Tips of travelling across Canada usually include blowing through the Prairies as quickly as possible, but we spent 22 days making our way through the vast flatlands. Here are some of our best memories from the prairies, with super cool things to check out, to boot!
Places we've parked for the night:
30 - Winnipeg, MB
31 - Winnipeg Beach, MB
32,33 - Gimli, MB
34 - Ste. Rose Du Lac, MB
35,36 - Regina, Sask
37 - Maple Creek, Sask
38,39 - Waterton Lake National Park, AB
40,41,42 - Calgary, AB
43 - Drumheller, AB
44 - Horsethief Canyon, AB
45 - Dorothy, AB
46 - Brooks, AB
47, 48, 49, - Calgary, AB
50 - Hubble's Lake, AB
51- Mill Creek Ravine, Edmonton, AB
52 - Hubble's Lake, AB
Points of Interest
Winnipeg, Manitoba: So, Winnipeg was really cool! We didn't know what to expect from the long-time crime capital of Canada, but once we got there, we really enjoyed ourselves, and not once felt like our lives or our wallets were in danger. We initially parked by The Forks, a large public market located at the crux of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers was admittedly WAY COOLER than Ottawa's own byward market. The Forks offered free wifi (woo!) and was fully licenced, with a beer and wine bar at the centre of it all. You could grab yourself a craft beer or glass of wine and either sit and eat from one of the many amazing vendors, or you could peruse the shops, drink in hand. Afterwards, we looked for a place to park for the night and thought we had found the perfect spot....right under a train bridge not far from The Forks. How often are these things running anyway? As it turns out, every ten minutes! Instead of looking for another spot, we decided to check out a few pubs; the first was The King's Head in The Exchange district. The Exchange was a really cool area. The whole district, all twenty or so city blocks, is a National Historical Site of Canada, and is filled with prime examples of early 20th Century architectural achievements. The old buildings, the art galleries, restaurants, theatres, tree-lined boulevards and market square gave this place a vibe loosely reminiscent of the artsy SoHo neighbourhood in Manhattan. Our second stop was a place called The Toad in the Hole pub in Osborne Village, a world away across the Assiniboine River. The pub itself was unspectacular, but there was some head banging metal playing in The Cavern night club downstairs. The whole place was bumpin'! The walk to and from Osborne village was really beautiful, with the impressive legislature buildings all lit up. Our walk back to the van, at 2am was uneventful (even though there were six stabbings in the area on Canada Day); we made it back to our vehicle unscathed. Upon arriving at our van though, the bloody train was blazing through. We knew we had made a mistake parking there, and decided that we liked Osborne so much that we would return. We had a lovely, quite and dark evening parked next to a church on Norquay Street and treated ourselves to Starbucks in the morning. All in all, a great stop in a great city.
Winnipeg Beach & Gimli, Manitoba - Not yet ready to leave Manitoba, which we quite liked, we decided to head North and take a look at what Lake Winnipeg had to offer. Back in Ontario, we really enjoyed Lake Huron and its beautiful sandy beaches so we decided to check out the Western Shores of Lake Winnipeg which boasted soft sands, charming beach side towns and ample, out of the way places to park for the night, bug free! First, we stopped in Winnipeg Beach before going further North to Gimli. Both were small little touristy towns with great sandy beaches and friendly locals. The water definitely wasn't as nice as the endless clear blue in Lake Huron - unfortunately the beaches here along the southern basin of Lake Winnipeg are ridden with bacteria and swimmers' itch thanks to the lake only reaching depths of twenty feet - but this area provided a nice alternative to the dusty towns to be found elsewhere outside of Winnipeg. We knew we wouldn't find beaches like this until we got to the Okanagan Valley and the magnificent Kalamalka Lake and its "thousand colours" of blues and greens, and after all, beggars can't be choosers!
