It’s the kind of snow you see in Christmas movies and fairy tales. The kind that grandparents speak about from their younger years.
This year, Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park got hit by a doozy of a snowstorm in early November. Now it might be the magical winter wonderland getaway destination of the season in Saskatchewan.
*This post on winter in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park is created in partnership with Saskatchewan Parks. But as always, experiences and opinions are genuinely and authentically my own.
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Local Staycation at Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park
As my parents and I pulled into the park for our four-day staycation, piles of fluffy whipped cream-like snow covered the landscape. It blanketed the lake, swirled into every corner, crack and crevice and buried vehicles and man-made structures into indistinguishable mounds of white.
But most spectacular of all were the trees. The white spruce and lodgepole pine (which the park is known for) were piled so high with snow weighing down their boughs they looked like snow ghosts. It felt like we were in Finland experiencing their unique tykkylumi phenomenon – in the right conditions, spruce trees at elevation develop a hard frost covering. It’s somewhat akin to what us Prairie Canadians occasionally experience as rime ice and hoarfrost (two similar-looking but subtly different weather marvels) but at an elevated level. The already dreamy landscape of Cypress Hills looked surreal and it felt magical.
The past several years, I’ve become a very passionate winter enthusiast. I frequently head out to sleep in quinzees in -50C temperatures, winter camp and cross-country ski. I’m an advocate for dressing properly and taking advantage of the six months of snow we receive here in Saskatchewan. I’ve also convinced my family members that’s it’s pretty awesome. So my mom and dad joined me for one of the coziest winter experiences we’ve had in Saskatchewan.
We rented a townhouse at The Resort at Cypress Hills and loaded Dad’s truck with gear and equipment to bring. I packed my skis and snowshoes and we all packed gloves, toques, warm jackets, ski pants and boots. Proper clothing really is the secret to a comfortable and enjoyable outdoor experience.
We also brought in a few extra items. We packed a cooler for groceries to cook in the en-suite kitchen in our townhouse as well as to cook outdoors over a fire. Also important were newspaper, lighters, hot dog sticks and an axe for a very unique reason. As part of a new winter initiative, the park is allowing visitors to cut down their very own Christmas tree throughout the month of December (more on that in a bit!)
Winter in the Hills
Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park is unique in several ways.
First, it’s the only interprovincial park in the country, bordering Alberta and Saskatchewan in our southwest corner.
Second, with an elevation of 1,466 metres (4, 810 feet) on the Alberta side, it’s the highest spot in Canada between the Rocky Mountains and Labrador – which makes for a uniquely southern subarctic climate. This means it’s cold and snowy in wintertime. The region’s record for snowfall in one day is 60 cm (23.6 inches). But it’s not uncommon for Chinook winds to blow through and tip the temperatures from the negatives to well into the positives in a 12 hour time period.
Third, the park is dominated by a towering forest of lodgepole pine trees. It’s an awe-inspiring experience to ski, snowshoe and drive past trees more than 120 years old and 23 metres high. They grow very close together in thick stands with very little shrub undergrowth. This makes for an extra special experience when everything is blanketed in a fresh fall of snow.
“Trim Your Tree:” Chop Down A Christmas Tree in Cypress Hills
This year, Cypress Hills implemented a new park initiative for visitors to cut down their very own Christmas Tree.
Does it get any more Canadian than this!?
Every visual stereotype of a Canadian dressed in flannel with axe in hand rings a little more true.
Cutting Our Very Own Christmas Trees
The snow was powdery but deep and surprisingly hard to navigate in ski pants and boots. I lead the charge by creating a narrow trail along the yet-to-be-plowed Emergency Exit Road so my mom and dad could follow along in my footsteps. Puffs of breath snuck out from under the high collar of my jacket and dissipated in the cold winter air as I moved further away from the truck.
Standing in the deep snow, we realized how deceptive the size of a tree in the forest is. Many of the trees towered over us and were too tall for the standard eight-foot ceiling in a home.
