The Wonderous West Block of Cypress Hills
This time last year I thought I was set. My girlfriend and her husband and son were coming from Calgary to spend a few days with us in the Cypress Hills (Saskatchewan side) at the tail end of the August long weekend. The campsite was booked for us, which proved to be no problem as we were rolling in on the Sunday, and a room at The Resort in Cypress Hills was booked for them. We were set.
Then my other girlfriend from Edmonton and her son, said they would love to join us. I was thrilled, they would come on the Friday, and we would have two days on our own before joining up with the rest. However the camping Gods did not smile down at me this time. Just so you know…a week before the August long weekend is NOT the time to start searching for a campsite in the Cypress Hills.
There was no luck in the Centre block where our Sunday reservations were. There was no luck at Willowbend Campground located right in Maple Creek, they were hosting two family reunions. Fine I thought, we’ll get a hotel room or enjoy a bed and breakfast….yeah…no luck there either. The Commercial Hotel at that point was not yet open, and Ghostown Blues and the Inn at Redmond House were both booked solid. Racking my brain for a solution (should I see if I could get permission to camp on the Rodeo grounds? Would my friend near Walsh allow us to camp on her land?), I suddenly remembered that I had heard there was “rustic camping” in the West Block of Cypress Hills. Not afraid to do without power or water for a couple of days I set out to Google my way to finding information on it, with little luck. Yes, I could find that it existed, but beyond that there was practically no information. There was a number for the Ranger’s office, and when I called I was told that all sites were “first-come-first-serve” there was no way I could guarantee we’d have a spot. So I pressed. “Is it usually full on the long weekend?” “Sometimes,” came the vague reply. “Should I get there on the Thursday to be sure?” “Maybe.”
So, Thursday after work, trailer packed, dogs excited to go camping, I set out on my adventure. My husband, kids and friends would join me on the Friday after work, till then I was on my own.
Knowing it was on the road past Fort Walsh, I got a little nervous when I saw the trailer drop-off point at the turn-off for the Fort. Was that the campground? Was I dumb to take the trailer further? Maybe the “rustic” part of the campground was that you shouldn’t take trailers there. With only a 21ft hybrid, I thought…nah…I should be okay. The hairpin turns that followed had me doubting.
If you’ve always thought Saskatchewan was flat, those turns are going to come as quite the surprise. You honestly will feel like you are heading up a mountain road, with it’s twists and turns that fold back on themselves Then came the climb. A steep climb. If your vehicle is at it’s maximum towing capacity, you may want to give this climb a hard pass – I for one knew I had more than enough truck for our trailer, as we always joked it was a bit of an overkill.
Ahead the sign for Fort Walsh, the last vestige of civilization before the road turned to gravel and there was no turning back (literally the road is too narrow – at least for me and my poor backing up skills). Passing signs that read “Impassable When Wet” that gave me a moments pause, I was comforted by the fact that it had been hot and sunny for days. I should be good.
Avoiding the cows that munched happily alongside the road, who thankfully did not cross said road (but be aware that they might), the road began to get what can only be described as “rollercoaster” like. Short little downs, short little ups, with what was coming next obscured by the road. That’s why the last big down came as a bit of a surprise. My husband would have viewed the road with glee. Me I had nothing but dread, one loooonnng way down, fresh gravel and a trailer that seemed to want to fish-tail. Holding my breath, my knuckles white I slowly inched down the BIG HILL and gave a sigh of relief when I had made it! (Note: I am a wuss, if I can make it, anyone can!).
Shortly thereafter came the Ranger Station on my right, where an old-fashioned telephone booth with signs pointing to it, was my first clue that I’d probably have no cell service (which I didn’t). Then came a campsite on the left. I was disappointed. There was a grassy area that looked like it would hold four trailers max, and three were already in residence. I stopped the truck and surveyed my options. Beyond the grassy area was another much wider area in the trees, blocked off from vehicle access by barriers, but beyond, a tenter’s paradise of lovely little spots nestled in the trees, each with their own campfire grill. At my look of consternation at the one squeezee spot left, while trying to decide a) if I wanted to stay there, b) if I could actually do it (did I mention I can’t back up very well?), one of the trailer owners came out to chat. When I said I had thought there would be more sites, he said “Oh there are, they’re up the road, just past the bridge.” YAY!
Back in the truck I went, and continued on, I passed the equestrian site, but with only two Border Collies as my only animal companions I was doubtful I would be allowed entry. Over a small bridge with only enough room for one vehicle, I came around the corner and saw a sight to behold…the (much) larger campground. Fenced in, with a larger wooden archway, it was practically empty and offered plenty of grassy sites!
Once set up (did I mention I’m horrible at backing up?), I set out to explore. There are about 10-15 official sites, marked only by their picnic tables and campfire grills, but anyone who was “group” camping that only needed one, could probably configure themselves to get more people in, as it was really just an open meadow surrounded on the sides by trees. Just as with the other site, here there was also a back area for tenters, nestled against Battle Creek which wound it’s way through the far end of the campsite. A camp kitchen provided a covering for those looking for shelter, while a large central firepit, offered a gathering place for all the campers to join up for an evening.
