Thornton Bales Conservation Area: 99 Steps and Beautiful Jokers Hill

Thornton Bales Conservation Area

Thornton Bales Conservation Area is home to the famous 99 Steps, a steep descent down the escarpment on a wooden staircase. You’ll have to go beyond those 99 Steps to fully appreciate this beautiful conservation area! There’s a small loop trail at Thornton Bales Conservation Area, but the property also connects to the neighbouring Koffler Scientific Reserve at Jokers Hill.

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Jokers Hill, a property managed as a research area by the University of Toronto, is another fabulous place to go hiking. There are many hiking trails through forests with tall trees and secluded wetlands. I’m going to show you how to add these wonderful trails to your hiking experience for a memorable day outdoors.

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Thornton Bales Conservation Area & Jokers Hill Map

Thornton Bales Conservation Area & Jokers Hill Map

Here is a trail map for Thornton Bales Conservation Area and the Koffler Scientific Reserve at Jokers Hill (KSR). The southern section is the Thornton Bales Conservation Area, and you’ll be able to connect with the Jokers Hill portion from there. There are three trails at Jokers Hill: the Blue Trail, the Red Trail, and the Yellow Trail.

Hiking at Thornton Bales Conservation Area

Thornton Bales Conservation Area

Thornton Bales Conservation Area looks like a really small area to hike with only one loop trail. However, it connects with a larger property at Jokers Hill, which gives you the option for a very short hike or a lengthier one. I hiked around Thornton Bales Conservation Area, as well as the Blue Trail and the Red Trail at Jokers Hill for a 6km hike (around 2 hours long).

Thornton Bales Conservation Area

The most famous feature at Thornton Bales Conservation Area is the 99 Steps, a staircase leading down into the escarpment.

The 99 Steps

The 99 Steps

So, are there actually 99 Steps? I assume that there are! To be honest, I didn’t count them out. Just a short distance from the parking lot at Thornton Bales Conservation Area, you’ll see a wooden staircase winding down into the valley below. The vertical elevation of the 99 Steps is a larger change in elevation than the drop over Niagara Falls! I’m grateful that there’s a staircase here.

The 99 Steps

Hike down the 99 Steps. It’s a really easy climb down. Just remember that you’ll need to make that same journey back up at the very end of your hike! I definitely paused before climbing the stairs at the end of my trek. I was a little tired after my hiking trip and wanted to brace myself before climbing all of those stairs. All in all, it really isn’t that many steps! You’ll be fine!

Thornton Bales Conservation Area Loop Trail (Red Oak Trail)

Thornton Bales Conservation Area Loop Trail

The main loop at Thornton Bales Conservation Area, also known as the Red Oak Trail, is marked by this little leaf with arrows guiding the way. It’s nearly impossible to get lost. The path is very well marked, and there’s no way you could go off it.

Thornton Bales Conservation Area Loop Trail
Thornton Bales Conservation Area Loop Trail

About halfway through the path, you’ll have the option to continue hiking around the loop trail or follow the blue trail blazes. The blue blazes lead into the Jokers Hill property that’s connected to Thornton Bale Conservation Area.

Hiking at Jokers Hill

Thornton Bales Conservation Area to Jokers Hill

Welcome to the Koffler Scientific Reserve at Jokers Hill (KSR)! This is a field station managed by the University of Toronto. It’s made up of 348 hectares of fields, wetlands, grasslands, and forests on the Oak Ridges Moraine in King Township. This is a diverse area with many plants and animals, which is why it’s such a wonderful site for the university to conduct their studies. You might spot animals and birds, like pileated woodpeckers and white tailed deer.

Thankfully, they allow the public to use their lands for hiking. Please stay on the trail. There are many sections that are closed off to the public because the university conducts their research there. Obey the signs!

The Blue Trail

The Blue Trail is one of the main hiking trails at Jokers Hill. You’ll follow the blue blazes (some of these were white blazes, too) on the way. It’s pretty impossible to go off the path. Keep following the trail blazes and you’ll find your way.

I came across this strange sight early on the hike. It looks like it might have been some sort of enclosure at some time, but just a pile of rubble at the moment. Anyone know what it used to be?

Jokers Hill Blue Trail
Jokers Hill Blue Trail - Thornton Bales Conservation Area
Thornton Bales Conservation Area

There will be a few places along the way where you’ll need to cross a shallow stream. This might not be here later in the season, but there was some water and mud in the early spring. There are logs across the water. Other than facing a little bit of mud, it wasn’t much of a challenge to get across.

Thornton Bales Conservation Area

You’ll reach a tree with an arrow on it. The arrow says that you can walk to the left to join up with the Blue Trail. Instead, I went to the right and kept on hiking at Jokers Hill. When you hike to the right, you’re still on the Blue Trail. By following the arrow to the left, you’ll create a smaller loop in case you wanted to head back.

