When you travel with young children, a sense of adventure is the most important thing to bring with you. It’s my own sense of adventure that brings me to Hell Holes Nature Trails and Caves, where I stand at the mouth of a ragged looking slit in the ground, wondering if spleunking with my 9-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter almost 7.5 metres beneath the earth is a good idea.
So I do what any modern-age parent would do: open up the flashlight app on my phone, hand it to my son and climb down into the Hell Hole.
While the Hell Hole itself is often the main draw for people heading to the Centreville, Ontario nature park (the quirky name is admittedly intriguing), it’s the jaw dropping beautiful surroundings that invite you to breathe deeply and slow your pace along the 3.2 kilometer trail. From the time you park at the Barrett Road trail head, you’re immersed in lush trees, the only noise being birds and the clattering of the occasional CN Train (which adds to the Hell Holes’ ambiance. Despite being only 20 kilometers north of the 401, the outside world seems far away because of the dense surrounding forests and panoramic views from the trail head’s lookout area.
Evelyn Storring greets us at the admission office, a quaint log cabin with taxidermy owls appearing to swoop over your head. A bright yellow Mosquito Crossing warning sign is posted near the door. Storring tells me that the property has been in her husband Ron’s family for over 70 years. Once used to graze cattle, the geologically significant (and rocky) limestone terrain didn’t grow enough grass to support livestock. The Storrings have developed the land into a three-season attraction, boasting a family-friendly mini-putt, climbing structure, washrooms and picnic area. Their pride in offering a unique experience is evident in the well-marked trails and helpful service.
Storring points us in the direction of the trail and says because of the weather, the mosquitoes shouldn’t be, in her words “too bad.”
Back at the Hell Hole, I step down from the ladder, my hands cold and damp from gripping the rungs. My son’s shape overhead blots out the sun as he climbs down the ladder, and for a moment, I’m pitched into darkness. And yes, I’m scared.
My son, on the other hand, is in awe. He’s never been in a cave before and is eager to explore. Turning on my flashlight app, I swing the weak beam of light around the cave and discover the Hell Hole is actually quite beautiful. Tiny drops of water cling to the cave roof and sparkle in the light and thin tree roots look like delicate threads weaved into the limestone. The rocks are slippery and there’s a sweetly decayed scent of wet leaves and moss as we crawl like crabs further into the cave.
“Imagine if we could live down here where it’s so quiet,” my son says. “There’s even a thermometer!”
It’s 5C at the bottom of the cave, a 25C difference from where my husband is standing at the mouth of the Hell Hole with our daughter.
Satisfied he has examined every inch of the cave, my son climbs the ladder to the surface, almost bursting with excitement to share his theory on how the cave was made (Satan, obviously, since Satan’s Horse Stable is a short distance away) and if we could actually live down there (yes, obviously, since the limestone ledges are the perfect spot for his book collection).
Before I know it, I’m at the bottom of the Hell Hole again. This time, it’s my daughter’s tiny body coming down the ladder, a little too fast for my liking and her excited chatter echoes off the limestone.
And once she reaches the bottom of the cave, she does what any modern-age child would do: ask for a selfie with her mom. This makes it quite clear that if it wasn’t for my children’s sense of adventure, family travel would be pretty dull.
Know before you go
Location: 420 Barrett Road, Centreville
Driving time: From Ottawa, 2 hours, 15 minutes. From Toronto, 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Best time to visit: Fall is one of the most picturesque times of the year to visit, and the bugs, that some hikers find bothersome, are at a minimum.
Be prepared: Bring bug spray (the higher the Deet concentration the better). The Swamp and The Valley areas provide the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. We visited on a cool and windy day and didn’t have a problem with mosquitoes, but Storring warned me that they can be quite bothersome. Bring a headlamp rather than a hand held flashlight. You will want to use both hands to climb up and down the ladder and to crawl through the cave and a headlamp with make this easier to do.
Take your time: The 3.2 kilometer trail can be covered in as little as an hour, but this is not a trail you will want to rush through. The landscape here is stunning and varied. The map offers points of interest you will want to stop at, and there are benches along the way if you need to stop and rest.