Cycling in Cornwall: the Ultimate Urban Loop

burger bar in Cornwall
burger bar in Cornwall

Cycling in Cornwall was not really on the agenda this year, but early October we decided to visit a friend who owns a small hobby farm not far from Cornwall. Being so close we thought we might as well plan an urban cycle tour of Cornwall, a town situated on the St Lawrence river on the Canadian – American border.

I have to admit, I have only been to Cornwall twice in my life. I hardly have any memories of it. Cornwall, less than 100 km from Ottawa, was a blind spot on my radar. I know it isn’t exactly Lyon, but in COVID times this might actually be a good thing.

Surprising Cornwall

Cornwall has quite an interesting history actually. Mohawk First Nations have been living there for a long time, and later people loyal to the British Crown in the Colonies in what is now the north east USA settled across the US border in Canada. Some of them had German roots, hence you find hamlets with names such as Lunenburg and Osnabruck. 30% of the residents speaks French; that number was a bit of a surprise to me too. At its peak, Domtar employed 1500 people in its paper mills in Cornwall. New for me too was that Cornwall in the 1800’s had several cotton mills.

I did my research into the cycling infrastructure and discovered a surprising amount of pathways, bike lanes and multi use pathways in Cornwall. I really had not expected that. The Waterfront trail is quite well developed here and stays mostly away from the road. There are several stretches of other multi use pathways in town worth exploring.

Dedicated Cycling in Cornwall web page

I was even more pleasantly surprised to find quite an impressive website dedicated to cycling on the Tourism Cornwall webpage. From here I landed on a sub page of Ride with GPS with a number of suggestions. I personally don’t really like Ride with GPS and have a preference for Komoot, which pulls data from OpenStreetMap to show the type of road and road surface. Komoot focusses more on touring and not on adranaline: users can add photos in Komoot.

R.H. Saunders Dam

Starting at the power generation station

I looked at one of those suggested Ride with GPS rides showing a loop around Cornwall and modified it a bit as their route doesn’t go through the old town nor hits main street.

We choose to park the car near the R.H.Saunders Generation Station, unloaded the bikes and started cycling toward the visitors centre via a MUP. There are a number of information panels explaining the need for the generation station and the apology to the First Nations issued in 2008. So close to Ottawa and I had never even heard of the massive generation station: 1045 Mw.

R.H. Saunders was the CEO of Ontario Hydro and former mayor of Toronto in a time of great optimism. No infrastructure project was too big. When he travelled back from a talk in Detroit, he had to land in bad weather in an ice covered plane. The plane crashed on approach to London, ON. Saunders didn’t survive the crash. He was only 51 years old.

Cornwall Canal

Soon after the visitors centre (closed for COVID reasons), we followed a path along the old Cornwall Canal, which still has some remnants of the locks from the early days. Built between 1834 and 1843, the canal allowed ships to bypass the rapids. The rapids eventually ‘disappeared’ when the Seaway was built and the water level rose: the canal was no longer needed. That’s quite obvious when you bike on the small strip of land that actually feels a bit like a bike path in the Netherlands.

The old Cornwall canal. The doors are not what they used to be

Cornwall positioned for growth

You will see Cornwall Island in the St Lawrence River on your right hand with on it the Akwesasne reserve: the fall colours were spectacular, but hard to grab in a photo. On your left you will see the wastelands of industries of yesteryear. To me it looks like prime waterfront real estate but the soil is probably so heavily contaminated that no one wants to touch it with a 9 foot pole. The problem with contaminated soil is that you have to add the clean up cost to the cost of whatever you are building. Unless the land is hugely in demand, you price yourself out of the market because the competition is building on easy farmland 5 km away.

Cornwall Island on the left

I predict though that with land prices in the major centres going up, Cornwall is one of those places that is well positioned for growth along the waterfront. Between Montreal (120 km) and Toronto and with Ottawa (80 km) not far to the north, with a milder climate than Ottawa and with the 401 and the railway tracks close by, what is not to like? Which is exactly what Walmart must have thought as there is a gigantic distribution centre on the edge of town.

