Calgarians may look east to vent their political frustrations and mainstream media angst, but when it comes to recreation they inevitably gaze westward. Be it Alberta’s own Kananaskis Country and Rocky Mountain parks or further afield in the summer playgrounds of British Columbia like the Okanagan, Shuswap, and Invermere, it’s hard to blame them for doing so. Having done likewise so many times ourselves, this past summer, in a fit of contrarianism, we turned right where we usually turn left and headed east for a summer camping adventure on the flatlands of the Canadian Prairies.
Our first stop would set the tone for the entire trip. Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, southeast of Medicine Hat, straddles the Alberta-Saskatchewan border and isn’t typically high on the radar of many Calgary campers. We had heard of it but not much else. It certainly isn’t a place that many of our fellow city campers have been too and it doesn’t get mentioned much when asking around for camping suggestions. That, my friends, is a crying shame because what we discovered at Cypress Hills was literally an oasis, as if the gods had harvested a piece of Kananaskis country and plunked it down in the middle of the grasslands (sans mountains, of course).
The drive between Brooks and Medicine Hat is notoriously dull. Endless kilometers of awful, flat, grazing land and even at that you see very few cattle. Hell you don’t even see farms, just empty, unbroken grazing land. You’d easily be forgiven if you assumed it was fully void of human occupation. Oh, it has its charm, in a mysterious, almost uncomfortable, kind of way but that charm won’t be enough to keep you from falling fast asleep at the wheel if you’re not careful.
Heading eastward as Medicine Hat achingly approaches, you can see on the far horizon the ethereal, blurry Cypress Hills rising above the vast, barren, brown fields. They appear as a strange grey colour giving the impression of being shaded, as if permanent cloud has blocked the sun from the tops of them. They remain this way mile after mile. Only when you’ve passed through Medicine Hat and are heading south, now within a dozen or so kilometers of the park, do you realize that the hills aren’t in shadow nor are they simply grey in colour. They are treed!
The contrast of that conifer and poplar forest blanketing the Cypress Hills to the desolate prairie surrounding them is truly striking. It is an oasis unlike any I’ve yet encountered. And upon seeing this arboreal oasis, not unlike the desperate, desert nomad, our focus, energy, and excitement simultaneously jumped as we approached the gates to the Alberta side of the Interprovincial Park.
It didn’t take long after our arrival to realize that this park is different than any of the other provincial parks we’ve visited. Basically, it’s a resort town enveloped in a provincial park. The hamlet of Elkwater resides fully within the boundaries of the park, not unlike a small, prairie Banff. The streets are lined with traditional cabins and modern cottages (i.e. ostentatious second homes) along with all the amenities expected in a small town; groceries, gas, restaurant, community hall etc. It is very reminiscent of the beach towns I remember and enjoyed back in Southern Ontario.
The campground is on the west end of town where the cottages mostly end and the park atmosphere returns. In the rolling, treed hills are several campground loops each with its own character. We stayed in the Old Baldy loop. This wasn’t our initial choice when perusing the online website in the weeks prior to booking but at booking time there were precious few options remaining. Calgarians may be woefully under-informed about Cypress Hills but those more local sure aren’t and site reservations book up fast. No harm done, however, as the site we ended up with was fantastic. Large and well-separated from our neighbours, it had a long gravel pad for the trailer, a smaller perpendicular gravel pad for the fire pit, and a large, grassy area with some trees for whatever. The site backed onto a thick shrubby area at the foot of the forested hill.
Not all sites are created equal here which gives the place a sweeping variety for all manner of campers. Some sites are much closer together for groups, some are pull-through, some are more open, and some are very shaded. Our loop has power and water, others have just power, still others have power, water, and sewer, and a couple are unserviced. The bulk of the loops are spread out along Ferguson Hill road. They appear far apart on maps but are actually quite close to each other and can easily be reached from each other with a short walk or bike ride. With the exception of Old Baldy, all the power/water loops have full shower houses with flush toilets as well as playgrounds. Old Baldy has just a small pit toilet which surprisingly doesn’t stink much. For those demanding the luxury toilet experience (oops, is that my hand in the air?) it is a quick walk to Beaver Creek, the neighbouring loop, which has a fully serviced shower house.
