Montréal, Québec: Fall Colors on Mont Royal

Second in a series on Montréal

During my previous two visits to Montréal, the weather had been consistently rainy and gloomy, so I was pleased when I awoke to a sunny morning on Tuesday, October 20, 2015.  I could see mont Royal (that’s apparently correct capitalization in French, and yes, it bothers me too) from my hotel room.  It appeared it was not quite at peak foliage (though it might be there by now!) but plenty of trees had begun changing.  I walked through downtown on rue Ste-Catherine and then headed uphill on avenue McGill College.

Mont Royal is one of Montréal’s most important parks and provides one of the best views of the city skyline.  Calling it a mountain is a bit charitable considering its summit’s height is only 764′ (233 m).  The modern city of Montréal, originally known as Ville-Marie, takes its name from the mountain.

Redpath Museum, located on the campus of McGill University with Mont Royal looming behind. Lowell Silverman photography, 2015
Redpath Museum, located on the campus of McGill University with mont Royal looming behind. Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

As the name implies, avenue McGill College leads to the campus of McGill University (formerly McGill College).  Although Montréal is predominantly French-speaking (in fact, it’s the largest Francophone city in the world aside from Paris), McGill teaches its classes in English.  The campus is quite beautiful and gives Princeton or (ahem) University of Delaware a run for their money.

Foliage on Mont Royal near Ave des Pins
Foliage on mont Royal near avenue des Pins

I continued uphill on rue McTavish to avenue des Pins (Pine Avenue, an odd name considering there are predominantly deciduous trees like maple and oak on mont Royal).  One of several entrances to parc du Mont-Royal is located at the intersection of avenue des Pins/rue Peel.  I crossed the street and headed into the park.  Right away, I saw plenty of trees were wonderful shades of yellow and orange, especially maples.

Forests have had a rough time on Mont Royal.  Many trees were cleared by landowners before the government expropriated the land to create the park, which opened in 1876.  In the 1950s, concerns about the particular kind of recreation that people were enjoying in the forest led to ill-advised clearing of undergrowth, known somewhat derisively as “les coupes de la moralité” or morality cuts.  Judging by the number of strip clubs downtown (many of them located on streets named after saints, ironically enough), it is safe to say that the forces of wholesomeness met defeat in the subsequent half century.  Regardless, the meddling of the 1950s caused severe erosion.  If that wasn’t bad enough, a 1998 ice storm downed over 5,000 trees in the park.  Today however, the forest looks to have recovered quite well.

3 Mt Royal Leaves

For photographic purposes, I might note that this was one case where I found the limited dynamic range of digital photography quite useful.  High dynamic range (HDR) photography (blending several photos of the same scene made with different exposures) can be valuable when compensating for scenes where the contrast is just too high for a camera sensor to handle.  This is the case with many landscapes where exposing for the terrain can often make the brighter sky appeared washed out in photos.  Here, though, I used limited dynamic range to my advantage by exposing for sunlit autumn foliage positioned against green foliage (especially when the green foliage was shaded).  This provided a non-distracting background and made the beautiful colors pop out.

Staircases on Mont Royal
Staircases on mont Royal

I came to a set of stairs, or as I now call them, the Montréal Inca Trail Trainer.  These steps connect the path from ave des Pins with the chalet du Mont-Royal.  The physically fit also use the stairs to make the rest of us look bad.  A girl in purple shorts and an École Polytechnique de Montréal sweatshirt passed me several times in each direction while jogging up and down the stairs.

Partway up, I was surprised to see a boy of maybe four years of age apparently sprawled across some stairs, halfway up from the landing.  Poor kid, I thought, your mother really must hate you to make you walk up all those steps on your own.  As I passed, I saw that the child was actually peering between two steps at a gray squirrel that was foraging in the fallen leaves underneath.

