Cypress Hills Inter-Provincial Park – An Iceage Island

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By: Bob Kenyon

Elkwater Rodeo
Riding High at the Elkwater Rodeo – Cypress Hills
Photo Credit: Bob Kenyon

The Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park is an amazing series of hills, east of Medicine Hat, that run between southeast Alberta and southwest Saskatchewan. The Cypress hills are approximately 65 Km north of the Canada – United States border. They are one of the greatest diversities in the geology, flora and fauna of the western prairies and are a must-see destination in this area.

The park is operated in three sections: The Alberta and Saskatchewan West Blocks, which are joined together and the smaller Centre block in Saskatchewan,

The Cypress hills are a small remnant of a larger plateau that existed in the region forty million years ago.10,000 years ago, when North America was in the depths of the last ice age, these hills were untouched by the ice due to their altitude above the land below. Even now, particularly on the Alberta side, the vegetation is completely different from the rolling prairie below. Driving along the Trans-Canada #1 highway the evergreen covered hills loom upward in the south.

Hoseshoe Canyon
Hoseshoe Canyon (looking north)
Photo: Bob Kenyon

The entire Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park is also a designated Dark-Sky Preserve. The Park was granted this designation due to its variety of programs that profile night skies, including astronomy, night hikes, and nocturnal wildlife ‘watching’ – plus it has far less light pollution than most parks. The Park’s interpretive staff has also taken numerous steps to reduce night pollution, by using reflectors on top of street lights, low wattage light bulbs and offering sessions to visitors about the affects of light pollution. Plenty of “loaner” telescopes are set up throughout the summer for constellation tours, and you can often see the Northern Lights from Cypress Hills.

on top of cypress hills
On Top of Cypress Hills
Photo: Bob Kenyon

On top of the Alberta side of Cypress Hills’ west block is a rolling plain, sparsely populated with evergreens and rich fescue grass that bison (erroneously referred to early Europeans as “buffalo”) grazed on, before the arrival of ranching, in the late 19th century. The native peoples used the hills for buffalo hunting for centuries.

Nowadays, most of the area is used for cattle grazing, with “Texas Gates” to keep them off the highway. Texas Gates, also called a Vehicle Pass, are a very convenient way to confine livestock but allow tractors, trucks and cars to pass through a feedlot or field fence. Rubber-tired wheels roll easy across the grid (spaced steel pipes) but cattle, sheep and horses will shun the round smooth piping over a pit.

If you travel the back roads (which is highly advised!) you will have cattle on the road, looking at you. Just drive towards them…they’ll slowly move, but it’s fun to watch the calves hopping away! The back roads are the access route to the many hiking trails in the park. There are also many cross country ski trails and the Hidden Valley, downhill ski hill.

Reesor lake lookout
Reesor Lake Lookout (looking South to the U.S)
Photo: Bob Kenyon ©2007

The park also has a series of lakes. They are Elkwater and Reesor Lake, in Alberta and keeping with the Scottish heritage of the early settlers in Saskatchewan, Loch Lomond and Lenen. Reesor Lake is also a trout stocked lake, with no gas powered motor boats allowed…Just electric, good-old cardiovascular enhancing rowing and fishing from the shore.

Horse riding enthusiasts will be pleased about the equine campsite, east of Reesor Lake, with room for horse trailers and plenty of grazing.

Many of the well looked after, fee-for-service campgrounds in the Alberta part of the park are located in close proximity to small, charming Elkwater, which also has small hotels, a gas station (with a small store), a small grocery store and restaurant (at the information centre), a beach and marina. The Centre Block, on the Saskatchewan side of the park has 6 campgrounds, nature centre, golf course and a leisure pool.

If you’re lucky enough to be there on Canada Day (July 1), be sure to take in the Elkwater Rodeo (see image, top of article). The Elkwater Rodeo is the real thing, when it comes to small western Canadian rodeos, with most riders, being in junior competitions, trying to gain points for their respective finals competitions. Here you’ll find bull riding, bareback and saddle bronc riding, calf and team roping, junior steer riding and junior and women’s barrel racing. There’s all the dust, food, sounds and smells of a rodeo. Cowboy boots and hats are optional!

fort walsh

Fort Walsh
Credit: Tourism Saskatchewan

If you’re looking for the history of the Northwest Mounted Police (now known as the RCMP), be sure to take in the National Historic site of Fort Walsh, in the Saskatchewan part of the Park. Fort Walsh was the largest and most heavily armed of the NWMP forts (circa 1878-83), during the time of dealing with whiskey traders, horse thieves, and Lakokta native bands that fled the U.S. during the Great Sioux War of 1876-1877.

The Aboriginal First Nations Assiniboine Carry The Kettle, (pronounced cha-ka-gin), frequented the Cypress Hills. They are now located 60 kilometers. (100 miles) east of Regina, SK. For an aboriginal perspective, of the Cypress Hills, visit the website of the the Miywasin Centre that hosts it’s annual History in the Hills event every June.

The northeast part of the Saskatchewan west block, has one of the most accessible places to view the geology of the hills. At the Conglomerate Cliffs, visitors can see the gravel, rocks and silt that have been combined by nature to form the hills. As these cliffs can crumble, please keep well back from the edge and absolutely no climbing on the cliffs is allowed.

There is a significant break between the West and Centre blocks, with Saskatchewan Hwy. 271 running north/south between them. There is a dry weather only route, know as the “Gap Road” that drivers, mountain bikes or horse riders can take between the highway and the Centre Block.

Read the large warning sign, at the entry the “Gap Road”! Brand new, shiny vehicles or large motor homes should avoid the road, but our 1997 Sunfire had no problem. This route is highly recommended, for those that wish to see the rolling open range on the top of the hills.

Getting to The Cypress Hills

In Canada travel east from Calgary and past Medicine Hat or west from Regina, past Moose Jaw and Swift Current on the Trans-Canada #1 highway. From the United States, cross the border between Montana and Alberta on Highway 41 or Saskatchewan on Highway 21.

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