Settled in, supper eaten, beverage and camp chair in hand, I ventured over to the fire pit to meet and greet my fellow campers, a woman from Saskatoon who was tenting it, and a couple from Cabri who had brought their fifth wheel up. (The other couple from Medicine Hat were enjoying some solitude by their own fire). When I remarked that I was surprised to see such a large trailer up that way, (though for a fifth wheel it was still quite compact), the owner scoffed and said it was no problem for him. He’d been making the trip up to this site for the past forty years, more often than not in the fall season for hunting, and occasionally even for a winter excursion (don’t get me started on what I think about “winter” camping!). It was an enjoyable evening and one that seems to be rare now in the camping world, where everyone keeps to their own site and you rarely get to know your camping neighbours. As the evening wore on, a couple rolled in that were travelling from Toronto to Vancouver in their camper van, while a family doing the exact opposite trip (from Vancouver to Toronto) rolled in with their tents.
Aside from the night sky, (which as a Dark Sky Preserve was simply outstanding), what struck me most about this campground was the lack of sound. Even though there were two (three with mine) trailers, they were not running generators to mar the night’s peace. They didn’t even have any. It was as if some unwritten rule, disavowing generators had been decreed. (No such rule exists, it seemed more that if you liked “rustic” then with “rustic” came an unspoken agreement to let it be “rustic.”). Tired from my white knuckle adventure, I said my goodnights to my companions and headed off to bed. It was the sound of the rain that woke me, and the image of the sign “Impassable When Wet” briefly flashed in my head. How impassable could it be?
After a light rain, I’m sure the road would have been fine. But this had been no slight rain. After hearing it beat down over my head all night, intermittently waking me up (I have a hybrid trailer with a pop out tent trailer-styled bed, so every drop could be heard hitting the canvas), I awoke to more of the same, and as the day wore on, the rain did not let up. Not a worry for me, with a good book in hand, but as the day wore on I worried for my family and friends who would be making the trek later that evening. Around 4pm, the rain finally let up and I sprang to the truck to discover just how bad the roads were. While not too horrific up to the ranger station, once I got to the BIG HILL I saw where some of the problems would lie. The hill was like a mud slide. Throwing the truck into 4-wheel drive, I drove slow and steady up the hill, slipping a little here and there, but making it.
Once at the top I searched frantically for cell service, thinking that those in cars would not be so lucky, I figure the better solution would be to call or text them and advise them to leave their cars at the trailer drop-off while I ferried them in with the truck. Alas, the lack of cell service meant I couldn’t get a hold of them, and by the time the intermittent signal reached them, they were already well on their way in the mud. Each of them made it, my step-son with his Volvo station wagon, my husband and kids in our Chevy Blazer (in 4-wheel drive), and my friend and her son E in his Mazda, but after the trip, the mud that had gotten into E’s low slung engine, and the wear and tear on his high performance tires, meant an expensive repair job and a set of new tires once home.
I loved camping in the West Block, and once we relocated to the Centre Block with all of its activities and people, while I still had a great time, I did long for the quiet peacefulness of the West Block and the friendly conversations with fellow campers around our communal fire. I haven’t gotten back there yet, but I believe a trip in September will most definitely be in order.
How to GoHere:
As mentioned you enter the West Block from the same highway (271) that takes you to Fort Walsh, when you get to the turnoff for the Fort, just head straight over the cattle gate and follow the gravel road, taking the left hand side of the fork in the road (the right will take you to the Conglomerate Cliffs). Then just follow the gravel road past the Ranger Station to the second campground found over the bridge. (It will be on your right hand side).
There are outhouses here for use (see it has some services), thankfully they are not the gaping hole variety but rather the flush camping toilet style. Clean and well kept by Park staff, be sure to bring a flashlight at night because they have no lights.
Good to Know:
- When the road says “Impassable When Wet” it really is. Be sure to check weather forecasts before arriving, or call the Ranger’s office at 306.662.5489 and they can give you an update on the road conditions.
- As with all Sask Parks wood is provided at this campsite, so you don’t need to bring your own.
- There is self-registration only in the West Block, so be sure to bring cash to pay your camping fees.
- There’s lots of good geocaching in the area, but as there is no cell service if you plan on doing a little geocaching be sure to bring a GPS unit.
- Access to the West Block can be made from the Alberta side as well. It can also be accessed off the Trans Canada Hwy near Walsh. Head tohttp://www.visitcypresshills.ca and click on the map in the corner for a pretty good rendering of where the roads are. (Note: The couple from Medicine Hat had a 25ft pull-behind trailer, and made the journey from the Walsh turnoff. While they said it wasn’t too bad of a road, they did admit it was a bumpy ride).
- We didn’t get out and explore too much because of the weather conditions, but I’m told there are some great hiking trails in the area, as well as a “secret” swimming hole. Will have to check it out and write another blog!
- There are also Mystery Rocks that can be found in the West Block – but as they are on private land, you need to contact the Park Ranger to see if you would be allowed on.