Serenity in Cypress Hills

After a quick tour through Medicine Hat, Alberta, we moved on to the southeast end of the province, arriving at Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park. The park straddles the Saskatchewan border, with both provinces managing their sections separately.

You access the western side of the park by driving about 35km south off the Trans Canada Highway (65km from Medicine Hat). Despite the name, we were surprised to discover really substantive hills in the middle of the prairie. Cypress Hills, like the Badlands, are an aberration to an otherwise flat, agricultural landscape. But unlike the Badlands, Cypress Hills is on a high plateau that forms an island of cool, moist forests, wetlands and grasslands.

We arrived at the small resort town of Elkwater late on a Friday afternoon, which serves as the park’s base, and were lucky to book into almost the last ‘first come, first served’ site in the campground (they only have about 20 – over 150 are reservable). There were no hookups, which we prefer except for the damned generators, but sites were private and cost $29. It was a 20 minute hike down a trail to Elkwater Lake, which was stunning, and the area had over 50kms of well-maintained trails and bike paths.   Best of all, there were NO bugs. None! It was incredible, particularly after being devoured at Dinosaur Provincial Park.

The weather was great so we stayed on for 3 wonderful bug-free nights before moving on to the Saskatchewan side. We first stopped at Fort Walsh National Park – generally considered the birthplace of the RCMP. A brief history: after the Cypress Hills Massacre in 1873, Sir John A MacDonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, created the Northwest Mounted Police (NWMP) and sent them off to quell any further violence, deal with the illegal whiskey trade and maintain the Dominion of Canada’s sovereignty against any possible American incursions. In 1874, Superintendent James Morrow Walsh led a group of recruits to the Cypress Hills and established the fort along with some degree of local law and order. It was a busy time as there were several thousand natives nearby competing for the dwindling buffalo. It got more interesting in 1876, when a group of 5,000 Lakota Sioux Indians, led by Sitting Bull, arrived in the area after defeating Colonel Custard’s 7th Calvary. They had retreated north to escape retaliation from the US military…

Once again, Parks Canada does a good job with this (dog-friendly) historic site, including staff in period dress, and well put together exhibits in showcasing a key piece of Canadian history.

We then took a questionable gravel road towards the ‘West Block’ camping area. The road was narrow, uneven and featured a series of steep switchbacks for 10kms. We arrived at the ‘equestrian campground.’ We checked it out – there were no signs saying you had to have horses – and it turned out to be excellent. Large grassy sites with a fantastic view of the Cypress Hills and Battle Creek (oddly enough named after the massacre) ran through the back of the site. There were only three other groups of very friendly horse campers set up so we settled in. Free firewood was included for a bargain 18 bucks a night.

 

The next day, we visited Cypress Hills Winery (taster’s note: due to frost the past 2 years, they have no grape wine, just fruit wine, which was all VERY sweet, a bit too sweet. We didn’t buy any but appreciated the free tastings and outdoor picnic area.)

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Then on to Maple Creek for supplies and a haircut for Papa Bear. Finding a good barber on a year-long cross country trek is a bit of a crapshoot. In this case, the strict criterion was met when a barbershop was conveniently located right beside Howard’s Bakery (great donuts by the way). The sign out front – as a side business – was also kind of intriguing…

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We finished our 5 day tour of Cypress Hills by staying at the ‘Centre Block’ side of the park. It was okay (it was kind of touristy and the campsites weren’t nearly as good as the West Block or the Alberta side) but the sites had power so we didn’t have to listen to any bloody generators…

 

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