Regina, Saskatchewan - First of all, Regina gets a bad rap, which after visiting I declare is totally unfair. Of course, I am partial because I got to reunite with one of my favourite people, Ms. Shelley Braun and her husband Paul McLeod. After far too long of not seeing Mama Shelley on a regular basis, I had the best time catching up with her at her beautiful and character rich home in the heart of Regina. Making our way into Regina we were greeted with what seemed like endless kilometers of strip malls and big box stores. However, as we found our way into the city centre we were surprised to find beautiful tree lined boulevards with lush grass and colourful, quaint homes with prettily manicured yards; a veritable oasis amidst the dry prairies of neon canola fields and suede like hay fields. While in Regina, we visited the legislature buildings which, dare we say, rivaled Ottawa's own parliament. The lawns stretched on before us dotted with the bright reds, pinks, purples and whites of their french style gardens, at the centre of which was a larger than life statue of Queen Elizabeth side straddling a magnificent steed. The buildings themselves were reminiscent of ancient Roman architecture, with tall columns and grand stairs leading to the entrance. A man made lake, very similar to Dow's Lake in Ottawa, sparkled in the sunlight as people walked their dogs or braved a run in the sweltering prairie heat. The city offers a few brew pubs (if you're into that, which I totally am) with impressive selections of all the latest rage in the beer world, whatever your flavour. Our stay with Shelley and Paul marked the first time we got to sleep in a real bed since leaving Toronto (a whole 34 nights), and their warmth and hospitality made it difficult to leave. Thank you, Shelley and Paul, for being so awesome. Regina is very lucky to have you.
Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta - The Mountains! Okay, okay, this review is supposed to be about the prairies, but come on, THE MOUNTAINS, FINALLY! Our visit to Waterton Lakes National Park was about the halfway point on our trip through the prairies, and boy did it sure give us something to look forward to once we reached BC. Our excitement was tangible as we approached the mountains of Waterton Lakes, arguably some of the most beautiful to be found among the Canadian ranges. The town of Waterton itself, located inside the park, although extremely touristy, was quaint and lovely. Nestled beside a jewel like lake (one of too many to count as it turned out) among sky high rocky cliffs and rugged mountain peaks, Waterton was an excellent base camp for exploring Canada's only "Peace Park" which connects to the United States' Glacier National Park. Despite the designation, we were surprised to find several border patrol boats cruising up and down Waterton Lake in search of people trying to illegally sneak over the border. "Peace Park" seemed like a misnomer. Regardless, Waterton Lakes National Park is a must see, and we do wonder why it hasn't gained the same level of fame as it's counterparts to the North: Banff and Jasper.
The Calgary Stampede and Millarville Rodeo, Alberta - Yee-Haw! I never thought I'd be so into watching young men in tight jeans with stetson hats riding around on bucking broncos or taming wild bulls, but hey, there's a first for everything. Braden's soon to be sister-in-law Bethany had the good fortune to be a server at the Stampede Clubhouse this year (no doubt making a KILLING shaking her booty and winking at aged, pot bellied cowboys - or cowboy wannabes), and she was able to sneak us into the clubhouse for free, bird's eye view of the entertainment; an otherwise $50/person event (although we still paid the $18/person just to get into the grounds). The coy boys at the Stampede are the best in the world, and their skills were mighty impressive, clocking times for roping calves and racing around barrels that seemed impossible. Nonetheless, Braden and I both agreed that the Millarville rodeo (at an affordable $15 a pop) was the more entertaining rodeo of the two (gasp!). At Millarville, we got to sit arena side, pelted by the dirt flying off the hooves of racing horses and the sweat off the brow of the overweight and surprisingly limber rodeo clown (okay, not literally, but we were pretty darned close)! The close proximity to the riders made the difference in talent less noticeable, although it was obvious that the time scores at Millarville were longer and the reflexes not quite so tight; the precision a little less precise. No matter! I'd recommend the Millarville rodeo any day of the week. A super cool experience at a fraction of the cost, with a cool little farmers market going on right next door. Just don't forget to bring your cowboy hat, ladies and gents. You're out in the sun all day without shade, and no amount of light beer is gonna keep that head of yours from getting burned to a crisp.