We didn’t personally tour all the campground loops so our experience is limited to Old Baldy and Beaver Creek. The playground in Beaver Creek was large and modern and the kids were quite excited to play on it. This was easily walkable from Old Baldy and a fancy bridge over a creek makes for a nice stroll or bike ride. The bathroom/shower complex was also clean and well-kept. More importantly, and certainly a surprise, the showers were free. They had a timed push button and you couldn’t adjust the temperature, but we all enjoyed a warm cleansing shower without the need for coins or tokens.
Firewood is available at the small main campground office for the usual $8 for a feed bag. We had a fire one night but were rained out the others, unfortunately, so we ended up with a bag of wood joining our trip. Mosquitoes were present so bring your bug spray but they weren’t overwhelming in mid-August when we were there which is a bit of a surprise considering how wet the summer had been.
We did take a quick drive around the Firerock camping loops. The powered sites were pretty open (much like the Lakeview loop by the main entrance) with little in the way of shade. This didn’t appeal to us at all. Further up the road the unserviced part of the loop was well treed and looked quite nice for those looking to tent or rough it a little.
One of the more notable impressions from our stay was that this campground is remarkably quiet. Was that unique to our loop or this particular weekend? We have no idea but it was quite welcome. We enjoyed such a peaceful sleep with no rowdy campers or loud children in the playground (Old Baldy not having its own playground undoubtedly helped with that). Peaceful that is, except for the wind. It’s quite breezy here and through the night it got downright windy. During the daytime, the breeze was refreshing and as someone who typically hates wind, I wasn’t frustrated by it. By the second day the wind had returned to a light, enjoyable breeze again.
The focal point of Elkwater and this part of the park is Elkwater Lake, an artificial lake created by a small damn on a local creek. The lake is on the small side but nonetheless provides a wonderful aquatic playground upon which the town and campground entrance borders. There is a huge, grassy park running along the lake front, a decent sized beach, and a boat dock and small marina with canoe, kayak and bicycle rentals.
Okay, so maybe the lake is natural. I had assumed it was artificial based on the small dam I could see on Google Maps but according to the Discovery Centre in the Visitor’s Centre, the lake has been there forever. Perhaps the dam enhances it? Oh look, a quick search online tells me that the existing lake was dammed by Ducks Unlimited in the fifties. So it’s a hybrid lake.
The Discovery Centre is terrific with lots of displays sharing information regarding the local geology, flora, and fauna along with the history of First Nations, NWMP, and the first European settlers. There is also a small gift shop with books, pamphlets, branded clothing, and assorted park-themed stuffies for sale. A small, indoor playground for the five and under crowd is a unique addition. You will find a help desk for park information and registration for the many programs and events provided at the park. We signed up our kids for a learn to fish program which cost $5 each and included fishing gear to use, a short lecture on fish in the park, and a quick demonstration of casting. The kids enjoyed it and the guide was pleasant, but this was no Scuttlebutt Lodge nor were we newly-minted Red Fishers.
The Visitor’s Centre building is quite new, having been built to commemorate Alberta’s centennial in 2005. Next door is a small grocery store with the staples for camping including some hardware items plus a quaint liquor store. Next to this is a small café/restaurant showcasing a pretty, wood interior. We didn’t eat here so I can’t comment on the food, but this would be a nice little spot to eat during a day trip.
If you’re looking for a cool treat on a warm, summer day the ice cream shop by the beach is the perfect spot to go. It’s housed in a little trailer but serves a big selection of cold treats. We had hard, ice cream cones, but there is soft ice cream as well, shaved ice concoctions, and milkshakes. Service is friendly but just a little slow as there is only one order window. If you time the line up right you’ll be rewarded quickly enough.
That large park I mentioned earlier that runs along the lakeshore also has plenty to offer aside from the beach and boating. There is a disc golf course and a mini-golf course at the eastern end. The mini-golf is free and the course condition reflects that. There is limited variation in hole style and the entire course is starting to deteriorate with uneven “greens” and holes that have bumped up lips so the ball has difficulty going in. All the balls are white and there were no scorecards available when we played. There is also no attendant. But, hey, it was free and if you have young kids who are excited to play but have no patience for rules or score-keeping this is a perfect place to let them play around a bit even if there are only 17 holes.
