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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hydro corridor pathway
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.
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.
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 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. You might also want to check out another part of the Waterfront Trail, which runs west of Cornwall, with some interesting stops along the way such as a bird reserve, a lost villages museum (after the intentional flooding of land to widen the seaway) and historic Upper Canada village. See that article here.
Cornwall tourism website: cycling info
Urban loop in PDF: Urban Loop
Map with GPS options: a few dozen options