Following The Red Coat Trail: Part 1
Welcome to the first of a two part series chronicling the adventures of my wife, Maureen and I as we follow the Red Coat Trail across the Prairies. The Red Coat Trail, in case you’re wondering, is a series of provincial highways, which more or less follows the route taken by the North West Mounted Police back in 1874 on their march west from Manitoba to southern Alberta. The route was marked by distinctive roadside signs to help modern travellers stay on course.
While the Red Coat Trail was longer and slower then the more well-known and well-travelled TransCanada Highway, it did offer not only a sense of history but also a chance to explore a part of the country largely overlooked by tourists, to view landscapes and attractions bypassed by the four-lane highway and to experience local culture.
The Journey Begins: Fort Macleod
Unlike those first Mounties who began their journey in the east and headed west, we were going the opposite way. Our starting point was their end point – Fort Macleod, Alberta – where the first North West Mounted Police fort was constructed. The original fort has long since disappeared but a replica was built on the north edge of town. It’s both a museum and interpretive centre with static displays and live performances staged by re-enactors who, dressed in period police uniforms carried out drills and maneuvers on horseback. It was like watching a mini-musical ride and definitely worth stopping for.
Fort Macleod Museum and Interpretive Centre
Fort Macleod Museum and Interpretive Centre
Inside The Fort
To Downtown Fort Macleod
A block south of the fort is the downtown area. With wide sidewalks and a quiet main street, it was perfect for wandering and browsing. Between the fort and downtown, we could have easily spent a day in Fort Macleod and a night too, in one of the two private RV parks near by but the road was calling and we had to move on.
From Fort Macleod, we headed east along Alberta Highway 3 to the city of Lethbridge, home of the infamous Fort Whoop-Up. Back in the day, this fort was the centre for the illegal whiskey trade in Southern Alberta and one of the main reasons for the creation of the North West Mounted Police. The fort has been restored and declared a national historic site. It features a museum, functioning trading post (minus the whiskey) and plenty of re-enactors to provide a sense of what it must have been like during it’s hay-day.
Alberta Highway 61
Leaving Lethbridge, we rolled south on Alberta Highway 4 to the intersection with Alberta Highway 61 where we turned off. The intersection of Highways 4 and 61 marked the official start (or end, depending on your direction of travel) of the Red Coat Trail. From here, the trail followed Highway 61 east through a few villages and hamlets. Most were too small to offer much in the way of amenities for travellers however, the village of Foremost did have both a gas station and RV park.
Highway 61: Straight, Flat and Smooth
Foremost Alberta: Nice Little Community
Highway 61 was a pleasure to drive. Even though it was only two lanes wide, it was straight and smooth with few corners and fewer hills. This may sound dull as dishwater to those who favour sports cars or motorbikes but for those driving RV’s – like me – it was heavenly. Also heavenly was the light traffic, which meant no impatient drivers hanging on our tail, willing to pass on hills or blind corners.
It was no surprise that grain fields lined our route for as far as the eye could see. While boring to some, my wife and I who were accustomed to coastal mountains, found them novel and captivating. The yellow canola flowers, the green and golden hues of the grains, the purple flax blossoms plus the shades and tints of several other crops created a vast, multicoloured tableau.
At the hamlet of Manyberries, Highway 61 ended however, the Red Coat Trail continued on, now following Alberta Highway 889. About 20 km further south at the intersection with Alberta Highway 501, Highway 899 ended as well and so did the pavement. Highway 501 was a gravel road – good gravel to be sure but gravel non-the less and that’s where the Red Coat Trail signs indicated we had to go.
Oh No – Gravel Roads!
This was the moment I had dreaded. While I enjoyed travelling on byways and back roads, I was not a big fan of gravel. Besides potential problems from rock chips and dust, there were the unknown dangers like steep hills, sharp corners, soft spots and the like. Our only other option was to backtrack north to the TransCanada highway, go east to Maple Creek then back south again – a very long detour.
Which way to go? Before making that decision I wanted to actually see the road and the condition it was in. At the intersection at least, it looked pretty good but what about further on? After some discussion, Maureen and I decided to continue east. We reasoned that even though Highway 501 wasn’t paved, it was still a highway, not some goat trail or logging road. Therefore, it must have been constructed to meet certain standards and specifications. If we kept our speed down and exercised a little caution, we should be okay – we hoped. Pulling out onto the gravel road and heading east, I couldn’t help but wonder if those early Mounties had similar feelings of apprehension as they headed out across the prairies.
Highway 501: Straight, Flat and Smooth (More of Less)
Our fears proved to be unfounded. The highway was as straight and flat as our previous routes. Before long, I stopped worrying about the road and started appreciating the scenery. Grass covered plains stretched for as far as the eye could see. With virtually no evidence of human activity such as; buildings, cell phone towers, fences, cultivated fields or even traffic, it felt as if we were the only people for miles around. When we stopped to take pictures, there wasn’t a sound to be heard save the soft rustling of the wind across the grass and the call of a songbird. In my mine’s eye, I could almost picture the long line of red coated lawmen marching across this seemingly endless expanse of green which probably hadn’t changed much since their passing.