Old industry along the waterfront is slowly being cleaned up

Cornwall Civic Centre

Eventually you’ll hit the area south of the downtown core and the path continues through a park. Keep the Civic Centre on your left. Sadly the building has turned its back to the water and all you can see is loading docks. The waterfront park is very attractive and a joy to cycle through.

Cotton Mill

Repurposed weave shed, part of the old cotton mill

The Cotton Mill lands are currently being redeveloped and you will pass right by the several new buildings. The ‘Weave shed’ is repurposed and now contains several companies. In Dutch this would be called a ‘bedrijfsverzamelgebouw’. The developer is working on phase 3 from what we could see and this time the St Lawrence river views are being embraced. I really like the concept of repurposing: in my twenties, I used to live in a gin warehouse from 1725 in the Netherlands. I never found hidden caches of gin unfortunately.

The Cotton Mill project from above (image from RMP Construction and Development). You can see the waterfront trail on the water below the green shore line

The pathway actually runs over a dock type structure there, which is very cool and definitely a great choice to keep the path along the water.

A fairly typical row of houses in Cornwall (and overhead wires)

NAV Centre in Cornwall

Following the Waterfront Trail you’ll see the now well-known NAV Canada training centre, were travellers coming back from abroad where kept in quarantine for two weeks in April 2020 in an effort to keep COVID-19 at bay. I think participants in the annual MS ride from Ottawa stay there overnight too (about 90 km one way if you are interested).

I have always imagined the NAV Centre as a place dominated by uniformed army staff being trained for flight navigation but upon looking into it further, I learned it is a large convention centre. You can even have your wedding at the NAV Centre.

We got a bit confused where Highway 2 passes Gray’s Creek Marina. The bridge is closed for construction. The bike path goes underneath the bridge and then veers back but was closed too. Proper detour signs would have been helpful to get us back on the path as it is a bit confusing: you don’t expect to have to bike back. Anyway, it is temporary and we did figure it out in the end.

Heading north, veering away from the St. Lawrence river

Boundary Road

I was a little nervous to bike on Boundary Rd when I checked it out on Google Streetview. It does have a nice shoulder though and although traffic is quite fast, it didn’t really bother us too much. Mind you, it was a Saturday afternoon. If I was a dad with a little kid, I am not so sure if I enjoyed cycling here. But hey, I’d probably stay in the park anyway. It is a short distance on Boundary Rd and the only unsafe part is where you cross a right turning lane. The only reason why we cycled here was to get to a stretch along the Walmart distribution centre, which in hindsight, we should perhaps not have taken.

Boundary Rd has a decent shoulder

Industrial Park Drive

After the rail tracks we turned left on Industrial Park Drive, past the Olymel Bacon plant, a body of water that looks like a stormwater pond and the enormous Walmart distribution centre: the Walmart property is just over 1 km (!) long. The reason why we cycled here is that it has a bike lane (read: shoulder). But be aware that several Walmart tractor trailers might pass you. The one that passed us gave us lots of space, but that was partly because the driver could: there was no traffic coming from the opposite direction. I didn’t find it a great part to bike but for those who want to put kilometers in, it is nice and straight and smooth.

Alternative for Industrial Park Dr

Tenth St East would be a perfect alternative, but you can’t get there from Boundary Rd anymore from what I saw. On Google Streetview, I noticed it was recently closed for traffic as you can see in the images below.

Google Streetview still showed Tenth St E as open for traffic, but alas.
No more access to Ten St E, but what a great ready-to-go bike path it would make with zero investment.

Getting back downtown is not easy as the railway tracks are in the way, but we had planned to have lunch downtown. I wanted to include the bidirectional pathway along Nick Kaneb drive too and my original plan was to take a shortcut behind Tim Horton’s to get there. It didn’t look very legal nor safe nor easy to take that shortcut though. Instead we rode on some awful arterial roads, but I have to say that the drivers were all very good and gave us space.

