Get Me Outdoors: Cypress Hills (Elkwater, AB)
by Alberta Parks Ambassador – Tyler Dixon
The Cypress Hills rise 600 metres above the surrounding prairies making it the highest point between the Canadian Rockies and the Labrador Peninsula on the east coast. The unique mix of climate, geography, and ecosystems create a home for an extensive diversity of plants and animals. Eighteen species of orchid have been recorded in the area; more than anywhere else on the prairies. There are also over 220 species of bird, 47 different mammals, and several species of both reptile and amphibian. The entire area also has a very colourful history. Archaeological evidence confirms human habitation as far back as 8,500 years, which were entirely pre-contact First Nation groups. In the mid 1600’s early European traders and explorers began to arrive in the region, bringing whiskey, firearms, and diseases, all of which wreaked havoc on the local First Nation people. The introduction of guns made hunting Bison much easier and before long Bison were being slaughtered for their pelts (to trade for whiskey) instead of for food, shelter, and tools. Although whiskey trading had been outlawed in the United States (please see my post on Fort Whoop-Up for additional information) this practice was still prevalent in the highly lawless Canadian west. In the mid-to-late 1800’s at least four major Metis camps with about 300 families had been erected in the Cypress Hills area. Like the plains First Nation the Metis were a nomadic people following the Bison herds, but they also incorporated some European language and traditions into their distinct culture. In 1859 the Palliser Expedition passed through the region on their westward journey to document western Canada. Of the area Captain John Palliser wrote, “These hills are a perfect oasis in the desert we have travelled.”
In 1869 the Hudson’s Bay Company transferred Rupert’s Land to the Canadian Government, but it would still be a number of years before law and order could be brought to the western territory. In the early 1870’s the entire region was a tinderbox. Ungoverned trading posts and whiskey forts, dispirited First Nation groups, and wolf hunters all contributed to this volatile scene. On June 1, 1873 everything came to a head when a trader discovered his horse had been stolen. He immediately, but falsely, accused a group of Nakoda people camped nearby. After recruiting several wolf hunters and Metis they attacked the camp. By the end of the day more than 20 Nakoda were dead and the Cypress Hills Massacre was born. As a direct result of this tragedy the newly formed North West Mounted Police (now the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) headed west to bring order to Canada’s newest territory. Fort Walsh was established in 1875 and became the largest and most heavily armed fort in the NWMP’s possession. In a mere seven years the NWMP abolished the whiskey trade and brought law and order to western Canada.Welcome to Cypress Hills.
By 1882 the Bison and Grizzly Bear were extirpated from Cypress Hills while populations of other game animals were severely depleted. These drastic declines completely changed the way of life on the prairies. The Canadian Pacific Railway was quickly making it’s way through the west and with it came settlers, ranchers, and farmers, setting the stage for a rapid transformation the prairies had never seen. The earliest tourists to the Elkwater area can be dated back to 1907, with the first cottage being constructed in 1913. The park was first established in 1931 on the Saskatchewan side and was expanded into Alberta in 1951, making it Canada’s first Interprovincial Park. Today the park is divided into three sections; the Alberta side around Elkwater, the West Block Wilderness Area, and the Centre Block, both of which are on the Saskatchewan side of the border.
This sign was on our campsite when we arrived. It was the first time I’d seen one as an Ambassador. It was pretty cool and it sparked several conversations throughout the weekend as other guests stopped by to ask me about my role. For this camping trip we would be staying on the Alberta side of the park in the Firerock Campground. I hadn’t been to the Elkwater area since I was a kid, but we did a weekend trip to Saskatchewan’s Centre Block a few years back.
The Elkwater town site is approximately 360km southeast of Calgary and 470km southwest of Regina, making it fairly central as we were meeting friends and family from Regina on this trip. We all arrived at various times on Friday, most just narrowly missing a thunderstorm that was passing through. The Hills start quite abruptly from the adjacent farmland. One minute you’re driving through bald prairie and pastures and the next you can see the forest covered hills. It’s really quite distinctive.After setting up camp it was time to have some fun!The weekend was filled with outdoor activities. There are a host of multi-use trails in Cypress Hills, including several newly built mountain biking gems.
My goal was to hike and/or ride as many as I could to get a solid understanding of the terrain. I did two fantastic loops on my bike and it’s safe to say the new trails are glorious! They are fast and flowy and have obviously been built by mountain bikers who know what they’re doing. Most folks likely won’t picture Cypress Hills as a mountain biking destination, but you might want to reconsider that point of view.
Of course it’s nice to see the park by foot as well, so a group of us hiked the 8.4km Spruce Coulee Trail. Since the trail isn’t a loop we dropped a vehicle at the Rodeo Grounds on the western end of the trail and then drove to the trailhead at Spruce Coulee Reservoir. That way after the hike we could run a shuttle instead of hiking 16km total! For the most part the hike is completely in the forest, so there isn’t much to see. We enjoyed the time outside, but were hoping for more views of the park and surrounding prairie. I’m happy we did it, but I don’t think I’d hike it again the next time I’m there. I would opt for a different trail and see how it compares.
The weather was hot and the sun was shining so the trip wouldn’t have been complete without some stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) and a swim in the lake. We spent most of Sunday on Elkwater Lake, enjoying the summer weather. Most of the group had never tried a SUP before, so it was fun watching them learn to balance on the boards. It was great to see how quickly everyone seemed to grasp the technique!
Before hitting the highway Christine and I headed over to Spruce Coulee Reservoir for one final paddle in the park. The sun was shining and there wasn’t much wind so it was the perfect way to wrap-up our camping trip.
It’s easy to see that we had a fantastic vacation in Cypress Hills, but I feel like we didn’t even begin to scratch the surface of things to see and do. Three nights was nowhere near long enough; I could have easily spent a week exploring the park and all the wonderful places that make it so unique. I guess that means we’ll just have to plan another adventure sooner than later! Although our trip was focused on outdoor activities there really is something for everyone of all ages, interests, and abilities. There are playgrounds for children, a disc golf course, scenic driving tours, wildlife viewing opportunities, historical sites, a visitor’s centre and so much more!
If you’d like more information about the Cypress Hills area please visit the websites for Alberta Parks,Saskatchewan Parks, and the Cypress Hills Destination Area. The TrailForks website is a reliable resource for trail maps and information. We used it for both biking and hiking while in the park. Make sure you download theapp, available for both Android and Apple, so you’ll have all the maps at your fingertips!
In closing I’d just like to thank Mike Ractliffe, Chris Dodds, and the rest of the Alberta Parks staff for making this trip truly one to remember. I also appreciate all the bike info from Monica Bartha and the 670 Collective, without it I would have been riding around aimlessly! The insider information is always cherished and makes for a seamless experience. Thank you all!
Until next time…
Source: Get Me Outdoors: Cypress Hills