Still further to the east you will find the East End Day Use Area located near the Elkwater Community Centre. Here you will find picnic shelters and fire pits for day trips and group gatherings. A similar day use area is set up at the West End near the campgrounds which has, in addition to the picnic facilities, a small playground and additional beach. We drove past this area but didn’t use it. It was okay. I’d certainly prefer the main beach in town.
The entire waterfront park and town core facilities like the Visitor’s Centre are all linked by a nice path system allowing you to walk or bike wherever you wish to go. This is quite handy with some of the campground loops a fair walk from the main beach, being able to bike was wonderful. There is an additional hiking trail system throughout the park proper including several that wind around the campground loops and into the nearby hills. We spent a few hours on a couple trails near our campsite hunting for geocaches one day. The trails have informational placards at various points of interest that reveal further secrets of the animals and plants that call Cypress Hills home.
Still there is more. This park is a full-fledged, recreational mecca. There is even a ski hill in the park making Elkwater and Cypress Hills a year round playground! All these facilities of which I’ve written are but the northwestern corner of the park. Thousands of square kilometers of undeveloped hill and forest country lie to the east of Elkwater passing into neighbouring Saskatchewan. So if resort vacations are not your thing, there is ample opportunity for backcountry camping, equestrian camping, backcountry hut rentals, hiking, cycling, exploration and animal watching. And what’s the cherry on top of this delicious, outdoors cake? Offroad vehicles are forbidden, so you needn’t worry about the disruption of quads and the like.
At the eastern end of the main park, in the Saskatchewan part, is Fort Walsh National Historical Site, the first home of the Northwest Mounted Police and site of the infamous Cypress Hills Massacre. We had hoped to visit this place during our three day stay but the weather was uncooperative, raining each night. In fact, during the final night of our visit not only was there a deluge but a park ranger knocked on our trailer door to inform us of a tornado watch in the park and told us we were free to go to the community hall for shelter. That’s never happened before! Anyway, all this rain made transportation within the park from Elkwater to Fort Walsh all but impossible, especially towing a trailer which leads me to this.
If I could complain about one thing, and I must, it’s the problem of getting to the Saskatchewan portion of the park from the Alberta side and vice versa. There is a road that winds through the park from the west to the east, but the Saskatchewan side is reportedly a muddy, gravel road. With the big rain storms we had both nights, we were warned against making the trek. The only alternative was to return to the TransCanada head over to Maple Creek and then return to the park via Saskatchewan highways that are paved on that side. This alternate route is a lengthy hour and a half trip and wasn’t convenient at all. I really wish there had been a decent road to get me from one end of the park to the other. It’s an interprovincial park which, ironically, seems to have little interest in interprovincialism. A proper road from Elkwater to Fort Walsh would be the perfect addition to an already amazing park.
During our subsequent travels on this two week escapade, we learned from friends we visited in Saskatchewan that the East Block, a separate portion of the park solely in Saskatchewan, is quite the family summer resort too. We will have to confirm this for ourselves sometime in the future and based on our experience in Elkwater it will be sooner rather than later. So for now, consider this review solely indicative of the Alberta side of the park.
These large provincial parks are difficult to rate as a single entity. With so many activities being offered that cater to all types of campers and outdoors lovers, you really do them an injustice by lumping them all together. What makes one activity awesome might make another camper unhappy or vice versa. Still, I’m of the mind that a park that attempts to appeal to all tastes is a special park and should be commended for the attempt. You will never make everyone happy but this park is as good a shot at trying as you’re likely come across.
Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park is pretty darn close to perfect. We were dumbfounded by the resort oasis we discovered there and are eager to return in future summers to explore further. I eagerly award this park 4.5 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. Only that damned inability to get from Elkwater to Fort Walsh through the park keeps it from getting a perfect 5 out of 5. I highly recommend Cypress Hills for families looking for a great camping spot but willing to try something to the east rather than the sexy western spots in and around the mountains. The Cypress Hills are enchanting and beautiful and delightfully strange all at once. A true oasis if there ever was. The facilities and activities here are fantastic and I’m finding myself a bit jealous of folks living in Medicine Hat, something I’ve never, ever felt before.