Downtown Pitt St

Simply Jennifer

“I remember people laughing at my Dad in 1958 as he was cycling to work. An adult on a bicycle! My mother gave us swimming lessons in the canal as we lived right across. Watched the Saunders Dam being built and the seaway getting flooded.”

Fenny Benoit – De Boer
Old Cornwall has an eclectic mix of homes worth cycling by

Cutting through a school property we eventually arrived in the older part of Cornwall via Third St, which has some characteristic old houses. Our goal for lunch was a bite at ‘Simply Jennifer’ on Pitt St, which is the old main street. Unfortunately I hadn’t done my homework and Jennifer was closed.

Simply Jennifer was simply not open unfortunately

Truffles Burger bar

We went to Truffles Burger Bar instead, which looked quite nice with its blackboard outside (I have a weak spot for places that have blackboards). The lentil burger was quite massive I must say: I didn’t even have dinner that night. Man, was that ever a brick in my tummy! Some nice beers on tap, but at $7.50 for a half pint, not cheap (or am I behind the times?). With its wall of wines behind the bar, it made me think more of a wine bar, but it really was a nice place, with dine in options, despite the COVID scare. I loved the big wooden table in the front.

Truffles Burger Bar on Pitt St has a nice interior and there is enough space for social distancing

Hydro corridor pathway

The rocks and the planters are recent additions, I suspect it used to be a free for all, considering the sign….Yet it is still used by quads.

After lunch, we backtracked a bit eastbound, passing a massive, empty parking garage belonging to a shopping mall. Then north towards more bicycle infrastructure in the McConell and Ninth St area. Via Optimist Park and a hydro corridor and a MUP though a busy ‘roads with stores’ area and another pathway we eventually found our way back to the car.

And then all of a sudden a place to fill your water bottle

Going back

The weather wasn’t great as you can see, but the window of opportunity to get a descent ride in was getting smaller and since we were heading that direction anyway we figured we really should drop in at Cornwall.

Nearly every municipality has its expensive battles with motorised vehicles, Cornwall is no exception

Having been there now, I will redesign the route a bit. I don’t think I would add Industrial Park drive to my route again, and add more cycling in the old downtown. Cycling for me is less about putting kilometers in and more about a visit.

The fall colours are rich in October. This path leads back to the generation station

The issue for me was to return from the east end of the city via a different way without taking the same way back. Also COVID made it difficult to actually stop and visit something: We usually drop in at local museums. But places are closed and restaurants often only offer take out, which becomes inconvenient when it is 8 degrees or less outside.

We will definitely go back: I’d like to see the generation station, the local museum and try more food and local beers at independently run places. And we have to visit Simply Jennifer.

Retiring in Cornwall?

Having seen the Cotton Mills project, we even asked ourselves: could we perhaps live here in retirement if Cornwall keeps developing?

The route is around 35 km and is paved. My next blog will cover the Upper Canada Village to Cornwall stretch. Stay tuned.


Websites

Cornwall tourism website: cycling info

Urban loop in PDF: Urban Loop

Map with GPS options: a few dozen options

5 Comments

  1. Good read. I’m here for four months for work, and after a month or so the overall cycling infrastructure seems quite bad. The waterfront trail is great, and there are some other nice sections but things are very fragmented overall. I probably wouldn’t live here long-term as a result, but it has a lot of potential.

    • Thx Scott,

      Building infrastructure for cycling takes a generation. It doesn’t have to be that way but the reality in most cities is that you have to get a lot of people on board. This takes time. Incrementally moving the posts appears to work best in the Canadian society. But I am very hopeful that Cornwall understands they have to make the city attractive for young job seekers, retired healthy folks and every one in between. The city has potential I think as I wrote in my blog.

  2. This was fun to read. Use to know Cornwall well. I remember people laughing at my Dad in 1958 as he was cycling to work. An adult on a bicycle. My mother gave us swimming lessons in the canal as we lived right across. Watched the Saunders Dam being built and the seaway getting flooded.

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