Using my height as a guide, I found a hearty white spruce. I shook tufts of snow off the branches and used a shovel to clear the base. I would need space to swing the axe. Despite my efforts, powdery snow poofed everywhere and dusted me in white as I took my first swing.
Several chops later, I took a break and zipped the collar of my jacket down. Felling a tree is warm work. With a few more swings angled-down (a tip from my dad), my tree gently toppled into the deep snow. Picking it up, I raised it above my head in triumph, a big grin wide across my face.
But we were only half done as my mom has a tree to trim as well. A little further along our snow-trail, she spotted the perfect one. Similar in size to mine, she readied herself with the axe while I shovelled the snow away for her. Within minutes, her little tree joined mine and Dad was put to work snapping photos for us.
Loading the tree up on my shoulder (and Dad carrying Mom’s) we trudged back to the truck to load it in the box and strap it down. With the hard work complete, we were headed back to The Resort to celebrate with warm cups of hot chocolate and marshmallows.
How it Works
Visitors can pick up a permit upon arrival at the park admin office from November 28th until December 24th. The permit is included in the cost of the park entry fee which is $10 per day.
You’ll also receive a map of the region and directions to the designated tree-cutting area.
Tips for Cutting a Tree
- Bring appropriate hand tools along with you. An axe or saw is best. A hatchet or even pruning shears can work depending on the size of the tree.
- Wear warm gear. You’ll need a toque, mittens, warm jacket (and layers as you’ll likely get warm while cutting the tree down), ski pants and winter boots. Snowshoes might even be a good idea depending on how far you walk for your tree
- A sled or toboggan to help haul the tree out of the forest
- Straps or ties to firmly secure your tree on the roof of your vehicle
Fire Safety Management Program
It may seem odd to be so enthusiastic about cutting down a tree in a protected provincial park. But the reason behind it is a combination of clever marketing and practical and effective fire management according to Park Manager Royce Pettyjohn.
The tree harvest occurs along the park’s Emergency Exit Road which is a critical escape route for residents and visitors. It’s also an important fire break. The young spruce trees harvested as part of the “Trim Your Tree” program are encroaching into this fire break and would act as ladder fuel in the event of a forest fire. This can potentially create an extremely dangerous crown fire.
These young spruce need to be removed. Instead of mulching them, this is a wonderful opportunity for the public to get involved in forest health and safety.
Any future harvest areas in the park will be directly tied to the park’s Ecosystem-Based Management Plan, Forestry Management Plan and FireSmart and Public Safety strategies. This sound stewardship will keep Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park a safe and sustainable park for generations to come.
What to Do in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park: 10 Activities to Try
There’s no better way to enjoy the snow than sliding, gliding and snowshoeing your way through it. Dressed properly and with the right gear, it can be a lot of fun. Here are some of the best winter activities to enjoy in Cypress Hills.
Sask Parks has focused this year on expanding winter activity offerings in their parks and are offering guided tours on the weekends. From December 5 through March 7, there are opportunities to snowshoe with an interpreter as well as learn about the night sky on a guided stargazing program. There are tours to learn about and identify winter birds in the forest and a tour to learn about the people – past and present – who made their homes in the Cypress Hills. Spaces are limited and pre-registration is required.
Whether you choose to go with a guide or go out on your own, snowshoeing is a great way to explore the trails. For those without gear, snowshoes are available for rent at The Resort.
There are two groomed trails to explore:
1. The Valley of the Windfall Interpretive Trail is 1.2 km. It leaves from The Resort and loops through the forest down towards Loch Leven Lake. There is a new enclosed warm-up shelter near the beachfront for a great spot to make a hot chocolate and enjoy a snack.
With such deep snow this season it was perfect for my mom to try snowshoeing for the first time on this trail. We started out on the groomed path and quickly veered into the powder to play a little more. Needless to say, she had a great time.
2. Valley View Trail is a 2.1 km loop that starts on the south side of Cypress Drive just past the swimming pool. The trail winds up and down through the lodgepole pines and there is a very good chance of spotting deer as they frequent this area. There’s also a small warm-up shelter at the mid-way point on the trail.