Chalet du Mont-Royal
Chalet du Mont-Royal

After a short and pleasant climb (I’m not sure that after experiencing the Inca Trail that I will ever refer to another set of stairs as difficult!) I came to the chalet du Mont-Royal.  It’s a lovely Great Depression-era building with a large hall, restrooms, vending machines, and gift shops inside.  I recommend picking up a map of the park in the information center.  There was a sign that the chalet would be closing at 4pm for a private function and workers were busily setting up tables and sound systems inside.

Since the chalet was being prepared for a function during my 2015 visit, here's a photo of the interior from my first visit. This is an HDR photo; unlike photos of the leaves, HDR was valuable in this case to capture detail in the windows and spotlights that were overexposed in conventional photos. Lowell Silverman photography, 2009
Since the chalet was being prepared for a function during my 2015 visit, here’s a photo of the interior from my first visit six years ago. This is an HDR photo; unlike photos of the leaves, HDR was valuable in this case to capture detail outside the windows and spotlit areas that were overexposed in conventional photos. Lowell Silverman photography, 2009

There is an observation platform outside the chalet with a view of the city skyline.  I took a series of photos that I later stitched into a panorama in Photoshop Elements.  Other good places to view the Montréal skyline include the waterfront near Vieux-Port and Parc Jean-Drapeau on Île Sainte-Hélène in the fleuve Saint-Laurent (Saint Lawrence River).

Montreal skyline seen from Mont Royal. Click for larger view. Lowell Silverman photography, 2015
Montreal skyline seen from Mont Royal. Click for larger view. Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

From the chalet I walked on a path to the croix du mont Royal, located near the summit.  The cross is lit at night and visible for a great distance.

Croix du mont Royal
Croix du mont Royal

I didn’t see anything marking the summit itself, which appears to be dominated by an ugly radio tower.  Next I headed downhill to the Smith House, an old residence predating the creation of the park.  The building is currently covered in scaffolding for restorations, but is still open to the public.  There’s a gift shop, coffee shop, and a few rooms with exhibits about the park and hill’s mountain’s geology.

8 Mt Royal Leaves

10 Mt Royal Maple

Next I continued to lac aux Castors (Beaver Lake).  Although Canada doubtlessly has many lakes created by or inhabited by beavers, this is not one of them.  Like the chalet, it is a Great Depression-era project with nary a beaver to be seen.

Lac aux Castors
Lac aux Castors

I walked around the lake but didn’t linger because of a noisy construction project nearby.  I retraced my route back to the chalet and picked up the chemin Olmsted (Olmsted Path).  The path, is actually a carriage road (like those in Maine’s Acadia National Park) named after Frederick Law Olmsted, the American landscape architect best known for designing Central Park in New York City.  Though Olmsted was commissioned to design parc du Mont-Royal, financial difficulties left most of his vision for the park unrealized.

Chemin Olmsted follows a gentle, loopy path from the outside of the park to the chalet and beyond.  Though plenty of trails offer shortcuts for those short on time, the longer path is a pleasant stroll this time of year.  Many other visitors were enjoying the day.  A troop of cyclists passed me headed uphill.  Notes from a saxophone wafted through the air from somewhere in the park.  I passed a woman sitting reading a book in the shade under a tree.

Rocks along chemin Olmsted. Although not a volcano, mont Royal is composed of igneous rocks that intruded into sedimentary rocks underground millions of years ago. Subsequent erosion left the harder igneous rock intact.
Rocks along chemin Olmsted. Although not a volcano, mont Royal is composed of igneous rocks that intruded into sedimentary rocks underground millions of years ago. Subsequent erosion left the harder igneous rock intact.

I decided the time had come to bring my visit to mont Royal to a close.  Leaving the path, I took rue Rachel out of the park.  If you’re not tired of pretty foliage yet, I have one more treat for you: the nearly endless vertical panorama! (It’s composed of three photos taken on chemin Olmsted stitched together.)

Vertical panorama of Chemin Olmsted
Vertical panorama of Chemin Olmsted
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