Hiking to the Carbide Willson Ruins in Gatineau Park

Around this time last year, my cousin Taylor came to visit and we trekked over to Gatineau Park to hike the Pink Lake trail. With my sister coming to visit for the May long weekend this year, I knew we needed to hike a different trail in Gatineau Park. Luckily, she was up for it.

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I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I’ve only been to Gatineau Park twice in the nearly five years I’ve called Ottawa home. In my defense, it’s somewhat difficult to get there without a vehicle, a luxury I don’t possess. Since my sister arrived via car, I eagerly seized the opportunity to visit the park.

Last year, it was a bit of a nightmare experience trying to find a spot to park. Whether it was luck or the potential chance for rain, the parking this time was a breeze. The parking lot for this trail is bigger than at Pink Lake, allowing for more vehicles, which also helps with pedestrians not needing to walk in the middle of the road. If you’re attempting to find the correct trail via GPS, follow GPS directions for “Gatineau Park P11”, as the trail begins right at the parking lot. This early in the season, parking is free, but it is my understanding you have to pay to park as it gets into proper summer.

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The trail begins with an immediate incline. I’m the first to admit I’m not in the best of shape, so I was breathing heavily by the time we reached the top. Still, excitement and adrenaline kept me moving onwards and – occasionally – upwards.

Despite the rough beginning, the trail is mostly an easy-going one, passing peacefully through a forested area before sloping steeply down to a bridge crossing. It wasn’t until we reached the bridge and stopped to take pictures that we discovered a significant detriment to the hike – the bugs. Normally, swatting away a bug or two is just a typical aspect of hiking, but these bugs were out in droves. You couldn’t stop moving for too long or else they surrounded you, and it even got to the point where you can see black smudge-like objects in the videos I took at the ruins. Since the bridge was the first place we really stopped to take a bunch of pictures, it was only then we noticed just how bad they were.

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At the bridge, we read signs stating the plan for conservation of the area. The main goal is to restore Meech Lake, both in terms of shoreline vegetation and the forest ecosystem. Like any area of nature, leave no trace applies here – visitors leaving debris and forging new trails through the forest have disrupted the natural habitat. Replanting in the area is the first step on the road to preservation and assuring its sustainability for the future.

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The trail continues into another forested area on the other side of the bridge. Eventually, you reach a fork in the road, and to my dismay, the trail for the Carbide Willson Ruins is not clearly marked. We debated which direction to go (while being swarmed by bugs, of course), until I noticed a sign prohibiting nudity attached to a tree on the path to the right. I remembered hearing the area was infamous for nude swimmers, so we decided to head that way. As it turns out, we were right.

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Jen and I were still hesitant on whether or not we chose the correct direction until we heard the unmistakable sound of rushing water. The path sloped downwards, gently at first, before switching into a mess of uneven path, tangled roots, steep descent, and pointed rocks. We attempted to be careful and go slowly down this stretch, but the bugs made caution difficult. It’s hard to tell for sure, but along the entire length of the trail, it seemed as though there were places that had been significantly worsened by the recent and severe flooding in Quebec.

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I’ll confess now that prior to hearing about the ruins from my friend who had hiked the trail before, I had no idea they existed or what they were for. I began to look into the history behind the ruins, and was disappointed there wasn’t more information available.

The building was once an experimental phosphate mill, built and run by Thomas “Carbide” Willson, a Canadian scientist who was attempting to use condensation from phosphates in fertilization. Along with the mill, Willson kept a summer home on Meech Lake (the site of the Meech Lake Accords), and was – at least according to Wikipedia – the first person to own an automobile in Ottawa.

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The mill is rather impressive, even in its ruinous state, and the forest surrounding it boasts beautiful mini waterfalls. The only downside to the site is – again – the bugs. I didn’t take nearly as many pictures or videos as I wanted to, because the second you stopped moving, you were swarmed and bitten. I wanted nothing more than to take my time leisurely strolling around the ruins, and while Jen and I did walk around the entire area, we didn’t linger for too long. It was a bit frustrating, to be honest.

Still, the site was awesome and I definitely enjoyed seeing it. I would also highly recommend this trail to anyone who doesn’t mind a few steep hills. Although there were plenty of hikers at the mill when we arrived, the area felt very secluded, and you can easily fool yourself into believing you’ve stumbled across a hidden gem. In order to get some of the truly amazing photos, though, you’d need patience (and a lack of bugs).

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One note I will stress: bring water. We didn’t, and regretted it immensely. The trail isn’t particularly long (I think we hiked about 20 – 30 minutes each direction), but the steep hills, the heat, and the lack of being able to stop and catch your breath (thanks, bugs) combined into a massive dehydration headache for me. As I said at the beginning, I’m not the most active person, so the thought of bringing water didn’t cross my mind until we were already well on the trail. If you forget to bring water from home, stop by the visitor center on the drive in to see if they have any drinks for purchase.

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I feel lucky to have explored two great trails in Gatineau Park, but I’m eager to get back out there and explore the next. With so many options, it’s hard to choose where to venture next!

Have you ever been to secluded ruins?

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