Four hundred and fifty million years ago, Caledon was an ocean floor alive with mollusks and crustaceans, snails and clams, squid and octopus. The atmosphere was much warmer than it is today, heavy and humid. Much of North America was still under water.

The Ordovician period lasted more than 41 million years. It produced the first corals, the first multi-celled plant life (algae) and ended with a mass extinction attributed to rapid global cooling and glaciation that caused the seas to retreat.

The retreating seas left behind many striking land features, but one in particular stands out near the small Caledon town of Cheltenham. Known as the Cheltenham Badlands, it was early 20th century forest clearing that left the area vulnerable to erosion. The top layer of soil gradually washed away and exposed the rolling hills of rust-red and grey coloured layers of shale that attract crowds of tourists today.

Over the past few decades, like the retreating seas, tourists began to leave behind their own special features on the landscape. Beside fast-food containers and other litter, tramping over the property started to cause the grey and rust colours to smudge together. That called for action.

In 2015, Ontario Heritage Trust, which owns the land, and the Bruce Trail Conservancy (BTC) stepped up to preserve the site. They fenced the area and set about to devise a way for the public to enjoy nature’s artwork without causing further damage.

On Sept. 14, a special ribbon cutting ceremony marked the completion of the work that gives the public safe access and a perfect vantage point. The gate opens to the public on Sept. 22 and will remain open seven days a week, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. until Oct. 28. That includes Thanksgiving Day on Oct. 8, and next year, in 2019, the site will open on May 2.

The site features a spacious boardwalk; information panels describing the area’s geologic and cultural history; Bruce Trail wayfinding signs; 33 paved parking spaces including accessible parking; a path to the boardwalk and portable washrooms. Pay and display parking costs $10, flat rate, but for a family day trip to the Terra Cotta Conservation Area, there’s a half-hourly shuttle service to the site that’s included in the park entrance fee. The service runs on weekends between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. For cyclists, bike racks are available.

Autumn is one of the most popular times of year to see Caledon’s fall colours. While there, folks like to visit the Terra Cotta and Belfountain Conservation Areas, the Ken Whillans Resource Management Area, the Forks of the Credit Provincial Park, and the ever-popular Caledon Trailway. Caledon’s natural artscape is eye candy for the soul.

There are country stores for refreshments, excellent restaurants and great shopping to fill the day. As attractions can get a little crowded, it’s best to arrive early in the day to avoid peak times.

Photo: The Cheltenham Badlands at Caledon.