A map of the snowshoe trails can be found here.
The park is an official Dark Sky Preserve and one of only two in the province! As a sanctuary from artificial light, this makes it one of the best locations to view the stars. The park has set up an observatory where visitors can learn more about and have access to a better view of the night sky.
While summer is host to Star Parties, on winter weekends the guided stargazing program is perfect to learn more about the importance of the preserve as well as the night skies. The best part is you don’t have to stay up late to appreciate it and simply stepping out for views on the deck of your rental cabin is impressive.
Try Cross-Country Skiing
There is no easier way to travel through the forest than on a set of classic or skate skis. For those without gear, they can be rented from The Resort.
Moose Trail is a 6.4 km outer loop that links up major points in the park and travels through forest and grassland. There’s a moderate elevation gain of about 170 metres. Skiers can also travel up the 1.2 km Deer Trail that splits Moose Trail into two halves for a shorter skiing route.
A map of the cross-country ski trails can be found here.
Downhill Tobogganing and Luge Track
Downhill tobogganing is a Canadian pastime and rite of passage for any young child. Cypress Hills has amped it up by adding a luge track next to the toboggan hill. It’s like a giant snow slide with several bends and turns on the way down. The hill is BYO sled, crazy carpet or toboggan and there is an on-site enclosed shelter with a stove to warm-up and hang out in. Helmets are also recommended.
The most wonderful thing about spending time in winter is there are no mosquitoes. This makes hanging out at an outdoor campfire the perfect activity to enjoy. Despite the snowy setting, the fire keeps you warm and is the perfect place to mash together Celebration cookies and marshmallows (a modern take on the traditional s’more. The cookies come with chocolate on one side and make the pairing with a marshmallow simple and tasty).
During our four day trip, we had three outdoor fires. Two over lunch for a hot dog roast and one late in the evening to enjoy the stars and the quiet setting.
Campfire pits can be found on either side of the townhouse buildings, in the forest across the parking lot from the townhouses, as well as at each cabin. Fair warning, you may have to shovel the fire pit and picnic tables out from under the snow before using them. Wood is available on-site at the resort but bring an axe or hatchet to split it for kindling.
Wildilfe viewing opportunities in the park are a treat as fewer people and a quieter park means the animals often hang around. While the chance of seeing a cougar is rare, the region happens to the traditional home for these big cats and is the easternmost breeding population in Canada. In winter, you might get lucky and spot prints in the snow.
More than likely, you’ll get a chance to view moose, elk, white-tail and mule deer as well as herds of pronghorn antelope. Keep an eye out for black-capped chickadees, hairy and downy woodpeckers, great horned owls, ruffed grouse, a variety of warblers, wild turkeys and many other winter birds.
Warm up Around the Fireplace
Not everything has to be done outside and in the snow. One of the biggest draws to staying in a townhouse is the indoor fireplace. This is the ultimate in terms of staying cozy and practising hygge (the Danish word for the concept of “coziness”).
Mom and I crafted our very own hot chocolate charcuterie board. Instead of meats and cheeses, we brought a selection of chocolates, sweets and nuts to decorate our board and enjoyed a mug of hot chocolate in front of the fireplace in the evening. I strung up two sets of twinkle lights and put down a blanket for added ambiance. The Resort offers puzzles and games to borrow and play.
For those without access to a fireplace in their accommodation, the rear foyer inside The Resort has a double-sided natural gas fireplace perfect for hanging out, playing games or reading a good book.
Geocaching is a very popular global activity often done in the summer months. It’s a modern-day treasure hunt and a great activity for all ages. Sask Parks has created a winter geocaching course within the park. GPS units can be borrowed from the Park Administration Office but smartphones and the free Geocaching app work best.
The provincial park welcomes snowmobilers in designated areas in the Centre Block once the snowpack has reached 12 inches. There is a staging area at the ball diamond near Meadows campground to unload and leave your vehicle behind. Snowmobilers can rip through the snow in the area west of the road to Lookout Point and Bald Butte.
