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The storied history of the Oak Ridges Moraine

The history of the Oak Ridges Moraine goes back to over 12,000 years ago when moving glaciers formed the diverse natural landscape of the Moraine. It is now home to thousands of plant and wildlife species, the source of freshwater for six-million Ontarians, and is located within thirty-two municipalities, including Uxbridge. The Oak Ridges trail in Uxbridge is a popular place for hikes, bike rides, and cross-country skiing.

A trail sign at the Oak Ridges Trail in Uxbridge.

The first effort to establish a trail on along the Oak Ridges Moraine occurred in 1973 when the equestrian Great Pine Ridge Trail was opened by the Ontario Trail Riders’ Association. In 1991 a group of volunteers gathered with several groups including Save the Oak Ridges Moraine, the Metropolitan Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), and Hike Ontario, with the idea of developing a system of public trails along the full length of the Oak Ridges Moraine. As a result, the Oak Ridges Trail Association formed in 1992 with the objective to develop a trail system along the entire moraine.

A map of the Oak Ridges Moraine that extends across Southern Ontario. Photo credit:

The formation of the Oak Ridges Moraine came at the end if the Wisconsin glaciation period (100,000 to 75,000 years ago) and ended around 11,000 years ago. Over this period, many of the valleys, mountains, plains and highlands of Southern Ontario, as well as the Oak Ridges Moraine were formed. The moraine is 200km in length from the Niagara Escarpment to the Trent River watershed, while the width of the moraine varies from 3-24km. It has many high points such as the Caledon Hills and Mount Wolfe at the west end of the moraine, or the Happy Valley Sandhills and Grenville Hills in King. The hills in Uxbridge measure as the highest points in the entire length of the moraine at four-hundred metres above sea level.

Oak Ridges Moraine Formation. Courtesy of the Oak Ridges Trail Association.

The moraine is surrounded with a diverse range of biodiversity with freshwater springs and rivers, kettle lakes, wetlands, hills, and remnants of a large prairie. Much of the moraine is covered in forests that grew after the glaciers retreated. Previously these lands were far more sought for settlement because they had more flat and rich land for farming and had streams that supported water-powered mills for villages.

The origins of human occupancy on the moraine dates back 11,000 years ago, shortly after the glaciers receded. Caribou hunting sites from the Paleoindian cultural period have been discovered on the moraine beside the kettle lakes. Items from the Archaic and Woodland periods have also been found throughout the moraine. When European settlers arrived in Southern Ontario during the 17th century they repurposed the moraine’s trails for trading and land exploration. Through the following centuries, Indigenous populations along the moraine and Southern Ontario decreased due to impacts of these settlers. Namely, war, disease, and depletion of food and water supplies resulting from settler restrictions on use of land and resources.

Permanent settlement of the moraine began in 1783 when United Empire Loyalists from the United States arrived and developed Townships. Other groups such as the Quakers in Uxbridge started doing the same. The initial tasks of clearing land, developing paths, building homes, and establishing farms were tedious but vital steps to starting up settlements.

However, agriculture was not prosperous due to sandy soils and the hilly terrain, so villages located on the moraine developed utilizing mills and taverns. Few of these villages grew into larger settlements and many have decreased in population since the 20th century. When resource industries grew in the mid 19th century the gravel and sands from the moraine were sought after by quarries and eventually for building homes and roads.

Oatmeal Mill, Uxbridge. Courtesy of the Uxbridge Historical Centre. Permanent Collection, P334.1.

The history of the Oak Ridges Moraine is rich across Ontario and had it continues to play an important role in the lives of people, animals, and wildlife alike. To Uxbridge the moraine has always been a part of our history, from early Indigenous life, to Quaker settlement, and even to now, where it serves as an excellent place to hike and a crucial source of freshwater.


Oak Ridges Trail Association. The Oak Ridges Trail Guidebook. Edition 3.1, 2003.

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