Hills Inter-Provincial Park - Published in the Pathways
Section of Nature Canada
Profile of Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, published in the Pathways section of Nature Canada
"These hills are a perfect oasis in the desert we have travelled." (Captain John Palliser, July 28, 1859)
John Palliser must have been truly amazed to discover this sanctuary of forest, streams and rolling hills in the midst of flat, treeless prairie. Cypress Hills - Canada's first and only Interprovincial park - covers 380 square kilometres in southeast Alberta and southwest Saskatchewan. A naturalist's dream, the hills are the last refuge for a wide variety of flora and fauna not found elsewhere on the southern plains.
Sometimes called "a forest island in a sea of grass," Cypress Hills is actually a flat-topped plateau. The park's appeal lies in its diverse landscapes and unique mix of prairie and montane vegetation - caused by the top portion of the plateau escaping the grinding crush of ice during the last glacial period. Visually, Cypress Hills is a land of extremes. Majestic hills on the north and west sides give way to gentle slopes on the south and east sides. The hills reach their highest elevation on the western plateau where - at 1460 metres - they are the highest point in Canada between the Rocky Mountains and Labrador. Yet at its easternmost point the plateau rises merely 150 metres above the surrounding plains.
The existence of montane vegetation - characteristic of the Rocky Mountain foothills - has led to one of the more intriguing myths about Cypress Hills. Initially, geologists speculated that the mountain trees and plants flourishing at higher elevations were pre-glacial remnants that managed to survive in the unglaciated part of the plateau. However, they now believe a forest connection linked the Rocky Mountains with Cypress Hills in the immediate post-Ice Age period. Later, changes in climate destroyed this connection in the dry prairie; but not in Cypress hills where higher precipitation and lower temperatures provide plants with more moisture than the surrounding area.
Although geologists stress the similarities between Palliser's "oasis in the hills" and the Rocky Mountain foothills, it is the melding of montane and prairie habitats that sets Cypress Hills apart. Aspen woodlands give way to thick forests of lodgepole pine at higher elevations. Cypress Hills derives its name from these tall, narrow pines, which early French-Canadian explorers confused with jackpine and called Cypres - the Metis name for jackpine. They christened the area Montagne de Cypres, or Cypress Hills in English.
On the plateau, Mountain shootingstar and blue Lupine - wildflowers not seen elsewhere on the prairies - splash their vivid hues on a carpet of fescue grass. White spruce decorate the moister sections of the northern slopes, providing shelter for the rare Sparrow's egg lady slipper orchid, one of eighteen species of orchid found in Cypress Hills. Speargrass and Northern wheatgrass blanket the drier southern slopes.
All of this lush vegetation attracts over 200 species of birds. It is not unusual to see a Swainson's hawk dive into a forest of lodgepole pine, or a red-headed woodpecker hammering on a balsam poplar. Common poorwills and orange-crowned warblers hunt for food in aspen groves, while wild turkeys patrol forest paths. Avid birdwatchers may spot the Dusky flycatcher - Cypress Hills is the only place in Canada to find the Dusky flycatcher on breeding territory. Equally rare is the Great Blue Heron.
When Palliser explored Cypress Hills, wolves and grizzly bears still roamed its deep forests. Today, these large predators are long gone. However, smaller predators such as bobcat and coyote share space with elk, pronghorn deer, white-tailed deer, beaver, and mink. During a camping trip last summer, a moose ambled past our campsite before disappearing into the forest. Mornings we awoke to the sound of minuscule missiles hitting our tent, as a Richardson's ground squirrel divested another tree of pine cones.
Not surprisingly, Cypress Hills is steeped in human history. Archeological digs suggest natives have inhabited the hills for over 7,000 years. Bands prized the hills as a source of lodgepole pine, which they used to fashion teepee poles. In addition, the rich plant life provided them with the raw material to make medicines and dyes for ceremonial purposes.
Cypress Hills is also the site of the Cypress Hills Massacre - a tragic event in which wolf hunters and whisky traders massacred approximately 20 Assiniboine natives. They believed the natives had stolen several horses, which has never been proven. Stunned by the violence, the federal government hastened its plans to form the North West Mounted Police. Fort Walsh, located on the Saskatchewan side of Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, became the NWMP's first headquarters.
