Tucked into the Southern corner of the Alberta and Saskatchewan border, is a hidden gem called Cypress Hills. This interprovincial park is unique, as it’s the highest area of land between the Rockies and Newfoundland. The area is filled with rolling hills, beautiful forests, rare vegetation, unique wildlife and glittering lakes. There are also a huge variety of natural and historic sites to visit and wonderfully undeveloped raw natural beauty.
I wanted to spend a long weekend camping within close proximity of Calgary, but without the crowds and traffic of going West to the mountain parks, so Cypress Hills was the perfect spot. It is so much less touristy than Banff National Park and only a 3-hour drive from Calgary. I highly recommend spending several days in the area to relax in the pristine natural setting, as well as enough time to sightsee in the surrounding area.
Other than enjoying the peaceful forests and lakes, there are numerous activities and day trips around the Cypress Hills area, and further beyond in Saskatchewan. Here are my recommendations for the best way to spend a long weekend in Cypress Hills:
The Cypress Hills area has numerous campgrounds, cabins and RV facilities, so there is something for everyone. We chose the Spruce Coulee Campground, a quiet and rustic campground just east of Elkwater on the Alberta side of the park. The campground is walk-in, tenting only, with very basic facilities which was perfect for our group of 7 adults without children. The parking lot is at the bottom of a small hill, so be prepared to hike your gear in. The advantage is that the sites are very quiet at night without any vehicle noise, and the campground is small enough that nothing is a far walk away.
Spruce Coulee Campground was quiet and well kept, with a beautiful view over the north end of the reservoir. There are many hiking trails in the area and it’s possible to rent a canoe to explore by water. There is also a large cabin a short walk from the campground, also available for rent. Reserve in advance by booking on Reserve Alberta’s website.
Explore the Ghost Town of Robsart
For a great day-trip, head to the Eastern end of the park to explore a ghost town. Located 48 km southwest of the Town of Eastend at the junction of Highway 18 and Highway 13, is the almost deserted town called Robsart. This ghost town is a great place to stop for some creepy photo ops. The town still has a small population living there but there are dozens of abandoned buildings, including an auto body shop with a car still in the garage, an old hospital, and many abandoned homes. Explore respectfully, as entering the properties is technically prohibited. If you do choose to enter, be very careful as floorboards can be rotten and there are many planks with exposed nails.
Visit the Dinosaur Museum in East End
Did you know that Saskatchewan discovered one of only two complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeletons in the whole world? Come check out ‘Scoty’ at the East End Dinosaur museum. It’s a tiny but very well done museum with lots of informational displays and a viewing theatre where you can watch the short documentary film on the T-Rex discovery. Definitely worth an hour or two stop.
See the Great Sand Hills
Saskatchewan is home to a 1900 sq km sandhill area known as the ‘Great Sand Hills’. It’s an amazing area to explore but somewhat hard to find. To get here, drive to Sceptre where you can stop at the Great Sand Hills museum. They have numerous displays which depict homesteading life on the prairies and historical information about the area. They will provide a free map with paid admission, showing how to reach the Sand Hills, which is located about 25km south of Sceptre on a dirt road.
The area is private land, so be careful to only park in designated areas. Its possible to try sledding down the dunes on provided crazy carpets, but its harder than you would think. There is a connecting road south out of the dunes, which will save a lot of time if returning back to the Cypress Hills area (rather than returning through Sceptre), but make sure to follow the map.
Have Lunch at the Reesor Lake Lookout
There are a few lookouts in Cypress Hills, but I think the Reesor Lake Lookout is the most stunning. The entire area opens up and you can see where the rolling hills meet the prairies and its possible to see Reesor Lake far in the distance. There is a picnic table with a great view, so bring a lunch to enjoy it here! I was also told that this was a great spot for stargazing on dark sky nights.
Watch a Star Show
The entire Cypress Hills area is a dark sky reserve, but our visit was during a full moon, so it wasn’t possible to see many stars. Instead, we went to a planetarium show put on by the visitor’s centre in Elkwater. The show was held inside an inflatable dome, where you were able to lay on the floor and watch the star show projected on the ceiling. We learned a lot about the various constellations and galaxies, and it was a nice way to spend a rainy afternoon!
Cypress Hills is a beautiful area to spend a long weekend. It is much less touristy and busy than other areas within reach of Calgary. The area also has great bird watching, fascinating history and lots of available activities. I would highly recommend a visit!