ELKWATER, AB - Fall can be one of the most fleeting seasons in Alberta (yes, even more than summer). The trees, which beautifully turn to shades of orange and yellow, can have their leaves knocked off in a day by an early season winter storm. The trick is to ward off the crisp winds and venture outside to take in the colours in their glory before they disappear.
A lesser-known, but an equally stunning spot to capture the beauty of any season is Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, which lies about 40 minutes southeast of Medicine Hat, tucked in the far southeastern corner of Alberta and sprawling into southwestern Saskatchewan.
While most city slickers are drawn to glittering mountain towns, Cypress Hills and the quaint hamlet of Elkwater provide what most city people actually need - pure nature, silence and darkness.
Experience a Dark Sky preserve
Cypress Hills was designated a Dark Sky Preserve by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in 2004, making it one of the best places in North America for stargazing.
And the pure blackness of the night was amazing, even a little frightening, as we pulled out on the highway, venturing a short distance out of the townsite, parked, and turned out the headlights. It was pitch black. Nothingness.
Looking up, the sky took on a completely different scene - whereas most people can see up to 100 stars in the city, in Cypress Hills close to 4,000 stars can be visible on a clear night. The Big Dipper, Little Dipper, Milky Way, satellites, shooting stars - the skies are alive in the Cypress Hills. Nocturnal life also thrives in dark sky areas - your musical accompaniment to stargazing could be an orchestra of owls, perched in nearby trees.
Accustomed to the constant buzz of the city, the dark and quiet felt eerie at first, before I finally settled into a sense of peacefulness and tranquillity. I gazed at the sparkling stars and lost myself in the stillness of the place. The only glow of civilization was the faraway orange haze of Medicine Hat on the northern horizon.
A comfortable refuge in the park
Returning to tiny Elkwater, I felt almost relieved to see the glowing lights of Elkwater Lake Lodge. Located within the park and within walking distance of Elkwater Lake, the lodge provides all the amenities would expect and is the perfect getaway in any season for couples, families, romantic occasions, meetings and weddings.
There’s a restaurant, indoor pool and hot tub, and is close to the park’s trails and services.
“We are open all year long, and people are drawn here for a wide variety of activities, including hiking, fishing, golfing, cycling, and even skiing,” says Barb Clapper, front office manager.
Hidden Valley Ski Area is located five minutes from the lodge, providing an opportunity for skiers and boarders to indulge in their favourite pastime without driving to the Rockies. Groomed cross-country ski trails are also accessible throughout the park.
Quaint and quiet
The townsite of Elkwater is wonderfully tiny, its population swelling or shrinking depending on the time of year.
“We probably have around 40 to 100 residents in Elkwater year round, but it could easily be a couple thousand at any given time in the summer,” says Clapper.
Elkwater Lodge offers 60 rooms, private cabins, suites and loft rooms to accommodate a variety of group configurations, while the park’s 11 campgrounds offer group camp areas and hundreds of sites for nature lovers.
Once the morning light appears, there are a variety of landscapes to explore in the Cypress Hills. As the name implies, don’t expect wide open prairie - each new vista in the park is a welcome surprise, from forested areas, lakes and hills, to pastures and canyons. At 1,234 metres, the Cypress Hills share the same altitude as Banff and is the highest point in the country between the Rockies and Labrador.
The area is rich in history. The Cypress Hills was an area first used by First Nations People, then later, European settlers, and now the park hosts visitors as well as researchers who focus on the unique flora, fauna and archeological features of the park.
With October’s colours displayed in their full glory, I’ll admit it, I fell for fall in the Cypress Hills.
The Elkwater Lake Lodge hosts a variety of year-round packages that pair outdoor activities with a hotel stay. The Elkwater Lake Lodge specializes in fine cuisine and romance packages often include a three-course meal for two. Don’t miss out on the Annual Wine Festival in the Hills which occurs in October. For more information visit www.elkwaterlakelodge.com or call 888.893.3811