Cypress Hills: Sitting Bull and the Gap Road to Alberta
Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park may not have any cowboys, but it certainly has Mounties – and quite a bit of Canadian history. It's also the first and only interprovincial park in Canada.
Fort Walsh, on the West Saskatchewan side of the park, is where the Mounties mediated between the American government and Sitting Bull, who represented the Lakota refugees fleeing the U.S. after the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. It’s a national historic site. The Northwest Mounted Police, which became the RCMP we know today, were founded as a result of the Cypress Hills massacre in 1873, right in the Fort area, during which a group of Assiniboine (Nakota) were murdered over a dispute concerning stolen horses. It turns out the people killed had nothing to do with the theft.
Despite some of the macabre history, one part of the tour is great for the kids. The guides get them all to dress up as Mountie recruits and go through a little drill, then they enact a courthouse session with cue cards for people picked from the audience. Offenses include horse theft, public fighting and whiskey smuggling. Fort Walsh was dry, or at least officially. The park also has a camp for kids where they live the whole Mountie and frontier experience.
Cypress Hills gets its name from lodgepole pines, which are unique to the area and were mistaken for jack pine, or "cyprès", by early French explorers. A provincial park spanning 182 square kilometres was established on the Saskatchewan side in 1931. The Alberta side (204 square kilometres) wasn't formally established until 1951, though funds for it were set aside by 1924. The park hosts more than 750 species of plants, including 13 varieties of orchid of which eight are listed as rare. There are also 230 kinds of birds.
There are 17 campgrounds in all. Two sections are in Saskatchewan and there's a third in Alberta. Hardy souls can drive over the border through the camp itself, which is much easier said than done, and better done with a pickup or 4x4. Otherwise, drivers risk damaging their cars.
The main Saskatchewan section has everything: mini-golf, tennis courts, horseback riding, a hotel, boat rentals, you name it. It’s huge. In the heart of summer, sunrise is around 4:30 a.m., with a multitude of birds in the park waking up campers early in the morning, while sunset is after 10 p.m. A 2 p.m. checkout time allows for quite a lot of exploration before moving on.
There’s a scenic lookout nearby called Bald Butte, very high above sea level, and worth getting to. The highest point in Cypress Hills is 60 feet higher than the city of Banff.
After Bald Butte, there's the Gap Road. To drive west on the Gap Road, which is also part of the Trans-Canada Trail, is a challenge in itself. The road has plenty of large rocks and potholes and, as a result, is bad enough that drivers have to go around 20 km an hour. It can take up to an hour and a half to get to Fort Walsh this way. However, the reward is a series of switchbacks featuring hairpin turns at angles much less than 90 degrees.
As it is, it's easy to almost hit a cow or bull, since they're not used to a lot of traffic. After the Fort, the road to Alberta is still difficult on the Gap Road, but very scenic. There's an absolutely breathtaking lookout point near the park.
On the Alberta side, there's camping in Elkwater, a pretty town right in the middle of the park which has a beautiful lake. The stars seem bigger than anywhere else, shining in varying degrees of brightness. Cypress Hills has been declared a “Dark Sky Preserve” by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in partnership with both provincial governments. The reason for the designation is to fend off light pollution. There doesn't seem to be any, so the preserve is working.