Today, Fort Walsh is a national historic park dedicated to preserving the history of human habitation in the hills. In addition to learning about the events of 1873 at the Cypress Hills Massacre Site, visitors can take interpretive-led tours through both Fort Walsh and Farwell's Trading Post, a fully furnished and reconstructed frontier establishment. Other sites of interest include the police and civilian cemetery grounds and the old Fort Benton trail leading to the trading post.
The visitor to Cypress Hills has the choice of entering either the Alberta or Saskatchewan Provincial Parks that form Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park. The first stop for visitors to Alberta's Cypress Hills Provincial Park is the townsite of Elkwater. At the town's west end, there are plenty of full and partial service campgrounds beginning near Elkwater Lake and heading up into the forest. There is also a picnic area for day use. Families can relax on the beach, or stroll the boardwalk, where mallards lurk among the cattails and marsh grasses. For campers preferring to rough it, there are several minimum service campgrounds situated near lakes and reservoirs within ten minutes drive of Elkwater. Anglers will find the waters abound with Northern Pike, Brook Trout, and Rainbow Trout.
A short stroll from the beach at Elkwater Lake, the park's Visitor Centre presents a number of interpretive programs to help visitors appreciate the diverse scenery. Trails range from easy loops around the lakes to more challenging climbs to the top of the plateau. Hikers seeking a challenge can follow the trails linking several of the more remote campgrounds with Elkwater townsite. For those interested in Cypress Hill's history as a forest reserve, a short diversion from Beaver Creek Trail leads to the Tom Trott Memorial Forestry Museum. Exhibits in this self-guided, outdoor museum include the original Medicine Lodge firetower.
Separated by a section of rolling hills called "The Gap," Saskatchewan's Cypress Hills Provincial Park is split into two blocks. Wilderness hikers will find plenty to challenge them in the steep slopes and ungroomed paths in the West Block. But most people choose to visit the Centre Block first. Here, families can explore the hills while taking advantage of modern facilities in a core service area. There are plenty of full and partial service campgrounds - the most popular, Loch Leven, boasts a sandy beach and tree-lined lake filled with trout, perch, and pike. Nearby, the park's interpretive centre offers a variety of naturalist-led walks and tours geared to all ages.
As an alternative to hiking, visitors can embark on an auto tour around each block. The Centre Block tour provides a colourful montage of Cypress Hill's diverse habitats. Leaving Loch Leven, motorists climb to the top of the plateau, passing through beaver ponds and lodgepole pine forests along the way. Up top, sharp-tailed grouse and jackrabbits dash across Cypress Hills golf course, rumoured to be one of the highest golf courses in North America.
The West Block Tour explores the plateau's western reaches. Motorists who brave the winding roads will be rewarded with a breathtaking view of the park from the cobblestone-lined Conglomerate Cliffs. Another attraction is the sight of Trumpeter Swans nesting in Adams Lake. The tour ends at Fort Walsh National Historic Park.
Until recently, the Alberta and Saskatchewan provincial parks operated independently of one another. Although Cypress Hills was once a National Forest Reserve, unified management of the hills didn't become a reality again until 1989, when the Alberta and Saskatchewan governments agreed to form Canada's first and only Interprovincial Park. Today, park management strives to ensure that visitors will view Cypress hills as one geographic entity - a unique forest oasis on the southern plains.
If You Go:
Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park is located about an hour's drive south of Highway 1, nestled between Medicine Hat in Alberta and Maple Creek in Saskatchewan. Heading east from Medicine Hat, take Highway 41 south to the townsite of Elkwater. From Maple Creek, you can either continue south on Highway 21 to the Centre Block, or take Highway 271 to the West Block. Camping in the West Block is primitive, with no services, but the scenery is beautiful and there is less competition for spaces.
For More Information, Contact:
Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, AB,
P.O. Box 12, Elkwater AB, T0J 1C0;
Telephone (403) 893-3777,
Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, SK,
P.O. Box 850, Maple Creek, SK, S0N 1N0;
Telephone (306) 662-4411.