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CYPRESS HILLS PARK SPANS SASKATCHEWAN AND ALBERTA

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Located just 30 minutes south of the Trans Canada Highway, Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park consists of a Center Block in Saskatchewan, where most services are found, and a West Block, which is a primitive wilderness area extending into Alberta.

Rolling ranchlands viewed from Bald Butte at sunset
Rolling ranchlands viewed from Bald Butte at sunset
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Left virtually untouched by glaciers during the last Ice Age, the Saskatchewan Cypress Hills reach an altitude of 4,567 feet (1,392 meters). The highest part of Canada, between the Rocky Mountains and Labrador, they are even higher than Banff, Alberta.

The high elevation was the first surprise that greeted us. The second surprise? There are no cypress trees in Canada's first interprovincial park.

Instead, the park has tall lodgepole pines, erroneously identified by early French fur traders as cypress trees. But the name stuck. First Nations people used the tall pine trunks for tipi poles.

Center Block driving tour

The lodgepole pine forest is one stop on a 15-mile (24-kilometer) driving tour of the Center Block. The two-hour tour begins at the Park Visitor Center.

Our first stop was at Loch Leven, which has a beach. People come here to canoe and fish for rainbow trout.

Beaver pond and lodge
Beaver pond and lodge
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Several places in the park, like Loch Leven, have Scottish names. They were named by Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor General of Canada from 1935 to 1940, who noted the resemblance of the Cypress Hills to the highlands of his native Scotland.

We followed the Center Block gravel road to the Beaver Pond. The best time to see the beavers that live in the large beaver lodge is around sunrise and sunset.

Wildflowers carpet the hills around the Beaver Pond. The harebells (Campanula rotundifolia L.), a member of the bluebell family, are especially pretty in summer. More than 700 species of plants and orchids grow in the Cypress Hills.

Hiking trails

The best views in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park are from Lookout Point and Bald Butte, the highest point in Center Block at 4,200 feet (1,281 meters). Looking west, we saw The Gap, a valley with rolling hills, which joins the Center Block to the West Block.

The hike up Bald Butte is only one of 31 miles (50 kilometers) of trails in the Alberta and Saskatchewan sections of the park. Hikers and mountain bikers use the trails from spring to fall. Cross-country skiers use them in winter.

Cypress Hills ranchlands and forests
Cypress Hills ranchlands and forests
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We drove across a meadow of grasslands and shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa L.) with yellow flowers. It was surprising to see cattle grazing in The Gap. Park officials give summer grazing permits to local ranchers, so their cattle can keep the grass trimmed.

Gap Road

The Center Block road meets the Gap Road, which brings you to the West Block, Fort Walsh National Historic Site and Cypress Hills Massacre National Historic Site. It takes about three hours to tour both historic sites. They are located 1.2 miles (two kilometers) apart from each other.

It's a bone-jarring gravel route, but it is ideal for spotting pronghorn antelope, sharp-tailed grouse, deer, coyote and grazing cattle. We saw a cow moose.

Gap Road is 14 miles (23 kilometers) long. It can be impassable when wet. For an alternate route to Gap Road, in bad weather, follow Hwy 21 north to Maple Creek, then drive Hwy 271 southwest to the West Block.

Golf Course

We were surprised to see a nine-hole golf course, just before our Center Block driving tour finished at the north end of Loch Leven. Cypress Hills has one of the highest golf courses in North America.

Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park Center Block
Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park Center Block
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Center Block, which is 10,883 acres (4,404 hectares) in size, has many other recreation options, including tennis courts, a riding academy, swimming, a rec hall and a boat, canoe and bike rental shop.

West Block driving tour

You can also take a three- to six-hour driving tour of the West Block. It includes the wilderness area and the conglomerate cliffs, as well as Fort Walsh and the Cypress Hills Massacre historic sites.

The West Block tour is ideal for birdwatching. There are 220 species of birds in the park, ranging from wild turkeys and rare trumpeter swans to golden eagles and songbirds. You can download bird checklists from the Cypress Hills park website.

Dark-Sky Preserve

In 2004, Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park was designated as a Dark Sky Preserve. The protected area, the size of 97,850 football fields, benefits nocturnal wildlife. The sanctuary from artificial light also allows visitors to see up to 4,000 stars in the night sky, compared to only 100 stars in skies above cities.

During their annual August Summer Star Party, astrological society members set up telescopes in the Saskatchewan park, so visitors can star-gaze in the pollution-free sky.

Distances to Cypress Hills

Open year-round, the park is located halfway between Regina SK and Calgary AB. The closest town to the Cypress Hills Center Block is Maple Creek SK. Drive 19 miles (30 kilometers) south on Highway 21.

The closest city to the West Block is Medicine Hat, Alberta. Drive 22 miles (35 kilometers) south on Highway 41 from the Trans-Canada Highway.

Montana and the US border are about one hour driving time from the Saskatchewan side of Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park and 50 minutes from the Alberta West Block.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park: www.cypresshills.ca

Tourism Saskatchewan: www.sasktourism.com

More things to see & do in Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan Vacations - What To See and Do

Saskatchewan B&B Farm Vacations

Big Muddy Saskatchewan Tour

Wood Mountain Stampede and Rodeo Ranch Museum

RCMP Heritage Centre and Training Academy Tours