What to See and Do in Riding Mountain National Park
What to See and Do in Riding Mountain National Park September 26, 2018 · 13 min. readWhile the thoughts and opinions are my own, this article was brought to you by a third party. Also, this article may contain affiliate links.
There is a change in the air. T-shirts are being replaced by bunny hugs and coffees are being replaced by pumpkin spice lattes. For a few weeks, the air is crisp, the skies are blue, and the trees are on fire with orange, red and yellow leaves. Autumn has finally arrived to the prairies.
This was my first time to ever spend a night in a national park, so I was very excited to try out an oTENTik. For those who have never stayed in one before, oTENTik are a glamping enthusiast's dream. The "missing link" between a tent and cottage, these fully electric cloth buildings have a built-in heater and one third of them have a stove. The weather was still warm when we were in the park, so we opted not to use the stove, but we were told that in the winter – yes, you can glamp in the winter! – these make the tents nice and cosy.
We also had the opportunity to see a micrOcube. I've always liked tiny houses and the micrOcube is the perfect rustic version of this. While oTENTik are cloth buildings, micrOcubes are wooden and glass structures. I enjoyed sleeping in the oTENTik, but I really can't wait to try out the micrOcube.
One of the most surprising things about the RMNP is its sheer size. While we were in the park we visited a plethora of locations, such as Wasagaming, Clear Lake, Gorge Creek Trail, the East Gate Registration Complex National Historic Site, and the Lake Audy bison enclosure. While this may seem like a lot, it was only a small fraction of the sprawling park. One of our guides said they have worked there for over ten years and are still discovering new gems throughout the area.
Something that really impressed me about the park was the attitude towards First Nations culture. Unlike in Saskatchewan, First Nations culture is part of Manitoba's society. When the park was created, seven groups of First Nations people were forced to relocate. One of the park's cultural interpreters, Desmond Mentuck from Waywayseecappo First Nation, told us about the park. He said that these days, the park, along with the community, are making strides to bring First Nation's culture back into the area.
I find First Nations culture fascinating, and Desmond was a wealth of knowledge. We were taught how different tipi poles have unique astrological connections, why tipis should always point east and that one should always walk clockwise inside a tipi. This embracement and respect for First Nations culture was a testament to how far we have come with reconciliation, but also how far we still need to go.
The tipi and Visitor Centre are in the townsite of Wasagaming; an oasis in a sea of woodland. We would come here every night for supper and ate everything from pasta to burgers to pizza to nachos. Everywhere we went had massive portions of food – large enough that even I, a person notorious for leaving restaurants still hungry, felt stuffed afterwards. It seemed every night one of us would make the mistake of ordering something a little too large, from double hot dogs to monster salads.
But, all this came to a head when we visited the restaurant Wigwam Restaurant and Bar. This historic restaurant was built in 1929 – four years before the park opened – and is known throughout the area for their delicious food and large servings. As this was our final meal together, the seven of us ordered our own dishes, and then asked for a plate of nachos to share.
To our shock, the waitress asked if we wanted a half order instead.
We were all perplexed. There are seven people around the table, many of which were foodies. Of course we wanted a full order of nachos.
Again, the waitress asked if we wanted a half order. This seemed strange, but we were determined and confirmed that no, we did not want a half order of nachos. We wanted a full order. The waitress sighed and jotted it down.
We were confused until it arrived. Then we were silent. These nachos were no regular order of nachos. This was a towering mountain of chips, hamburger, peppers and what seemed like a litre of melted cheese. These nachos were so large, so vast and so bountiful that the seven of us, the confident yet naive fools who thought nothing of the waitress' repeated warnings, could not finish it.
When we weren't eating, we spent a lot of our time discovering the rugged terrain of the park. Our hike of the Gorge Creek Trail was led by Patrick McDermott, an expert in all things Riding Mountain. Patrick led us through a winding six-kilometre hike around the trail, through the hillside, the woodlands and the escarpment, all along teaching us about the surrounding geography.
Patrick said this entire area was once covered by a massive ocean which split the continent apart. Once the water dried up, massive ice sheets scoured and transformed the land into what it is today. It is because of this that the riverbeds of the trail are home to a variety of different stone, from marble to shale.
We saw various flora on our hike, from birch and poplar to poison ivy. In fact, the park boasts an incredible 669 different types of flora. As we hiked, we saw the famous escarpment and the valley which acted as a divide between the flora. Standing on the valley edge, you can see how the trees vary from either side of the river. Patrick said this is due to the different minerals in the soil and the different temperatures of sun exposure.
Patrick then gave us the industrial history of the escarpment, including some of the older lumber yards that used to exist in the area. He told us his theories regarding their location and pointed out some of the remains of the camps. Although the keen eye might see relics peaking out from grass, the forest has reclaimed much of the remains.
