Exploring South West Saskatchewan
The southwestern corner of Saskatchewan is an amazing place that will both confirm and challenge everything you thought you knew about this this part of the country.
Yes, there are endless fields of golden grain rippling gently in the breeze but there’s so much more – like sand dunes, forests, hills, grasslands, a huge man-made lake and the “piece de resistance”, Saskatchewan’s only winery.
So, let’s begin this journey of discovery in the northwest corner of the region, near the village of Spectre, which happens to be close to an interesting geological landform called, “The Great Saskatchewan Sand Hills” or, “Great Sandhills” as they’re known to the locals. Described as one of the largest set of active sand dunes in Canada, the area is considered a paradise for bird watchers, nature photographers and those who enjoy having fun in the sand. With such a grand name and glowing description, my wife and I just had to check them out.
Getting to the Great Sandhills proved easier said than done. The main road leading to the area is primarily gravel, changing to loose sand for the last few kilometers. Add to that, several hours of rain showers before our arrival and I was beginning to have serious doubts about our ability to make it with a truck (2WD) and trailer. Having never driven the route before, I had no idea how muddy or slippery the “gravel” road might be. Thankfully, before giving up on the venture, I came across the Great Sandhills Museum and Interpretive Centre in Spectre, SK. and stopped to get a road advisory. A museum volunteers assured us that the gravel part would be no problem but the last section over loose sand would definitely be a “challenge”. The volunteer then suggested I leave the trailer in their parking lot, if I was concerned. I was and I did.
Great Sandhills Museum
As predicted, the gravel road was no problem, even with the rains. In fact, it was in better shape than some of the paved roads we’d encountered. The final few kilometers over loose sand was a different story and I was glad our trailer was back at the museum parking lot.
The sand hills themselves were a bit of a disappointment. What I expected were lots of dunes and endless miles of sand – like a mini Sahara desert. What I found were some hills, composed of sand, largely covered with grass and shrubs. The disappointment faded as I wandered around. There were some large patches of sand and the odd dune to be found not to mention a very odd make-shift memorial with dozens of cowboy boots nailed to it.
Great Sandhills 1
Great Sandhills 2
While the Great Sandhills will never be never be mistaken for the Sahara desert, the geology and landform is quite unique and certainly worth a visit.
Also worth a visit is the Great Sandhills Museum and Interpretive Centre in Spectre, SK. Not only are the staff members friendly, knowledgeable and helpful, the museum itself has a wealth of information on the history, geography and ecology of the region.
Not far from Spectre is Lake Diefenbaker, a huge reservoir created by damming the South Saskatchewan and Qu”appellee rivers. With several provincial parks, marinas and golf courses along its shores and plenty of walleye lurking under the surface there’s lots to see and do.
At the head of the lake is Gardner Dam which boasts a restaurant, interpretive centre, and a lovely little recreation area, complete with a sand beach and swimming area – very tempting on a hot summer’s day.
200km Southwest of the Gardner dam is Swift Current, the largest (and only) city in the region. Swift Current is (IMHO) just the right size for a city – big enough to have a Walmart, some new car/ RV dealerships and a couple of excellent RV parks but small enough to navigate without a GPS.
Further south and west is the town of Maple Creek. If Swift Current is the perfect size for a city then Maple Creek has to be the perfect size for a town. With a population of about 2,200, Maple Creeks still retains that friendly, small town vibe while offering most of the amenities RV’ers appreciate, such as a good size grocery store, a couple of major bank branches, pharmacies, garages, hardware stores and a great little RV park with full services, clean wash rooms and friendly staff just a few blocks from downtown.
Unlike many other Saskatchewan towns which seem on the verge of extinction, Maple Creek appears to be thriving. Being on a major rail line helps (more about that, later). Being on a main tourist route to the area’s best know landmark – the Cypress Hills – helps even more however, the good folks of Maple Creek have taken it one step further by transforming the town into a tourist destination in its own right. Virtually every week-end all summer (and beyond) has some sort of event, celebration or festivity taking place. The idea is to not only attract more visitors to the town but tempt those who are passing through to stop and stay a while. It’s a good strategy. My wife and I had planned to stay just a day or two but a visit to the tourist bureau convinced us to stay a few days more so we could “sample” an upcoming week-end event called, “A Taste of Maple Creek”.
On Saturday, the main street was closed and several of the town’s restaurants set up food kiosks. For a few dollars, residents and tourists could sample a variety of cuisines. In case you’re wondering, Maple Creek boasts a couple of very upscale restaurants as well as the usual diners, cafes, pizza places and Chinese restaurant.
In addition, local merchants, church groups and the town’s library took the opportunity to hold sidewalk/garage sales. Add a car show in afternoon plus a street dance in the evening and you have all the ingredients for a fun time.
In the interests of full disclosure, I do have to say something about the trains. As mentioned earlier, Maple Creek is on a major rail line that is well used by trains with loud horns and engineers who aren’t afraid to use them. During our first night in the local RV park, there must have been a half dozen trains whizzing by with horns loud enough to wake the dead (or at the very least, sleeping RVer’s). They seemed perfectly spaced so that just as I was nodding off from the previous disturbance, the next one would come roaring (honking?) through. Thankfully, it wasn’t that bad every night and week-ends tended to be a lot quieter.
