This post on Narrow Hills Provincial Park was created in collaboration with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Parks, Culture and Sport. It is one part of a series of three Saskatchewan Provincial Parks Signature Experiences written in partnership with the Ministry. As always, the adventures, stories and information provided in these articles are genuinely and authentically my own and based on personal experiences.
*Until June 24, 2019, Saskatchewan Provincial Park campers will receive $5.00 off the cost of spring camping.
It’s one of those late summer afternoons where the heat prickles on your skin and beads of sweat form between vertebrate and trickle down your back. The white, puffy cumulus clouds hanging in the blue sky have created quintessentially Saskatchewan views. But here, the landscape quickly shifts from the well-known grain fields of the province to its other half: the boreal forest.
I turn the vehicle vents towards myself and click the air conditioner up to high. We’re bumping down an appropriately named gravel road on the Narrow Hills Scenic Drive in the namesake provincial park. The ridge of grass between wheel tracks makes it seem like more of a trail than a road to me.
We’re in search of a bit of adventure as well as an amazing view I have only seen in photos.
Like most locations in the province, Narrow Hills Provincial Park was covered by a glacier more than 10,000 years ago. The park today is a testament to the retreat of the ice sheet. Outwashes of sand and gravel have been bulldozed into hills and ridged formations called push moraines and eskers. Today, these narrow hills are nearly 24 kilometres long and 1.6 kilometres wide. The ridge we’re currently driving on is 60 metres high – which means the view of the verdant Boreal forest below us is impressive.
But this park hasn’t always looked so lovely. Nearly all of this park has been burned by fire in the last 100 years – it’s part of the natural cycle of fires and forest regrowth.
In the past 40 years, four fires have broken out and seared the landscape. However, you would hardly know it with the thick regrowth of the jack pines, aspen, birch and spruce.
At the end of the scenic drive are a parking and picnic area with a view over the Grace Lakes. There’s also a shelter here (primarily for use by snowmobilers in the winter months.) There are hiking trails that slope down towards the lakes and end in caramel coloured sandy beaches. It’s one of those stunning locations that might be worth hauling a floaty toy in just to blissfully drift in the gem-coloured water of the lakes.
Back up top and looking off in the distance, I can make out a fishing boat on the water. Clearly, I’m not the only one to have this idea. In fact, this part of the park is crisscrossed with historical roads and trails. An interpretive sign shares the story of the area: one of the first trails in the park pushed north from the tiny village of Love, 60 kilometres southeast of here, and follows the moraine ridge I’m currently standing on.
Today, that part-trail-part-road is not recommended for travel by vehicle, but it does make a perfect trail for mountain bikers and hikers to explore. The park is also accessible to ATV’s in the summer months and snowmobiles in the winter. There are more than 200 kilometres of signed and groomed winter trails thanks to the Saskatchewan Snowmobile Association and the local Esker Bears Snowmobile Club.
This weekend, we’ve come to the park to hike the Gem Lakes, a 5.5-kilometre hiking trail around a series of seven lakes named after different gemstones: Pearl, Opal, Jade, Diamond and Sapphire. We plan to hike the winding ridges along the kettle lakes and spend a night out on one of the three backcountry campsites. But for today, we’re content with exploring what the rest of the park has to offer.
We haven’t booked a campsite in advance as we like to be flexible and book on arrival. Our lack of planning has played out well. When we stopped into the park office earlier, we were told about a few other camping sites around different lakes that will suit our desire for a site with a little more solitude.
There are options for every type of overnighter in this park. The main campground at Lower Fishing Lake is perfect for families and groups in tents or RV’s. There’s access to several beaches, playgrounds and a community hall. There’s even a yurt “Camp-Easy” for those who prefer a glamping experience with minimal effort and gear. For those not interested in camping at all, there are five resorts, cabins and lodges to choose from for a comfortable night away from home.
Although neither of us has brought our gear, the park is also well known for its fishing. With more than 25 lakes, Narrow Hills is an anglers paradise: northern pike, walleye, perch, and five different species of trout call these lakes home. In fact, it’s recommended to pick up a map to learn which species are stocked in which lake.