Thornton Bales Conservation Area
Thornton Bales Conservation Area
Thornton Bales Conservation Area
Thornton Bales Conservation Area

At the far eastern side of Thornton Bales Conservation Area and Jokers Hill, you’ll walk alongside a neighborhood. Someone has cut a hole in the fence for local access to the trails. Keep hiking on the path (you’re still on the Blue Trail!).

Thornton Bales Conservation Area
Thornton Bales Conservation Area
Thornton Bales Conservation Area
Thornton Bales Conservation Area

This is a really nice section of the Blue Trail. Tall trees surround the trail. It looked really pretty in early April, just as greenery is beginning to come back to the trail after winter. Eventually, you’ll end up with a couple of different options for paths, but you’ll end up on the Red Trail.

The Red Trail

Jokers Hill Red Trail

The Red Trail is another main loop trail at Jokers Hill. This section included both the Red and Yellow trails, as you can see by the trail blazes. The hiking trails at Thornton Bales Conservation Area and Jokers Hill are pretty well marked. While there isn’t an overall map for Jokers Hill on site, you can follow the trail blazes to make your way around the property.

Jokers Hill Red Trail
Jokers Hill Red Trail

The Red Trail continues around Jokers Hill, linking back up with the Blue Trail once again where you’ll be able to make your way back to the car (and walk up those 99 Steps!).

The Yellow Trail

Jokers Hill Yellow Trail

There is an additional loop trail at the northern side of Jokers Hill. The Yellow Trail is another loop trail if you’re looking to add on some more steps to your trek. I didn’t end up hiking on the Yellow Trail, but it looks like a peaceful retreat in the forest.

Jokers Hill Yellow Trail

Closed Sections of Trail

At Jokers Hill, there are a few trails that are closed off to hikers at the moment. As this property is owned by the Koffler Scientific Reserve at Jokers Hill (KSR), they have lots of ongoing research projects. These projects include forest ecology, soil ecology, biological invasions, plant defences, fungal biodiversity, pollinating insects, plant reproductive ecology, and ecological impacts of global change.

Jokers Hill - Closed sections of trail - Trail re-routed

KSR scientists have published 65 reports with the research conducted on this land. Researchers have come from the three University of Toronto Campuses, the University of Guelph, York University, the University of New Brunswick in Canada, Cornell University, University of Pittsburgh, Université de Paris and Université de Bordeaux.

Jokers Hill Biological Station Sign

A section of land at the western side of the Jokers Hill property is currently closed. It is very noticeable as there are signs and in some cases, there are even chains blocking the trails. Please do not hike on the closed trails.

Some people believe that if their AllTrails app shows a trail in a place that it is okay to hike there. In reality, AllTrails is completely user generated. Some of the trails and paths can be outdated on the app. Also, as it is user generated, the original hiker possibly went off the trail or even wandered onto private property! It happens. Please don’t trust AllTrails as your only source. Use it as a guide, and use signage on the property and trail blazes as your ultimate source of information.

Plan Your Visit

The parking lot for Thornton Bales Conservation Area is very small. There is room for about 8 cars on 19th Sideroad. For reference, I showed up around noon on a Wednesday afternoon and there were only 2 spots left. On a weekend, I imagine that it could be impossible to find a spot.

Parking at Thornton Bales Conservation Area

If you can’t find parking here, there is another place where you can legally street park near the Jokers Hill property. Continue driving and head north on Bathurst Street. There is a dead end street where about 30 cars can park. Search “Joker Hill Trail Parking” on Google maps to find the exact location.

There aren’t any facilities or restrooms at Thornton Bales Conservation Area. Plan accordingly!

What to Bring on a Hike

A proper pair of hiking shoes is an absolute must. It’s also a good idea to bring sunscreen and lots of water, too. My water bottle of choice is the GRAYL Purifier because you can drink ANY water from any source, no matter what. Water from lakes, streams, rivers, public restrooms, you name it. It’s the world’s fastest portable purifier. Get your hands on one ASAP!

Don’t forget to pack some bug spray because there can be biting bugs depending on the time of year. Even if there aren’t any signs, it’s safe to assume that ticks are all over Ontario hiking trails. Protect yourself against ticks by reading our guide to avoiding ticks on the trails.

Where to Stay in King City

Are you looking for where to stay in the King City area? The closest city is Newmarket, so I’d plan to stay there. There are so many awesome hotels in Newmarket and vacation rentals, too.

Here’s a handy booking tool where you can see all of the accommodations in one place. It’s easy to compare prices and find the best rate for your trip to the King City area.

More Hiking in York Region

Looking for more York Region hiking trails? Here are a few more to add to your list:

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