Saskatchewan Border: Different Highway, Same Road
Not Much Evidence Of Human Activity
Sweetgrass Hills In Montana: Even Less Evidence Of Human Activity
Different Province – Same Road
After an hour or two on the road, we reached the Saskatchewan Border. Crossing the provincial boundary brought a change in highway numbers and time zones but little else. Alberta Highway 501 became Saskatchewan Highway 13 and our clocks jumped back an hour but the gravel road continued on. As in Alberta, it was well maintained but here also, there was little evidence of human activity. Even the occasional cow we encountered looked surprised to see us drive by.
About 30 km east the Saskatchewan Border, we came to the junction of Highways 13 and 615. Highway 615 connected this southern area with the Fort Walsh National Historic Park about 40 km north in the Cypress Hills. Fort Walsh was also an important part of the Mounties’ march west. In the 1870’s this region was the scene of several violent incidents involving whiskey traders and local First Nations. During their trek west, a group of North West Mounted Policemen split from the main body and headed north to construct Fort Walsh. The fort has been restored and is now a national historic park, complete with a museum and re-enactors dressed in period costumes who provided a glimpse of life back then.
Beginning Of The Pavement Near Consul Saskatchewan
Pavement At Last – Sort Off
Continuing east, we reached the village of Consul where the gravel gave way to pavement. Strangely enough, it was with mixed emotions that we greeted the gravel’s end. Despite our initial fears, we had thoroughly enjoyed our drive through this remote corner of the country. Its peace and solitude, its vast unspoiled natural beauty and its total lack of people (or cars, trucks, motorcycles, quads, etc.) were aspects we would remember and cherish. It was if we had the whole place to ourselves. Nevertheless, we were still relieved to be back on a hard surfaced road where services like gas stations and grocery stores were relatively close at hand. Or, so we thought until we discovered that Consul had no gas station and what appeared to be a grocery store was closed. It was hard to determine if the closure was permanent or temporary. It was not uncommon for businesses in this region to close on Mondays and, it was Monday.
Eastend And “Scotty”
About 45 km east of Consul was the village of Eastend. Nestled along the banks of the Frenchman River this pretty little settlement had a full range of facilities including a gas station and RV park. As well, the community also boasted a rich history, which included the Mounties march west. Its main claim to fame however was as the home of “Scotty”, the first T-rex dinosaur skeleton found in Saskatchewan. Scotty’s fossilized remains along with those of many other dinosaurs were on display in a museum/interpretive centre. The exhibits were well presented and admission was by donation.
“Scotty” The Eastend T-Rex Dinosaur
While I would definitely recommend a museum visit, I do have a word of caution about their parking lot. During our visit, it wasn’t very wide and had only one entrance/exit. Getting out meant turning around and there was precious little space for that especially if the lot was full.
From Eastend, it was 20 km more to the town of Shaunavon. With a population of about 2000, Shaunavon was the first real town on the Red Coat Trail for travellers heading east. Besides the usual amenities, this prairie community also had a small but well kept municipal RV park close to downtown where we spent a pleasant evening exploring, followed by a restful night’s sleep, back at the RV.
Oil Wells Near Shaunavon
Shaunavon was also the first Saskatchewan area where we noticed oil wells. From Lethbridge to Consul, I don’t think we saw one well however, as we approached Shaunavon we began seeing quite a few. I’m not sure why, but even though I was accustomed to seeing them in Alberta, in Saskatchewan they seemed strangely out of place. Perhaps they just took some getting used to – something I’d have a chance to do as we journeyed further east.
In any event, the wells (and the oil they produced) may have been the reason why Highway 13 seemed to improve as we travelled east. From Consul and Eastend, the pavement was very rough with numerous patches, frost heaves and pot-holes. It was so bad in places that I found myself wishing for gravel. From Eastend onward, the rough spots seemed to decrease and continued decreasing as we rolled east. Whatever the cause or reason for the road improvement, we were truly grateful. As my wife commented, it was nice to open the trailer door at the end of the day and not find dishes scattered all over the floor.
From Shaunavon, the Red Coat Trail continued east along Highway 13 through a score of small hamlets and villages with names like Cadillac, Admiral, Kincaid, Woodrow and Lafleche. On the map, these settlements were all represented by the same small dots. In reality, they were all very different. Some, like Cadillac seemed on the verge of extinction with few residents and fewer services. Others like Lafleche appeared to be holding its own with an active downtown and wide range of amenities, which included a small municipal campground on the edge of the village. Unfortunately, there seemed to be no way to accurately determine what services were available in any of these small communities. RV and travel specific Smartphone apps like ALLSTAYS (http://www.allstays.com) or “Good Sam” (http://www.goodsam.com) helped by showing the locations of some gas stations and RV parks but they were not always accurate. As a result, when it came to planning fuel stops, meal breaks, or over-night stays I generally aimed for the “larger” centres like Shaunavon or Assinaboia, the next large town along Highway 13.
Church At Lefleche
Speaking of stops, this ends the first installment of our journey east along the Red Coat Trail. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. In Part 2, my wife and I discover that not all Prairie folk are friendly, rediscover the pleasures of the “big” city and take in some interesting and unusual attractions as we continue east along the Red Coat Trail. You won’t want to miss it.