At Zeden Lake, stopping to admire the deep green of the water, we make friends with an American who comes up to Narrow Hills every year just to hang out with an old friend and fish. They spend their entire holiday out in their fishing kayaks. He shows me gadgets and tech gizmos for fishing that I admit I know very little about.
We hop the rocks at McDougall Creek – where you can also fly fish – and contemplate camping in its wilderness campsites. But we decide to continue on, checking out every lake along the way.
We spend so much time exploring that night has settled in when we arrive at Baldy Lake. There are five non-electric sites along the water’s edge and even in the dark, we know we’ve picked the right location amongst the jack pines.
Putting up our tent by the light of our headlamps, a friendly neighbour and his wife in the campsite over (the only other campers out here) offers us their lantern while we set up.
It doesn’t take long and soon enough, we’re cosy in our tent in the dark, being lulled to sleep by the sounds of crickets chirping in the grass and the lapping water on the shoreline.
Hiking the Gem Lakes Trail
In the bright sunshine of the next day, we pack everything up with plans to head to the Gem Lakes. Adventure sidelines us throughout the morning as we continue our exploration of Stickley Lake and Lost Echo Lake.
Finally arriving at our destination mid-afternoon, we repack our backpacks in the parking lot. Backcountry camping is a relatively new activity for me and I’m careful to take everything I think I might need on the trail. My pack is admittedly a bit heavier than I’d like.
But the Gem Lakes are perfect for getting comfortable with overnight backcountry camping experiences. On a day hike, the trail can easily take as little as 2 hours. With the rest of the afternoon at our leisure, we can take our time to hike in and choose which site we’d like to camp at. If I’ve forgotten something, it’s not too far back to the vehicle in the parking lot.
We walk along the undulating ridges, admiring the shades of jade, emerald and aqua from the top of the hills. The forest reflects brilliantly in the glassy water.
The secret to the beautiful colouring is in the lakes cream-coloured sandy bottoms and lack of water disturbance. No streams or springs feed into the lakes – these natural depressions were left by calving blocks of ice from the glacier. Their only source of water bubbles up naturally from the water table below or rolls down from the surrounding hills as rainwater.
We stop to chat with a group of men fishing. So far, they haven’t caught anything. Around the corner from them, we spot a beaver with its head poking above the water, gliding along and creating ripples in the smooth surface.
We meet several other hikers on the trail who are also spending the night. The campsites are first-come-first-serve. I’m surprised at how busy the trail is and am a little nervous we may have arrived too late and have missed getting a campsite.
Since space is limited, the other hikers offer to share their site with us as there’s plenty of room for both tents. But upon further exploration of the intertwining trails, we discover one of the other campsites is empty and choose to make it our home for the evening.
For the second night in a row in Narrow Hills along the Gem Lakes, we set up our tent and climb inside the warmth of our sleeping bags, lulled into sleep by the sounds of nature.
Know Before You Go:
Narrow Hills Provincial Park is located in bear country. Make sure to follow all safety guidelines while out hiking and biking and be prepared if you encounter a bear.
(There was a black bear warning at the Gem Lakes Trail when we hiked it.)
When camping overnight, lock up all food in a camper, vehicle, bear cache or hang it in the trees at least 70 meters from your tent. Do not cook your food where you’ll be sleeping and dispose of any grey water properly.
Remember that although you’re in a provincial park, it’s also a wilderness area and cell service may be limited. Pack and prepare for a day of adventure appropriately (hat, sunscreen, water, snacks, clothing layers and a lighter.) Make sure to let someone know where you’re going if you plan on hiking or biking the trails.
Backcountry campsites at the Gem Lakes are located on Jade Lake, less than 100m from the parking lot, and at Opal and Diamond Lakes which are 1 and 1.5 kilometres along the trail, respectively.
There is only one pit toilet on the Gem Lakes trail and it’s located in the trailhead parking lot.
Narrow Hills is located on either side of Highway 106 in Saskatchewan, also known as the historic Hanson Lake Highway, which runs north to south. It’s also located along Highway 913 which runs east to west through the northern edge of the park.
The park’s core area is located at Lower Fishing Lake where you’ll find the park office to pay for your campsites and park entry fee.
There are many grid roads within Narrow Hills. It is strongly recommended to check road conditions in advance when driving up the scenic route.