Learn all about Toronto's ancient Scarborough Bluffs | Great Lakes Guide

Environment and Education

Learn all about Toronto's ancient Scarborough Bluffs

Published May 1, 2019

“Connecting people back to Lake Ontario and Bluffer's Beach has created this incredible new movement of people who care deeply about the water, are learning about it, becoming water-literate, and becoming the voices for the future.”

Mark Mattson, Founder and President of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and Swim Drink Fish

Standing on the sublime cliffs of the Scarborough Bluffs, you can feel as though you’ve left the city, or even the country.

During the summer, the water is an inviting shade of aquamarine, and lush greenery envelops you from all around. In the winter, stripped of greenery, the monumental rock face has perhaps an even more focal presence in the area.

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Benson Kua (Wikimedia Commons: Link)

The Bluffs run 15 kilometres from the foot of Victoria Park to the opening of Highland Creek. At their highest, they reach 90 metres to the sky (that’s twenty-five storeys tall!). They are, in a word, majestic.

History of the Scarborough Bluffs

The cliff was once the shoreline of the prehistoric Glacial Lake Iroquois, which existed about 13,000 years ago where Lake Ontario is today. For this reason, the Bluffs have acted as a geological record of various sedimentary and glacial deposits over the course of the region’s history. Unfortunately, land developments have damaged the area.

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Yu-Chan Chen (Flickr: Link)

Land Development and Erosion

The Scarborough Bluffs are beautiful, but threatened by erosion from the homes that sit upon it. The price of a breathtaking view has an ecological cost. Erosion has damaged the Bluffs as well as private property, and the rate at which it progresses is rapidly accelerating.

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Viv Lynch (Flickr: Link)

What has impacted the development of the Bluffs?

The Scarborough Bluffs have been heavily shaped not only by development, but also by water. As the edges of Lake Ontario touch the Bluffs, they wear away the material at the escarpment’s base, which can lead to instability.

Water runoff also erodes the Bluff’s soil, leading to landslides. Seasonal changes play a part in slope failures, too. When water in the ground freezes in the winter, it expands, and when it melts in the summer, it compresses. These shifts can result in further instabilities.

Water quality and frequent beach closings have also been a problem for the Bluffs in the past. Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and Swim Guide have been fundamental in restoring, maintaining, and protecting the waters in Lake Ontario.

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Kyra Savolainen (Flickr: Link)

Mark Mattson, the Founder and President of Swim Drink Fish, explains:

    “When I think of Bluffer's, I don’t just think of the fact that it’s a great beach in Toronto. I think of it as being at the forefront of our learning and our insight into how to win back swimmable, drinkable, fishable water for everyone right across the country.”

Mattson recalls that in the middle of July in 2006, only ten people were counted on Bluffer's Beach. Only two were actually in the water.

This was because bacteria caused chronic water quality problems at the beach. The beach failed to meet government water quality guidelines more than 80% of the summer.

But if you go down to the beach today, you’re likely to see hundreds of people cooling off in the refreshing and rejuvenating waters of Lake Ontario.

Mattson and Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, a Swim Drink Fish Initiative, investigated the pollution problems at Bluffer's a published a report. The City of Toronto responded by restoring the beach.

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Norman Maddeaux (Flickr: Link)

What can you do at the Scarborough Bluffs?

Preserving the Bluffs is vital. Many parks are located either on top of it or at its base, some of the most popular being Bluffer's Park, Cathedral Bluffs Park, and Crescentwood park.

The Bluffs are a popular spot for hiking, picnicking, boating, beach-going, and a host of other recreational activities. The Scarborough Bluffs are also home to an abundance of wildlife, such as Bald Eagles, Snapping Turtles, Minks, and Trumpeter Swans.

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Don Gunn (Flickr: Link)

The Bluffs offer a peaceful refuge from the hustle and bustle of city-living, and their 10km shoreline is the only nearby beach for the multitude of people living in Scarborough’s east end of Toronto.

    The Bluffs are one of the most awe-inspiring features of Lake Ontario, and are well worth a visit!

Read Lake Ontario Waterkeeper's 2005 report on Bluffer's beach pollution.

Check out Bluffer's Beach for a stunning view of the cliffs and Lake Ontario. On this page you'll find water quality data from Swim Guide, Blue Flag status, and up-to-date weather information.