50 km south of Maple Creek is the area’s best known tourist attraction and geographic land form – the Cypress Hills. Rising 200 meters above the surrounding prairie landscape and covered in pine forests instead of grass, the “hills” are hard to miss. 200 meters may not seem that high, especially to lower mainland residents but, the Cypress Hills are the highest point of land between the Rockies to the west and Labrador to the east. Standing on top, it’s possible to see hundreds of kilometers in almost every direction. After all, there ‘s not much to block the view.
Much of the area is contained within the Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, a park that spans both Saskatchewan and Alberta. It’s the only one of its kind in Canada.
Nestled in the middle is Fort Walsh, a reconstructed North West Mounted Police post rich in history and folklore. That history is brought to life by a wonderful cast of historical re-enactors who recreate typical daily events of the period. Audience participation is not only encouraged but in some cases required. Don’t worry, its all good fun and definitely makes the visit memorable.
Also memorable is the road to Fort Walsh which is very narrow and twisty – so much so that trailers are not allowed beyond the park gate. Thankfully, there’s a large parking lot to drop them off in. I didn’t see any notices concerning motorhomes so presumable they are okay. Nevertheless, it’s not something I’d recommend.
About half way between the park and Maple Creek lies Saskatchewan’s
only winery called, fittingly enough, “Cypress Hills Vineyard and Winery”. Talk about a jewel in the rough. The winery buildings and grounds are gorgeous and would look right at home in the Okanagan of Napa valleys.
Believe it or not, grapes are actually grown on the property. Not many but enough to produce a small amount of white wine as well as combine with local ingredients such as Saskatoon berries, choke cherries and rhubarb to produce some unique and flavourful blends that are definitely worth tasting, especially when tastings are free.
The best part however, has to be the winery’s restaurant patio. It’s the perfect place to spend a sunny afternoon enjoying delicious food, sipping chilled rhubarb wine and just relaxing . Isn’t that what travel is all about – soothing the body, broadening the mind and the educating the pallet?
About half a day’s drive south and east over some very rough roads (more about that later) is a park of a different kind. Grasslands National Park covers two large areas, approximately 900 sq. km in total. The intent of this park was to allow the land which had been farmed or ranched to revert back to its natural state. Bison have been reintroduced while other native species such as the Black Tailed Prairie Dog, the Burrowing Owl and Swift Fox are once again flourishing.
For a national park, Grasslands is simple and unassuming. Little more than at sign at the entrance to the west bock identifies it as being a national park and the main road through is gravel – reasonably well maintained gravel – but gravel, none the less. Park rangers from the interpretive centre in Val Marie, a small town close to the park advised against traveling with a large RV, trailer or 5th wheel if there’s any chance of rain. Thankfully it was dry during our transit.
The possibility of seeing some Bison was the main reason for our visit. Unfortunately, the Grassland Bison are much more camera shy than their Yellowstone cousins. I think we may have seen one off in the distance but even with a 300mm camera lens it was hard to make out any detail.
Not so camera shy were the Prairie Dogs who have constructed a huge maze of tunnels and seemed quite content to carry on their social activities with tourists near by.
For RV’ers, the park is somewhat primitive in terms facilities. There are some tenting areas plus a few unserviced spots that may be suitable for small vans or trailers. A better bet might be the Val Marie municipal campground located a block or two from “downtown”. It offers electricity, water and washrooms at a reasonable rate. I say “might” for a reason. Initially, my wife and I had decided to spend the night there. As I was backed our travel trailer into a site with my wife’s guidance, her normally purposefully hand signals became a flurry of madly flailing arms. Before I knew it, she was back in the truck yelling, “Get us out of here!” Apparently, the site was also home to swarms of ravenous mosquitoes. Luckily, there was private campground just outside town. We picked a spot on a bare knoll where a steady 40km prairie “breeze” kept the blood sucking hoards away.
North and east of Val Marie are the towns of Pontiex, LaFleche and Gravelbourg. At the turn of the last century, this area was home to a large French speaking population. When local Bishop was looking for a place to establish his seat, several communities built large, elaborate churches, to entice the His Eminence. Eventually, the Bishop selected Gravelbourg which boasted the largest and most elaborate cathedral in the area.
While not as large and ornate as Gravelburg, the churches of Pontiex and LaFlesh are still impressive structures with beautiful stained glass windows, soaring columns and intricate interior decorations. My wife and I were lucky enough to be given a tour of the church in LaFlesh. The church sexton noticed us taking pictures and asked if we wanted a look inside. For much of the afternoon he regaled us with stories about the church, its history, congregation, events, and happenings from the surrounding area. Sadly, the huge congregations which once supported these magnificent structures have all but gone and the remaining few struggle to keep them up.
North of LaFlesh and Gravelburg is Swift Current and the end of our journey.
Southwestern Saskatchewan is a wonderful area filled with contrasts and contradictions; wheat fields and mountains, grass lands and forests, sand dunes and lakes. It’s a region rich in natural beauty, history, friendly people and charming little towns . Hopefully, this narrative has whetted your appetite to go exploring. If so, there’s just one more disclosure I have to share and that concerns the roads. In a word – they’re awful. Not all, but many are in poor condition – rutted and bumpy, with potholes large enough to swallow a combine. I’m not talking about just the rural or country roads either. A lot of the major secondary routes are in poor condition as well. While posted speed limits may read 90 KPH, anything over 60 KPH can often be foolhardy, if not insane. But, maybe slowing down is not such a bad thing. After all, isn’t RV’ing supposed to be about relaxing and seeing the sites, especially when the sites are in southwestern Saskatchewan?