How to spend an awesome winter weekend in Cypress Hills Park
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Sun sparkles on snow at the top of the quad chair at Hidden Valley Ski Resort. At 1,400 metres (4,593 feet) elevation, we can see clear across the park. It’s hard to fathom a ski hill in southeast Alberta, but it’s here, and it’s great. Bernard Blackburn chuckles at my astonished expression and whoops, “We’re skiing in the Prairies!” before taking off down McGee for a warm-up run with his daughter, Gabrielle (Gabby), 10.
The Blackburns are season’s passholders who have skied here since Gabby was 5. They live on an acreage nearby and ski as often as possible. “We came every day over the holidays and now we're skiing for free,” Blackburn says. “I love it!” (Family season’s passes pay for themselves in only five or six visits.)
I ask Gabby what her favourite run is and she says, “All of them.” There are nine altogether –including a freestyle run and two black runs – and the longest is two kilometres. Hidden Valley Ski Resort also has a terrain park, mini park and magic carpet learning area.
Rising 600 metres above the prairies, the Cypress Hills transform into a winter wonderland each December. The highest point between the Rockies and Labrador, the hills get more snow than the surrounding area and milder temperatures – a winning combination. You can choose to ski, snowshoe, ice skate, kicksled or ice fish in Cypress Hills Provincial Park.
At the Cypress Hills Visitor Centre, you can park the car and play outside all day. There’s a tobogganing hill/luge track (weather permitting, check the Alberta Parks - Cypress Hills Facebook page for updates.), a 1.5-km ice skating track, an ice rink, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, trails all within walking distance.
Cypress Hills Provincial Park also rents kicksleds, a Scandinavian invention. Cross-country skis, snowshoes, and ice skates are also available.
We hit the toboggan hill first, then try kicksledding along the lake. It’s like dogsledding minus the dogs. Bernard, pushing Gabby, says, “It’s easy!” but it’s even easier being the passenger.
Cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and ice fishing
After saying farewell to the Blackburns, Chris from Alberta Parks and I head to the Spring Creek cross-country trails where Lodgepole pines scatter the rolling terrain. The trails have recently been double trackset and are in great shape.
We end up at Reesor Viewpoint for sunset. A lone doe bounds through the snow as we explore the ridge on snowshoes. Chris shows me the hills he likes to backcountry ski (Reesor Hills), and points out the lake in the valley below. Stocked with rainbow trout, the lake is a popular ice fishing spot.
Back at the Visitor Centre, I meet Jeff Samson, lead nature interpreter for Cypress Hills Provincial Park. While we wait for the skies to darken for the Stargazing Tour, we grab a bite to eat.
The acclaimed Camp Cookhouse, run by chefs Becky Ross and Alexander Bruveris, is closed that day (they’re open five days a week in winter), so we go to “the other place.”
Star Gazing in Cypress Hills Dark-Sky Preserve
“The moon will rise at 8 p.m,” Jeff says, checking an app, “so we will have dark skies until then.” We’re standing near the west end of Elkwater Lake and its pitch black save for the stars. Coyotes howl to remind us we’re where the wild things are.
Jeff explains why the Milky Way looks the way it does, shows us how to locate major constellations in relation to each other, and teaches me how to find the North Star, Polaris. He has done this countless times, but is passionate about sharing his knowledge.
“I want people to have a basic understanding of what we call a moon/satellite, planet, star, galaxy… To understand what's happening in our sky here in our northern hemisphere, and understand how lucky we are.”
Our planet is amazing, and you appreciate it more in a place like Cypress Hills, where stars burn brighter and nature is all around.