Mount Royal is a sanctuary, not a volcano
Mount Royal isn’t a volcano, but this story gets told a lot.
Usually it’s a joking reply to someone complaining about incessant road work: “…well of course (insert name of street) is closed for repairs, what do you expect for a city built on the side of a dormant volcano?” It’s a bad joke—not just in how I butchered the delivery by typing it all out, I’ve just never seen it land properly in public. Anyways, there’s a train tunnel that cuts right under the mountain and it’s been there for over a century and I took that train for years and never saw lava.
If you’re inclined to go for a hike up Mount Royal, you’re not alone. People have been going up “the mountain” for years. Apparently the Hochelagans brought Jacques Cartier to its summit when he toured Montreal in 1535. It’s been a popular spot for locals ever since, though not particularly with tourists for some strange reason. It’s more like our own private nature park, a place where you can almost forget you’re in the middle of a massive city. Hike the Olmsted Trail that snakes its way up the side of the mountain’s south face and you’ll understand what I mean. If you’re a more daring type, do the same well after dark in late October.
Mount Royal Park is Montreal’s Central Park for two reasons: first, it’s a centrally located park and second, it was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the same guy who designed that green space in Manhattan. I think we got the better final product, because our park didn’t require destroying a successful Black neighbourhood to be built. In fact, rather than having to displace people, Mount Royal Park was motivated by the desire to prevent people from displacing nature. Cutting down trees for firewood fired up local ecological sensibilities in the 1860s and this intersected neatly with a growing desire among Montreal’s mid-Victorian
Era inhabitants to preserve a small section of the island’s wilderness forevermore.
Mount Royal Park is a “come and do as you feel” kind of place. There aren’t too many organized activities throughout the year and very little to buy or wait in line for. The under-commercialization of this space drives some people — typically unimaginative local politicians — up the wall but
I’m personally of the mind that it’s not a bad thing to have one big space that’s more or less free of overt commercialization and consumerism. You have to use your own imagination here and figure it out on your own. Throughout much of the park’s history, this hasn’t been too much of a problem.
A good example of this is the Tam-Tams, held every Sunday afternoon around the Georges-Etienne
Cartier monument on the far eastern edge of the park (aka Parc Avenue). Despite this being a fairly regular occurrence since time immemorial (seriously, no one really knows when it started but everyone still insists marijuana doesn’t negatively affect memory, but I digress), the Tam-Tams isn’t an activity organized by the city or borough. You’ll maybe see a few cops hanging around from time to time, but they’re basically there just to keep an eye on things and little else. It’s understood that this is a time and place to do pretty much whatever you like, and most Montrealers are keen to keep the energy positive.
The Tam-Tams is predominantly a massive drum circle, but it’s grown and evolved over time to become something of a weekly counter-culture exhibition. In recent years, electronic dance music is played nearby for those looking to bust a digital move. Behind the drum circle, up into the woods, the local RenFaire/ LARPing enthusiasts have engaged in a weekly battle royale for years now, with no discernible winner yet proclaimed. For the most part, the Tam-Tams is just a bunch of people enjoying what precious little good weather our city actually has, so go out and do your own thing. Just remember to take out whatever you bring in. Mount Royal Park — particularly Fletcher’s Field, where the Tam-Tam’s take place — doesn’t have many garbage or recycling cans, and in the past few years, photos tend to circulate the following Monday of the incredible amount of garbage left behind.
So do what you can to not leave the mountain worse off than how you found it.
Mount Royal Park is one of those places that can paradoxically seem both over and under-used simultaneously. The Tam-Tams can be a good demonstration of this, as one part of the park will be overloaded with people, while other parts will be completely devoid of human activity. It’s a good place to go if you need a moment to get away from it all and relax, and don’t be fooled if you see a lot of people. Chances are you can still find your own little sanctuary.
Explore the mountain at your own leisure. It’ll take you a few trips before it starts to become really familiar. It’s a great place to go for a date. In fact, Mount Royal Park was so popular amongst “unwed, unchaperoned” young people going out for walks at night back in the late-19th century that it was deemed a corrupting influence, and so most of the park benches were removed. About 70-someodd years later, so the story goes, Mount Royal
Park was so popular amongst the city’s LGBTQ+ community (gay men in particular), the city cut out most of the underbrush as a deterrent against any illicit arboreal canoodling. So much of the bush was cut out that the mountain seemed to be losing its hair — some called it Mont Chauve (Bald Mountain).
Long story short, fucking on Mount Royal is a timehonoured tradition rooted in Montrealers’ strong anti-establishment ethos. So knock yourselves out (metaphorically) and play safe (literally).
Two pieces of insider information to conclude:
First, an impressive optical illusion forms as you approach the main lookout (also known as the Kondiaronk Belvedere, or the place where the chalet is located). Most people approach the belvedere from the west, as this is where the parking lots are located, as well as the main segment of the trail leading from Beaver Lake. As you approach the chalet (which will come up on your left) you’ll see the office towers of the city centre appear in the background. They’ll appear to be very close. As you continue walking to the edge of the belvedere, and as the space opens up around you, the same buildings will no longer seem to be quite as close to the lookout. It almost looks like they moved away from you.
Second, there’s a secondary trail that connects the Kondiaronk Belvedere to the eastern lookout that cuts along the edge of the mountain, and offers some of the most spectacular views of the city. I’d recommend only walking this trail during daylight, as navigating at night can be a little tricky. Walk to the easternmost edge of the Kondiaronk Belvedere and walk down towards the staircase. Go past the staircase, along the chainlink fence and at the end you’ll find the trailhead. This trail gives you an impression of what Mount Royal might have looked and felt like back when the Hochelagans took Cartier to visit back in 1535. It’s a rough trail, and there are multiple spots along the way where the brush has been cleared out, and you can look out over the city and enjoy unique vistas unlikely to be replicated on postcards. This trail will take you past the cross and then drop you off at the eastern lookout, which gives a great view of the city’s East End and the Olympic Stadium.
Whatever you do at Mount Royal Park, enjoy yourself. Few cities have a mountain wilderness right in the middle of the city, and with realestate speculators proposing new construction on the mountain’s flanks, and condo towers that will exceed Mount Royal’s height — not to mention politicians who want to privatize and commercialize it to make a quick buck — it’s not clear how much longer this emerald crown will reign unimpeded above Montreal.