activity from the previous century, the thin and fertile topsoil gave way and exposed the red Queenston Shale that lay below. Once exposed, the soft clay-like Queenston shale allowed for easy erosion, resulting in the badlands that we see today.

Now, thanks to poor farming practices, this mini-dune–that-could-be-found-on-Mars site, is considered one of Ontario’s geological treasures. It is one of the most visited natural heritage landmarks in southern Ontario.

Is Cheltenham Badlands Dog-Friendly?

Yes – both of the official trails offered here are dog-friendly. However dogs must be kept on a 6ft leash and like us, must also stay on the designated trail paths.

Visit Cheltenham Badlands (Allow 15 min to 1.5 hours)

Address: 1739 Olde Base Line Road, Caledon, ON L7C 0K6
Hours of Operation:
The hours of operation are subject to change due to COVID-19 measures and the park gates may be closed if the park capacity is reached.

Reservation Fee: $10 – non-refundable if you cancel your reservation
Parking Fee (weekdays): $10 / vehicle
Parking Fee (weekends): $15/ vehicle
If you have a Conservation Parks Membership, you can reserve your parking spot for free.

Parking and accessing the Badland Trail is maintained by Credit Valley Conservation (CVC). In order to visit the area, you must reserve your timeslot online or by phone: 1-800-367-0890. Your final total will differ depending on whether you’re booking a weekend or a weekday visit. Parking is extremely limited and is restricted to about 30 cars at a time. The parking fee is used to offset the cost of park maintenance as well as fund further conservation efforts. (Previous funds were used to establish the boardwalk, educational signage and maintenance of marked trails)

Please note the cancellation and date change policies:

  • The $10 reservation fee is non-refundable if you choose to cancel your reservation
  • The $10/$15 parking fee is refundable only if you cancel a minimum of 48 hours in advance
  • The parking fee and reservation fee are transferable to a new date in this timeframe.

Parking or stopping by the side of the road is not permitted. The area around the badlands is highly monitored and parking restrictions are strictly enforced by the Ontario Provincial Police as well as the town of Caledon by-law officers. Your parking reservation is valid for 1.5 hours from the start of your reservation time in the area.

If you would like to spend more time on the trail, or if you really want to visit this landscape on a particular day, you may also access the badlands via a shuttle bus service from the Terra Cotta Conservation area (not in service for 2021 due to COVID-19 measures)

Please note traversing the red landscape is not allowed and fenced off as of 2018.

Why is the badlands fenced?

The Cheltenham Badlands is an Environmentally Significant Area (ESA) as the badlands serve as a key groundwater discharge area helping groundwater emerge out into neighbouring streams. Traversing the exposed badlands accelerates the erosion process that poses a detrimental risk to the rare flora and fauna found in the area that depend on these streams to survive.

With a surge in popularity over the last fifty years, the badlands have experienced dramatic erosion losing much as 3.2 meters in height between 1973 and 2009 (See Badlands Background Document posted on Bruce Trail) . In an effort to preserve the beautiful topography, the owners of the land, the Ontario Heritage Trust, chose to close off public access to the area in 2015. Between 2015 to 2018, a dedicated viewing platform was constructed to view access to the badlands.

Make the most of your visit

There are two ‘trails’ that run through the Cheltenham Badland property. The Bruce Trail (1.3km) and the Badlands Trail (325m). Both are easy paths with the Badlands Trail being wheelchair accessible as well. The Bruce Trail is a gentle path with a combination of dirt paths and boardwalks.

To make the most of your reserved 1.5-hour timeslot, CVC recommends the following itinerary to help you see as much of the park as possible in the allocated time:

  1. Start your visit by taking the Bruce Trail from the parking lot
  2. Continue past the Badlands Trail down through the park to Creditview Road
  3. Once you reach Creditview Road, retrace your steps back to the Badlands Trail to head to the view platform
  4. Follow the Badlands Trail signage to enjoy the view and exit the viewing platform at Olde Base Line Road

Note that while photography is highly encouraged, drones are not allowed in the area.

Other Hikes Near Cheltenham Badlands

There are plenty of other hikes in the York, Durham and Headwaters areas that can visit to extend your visit:

How to Support Preservation Efforts at the Cheltenham Badlands

Disclaimer: I am not being paid or earning a commission for the below. I just really like supporting our local parks!

There are many ways you can continue to support the preservation efforts at the Cheltenham Badlands outside of respecting the trail signage when visiting the site.

Ontario Heritage Trust

The Cheltenham Badlands is currently owned by the Ontario Heritage Trust, an agency of the Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism, and Culture Industries. While they are partially supported in part by Government Grants, the Trust raises more than 65% of their funding on their own via program fees, sponsors and support from donors.

They have a mandate to:

  • conserve provincially significant cultural and natural
  • conserve tangible and intangible heritage
  • interpret Ontario’s history
  • celebrate its diversity and
  • educate Ontarians of its importance in our society

Specifically for the Cheltenham Badlands, the Ontario Heritage Trust is

  • responsible for providing access to the property
  • working with partners to plan for the long-term conservation and interpretation of the Badlands property
    • Recent work include improving access to the site, upgrading the trails, enhancing public safety, and introducing new trail wayfinding and onsite/virtual interpretive features

If you are considering supporting the Ontario Heritage Trust’s conservation efforts, consider donating by visiting their ‘Support Us‘ page.

Credit Valley Conservation

Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) is a managing partner of the Cheltenham Badlands property. They are a community-based environmental organization dedicated to protecting, restoring, and managing natural resources of the Credit Valley Watershed. It is one of 36 Conservation Authorities in Ontario. Their mandate is to ensure Ontario’s water, land and natural habitats are conserved, restored, and responsibly managed through watershed-based programs.

Majority of its funding comes from its member municipalities with a portion of their funds coming from a variety of donors and grants.

You can support their efforts by becoming a volunteer with CVC to either:

  • help monitor the natural areas
  • plan a fundraising event
  • educate the public
  • learn about and help protect the environment

Bruce Trail Conservancy

The Bruce Trail Conservancy (BTC) is a member-driven, volunteer-based charitable organization, governed by a 19-member Board of Directors. It is both a trail association and one of Ontario’s largest land trusts, committed to caring for the Bruce Trail and to preserving land along its route – including the Cheltenham Badlands.

Did you know that the Bruce Trail is Canada’s oldest and longest marked footpath? It stretches 900 km from Niagara to Tobermory in Southern Ontario and provides the only continuous public access to the Niagara Escarpment.

However, what many people don’t realize is that the Bruce Trail is not permanently secure and that roughly one-third of the Bruce Trail corridor (that’s 300km of footpaths!) is vulnerable to development.

The BTC is working to fill in the gaps, to secure a home for the Bruce Trail and preserve a ribbon of wilderness along the Niagara Escarpment through the acquisition of land and the creation of BTC-managed protected natural areas.

You can support the Bruce Trail Conservancy by becoming a member of BTC, or volunteering your time with one of its 9 member chapters to maintain and preserve the thousands of acres of land owned by the conservancy.

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