by Dave Yanko
Leven, a scenic little lake surrounded by the park's trademark
Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park is a unique patch in the colorful
quilt of outdoor experience that is the Saskatchewan parks system.
Rising 600 metres (1,950 feet) above the surrounding ranch land,
the Cypress Hills are the highest point of land between Labrador
and the Rockies. The majestic lodgepole pines crowning the hills
and the lower-lying aspen stands are home to elk, pronghorn antelope,
white-tailed deer, fox, coyote and bobcat. Signs posted in the campgrounds
warn visitors about getting too close to normally-timid moose, many
of which have lost their fear of humans and are regularly seen browsing
near roads and campgrounds.
Cypress Hills has always been a lush retreat, rich in wildlife.
For at least 7,000 years, nomadic Plains Indians wintered here because
the hills were an excellent source of food, fuel, furs and building
materials Ė lodgepole pines made excellent travois, teepee poles
and, as their name implies, lodges. An additional attraction for
the Indians was the Chinook breeze from the west, which made for
a much milder winter than the one experienced on the Great Plains
The parkís physical and climatic features continue to attract campers,
hikers, bikers and photographers in the summer months, and cross-country
and downhill skiers in winter.
Hills park, Canadaís first interprovincial park, is divided into
two sections: the centre block, where the amenities and most of
the campgrounds are located; and the west block, an undeveloped
wilderness area adjacent to Fort Walsh
National Historic Site (for information on camping in all provincial parks or to access Saskatchewan's online campsite reservation system see here).
by the pool.
Saskatchewanís three dozen parks fall into four categories: wilderness,
natural environment, recreation and historic – Cypress Hills park is a natural environment facility. Wilderness parks remain
virtually undeveloped, while natural environment parks allow limited
development (like fixed-roof accommodations) in a carefully preserved
and natural setting. Recreation parks normally are located close
to urban centres and allow for more intensive recreational use.
Due to its centralized camping area and many physical amenities,
the core area in the centre block of Cypress Hills resembles a recreation
park. Itís a busy area where campers can easily ride by rented bicycle
to the store, interpretive centre, fast-food stand or the beautiful
outdoor leisure pool.
A stroll around the small and idyllic Loch Leven lake
might take an hour if you stop for a few minutes to admire the work
of the artists, who frequently station their easels at the north
end of the serene, oblong lake. Thereís a small beach on Loch Leven,
although most preferred the leisure pool on the late-August weekend
when we visited the park. The lake is stocked with trout, and motorboats
with engines up to 5 hp are allowed. However, rented paddle boats
and canoes appear to be the popular choice for most visitors.
unusual vista for southern Saskatchewan.
Thereís good trout fishing (see Fishing Guide) in park streams, as well. If you're
looking for pike and walleye, however, there are better venues in
the province than Cypress Hills. The parkís features are its unusual,
undulating beauty, its abundant and varied wildlife Ė including
200 species of birds Ė and its many recreational opportunities.
About 10 interlocking nature trails snake in and around the centre
block Ė some moonlight as cross-country-ski trails in the winter.
We took a leisurely two-hour stroll along The Valley of the Windfalls
trail, where we were amazed to learn each of the towering lodgepole
pines surrounding us sprang to life after 1885, when a fire leveled
the entire Cypress Hills forest. Charred stumps can still be seen
in a few places. We saw several white-tailed deer at the trailhead and were amused by a Great Horned Owl who caught our rear approach
by smoothly rotating his head 180 degrees before swooping down from his perch
and propelling himself into the lowlands with one economical wing
Elsewhere in the area we spotted about a dozen deer, a coyote,
two golden eagles and numerous smaller critters (there are no bears
in the park, but the squirrels in the campsites are delightfully
rapacious). Near the leisure pool I photographed a cow moose foraging
the greenery at the edge of a road. With the posted cautions in
mind, I carefully squeezed off about a half-dozen shots from distances
as close as seven metres (about 20 feet). Fortunately, she paid
little attention to me, although Iím sure I didnít go unnoticed.
extensive series of interlocking trails is used by hikers in
the summer and cross-country skiers in the winter.
Horse riding, for pleasure and work, is a common activity throughout
the ranch land of southwestern Saskatchewan. Itís no different in
the park, where resource officers patrol the campgrounds on horseback
(watch your step) and visitors roam the uninhabited areas on steeds
hired at the "riding academy" located at the south perimeter of
the core area. Guided trail rides are a wonderful way to experience
the Cypress Hills and learn a bit about the fascinating history
of the region.
During the last century, the hills were part of Canadaís "wild
west", filled with "whiskey traders", outlaws, Indians and gunpowder.
The infamous Cypress Hills Massacre, in which several dozen Assiniboia
men, women and children were slaughtered by a group of "wolfers"
who wrongly suspected the Indians of stealing ponies, occurred in
whatís now the west block of the park. Law and order came to the
area when the Canadian government established the Royal Canadian
Mounted Police, or the North-West Mounted Police as they were then
named. The Mounties set up headquarters at Fort Walsh, adjacent
to the scene of the massacre.
Fort Walsh, where Sitting Bull met with representatives of the
American government to discuss terms of his return to the U.S.,
is about an hourís drive from the centre block. Thereís a seemingly
shorter, more direct route through "The Gap". But itís a stony,
gravel road thatís not recommended if itís raining. We abandoned
our attempt to navigate "The Gap" because it was too rough on our
small sedan. If youíve got plenty of time (or a larger vehicle),
itís a more scenic route than the alternative one.
Cypress Hills park features much of the same flora and fauna found
in the Canadian Rockies, located 250 km (160 miles) to the west.
Its character and atmosphere are similar to that of a mountain park,
as well. Thatís not simply because of the panoramic vistas or the
"switchbacks" in the road leading to Fort Walsh, but it is related
to the parkís altitude.
In the denser stands of lodgepole pines that thrive in these highlands,
the trees become top-heavy in foliage as they compete for sunlight.
The airy atmosphere on the forest floor is accentuated by a dearth
of underbrush, the result of acidic pine needles that limit growth there. In contrast, the less-conspicuous aspen stands
often feature lush undergrowth.
And while Chinooks act as a moderating force during winter, the
altitude of the Cypress Hills can mean cooler air on summer evenings.
If an evening breeze comes up while youíre camping on a knoll in
a lodgepole stand, youíll certainly notice it. And youíll want to
make sure youíre not sitting downwind of the elevated fire box.
before us spent their evenings gazing into a fire.
Cypress Hills Provincial Park can be enjoyed not only for what
it is, a vibrant and verdant oasis that beckons exploration and
recreation, but also for what it was.
People have gathered here for thousands of years. A little knowledge
of their habits and lifestyle can add depth and color to the experience
of the trail and enrich the evening campfire.
For more information about Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park or to book a campsite using the online reservation system, click here.
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