Grande Cache and Willmore Wilderness Park

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Hinton Hostel
Sulphur GatesSulfur Gates, near Grande Cache
Photo Credit: Travel Alberta

Author: Bob Kenyon

If you’re seeking a mountain destination, that doesn’t have the commercial tourism of many adventure travel destinations, then Grande Cache, Alberta is a must! A mining, logging and trapping centre of north central Alberta, Grande Cache and the Willmore Wilderness are emerging as a pristine location for hiking, backpacking, trail riding, fishing, river rafting and winter activities.

Grande Cache is accessed from the Yellowhead Trans-Canada Highway, via Highway 40 (The Ram Highway), that runs from west of Hinton. Known as the “Scenic Route to Alaska”, the highway goes on to Grande Cache, Grande Prairie and west to northern British Columbia. Travelers can also head much further north to  Whitehorse and the famous Klondike Gold Rush town of Dawson City, in the Yukon Territory.  Then onto Alaska, which is part of the United States (i.e. Have your passport)

A word of caution…If you take this highway, fill your gas tank at Hinton. This highway has very the light traffic and it can be a great cycle trip. You must, however, be aware that you are cycling in bear country.

The area, around the town, has many hiking and biking trails offering various degrees of challenge and the grassy, lower summits closer to the town are also excellent for scrambling. For those seeking a short, scenic trek, make sure to take in the spectacular view of the confluence of the cloudy Smoky River as the clear Sulpher River joins it at Sulpher Gates. The high, almost vertical, red conglomerate rock synclines, is one of the best geological features in Alberta (see photo above).

The Sulpher Gates Recreation Area, north of the town, is the northern staging area for Willmore Wilderness Park. The park can also be accessed from Rock Lake staging area (98 ks. off Hwy. 40) at the north end of William A. Switzer Provincial Park. There are also other staging areas, south of Grande Cache (off Hwy. 40) at the Berland and Cowlick Creek.

Driving into these staging areas requires sturdy vehicles, often with 4 wheel drive capability and shouldn’t be attempted by drivers without rough back road driving experience. Dust is always a problem and windshields/vehicle bodies may get damaged by flying gravel.

No motorized off-road transportation is allowed in Willmore Wilderness Park, outside of the staging areas. The area makes for an excellent trek by foot, bicycle, or horseback. The park also offers opportunities for ridge walking, exploring for the graves of trappers, or taking a secluded, long trek into the north wilderness area of Jasper National Park.

For those experienced in map and compass, food storage and bear avoidance skills, Willmore Wilderness Park is a must do. For inexperienced back country travelers, there are many guiding services available and are recommended.

For climbers, Grande Cache is ringed by mountains and the local Passport to the Peaks program identifies each mountain as bronze, silver or gold depending its level of difficulty.

Grande Cache has also become home to extreme racing with it’s famous Canadian Death Race, an over-the-mountains and through-the-rivers race, held each Heritage Day long weekend (approx. August 1st). There’s events for all, even spectators, with the adventure festival atmosphere.

For spectators, the best is watching the kids, 15 years and under, compete in their own 5 km. race. All the kids that complete the course, in the allotted time (90 minutes) and get a medallion.

With rivers and lakes in abundance, the area is also has the best selection of white water in the province, with class I – V rapids for canoeing, kayaking and white water rafting. There are also many excellent locations for lake canoeing and either lake or stream fishing.

Grande Cache has camping, in the town and two provincial campgrounds north of the town at Smoky River (for river access) and Sulfur Gates (for Willmore access). For campers or trekkers needing to clean-up or those just wanting a swim, go to the Grande Cache Recreation Centre (on Hoppe Avenue).

There are also campgrounds, on the Ram Highway between Hinton and Grande Cache, as well as north of Grande Cache on the way to Grande Prairie.

There are several hotels and motels offered at a variety of prices and some bed and breakfast lodgings. For food and dining, there are a variety of restaurants, cafes, as well as an excellent grocery store.

Winter brings a whole new season to this wilderness, winter wonderland with abundant opportunities for snowshoeing, x-country skiing and, for the experienced, ice climbing.

For those with an interest the aboriginal culture and history of the Grande Cache area, visit the website of the Aseniwuche Winewak Nation (Cree for the Rocky Mountain People), famous for their guiding, trapping and hunting skills.

At the south end of the town, there is an excellent Visitor Information and Interpretive Centre, where visitors can find out about the history of the area (including the dinosaurs!), wildlife and trails. Climbers can register for the Passport to the Peaks program.

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