The only interprovincial park in Canada, Cypress Hills straddles the Alberta/Saskatchewan border southeast of Medicine Hat, where, above the hot and arid summer prairie, its 200 square kilometres beckon with cool lakes and forests, abundant wildlife and archaeological sites dating back more than 7,000 years.
Jaunt: Medicine Hat to Elkwater, return
Distance: Approx. 330 km Fuel: 1 tank
Duration: 2 days Prime Time: Summer, fall
Tunes: Saskatchewan guitarist Joël Fafard’s instrumental . . . and another thing. . . and Ian Tyson’s “cowboyography” classic Old Corrals and Sagebrush
Leg One: Medicine Hat to Elkwater (approx. 140 km)
From Medicine Hat, drive southeast along Hwy. 3 to the community of Seven Persons, named for the seven Cree warriors killed here battling Blood natives in 1872. Turn south along Secondary Road 887 and drive across undulating prairie for 24 km to Red Rock Coulee Natural Area. On exposed beds of 75-million-year-old grey shale, you’ll find two-metre-high formations of brilliant orange-red sandstone – as round as bowling balls and in various stages of weathering – that geologists can still not fully explain. The park also has a few trails that wind down into the coulee, some picnic tables and a grand view southwest to the Sweet Grass Hills of Montana.
From the park, drive 56 km south to Hwy. 61. The Cypress Hills lie to the east; but first, a detour. Just beyond the intersection lies the old hamlet of Orion, named after the brightest constellation in the winter sky. The original town site was plotted in 1916 when the CPR chugged in, and today it might qualify as a ghost town – but not quite. Its crumbling buildings include a small grocery store and the Stevens Hardware and Garage, a false-fronted building packed with interesting automobile supplies and, most days, several locals sitting around the coffee pot discussing weather and crops. Behind the hardware store is a flatbed truck – of seemingly ancient vintage – bearing huge drums of gasoline, the only gas station for miles around. Boyd Stevens will come around back and fill your tank.
Hwy. 61 continues south for 5 km, then jogs due east to the village of Manyberries, where the Blackfoot once picked saskatoons and chokecherries (the berries were mixed with dried buffalo to make pemmican, a winter staple). Manyberries has a 100-year-old hotel, the Southern Ranchmen’s Inn (with its Just One More Saloon), and down the highway is the former CPR station, now nicely refurbished as a private residence along with a section of track and a 1913 caboose. The stationmaster’s house, painted the same railway red, has been updated as the Manyberries Station B&B (403-868-2003). The local school is also of interest: its curriculum includes two hours a day of horsemanship theory and practice, with a new indoor arena for year-round riding at the Manyberries Riding Academy (info is available through the local agricultural society at 403-868-2088).
From Manyberries, continue east before turning north on Range Road 60, then take Wildcat Trail (Township Road 62) and head east again toward the anomaly that is the Cypress Hills. A remnant block of ancient marine sediments, untouched by the last Pleistocene ice age (when glaciers ground away the land around them), the hills are higher, wetter and cooler than the surrounding grass prairie. Covered by lodgepole pines, aspen and spruce (the evergreens were called cypress by mistake), the hills support wildlife that is extinct or threatened elsewhere in Alberta: bobcats, trumpeter swans and northern leopard frogs, along with many species of birds and wildflowers. In 2004, the park was declared a “dark sky preserve,” and bright lights are banned here for clearer viewing of the night sky. (See Alberta Bound, page 27, for details.)
Wildcat Trail climbs slowly toward the hills, across grasslands adorned with summer clumps of harebells and black-eyed Susans (keep an eye peeled for pronghorn antelope; there are many in the area). Continue past the Michelle Creek reservoir and along Medicine Lodge Coulee, then up steep Thelma Road into the forested hills to the lake community of Elkwater. Drive carefully: a large flock of resident wild turkeys behave as if they own the road. Stop at the Cypress Hills visitor centre for a map and information before exploring the park, or settle for a lazy swim in the lake.
Good eats & sleeps:
Elkwater Lake Lodge & Resort and its Bugler’s Restaurant (1-888-893-3811; http://www.elkwaterlakelodge.com);
Reesor Ranch, a historic family cattle spread just over the border in Saskatchewan, only a short drive east of Elkwater – travellers can B&B at the ranch house or opt for an all-inclusive getaway (306-662-3498; http://www.ree sorranch.com); there are also 13 provincial park campsites (403-893-3782).
