East Vancouver hidden-gem parks offer wildlife, plants, and history for affordable family summer fun

Families and individuals without the resources to travel to provincial parks can still take in beauty with just a bus pass, some shoe leather, and a picnic lunch

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      Scenic outdoor settings with wildlife were a natural draw for Lower Mainland residents during the worst days of the pandemic, when so many indoor recreational pursuits were denied them.

      The COVID-19 scourge lingers, though, and even though the scope of potential leisure activities has expanded vastly with the dropping of mask and vaccine mandates, many people seem to have retained that desire for a connection to wild flora and fauna.

      So much so, in fact, that B.C. Parks has retained its day-pass pilot program in three of the most popular destinations for Metro Vancouver residents: Golden Ears and Joffre Lakes parks and a trio of trailheads in Garibaldi Park. Roving park “ambassadors” will check for pass compliance in an effort to limit crowds, vegetation and trail damage, and wildlife displacement.

      For those without a vehicle or much discretionary income, such distant objectives probably remain out of reach this summer. Public transit, though, can take you to picturesque parks and parklike settings in and around Vancouver where unexpected summer wildlife encounters can still happen.

      Hastings Park Sanctuary upper pond with mature trees
      City of Vancouver

      Marine mammals, bobcats, river otters, bald eagles, beavers, great blue herons, coyotes, and a multitude of other bird species, migratory and native, can still be seen for the price of a bus ticket and a bag lunch.

      Everyone knows about Stanley Park and the tens of kilometres of stunning seawall walks available there and around False Creek, through Kitsilano, and out to Spanish Banks and Wreck Beach.

      Beach in New Brighton Park
      Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation

      In past years, more and more orca, gray and humpback whales, and even dolphin sightings have been recorded from those vantage points as formerly “dead” marine habitats such as Howe Sound and False Creek have started to come back to life, often with the help of dedicated volunteers helping to restore historic food sources like herring, for example.

      But some almost overlooked green spaces in and around Metro Vancouver, some near saltwater bodies, are hiding small populations of flora and fauna that are available for the viewing to the most casual visitor, as long as they know what to look for.

      Hastings Park Sanctuary boardwalk
      City of Vancouver

      Below are two Vancouver East End parks, in very close proximity, that the Straight has featured previously (but in a different context). They are still “hidden” gems, though one of them is well used by locals during nice weather. And don’t let an overcast day discourage you from a picnic and some educational strolls: it cuts the visitors by half, at least.

      (The Straight plans to offer up a few more such finds before Labour Day, so stay tuned.)

      So here are some “ordinary” city attractions that can provide you with an extraordinary natural encounter this summer. All you need to know is where to go.

      Hastings Park Sanctuary/New Brighton Park

      These neighbouring East End parks—one relatively new and the other recently restored, with both due to be connected in the near future—host an astonishing variety of wildlife for their size and urban/industrial locations.

      Hastings Park’s 66 hectares is mostly taken up by the PNE, the Pacific Coliseum, and the Hastings Racecourse (where one can view thoroughbred horses for free on race days during the summer), but four hectares is devoted to the aptly named Hastings Park Sanctuary.

      Open areas are rare in this shaded, sunken refuge whose southern boundary is just metres away from the traffic streaming through the intersection of West Hastings and Renfrew streets. Sanctuary Pond. 12 metres below Hastings Street, is filled with groundwater and rain and storm runoff and aerated for the rainbow trout stocked at least twice a year by the Freshwater Fisheries Society of B.C. (Fishing is permitted in one spot in the park, from a dock at the pond’s north end.)

      Hastings Park Sanctuary boardwalk at south end marshland

      The fish attract great blue herons, cormorants, kingfishers, and assorted diving ducks, and Canada geese and dabbling ducks like mallards are almost always present (along with their cute offspring for several weeks each year).

      In fact, more than 140 species of birds have been recorded at the park since its 1999 official opening, with a changing seasonal cast during the spring and fall migrations, and Nature Vancouver conducts occasional bird walks along the two-kilometre circle trail there. (The Hastings Park Conservancy also leads monthly nature walks.)

      Raptors such as owls, hawks, and eagles are seen regularly because of that rotating migratory menu, and even an occasional visiting bobcat has been observed. Native coastal B.C. species of trees, shrubs, and understory vegetation make for a markedly different Vancouver park experience, with skunk cabbage and alder replacing the flowerbeds and ornamental trees often encountered in many Vancouver parks.

      This winter view of Sanctuary Park's upper pond shows PNE agricultural buildings to the north.

      The marshland at the Sanctuary’s southeast corner is a natural biofiltration plant for the channelled runoff and groundwater, and a daylighted stream will, within a year or two, connect this pocket jewel—via the resurrected Hastings Creek (sometimes called Renfrew Creek) in a feature-filled greenway corridor through the PNE and the racetrack—to the more open New Brighton Park to the north, on the shores of Burrard Inlet.

      Part of this passage, called Creekway Park, was completed back in 2013, between McGill Street and the railway tracks, north of the racecourse, as the first phase in the park-connection plan. The water channel, lined with bike and walking paths and more native vegetation, only holds runoff at present.

      When finished, it will be the only publicly available streamside amenity in the East End other than Still Creek, in the Grandview-Boundary Industrial Area, which only has small portions accessible to visitors.

      Another view of New Brighton Park shows the restored saltmarsh, between the pool and the historic Alberta Wheat Pool grain elevators.
      Port of Vancouver

      New Brighton, which a few years ago had its historical saltmarsh partly reestablished with a coastal lagoon as part of a major shoreline-habitat restoration project (with the bulk of the $3.5 million cost paid for by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority), is sporting new gravel paths, a beachside trail, and viewing decks, among other amenities, such as picnic tables and benches.

      The addition of meandering shallow saltmarsh channels in 2017-18 boosted the parks original 150 metres of cobble-and-sand shoreline to 440 metres, and much of this has been planted in native saltmarsh vegetation that has already attracted juvenile chum and chinook salmon seeking shelter, food, and rest on their hazardous journey through Canada’s largest port to the ocean.

      The removal of contaminated landfill that was dumped in the original marsh in the 1960s and 1970s means that the groundwater, runoff, and daylighted Hastings Creek contribution from the Sanctuary in that part of the park will filter through the marsh in a natural purification process.

      Barred owls are among the more than 140 species of birds that have been recorded as Hastings Park Sanctuary visitors or residents.
      Wikimedia Commons/Mdf

      All told, the wetland planting saw 25,000 saltmarsh-grass plugs and 4,000 shrubs planted, including salmonberry, as well as 200 native trees. The saltmarsh restoration—which saw extensive consultation with the Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam, and Squamish First Nations—attracts an array of avian life, including feeding and nesting shorebirds, songbirds, and waterfowl.

      Because the culverted creek had originally been home to salmon, there are hopes in some quarters of eventual late-summer and fall spawning runs providing a seasonal and spectacular link to the past. (A general lack of riparian salmon-supporting features in the existing and proposed connecting park means that future restorative efforts would first have to take place.)

      Thrift stores, libraries, flea markets, bookstores, and the Internet are good places to pick up relatively inexpensive bird, animal, and plant identification guides. Just looking things up imparts loads of information, and you’d be surprised how easily it sticks. Kids soak it up, especially if you make a game out of collecting the greatest number of bird sightings, for example.

      Happy hunting!