On our hike we also saw plenty coyote and bear scat. There was so much that at one point in the hike Patrick stopped, turned to us and spoke very loudly. There was a musty scent in the air, and due to the recent scat, this probably meant there was a bear nearby. While we never saw the creature, it's possible that it saw us.
After the hike we drove out to the East Gate Registration Complex National Historic Site for a quick lunch. The gate was constructed in a rustic Tudor design, which was a visual throwback to the Elizabethan Era and the first days of the Canadian wilderness being tamed. The gate's purpose was to promote "auto tourism", a new trend in tourism brought by motor vehicles in the 1930s. People could drive from the city and into the newly conquered wilderness and take in nature from the comfort of their own vehicle. Once it caught on, it was very popular.
A century later, all the gates except for the East Gate have been torn down.
However, auto tourism didn't die with the times. Today a new attraction is starting up, one that embraces a past that was almost lost.
During the 1600s, between 25 – 30 million bison roamed North America, but by 1880 that number was cut to just over 100. This decimated First Nations populations across the continent, cutting off a primary food supply that they had relied on for a millennium. Many groups had deep connections with the bison, and to watch this animal disappear before them ushered in a dark age for them spiritually. Not only this, but the rapid removal of bison began to have noticeable changes to the ecosystem.
Governments and organisations sprung to preserve the remaining bison. Today the animal is still considered Near Threatened, even though the population has increased to about 500,000. While significantly less than their population peak, the population is going up and the species is recovering.
The Riding Mountain National Park bison enclosure offers visitors a chance to witness these majestic animals up close. As they have very few predators – except for humans – they live, grow and populate without any deterrence. When winter arrives, they migrate to a different section of the park that is better suited for the season, only to return in the spring.
Desmond Mentuck was again our guide to the enclosure and showed us around the area, telling us about his people, his culture and of their stories. People like Desmond are the future of First Nations culture in today's world. By preserving and sharing stories, he guarantees their legacy lives on. When he isn't giving tours, he's interviewing elders and learning about the seven groups that surround the park. His priceless work is keeping the culture alive as Canada learns to embrace it. I could talk to him for hours about the park and the First Nations people that surround it, but sadly, our time at the park had come to an end.
There is much more I could write about Riding Mountain National Park. The area is full of history and stories, like the famous Grey Owl, the mysterious murder of Lawrence and Myrtez Leen and the German POW labour camps during World War II. The area is rugged and beautiful, the culture is rich and diverse, and the food, of course, is incredible. Autumn was the perfect time to visit Riding Mountain National Park, and although this was my first time there, I know it will not be my last.
Long before I started my blog, many, many years ago, I visited Innsbruck, Austria. I was on a Contiki trip through Europe and visited a plethora of locations such as Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Lucerne and Innsbruck, just to name a few. It was an incredible experience and one that I think was a transformative moment in my life.
Off the record (or, on the record now, I guess), of all the places I visited, the only one I didn't like was Innsbruck. I couldn't get into it. We visited it in late March, so the weather wasn't the best. The trees didn't have any leaves on them, the grass was brown, and everything had a post-winter grey look to it. After visiting Munich and spending the night in St. Goar, my mind wasn't thinking about Innsbruck at all. Instead, I was more excited to go to Venice the next day, and the Vatican the day after that. My time in Innsbruck was uneventful, and all I wanted was to get back on the road.
That was in 2011, and now it's 2018. Has my opinion on Innsbruck changed? I would say yes. I'm more mature now and if I went back, I would better appreciate what I was seeing. As I've gotten older, I've been less impressed by the massive buildings and more enthralled by the history that created them.
I haven't gone on a major trip since my journey to Riding Mountain National Park last autumn, so I booked off a week to travel out west. However, things didn't work out as I had planned, and my vacation turned more-or-less into a staycation.
Thankfully, it wasn't all for naught. I managed to get away one day, and I did a couple of little day trips throughout the week too. The day I got away I wanted to go as far north as possible, and I chose the Cochin Lighthouse.
The Cochin Lighthouse is just north of the Battlefords and it is the only lighthouse in the landlocked province of Saskatchewan. It sits on the top of Pirot Hill in the village of Cochin and shines a light out onto the nearby Jackfish Lake – or as locals call it, the "Cochin Ocean".
When it comes to Saskatchewan, your next adventure can be around any corner. As you venture off the main highways, signage is scarce and directions such as "if you've passed the gate with the buffalo skulls, you've gone too far" are all too common. Communities grow smaller, people grow warmer and the list of things on your Saskatchewan Bucket List seems to only get longer.
My adventure to Leader started a few months ago when Christine over at Cruisin' Christine shared a list of Leader bus tours on Facebook. Some of the tours were in June, but one was in September. The September tour caught my eye because it was a two-day tour and I had to ask myself what we would do for two days in Leader. Leader has a three digit population, so I was perplexed on what the tour would comprise.
I was so perplexed that I decided contacted Leader Tourism and booked the tour to find out.