Leg Two: Elkwater to Medicine Hat (approx. 190 km)
After a morning’s stroll, drive east through the hills via the scenic route to Reesor Lake, then alongside Battle Creek and into Saskatchewan to the National Historic Site of Fort Walsh (about 40 km). In 1873, American hunters, believing some of their mounts had been stolen by local Nakota, crept into the natives’ camp beside the creek and slaughtered men, women and children, bringing to a head the fervour of unrest between natives and Europeans (the infamous “Cypress Hills Massacre”). The buffalo had been hunted almost to extinction, the natives were starving and supplies of adulterated whisky from American traders only worsened the situation. When news of the troubles reached Ottawa, the federal government commissioned a contingent of North West Mounted Police, who rode west from Winnipeg in 1875, built Fort Walsh near the site of Farwell’s Trading Post in the Cypress Hills and set about establishing British law and order in the then-lawless West. The redcoats doled out food and supplies to the starving natives and did their best to stamp out the American whisky trade, despite the fact that the nearest supply town was Fort Benton in Montana, about 250 km to the south, and teams of oxen were needed to haul supplies to the fort. (In the park today, ruts from the wagon wheels are still visible along the old trail.)
Though the original buildings burned in 1889, Fort Walsh still looks much the same as it did 125 years ago: isolated in a pristine valley, flying the Union Jack, its replica buildings of whitewashed logs surrounded by a stout palisade. Travellers are bused down from the visitor centre for guided tours of the barracks and Farwell’s Trading Post (another reconstruction), both furnished to the 1873 period, with costumed guides re-enacting scenes of the day. Allow several hours (http://www.pc.gc.ca; ).
Keep driving east on the road beyond the fort (Hwy. 271), for 30 scenic kilometres, to visit Saskatchewan’s first commercial vineyard. The 1.8-hectare Cypress Hills Vineyards and Winery produces wild fruit (saskatoon, chokecherry and Saskatchewan sour cherry) and grape wines. Good eats: The Cypress Hills Winery Bistro offers a tasty light lunch (http://www.cypresshillswinery.com).
To complete this Elkwater to Medicine Hat circuit, return the way you came, past the fort. But instead of following Reesor Lake Road all the way, turn left onto Police Point Road and follow it to Graburn Road – where a simple cairn at the intersection commemorates the murder in 1879 of police constable Marmaduke Graburn, the first NWMP officer to be killed in the line of duty. His grave, along with those of five other Mounties who died at their posts, is in the Fort Walsh cemetery behind the visitor centre. Graburn Road continues west to meet Hwy. 41. Turn north toward Elkwater, then leave the highway at Murray Hill Road to drive west to a scenic viewpoint on the brim of Horseshoe Canyon. Here, the edge of the hills plunges steeply over conglomerate cliffs to the prairies below – a good sunset lookout.
To return to Medicine Hat, drive Hwy. 41 north to the Trans-Canada, or take Hwy. 514 southwest to Eagle Butte (St. Margaret’s historic church is nearby), then west along Ranchville Road to the Black and White Trail (Range Road 60), which heads north to Medicine Hat.
In contrast to the natural delights of the Cypress Hills journey, Medicine Hat is a sophis-ticated city, the fifth largest in Alberta. Built over huge deposits of natural gas (writer Rudyard Kipling wrote that Medicine Hat has “all hell for a basement”), the city was once known for its stoneware, bricks and pottery. Its famous Medalta Potteries, a provincial historic site, can be toured, along with the Hycroft China Factory. Downtown features several historic buildings (ask at the tourist centre for a walking-tour guide), and there are fine parks beside the South Saskatchewan River. Just east is the landmark Saamis Teepee, a huge structure built of steel and concrete for the Winter Olympics of 1988 and moved here above Seven Persons Coulee near the site of an ancient aboriginal campsite (see Roadside, page 90, for details). And for a treat, after tromping around in the rough, book an appointment at one of the Hat’s half-dozen health spas. (Spoiled Rotten Day Spa offers seven-hour treatments, with lunch included, for $375. 831-688-7714; http://www.spoiledrottenspa.ca) Good sleeps: There are several chain hotels to choose from, but how about a candy store? The 100-year-old general store with its old-fashioned candy counter at Irvine, just east of Medicine Hat, has been converted into a funky B&B called Treat Dreams (403-834-2688; http://www.treatdreamsbandb.com).