Horsethief Canyon, Alberta - When we arrived in Alberta, we knew we wanted to check out the badlands. We had been told by many a traveller that Drumheller and the hoodoos were where you wanted to spend your time. While this was true (the hoodoos made for an unnervingly dangerous, yet ultimately rewarding hike), we enjoyed no place more than Horsethief canyon. Named so because of the maze like geological formations which made it easy for horses to get lost and found by thieves who would re-brand the horse as their own, this expansive jewel of the badlands was located in the Red River Valley, a short drive from Drumheller. Although there were a good number of tourists popping by for photo ops, very few stayed to explore the rugged terrain. We, of course, did. We followed unkempt footpaths along the tops of massive mounds of rock - layered with ironstone, sandstone, and coal stone - which had been built up over the course of several millennia. At one time, the place had been a massive river and the area surrounding it a veritable jungle, perfect for his prehistoric inhabitants. Now, it is dry as a desert most of the year. We enjoyed it so much that we decided to spend the night in the small parking lot attached to the lookout point and go for another hike the following morning before heading on to Dorothy. Maybe we should have spent two nights...
Royal Tyrell Museum, Drumheller, Alberta - DINOSAURS! Oh man, ever since I was a kid I've been fascinated by those ancient beasts; lizards the size of tractors, primeval elephants covered in plates and armour. The Royal Tyrell museum is THE place to get your fix if Jurassic Park was one of your favourite movies as a kid, or is maybe still a favourite today. We showed up late (as per our usual modus operandi) and waltzed in without paying at around 6:30. It seemed at that time that there was no one at the ticket kiosks and with only an hour and a half left to view, maybe they don't bother collecting payment after a certain hour (although this seems too good to be true). The museum was huge and the exhibits larger than life themselves. We spent almost the entire hour and a half looking up in wonder, cranking our necks back as far as they'd go, mouths agape, at the monsters that at one time dominated the land the museum was built on. If only we had arrived a month later, though! Recently, we discovered that the museum showcased an exhibit of a mummified dinosaur - a 110 million year old, 18 foot long Nodosaur - perfectly preserved with its scaly plates and everything! This was not on display when we were there, but I can only imagine it is awesome and terrifying. Now THAT, I'd pay to see.
Favourite Spots to Lay our Heads:
Lyndsay's - Waterton Lakes Provincial Park - Does it count if my favourite place to stay in the prairies is not technically in the prairies? The thing is, we just had such a great time. We spent hours sitting brook side at a mountain creek sinking our feet into ice cold waters running down from a glacier as the sun warmed our cheeks and the sweet smell of cedar and pine sap filled the air. We started a trend of dock jumping at Cameron Lake, a majestic glacier covered mountain towering over us from the other side of the small, blue black body of water. The water here was pretty nippy, but being in the cold water, looking up at the mountains around me as I floated on my back was an almost religious experience. I found myself overcome with emotion at the beauty and surreality of my circumstance and forgot about the cold water tingling my skin. The warm sun dried us off and when we got out of the water we realized that now we had to line up in order to jump again. Trail blazers, we be. I'd go back in a heart's beat.
Braden's - Horsethief Canyon - It felt like the Canadian Grand Canyon. This gem of a place was not on any maps or local attractions lists. Instead, a young man outside the Royal Tyrell Museum recommended it. What a suggestion! If I were to provide a recommendation to a visitor who could only see one thing near Drumheller, I would suggest Horsethief Canyon over the museum, the town, the Dinosaur Park and the Hoodoos. It was that awesome.
Coming off the highway there is a parking lot which provides access to the Canyon. There are trails (very steep and very scary at times) that can take hikers down to the valley floor and all over the steep canyon walls and hoodoos. The valley floor resembles an African "Savana" with yellow grasses blowing in unison with the breeze. Dry creek beds are the trails in the valley and provide a good means of getting around. The red hills towered over us as we walked to get different views of the valley.
