The city of Montreal is on an island in the middle of the St. Laurence river and Mount Royal is in the centre of the island. In the early years of Montreal, the richest of the rich built homes on the slopes of the mountain and some of these historic buildings are still there to this day. Later, large sections of the mountain were purchased and turned into two very large cemeteries. In the late 19th century, the summit and much of the upper slopes of the mountain were converted into a public park, open to all free of charge. It was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the most accomplished landscape architect of the day who designed, among other projects, Central Park in New York. It is an amazing natural area with plenty of trails, some paved, some gravel, and some just earthen trails which go deeper into the wooded areas. It is also an oasis that is free of development yet located in the heart of the city. You can get up to the mountain by car or by bus, but my favourite way is to walk up, even from the heart of downtown.
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A quick note on directionals. In Montreal, the directions we refer to as north, south east and west do not correctly correspond to compass points. As far as directions on the mountain are concerned, west is south, east is north, and so on. I will try to describe directions as they are on the map.
Since I live to the west of the mountain(south on the map), I enter the park from that side and will describe it travelling in that direction. The first important location is Beaver Lake. I would say that this is without a doubt my single favourite place in Montreal. My parents were born in Montreal and, when I was growing up, we would travel to Montreal every year to visit my grandmother. Back then, one of our favourite places to go was Beaver Lake. We would drive up and find a bench on the shady side of the lake and just sit and watch the waterfowl and the people walking by. My grandmother has now passed on and this is one of the places where I have memories of spending time with her. But primarily I go there for peaceful tranquillity. This means I normally go during the week and often not in the height of summer, though I was back there recently. My favourite time to be at the lake is in early Spring. I walk up on one of the first days warm enough to spend a few hours outside after a long winter. There is usually snow still on the ground and the ice on the lake is just beginning to break up. That time of year it is usually deserted and very peaceful. Every time I go to the lake, I will slowly walk the entire path around the lake, then find a bench to sit down for a while and just enjoy my environment. A trip to the mountain is unthinkable for me without a stop at Beaver Lake. There are lots of activities there as well. There are paddle boats in the summer and ice skating and tobogganing in the winter.
Another must-see location is the chalet lookout, also called the Kondiaronk Belvedere. This is close to the centre of the park and offers a dramatic panoramic view of downtown Montreal and across the river to the towns on the “South Shore”. You can even see out to La Ronde, the Six Flags amusement park located on Ile Ste.-Helene, site of Expo 67, the global exposition considered to be the watershed moment for Montreal’s emergence as a world-class city. On the way to the chalet is Smith House which is a small café, gift shop, and museum with information about Mount Royal.
At the far side of the chalet, there is a downhill path leading to a long staircase. This leads you down the slope to a serpentine path that will eventually end at Peel street, a street that will take you into the heart of downtown. Along the way is a sight I only discovered on my most recent visit, just this week. It is the “Give Peace a Chance” monument, an arrangement of stone slabs that say “Give Peace a Chance” in 40 different languages. It is in fact an art installation created last year in honour of the 40th anniversary of the “bed-in for peace” held by John Lennon and Yoko Ono and their writing of the song “Give Peace a Chance” at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal in 1969.
Continuing north past the chalet you approach the summit area. There is very little to mark the actual summit. There is a communication tower in a clearing surrounded by trees, providing no sightlines or photo opportunities. Nearby is the famous metal cross that is lit up at night and defines the mountain’s skyline. A few hundred yards away is the actual summit, though there is not much in the way of markings. From the summit you can follow a trail which will lead you to a staircase where you begin descending the other side of the mountain. At the bottom of the staircase there is a road and parking area that features another scenic lookout. This is the Camilien-Houde overlook and from here you can see off to the east end of the city(actually to the north). The massive object dominating the skyline is the infamous Olympic Stadium, built for the Summer Olympics of 1976, yet already crumbling. The major league baseball team that used to play there left years ago and the football team plays here on the mountain, making the stadium one of the best examples of a white elephant (it even kind of looks like a white elephant!) known to modern construction.
Obviously this was not taken from the lookout, but right next to the stadium
At the far end of the lookout parking lot is a hard-to-see spur trail that comes off the road and turns back underneath the overlook. This is my favourite path to descend the east(north) side of the mountain. The paths are not marked here but if you stay on heavily used trails and keep going downhill you should be OK. You should eventually cross the Olmstead trail a wider marked path along the way. The destination is the base of the mountain at the Georges-Etienne Cartier Monument on Parc Avenue. If you do not want to risk these smaller unmarked trails, you can follow Olmstead trail all the way. To get there take the staircase down from the chalet as described above then, instead of going down the serpentine path to Peel street, turn left and follow this path all the way to the monument. There are also smaller trails that come off of Olmstead Trail at various points that also lead there. I could not possibly describe all the possible routes and sites there are to see. The map above was the best I could find to put directly into the post. For more detail I strongly recommend the interactive map at Les Amis De La Montagne. It can be very helpful to orient yourself and make sense of all this. If you do decide to explore the smaller, less marked trails, a GPS can be very useful, since it is hard to get too far lost as long as you are headed in the right general direction.
Amis De La Montagne Interactive Map: http://www.lemontroyal.qc.ca/carte/en/index.sn
If you think you are going to see all these things at once on a single day outing to the mountain, think again. This place is HUGE so a lot of walking is involved, especially to get to places further from the road. For a one day outing I suggest going to Beaver Lake and the chalet. If you like it and want to come back again, that is the time to start exploring a little more.
Can you tell I really, really like this place? In future posts I will describe some of my other favourite places in Montreal, some famous, some almost unkown.