Guests of the Historic Reesor Ranch are also allowed to snowmobile on the private ranch land. It’s another option to book a night in to stay-and-sled near the park.
Ice fishing is an iconic Saskatchewan winter activity. Loch Leven Lake is stocked each year with brooke and cutthroat trout. Locals recommend fishing at Cypress Lake 42 km south of the Centre Block for walleye and brown trout. Pan Lake (Blacker Lake) is also one of the few lakes stocked with brown trout. Ice thickness should be tested before fishing – a minimum of 3-4 inches is needed for a single person to walk on the ice.
You can purchase a Saskatchewan fishing license here.
Every winter Sask Parks and The Resort clears a section of Loch Leven Lake for skating. Call ahead for ice and rink conditions. Make sure to snap a photo with the Cypress Hills picture frame beside the gazebo on the shoreline while down by the lake.
Where to Eat
Ivan’s is the only four-season on-site restaurant within the park. It’s connected to The Resort and is open for seated-service as well as takeaway. The menu is diverse with options like pad thai and Asian beef stew to smoked brisket and a Mediterranean avocado salmon salad.
Self-Serve Meals in the Townhouses and Cabin
Both the cabins and townhouses are equipped with kitchenettes that make bringing groceries and cooking-in an easy and practical option.
There’s nothing tastier than a hot dog cooked over a fire outside with a thermos full of hot chocolate to keep warm. We planned two meals over the outdoor firepits near the townhouses. Access to picnic tables made setting up and eating easy – even in the snow. There’s also a new enclosed picnic shelter on the main beach as well as numerous warm-up shacks perfect for making a meal together over the wood-burning stoves.
The Rockin’ Horse Cookhouse & Market
In Maple Creek, The Rockin’ Horse Cookhouse and Market offers chef-prepared, heat-and-eat style meals. It’s the perfect option to take to-go and enjoy in the park as a picnic or warmed up later for a full meal.
Rafter R Brewing
One of Saskatchewan’s newest breweries, Rafter Brewing, opened in Maple Creek last summer. They offer seasonal beers including a smoked ale and winter spice. While food isn’t available on-site, you’re welcome to bring in any meals from local restaurants or snacks prepared at home. The brewery also sells Cypress Hills wine by the flight, glass or bottle. As a bonus, they’re a pet-friendly location.
The Daily Grind
The Daily Grind is a boutique coffee shop in Maple Creek. Along with providing a good cup of joe, they have hot soups, fresh baking and locally-made fine foods and gifts for purchase.
Where to Stay
The Resort at Cypress Hills
The Resort is the place to stay in the park. It offers three styles of accommodation including traditional hotel rooms, townhouses and two rows of cabins to cozy up in (including kitchenettes for cooking.) The cabins are near the top of the toboggan hill while the furthest set of townhouses have immediate access to the fire pits and snowshoe trail. There are wheelchair-accessible rooms and pet-friendly options. There’s an on-site restaurant, a yoga studio with the option of private classes upon request and a gift store.
Currently, they’re offering two winter staycation packages you can find here.
For those seeking even more outdoor adventure, Cypress Hills has opened up one campground for winter camping enthusiasts. Pitch a tent, hang out in front of the fire and enjoy all the park has to offer in the snow.
Cottage of Content
The Cottage of Content is a cute 3-bedroom, 1 bath cottage-style accommodation located in Maple Creek. Furry friends are welcome and there’s even an on-site washing machine and dryer in addition to standard home amenities.
Cobble Creek Lodge
Cobble Creek Lodge is located outside the park on the west side of Maple Creek. It’s a newly-built, modern multi-story hotel that’s locally owned. It offers all the conveniences one would expect including free WiFI, a fitness centre, business centre and free continental breakfast.
New to Maple Creek is this cute little Airbnb that can host up to six guests in 3 bedrooms. It has Polynesian decor including a tiki bar patio, is pet-friendly, has a Juliette balcony and all standard home amenities.