The hills are made of rings of red, black, grey and beige and are sometimes capped with grass or dolomite clay. Sitting at the edge of the canyon provided us with unbelievable vistas of many hills of sand stone, iron stone, dolomite clay, coal as well as shrubs of sage, canola, grasses and cedar that seemed to stretch on forever. That evening I wrote in my journal "This is hands down one of the most interesting spots I've been. I don't recall ever seeing or being to a landscape like this. I really hope my pictures and videos do it justice."
I am having trouble coming up with words to describe this unique place so here are a few pictures that hopefully capture its beauty.
Most Authentic Cowboy Town: Maple Creek Saskatchewan - Surprisingly cowboy hat free, this little town's real life cowboys seemed to prefer dusty mesh baseball caps, jeans, t-shirts and a big rusty pickup. This little town on the western edge of Saskatchewan was a throwback. I don't recall a large corporate store or restaurant. Small time diners, dive bars, a grain elevator and pickup truck lined main street gave this town an authentic, unspoiled feel. A place where neighbours pitch in to help those in need of a hand nestled right in the middle of a massive swath of canola and grain fields. One gentleman even said "howdy" to us as he perused a pile of "free" stuff someone had put out on their lawn. If anyone reading this is looking for a cool little town that has been untouched by modern corporatism and has that feel of a turn of the century cowboy town with modern day technology (shiny Ford F150's mostly), then put Maple Creek, Sask on the "to-do" list. If you time it right, we hear that Maple Creek does rodeos right. Perhaps a perfect alternative to the Calgary Stampede.
Most Ridiculous Van Dwelling Moment: Ice from Gimli Hotel in Manitoba - One small step back for humanity; one giant leap forward for vandwellers everywhere living without a fridge. In the midst of a hot dry summer, we found it increasingly difficult to keep our groceries cool and fresh. Far too often we found ourselves scrambling to cook meat on the verge of spoiling, and drinking beer on the verge of spoiling our appetite for beer. The situation was dire and it was time to take matters into our own hands. Where could we find ice that we didn't have to pay for? Certainly we weren't going to dry out the ice machine in an A&W one take-out cup at a time. Gimli, a lovely little beach town on the coast of Lake Winnipeg (and home to the largest Icelandic population outside of Iceland), had a large chain hotel that had a neon sign outside which said "we have an unattended, commercial sized ice machine in here that is far too full for it's own good". So, it didn't have the sign, but we knew the rest was true. Once we worked up the nerve, it was all too easy to carry in a soft cooler and five plastic grocery bags up to the third floor and into the little room in which the ice machine and laundry facilities were located. In a matter of under ten minutes were were out the doors. We had so much ice that we couldn't even fit it all in our heavy duty cooler, but boy let me tell you, we had cold beer and fresh meat until we reached Braden's brother's place in Calgary. A whopping week's worth of frosty freshness. Thanks, Gimli!
Nicest Drive: St Rose du Lac to Dauphin, through Riding Mountain National Park in MB, west on HWY 45 to
Regina, Sask. - Admittedly not the greatest or most beautiful drive in the world, but it really gave us a good feel for the prairies. Off the main roads and highways and rest stops this route took us through many small farming towns while providing amazing views of rolling prairies, canola fields and grain. The real prairies! Coming from Ontario, we realized driving through here that we had no sense of what a real wide open space is like. Let me tell you, it's unbelievable. There are no visual obstructions preventing someone from seeing all the way to the horizon. There are no hills or trees or cities in any direction. Truly it feels like you can see forever and that feeling is profound. They were not lying when they put "Land of Living Skies" on the Saskatchewan license plate. Storms can be seen from miles away as they migrate along the prairie.
Seemingly out of know where the van dropped as the highway dove into the Fort Qu'Appelle area. Much like Drumheller in Alberta, an ancient river has cut a deep scar in the prairies here which provides amazing contrast to the flatness of the surrounding grassland. There's even a ski hill on the valley sides!
Not an area with the breathtaking cliffs and jagged mountain peaks which can be found in the Rockies, but this is still a very interesting spot that is unduly looked down upon. The prairies and this route through them are beautiful in their own way.